Sally in the Woods by Tyler Wetherall
“Don’t be scared,” Jamie said, glancing over from the driver’s seat.
Abi nodded. She turned to him momentarily, and then back to the road ahead.
The cat’s eyes rushed beneath the bonnet two-by-two.
She hadn’t thought to be scared until then.
The darkness blanketed both sides of the path from view, apart from when the car turned a sharp corner, causing the headlights to stray beyond the road into the woods: tree trunks lined up like prison bars, illuminated a pale shade of grey.
The music rattled around the car, tinny and thin. Turn and face the strange, David Bowie sang.
She pulled her knees up to her chest and looked out the window. It was a familiar route, just beyond the small town of Trowbridge where she lived, the same route her dad took when they drove to school each day. Most of the area was green and hilly, dotted with hamlets and old stone farmhouses. In a matter of weeks lambs with rickety legs like matchstick animals would appear, and shortly thereafter disappear again. This stretch of the road however was shaded by thick woodland, winding down a valley beneath old Brown’s Folly. It was called Sally in the Woods and everyone said it was haunted. When Abi was younger, her mother told her stories about Sally, the ghost of a woman dressed in white with tangled black hair, who would run out in front of drivers causing them to swerve and crash. A few truckers had sworn they saw her appear in their rearview mirror, caught for a moment in the car’s lights.
But that wasn’t what Jamie was talking about.
“I’m not scared,” she said quietly, wrapping a dark curl around her finger, the sound of her hair whispering against her ears. She turned to him. “What’s there to be scared of anyway?”
He smiled. “You know…”
She didn’t smile back.
“It’s dark, and you don’t know me, not really, and we’re in the middle of the woods, and… I didn’t want you to think I was taking you out here to…”
She kept her eyes on him, eyebrows now raised.
“To what? To attack me?”
He huffed, awkwardly, and after a painful silence, she laughed.
She knew how to do bravura, even when she didn’t feel it.
Ch-ch-changes, Bowie continued. Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it.
“It was my idea to come anyway,” she said, looking back out the window.
Abi had heard about the railway tunnel in the woods where they threw illegal parties, but she had never been. She wouldn’t have known where to go, or been able to convince any of the girls at school to go with her. When Jamie mentioned it earlier that night, talking in a circle of lamplight around the corner from her house, it had been her suggestion. He had made a motion of acquiescence and opened the car door for her.
They pulled over to the side of the road. Jamie hunched to light a cigarette, creating a pool of calm air between his palms, the scratch and spark loud against the night. She could feel the cold of the damp earth through her plimsolls and pulled her coat tight around her neck to stop the chill down her spine. He was tossing a knotted rope between his hands, the cigarette resting on his bottom lip, trailing smoke up his shadowy face. His eyebrows met in the middle, she noticed.
“Do you need a leg up?” he indicated at the rope, dangling from the top of a craggy wall.
She looked at the rope and back to him, unsure now.
“It’s just at the top of here, and then along a short path,” he said. Silence. “Not far.”
“You’ve been here before, right?”
“Shit loads. I found this place myself, opened up the tunnel with a crowbar. I don’t think people been down there for decades, and no trains for sure…”
She knew that what they were doing fell on the list of things she was not supposed to do. She was not meant to be alone with boys at night. She was certainly not meant to be alone with boys at night in the woods, especially boys she barely knew who were an undetermined number of years older than her. She felt the overwhelming urge to be back at home in bed, where everyone else in the world thought she was. But the compulsion outweighed the fear.
He stopped fidgeting now, sensing her anxiety, and looked directly at her, his mouth making a gentle no-teeth smile that mellowed his dark features. She tucked her hair behind her ears, and taking a knot of rope between her thighs, started hoisting her weight to the top. She could feel his strength steadying the rope at the bottom, and then she watched as he pulled himself up with his arms, disregarding the ladder completely. They stood for a moment side by side at the top of the wall looking down to the car below, a faded yellow Christmas tree air freshener doing half pirouettes in the window.
“Ready?” he said, turning to face her.
She nodded, looking up at him.
She thought he might kiss her and turned away quickly, her mouth suddenly dry.
The path through the woods had been beaten down by previous walkers. Once away from the road, Abi couldn’t see beyond her outstretched arms, but she could feel when her feet strayed from the path because the shrubbery beneath her shoes would tangle and knot until she lost her footing. She progressed carefully, ears hyper alert to night sounds.
She had been terrified of the dark as a child. When she was little, she would lie in bed with her eyes pinned open, making patterns from nothing, until the pitch black grew so thick it would smother her completely, a swarm of insects filling her eyes and mouth and nose, until she choked and bolted upright, screaming. Her mother would gather her together and carry her back to her bed. She remembers the view of the brightly lit hallway receding from over her shoulder, coupled with a sense of longing for the normalcy of daytime: four yellow walls and open curtains.
“It’s just your eyes playing tricks on you,” her mother would say. “The only thing to be scared of is getting a bump on your head running around like that.”
But despite her reassurances, the swarm of insects still came. Eventually her mother refused to carry her back to bed, losing patience, and instead her father dragged her to the furthest corner of the house, turning all the lights off as he went. He put Abi down and told her to find her own way back to her bedroom in the dark. Abi took a few steps and stumbled. She called out to her mum, her dad, and she cried and screamed, but no one responded; no one said a word until she made it back to bed alone, her face damp and swollen with tears, turning away from her father as he reached down to kiss her on the head. After that Abi stopped screaming at night, but the insects still came.
When her mum disappeared a few days before her seventh birthday, she wondered if that’s what she had done. If walking out on her and her dad was the same as walking into the darkness to prove there was nothing to be scared of. Her dad was always saying she didn’t have the guts to leave.
The following week during school recess, she sprained her ankle by jumping off the swing at the moment of weightlessness, that moment at the crest of the swing which scared her most, as if gravity could not be relied upon to catch her; but instead of waiting this time for reassurance, she made the leap. For a moment, her legs flayed in the empty air, and she felt the thrill of suspended freedom, and then the hard ground, and the pain, and the people all around her asking questions.
“What were you thinking?” they kept saying.
“I was scared,” she said, “so I jumped.”
But they weren’t listening anyway.
As Abi walked deeper into the woods, she questioned her decision to come here. She thought about how angry her father would be if he knew. She felt guilty in anticipation of her probable violent death. She was an only child. It was unacceptable to die in the woods at the hands of a strange man.
“Do you know about Sally in the Woods?” she asked Jamie, to distract herself from her thoughts.
“She’s a ghost my mum used to tell me about, who lived in these woods.”
“What kind of ghost?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, good ghost or bad ghost? You’ve got the head spinning poltergeists of this world and the Slimers, and we need to know who we’re dealing with here.”
She laughed, feeling herself relax.
“Bad, I guess, though it seems unfair to blame the dead. What is Slimer anyway?”
“Fuck knows. Ectoplasm? I don’t know… the ghost of tomorrow’s hangovers?” Jamie went on. “So, what’d Sally die of?”
“Car accident, I think. She used to walk out in front of other drivers so they’d crash. I guess it was revenge. There’s been tons of accidents along there and no one knows why.”
He was silent. She could hear the gentle thud of his feet behind her, the movement in the bushes around her, the strange lack of night birds, and then all of a sudden two heavy hands grabbed her shoulders and gave her a shake. She screamed and ducked down holding her arms over her head, and even before she had finished the motion, she heard him laughing.
“Not funny!” She swiveled round to face him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, holding two hands up in an innocent gesture, but not looking sorry at all, a sideways smile visible in the faint glow of his cigarette.
She scowled at him trying to make light of it while her heart pounded in her chest.
“You said not to be scared.”
“I’m sorry,” he said again, this time more seriously.
Jamie didn’t operate under the same rules as other people. That’s why she liked him. Everyone assumed they were a couple, but he hadn’t once touched her, and the complete absence of physical contact was almost as discomfiting as if he’d put his hand on her leg while driving, which was something she thought about him doing often with an equal measure of desire and terror.
They hadn’t planned on coming here together. She had left her house around midnight through the living room window. If she closed it gently behind her, she could slip her fingers under the ledge and pry it back open when she got home, and her father would never know she had gone. She didn’t have anywhere to be; she had started these secret excursions a year previously at 13 because she couldn’t sleep. Sometimes she would go smoke cigarettes in the empty bandstand in the park and watch the moths frazzling their wings against the streetlamp, as lonely men gathered along the park’s perimeter, disappearing into the bushes together. Occasionally a friend would join her, and they would share hits of vodka or gin or whatever spirit they had scavenged from their parents, sheltering under the triangular cover of the slide. Bright red and yellow by day, by night this child’s world was drained of color, and it became her domain.
On other nights, she would just wander the streets around her house. It was on those backstreets she usually met Jamie. She had first noticed him a few weeks previously while walking to school. He had watched her walk past from inside the car, and she held his gaze, tugging at the back of her school skirt distractedly. Each time she passed him after that, they kept their eyes on each other, not smiling, and soon she would look out for his car, a beat-up grey blue Vauxhall Nova, everywhere she went. She imagined the situations that might occur for them to meet, the conversations they might eventually have, the thrill of getting into his car, and sweeter still, the thrill of being seen driving around town with him.
They never spoke, not until they bumped into each other in the park on a sunny Saturday afternoon, both with other friends, and she stopped to say hello, as if they had always said hello, as if it wasn’t the first time they had talked.
They sat together, a little removed from their requisite groups, tweaking the soft grass beneath them to avoid looking at each other. His friends being older had little interest in her group of schoolgirls, who in turn, kept a hawkish eye on her and Jamie’s every move. She could hear the sound of them giggling even when they were silent, and it made her cringe.
She rolled a joint from the tin in her handbag with a ganja leaf sticker on the lid and hoped it would impress him. Jamie didn’t go to school. She wasn’t sure what he did. They didn’t talk about it. They talked about everything else. He managed to say many words without sharing very much. He was quick to turn a conversation into a joke, and yet when they weren’t talking, the lines around his mouth turned downwards.
After that, they had been for a couple drives together. She knew that getting into a stranger’s car was another item on the list of things she was not meant to do, but she wasn’t sure where the line between stranger and whatever came next was drawn, or who indeed was meant to draw it. Each time she met him she saw a little more of his life, seemingly conducted from the backseat of his car. Clothes and party detritus rolled up in a bundle like tumbleweed gathered from the last few weeks of living. Cigarette packets, guitar picks, empty bottles of Coca Cola, scrunched-up parking tickets, one long sock, cracked CD cases, and a houseplant struggling to survive, cramped under the rearview window. She had spotted him asleep in there a couple of times, too.
“Fuck knows what you see in me,” he had said once, both marooned in his car by the rain.
“Who said I saw anything in you?” she asked.
She hesitated, and then responded angrily: “Don’t say that. Never say that. What good is it to anyone to say that?” She didn’t like to be cajoled into admitting she liked him. But she did. He had strange ideas about things. He taught himself to write with his left hand, because he didn’t want to be part of the right-handed hegemony. She was never sure how much he said was in earnest and how much was farce. He often feigned ignorance, allowing her to tell him about the things she was learning in school or the books she was reading, only to discover later that these were things he already knew. In his defense, he said he liked her version of the world better than his own. He was always smoking. He barely ate. He had committed himself to dying young, as if this was a manageable and reasonable life goal. He knew everyone, but she always met him alone.
Word had gotten around from her friends that they were seeing each other. Her friends thought he was a creep and were jealous at the same time. After school one day, one of the older girls was waiting for Abi outside the gates and offered to drive her home. When the girl parked outside Abi’s house, she began: “I know you’ve been hanging out with Jamie, but a word of friendly advice, you should stop seeing him.”
The advice didn’t sound very friendly to Abi.
“You know him?”
“Nothing’s happening, anyway,” she shrugged.
“But it will.”
“It’s not like that.” Abi was indignant now.
“It’s always like that. He may seem cool, but he’s messed up. Okay? You should steer clear.”
“What’s it got to do with you?” Abi had said, and slammed the door behind her.
She thought about that conversation now, walking through the woods, still shaken by his trick.
“Feel that?” Jamie asked.
They stopped still, shuffling into each other.
The dull thud of music in the distance.
“At least we’re going the right way,”
The sound grew, until Abi could feel it through the soles of her feet, travelling up her calves and rattling her knees, and by the time they found the railway tunnel, she felt the bass beating right through her gut.
“See I told you,” Jamie was saying, as he pulled aside a sheet of graffitied metal covering the entrance, the sound blaring through the woods until they closed the door behind them.
Inside, the tunnel was illuminated by UV strip lighting, the surreal shapes of people, grouping and dispersing in the black light.
“Here,” Jamie said, extracting something from his mouth. He pressed half a pill into her palm and handed her a beer.
“What is it?”
“You’ve never done ecstasy?” he asked.
She shook her head.
He laughed. She could only see the whites of his eyes and teeth in this light.
“You’ll be fine,” and then his shape became another amongst the mass of moving bodies. She felt the pill in her hand, chalky and roughly hewn unlike pills from pharmacies and packets. She swallowed it with a gulp of beer, and wondered how long it would take to kick in and what she would feel when it did, her heart already racing at the idea and a little sickness settling in her stomach, feeling stupid and thrilled.
She walked through the party. Bodies took form only at the moment she approached them. Jamie disappeared and reappeared at her side, and sometimes she thought it was him beside her and it was another person completely. A cat in her peripheral vision became a beanie on a stranger’s head, and no matter how many times she found herself a beer she was sure she never managed to take one sip. Time was doing something slippery, and the thud-thud-thud of the music reverberated through her body, until it felt like it was her very pulse, the light shaking with its strength.
When she found Jamie again, he was playing guitar, sitting on the floor with his back against the curved wall of the tunnel. Crouching down by his knees, she saw his eyes were rolling back in his head as he played, his lids fluttering, and for a moment his eyes were pure white with no pupils at all, like horror book night creatures. She stumbled backwards, not wanting to look at him, feeling suddenly alone and intoxicated, blinking again and again to check that her own weren’t in a similar state of chemical disarray. She turned on her heels and pushed past the crowd of shuffling dancers, past the UV strip lights, past the bodies gathered like homeless in bundles on the floor, dotted with the glowing amber of cigarettes, the occasional peel of laughter reaching her ears, past the DJ booth, the sound swelling around her and falling away into the ragged hum of the generator. She kept running, all the way into the blackness beyond. The railway tunnel continued deep into the hillside, further than the light from the party could reach. She felt her way by keeping one hand on the wall, her fingers running over the cold brick, dampened with moss and cracked from centuries of neglect. Her gaze darted back every few steps to remind herself of the light behind, before continuing.
Trains had passed through here once, red-hot cinders flying and steam furrowing the ceiling. She tried to think of this now as she kept walking, her fingers feeling the brick give way to craggy rocks. She withdrew her hand, displeased by the chalky texture, and found herself suspended in a liminal world of complete darkness. Only her feet on the ground stopped her from disappearing completely. I’m floating in the most peculiar way, Bowie’s voice echoed in her head.
It pressed heavily upon her that no one knew she was here in this tunnel, and this terrified her more than Jamie’s rolling eyes, or the strangers gathered in heaps on the floor, or the pill she had taken for the first time. She could feel a bubble and rush under her skin, an aching for something, and she wasn’t sure if this aching, this bubble and rush, was the drugs or her mind. She looked behind her again and the light of the party had vanished. Perhaps the tunnel had turned or she had walked so far the stretch of the UV was too weak to reach her, and she suddenly realized she had turned around and she didn’t know which way she had come. She reached back out for the wall and couldn’t find it, stumbling forward. She felt like a little girl all over again, walking through the dark of the house, trying to prove something that she didn’t understand, except this time there was no one there silently guiding her path. She wanted desperately to be away from here, for the normalcy of daytime: four yellow walls and open curtains.
She didn’t know if she had been walking for minutes, or hours, or no time at all and at any moment she would open her eyes and find herself sat on the floor opposite Jamie with his pupils spinning. She wanted to find him, for him to tell her this was okay, and at the same time the sight of him had horrified her. More than anything she didn’t want to be alone and lost in this tunnel.
“Jamie!” she called out, and the sound echoed around the walls slapping her in the face on its return. “Jamie,” she said again quieter, the panic making her dizzy. She walked in one direction, and then in another, never finding the wall. She dropped to her knees and reached her hand into the velvety blackness. She tried to calm her heart, taking deep breaths, while an unfamiliar warmth spread through her forehead and down her back. She rolled her shoulders a couple times and felt her jaw clench and relax. And then sat still for a few moments, lost.
“Sally in the Woods comes out at night; Sally in the Woods will cause a fright; Don’t go driving down Sally’s way; or Sally will come out to play…” Abi sang quietly to herself, making up the words as she went. The sound of her voice dislocated from herself.
She tried to think clearly. The tunnel was no more than six meters wide at the entrance. The wall couldn’t be far. She stood up shakily and took seven large steps in one direction. Nothing. She made a 90 degrees turn and took another seven large steps. Each failure plunged her deeper into isolation, the ghosts in the woods reaching out from all around her and the insects of her childhood nightmares gathering, ready at any moment to fill her mouth and her eyes and her nose, suffocating her completely. On the third set of seven large steps, she walked into the wall on the fifth count. She touched it with both her hands, felt its solid stone, its residue sticking to her fingers and her face.
Feeling the beginning of relief, she shuffled in what seemed like the right direction, eyes peeled, trying to see just the absence of light rather than what her imagination could conjure. At last the light appeared, faint and tremulous on the opposite wall, as the tunnel gently curved back round, and there was the party, the beat loud again through her bones, this time causing the rush and buzz beneath her skin to move in time to the music.
Jamie was still sitting with his guitar in his lap, leant up against the wall, his eyes rolling back a little less.
“Where did you go?” he asked, managing to look directly at her.
“I was looking for the end of the tunnel.”
“Did you find it?”
She shook her head.
“Weren’t you scared? I’ve been down there. It’s pitch black. I’m pretty certain there are at least zombies down there.”
“No,” she said. “There’s nothing to be scared of.”
“No sign of Sally?” he teased.
“She’s probably more scared of us than we are of her.”
“I’m not sure that applies to ghosts,” he laughed at her, taking her hand in his. She felt its warmth compared to her own, cold and damp like the walls.
She joined him sitting down, holding hands, and they stayed like that for some time as the party continued around them. But she didn’t need to be here anymore. She leant down and kissed the top of his head, the music vibrating through his skull into her lips, strange that physical contact was so natural now when before it felt fraught, and she followed the UV strip lighting out of the tunnel and into the woods.
The first light had banished the ghosts and cast the trees in a pale pink haze, beautiful now that the birds had returned with their murmuring. She lowered herself back down to the road on the rope, prepared for a long walk home. She found herself stepping out behind a passing car, and it pleased her to think that they saw her in the rearview mirror, with wild black tangled hair and wide eyes, just like Sally in Woods.
Tyler Wetherall is a freelance writer published in The Guardian, Vice, Electric Literature, and The Irish Independent, amongst others. Her fiction has appeared in journals including The Gettysburg Review, The Wrong Quarterly, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and her debut book – supported by an Arts Council England award – is being represented by Janklow & Nesbit Associates. She lives between London and New York. [@tylerwrites]