A whispering wind blew through the creaking branches of the trees outside of my new house in my new neighborhood in my new town in my new country. Dad was always moving us places. It was his job. I wasn’t even sure what it was he did. He moved my mother and me around. That’s what he did. And then he’d be gone all the time. Working, I suppose.
Mother would clean the house and sit in her chair and sip tea. She wasn’t much for entertaining children. Her own son included. But I was smart for an eight-year-old, thank you, and I could entertain myself just fine. I’d grown used to it over the years. Why make friends when you would just end up leaving them?
Best to get used to imaginary friends. Get used to exploring. I preferred the latter.
The house in Plukley, Kent was nice enough, I supposed. The floorboards creaked and a musty scent hung like cobwebs in the air.
“Mother,” I called lightly to the hovering figure in the kitchen. “I’m going out.”
She responded with a small huff of air as she took another pass at the counter with her cloth.
Threading my arms through the sleeves of my corduroy coat, I left through the whining front door. The hinges squealed in protest of my departure.
The ground was hard with winter, but I welcomed the sweet scent of ice in the air. Our last town had been a beach town. The air was always salty. I hated it.
Our new house was nestled in sparse woods with thin trees. The houses were rather far apart from one another. Not like the town I lived a few years before where you could hear the conversations of your next door neighbors at suppertime.
On my exploratory walk, I reached a dilapidated trail leading away from our house into a thicker copse of trees. Of course, I followed it.
Walk into the woods.
What was the worst thing that could happen?
The silence in the town was unnerving. It was more than just sleepy. It was eery. As if all the residents had been gagged and tied up to keep from speaking. No animals populated the thickening woods, which I found rather strange. Though, it was winter. Perhaps they were hibernating. Bit early for that, but it eased my curiosity.
The copse of trees thinned out again to reveal another house similar to my own. But, if it was possible, even worse for wear. Peeling paint, hanging shutters, a grey aura of age emanating from the wooden beams. Attached to the house was a tall, wooden fence. It looked like an animal enclosure. For dangerous animals that were only fed with a long pole.
I approached it, of course, walking the periphery, running my hand along the dusty wooden planks. I tried to peek inside, but the slats between the boards were too narrow.
Then I saw the key.
Well, keys, I should say. A set of them stuck into the keyhole of the door in the wooden fence. Bone keys. At least that’s how I thought of them. My parents always corrected me when I used the term. But the word skeleton creeped me out, so I replaced it with “bone” whenever necessary.
The keys were swaddled in a thick film of cobwebs. I wondered how long it had been since they’d been touched by human hands. I reached out to take them and paused when I heard a strange, melancholy voice. A girl’s voice.
“Ring around the Rosie. Pocket full of posies. Ashes. Ashes. We all…fall.”
The singing stopped.
“Is someone in there?” I asked in an unsteady voice, pressing my ear to the wood, listening. No more singing, but I swore I could hear breathing. “Hello?” I said again.
A voice lighter than the wind answered me. “Do you have them?”
I reeled back in surprise, my heart hurting from going slowly to bullet-speed in seconds. Again, I tried to look through the slit in the fence. I saw nothing but dirt. “Do I have what?”
“Keys,” the voice answered.
I looked again at the bone keys before me. They were stuck through the keyhole as if someone had considered opening the door but changed their mind halfway through.
“There are keys here,” I said. “Is that what you mean?” I sounded much braver than I felt.
“Come in,” the voice said. “Come in.”
I reached for them, grasping hold. My hand moved a millimeter to the left before I changed my mind. I didn’t like the idea of opening a door without knowing the contents within. There was not enough space to look through in the fence. But there was a keyhole.
Instead of turning the lock, I pulled the key out, bending down to look through the keyhole.
Inside the fence, there was no vegetation, no bush or flower or sprig of grass. Just a circle of dirt. In the middle was a raised mound surrounded by a sunken ring of a trail as if someone had paced around and around and around, wearing the dirt away. None of this mattered much to me, though. Because dirt wasn’t the only thing inside.
There was also a girl. A young girl. About my age, probably. Everything about her was fair, from her almost translucent skin to her corn silk hair. She wore a cream colored dress and sat atop the mound of dirt rocking back and forth, twisting her head from side to side. She started to sing again.
“Ring around the Rosie. Ring around the Rosie. Ring around. Ring around. Ring around…me.”
The hairs on my arms raised as her hollow eyes landed on me. She stopped singing and smiled with only her lips.
“Come in, Wesley. I’ve been waiting for you here. Come in.”
A susurration from behind me forced me to pull away from the fence, looking wildly around. A trio of wolves stood on the edge of the forest watching me with narrowed eyes and bared teeth. White foam ringed their mouths.
Singing girls locked in wooden cages. Rabid wolves. What kind of town had my father brought us to this time?
I stood slowly, the bone keys still clutched in my hand, trying not to startle them.
This movement was too much. They began to charge. I had a good ten seconds until they reached me. My options were slim. I could try to outrun them, but I wasn’t a fast runner. I could try to fight them, but I had no weapon and my arms were puny. Or…
I looked back to fence, and feeling I had no other choice, I jammed the bone key into the keyhole and turned it hard to the left. I slipped in through the gate and slammed it shut behind me. The wolves crashed against the planks, snarling and growling.
I tripped back onto the hard ground, my chest rising and falling in rapid succession.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Wesley.”
Scrambling to my feet, I turned to see the little girl standing inside the trodden ring of dirt now, leaning towards me.
“What do you…what do you mean?”
“Come,” she said, stifling a giggle. “Come play in the ring.”
I stood, but I didn’t move. The wolves were still growling at the fence.
“I’m Roselyn,” she said.
I remember her song and whisper, “Ring around the Rosie?”
“Yes!” She giggled. “Ring around me.”
She laughed again, and continued to laugh, echoing around the ring. All of a sudden the laughter stopped and her eyes slowly rolled upwards until only the white was showing. Then she collapsed into the ring. Forgetting my fear of her, I rushed forward, falling to my knees beside the trodden ring of dirt and peering down.
Her flaxen hair covered her fair face and she didn’t appear to be breathing. I moved to touch her.
Then her hand flashed forward and clutched onto my arm. Her eyes, still all white, flew open and mine fell closed.
Blinking away the darkness, I opened my eyes. I was lying on dirt. A mound of dirt. Lifting my head, I tried to take in my surroundings. I was on the mound of dirt inside the circular trail. I was inside the ring. But the girl who was here before was nowhere to be seen.
Then my gaze moved to the gate, to the open keyhole. To the white-blue eyes staring through. A screeching giggle sounded on the other side of the fence.
And then she started to sing.
“Ring around the Wesley. Ring around the Wesley. Ring around. Ring around. We all…fall…down.”