by Martin Bolton
Ralph Quail ran as fast as his scrawny legs would carry him.
Ralph was afraid of everything. He was afraid of heights. He was afraid of making a fool of himself in the company of girls. He was afraid of unseen hands smothering him when he switched off the light at night. He was afraid when he went to sleep he would be tugged into a chaotic, suffocating dream world never to return. But most of all he was afraid of Nigel Harris, the depraved school bully who took a great deal of pleasure in tormenting him, and who now pursued him.
A perpetually red-cheeked, fuzzy lipped, uncoordinated, spindly, young weed, Ralph was prime bully fodder. The Harris boy haunted him like a dead relative.
Every evening Ralph had to run the gauntlet in a pitiful attempt to make it home unscathed. On the rare occasions he escaped his scheduled torment he would be booked in for a double session the following day. Today was Monday, so he was due a triple helping of humiliation.
The last time he had tried to fight back Nigel had forced him to eat his own trousers and given him a close shave with a dry stick.
So Ralph ran. He knew he would inevitably be caught and put through a new and creative ordeal, but fear urged him on. Harris had followed him through the school gate and now chased him up Trevor McDonald road, intent on dishing up some pain and indignity pie for Ralph’s dinner.
Ralph had taken the long route home in the hope of eluding his nemesis, but the ham fisted demon had spotted him. Now he was running the wrong way and losing ground to his hunter with every breath. Little Richard was only small village, and Ralph knew he would soon run out of places to hide.
At the end of Trevor McDonald Road was Morning Wood, a vast forest on the outskirts of the village. Ralph’s father had forbidden him to take this route home from school because it was well known the bigger boys went this way to smoke and drink and chase each other with dog shit. But Ralph knew Morning Wood was his only hope, and he made for the safety of its shadows.
He ran until his lungs burned and his legs trembled and finally came to a halt in a dense thicket, slumping to the ground and concealing himself in the undergrowth. For what seemed an eternity, Ralph lay motionless, afraid to move a muscle in case he revealed his whereabouts. But his porky stalker did not arrive. He lay in silence, afraid to move, certain that as soon as he did the bully would be waiting for him. Eventually dusk brought an eery silence, and Ralph was plagued by many fears besides Nigel Harris.
Frozen to the spot, Ralph’s terror paralysed him. His mind concocted myriad leering faces that materialised in the dim twilight. Gaping maws and clawed hands plagued his mind’s eye. The slightest sound from the undergrowth brought another sheen of cold sweat and heart stopping pangs of terror. His bladder attempted to shrink in an effort to make itself less conspicuous and it took all his strength to avoid moistening his Y-fronts.
Eventually, he resolved to make a run for it before darkness engulfed him completely. He gathered up his school bag and took a deep breath, steeling himself against the horrors in his imagination. Then he heard a rustling in the bushes. He knew by the violently shaking leaves that this could be no bird or squirrel. This was something much bigger. He held his breath as warm piss flooded his under carriage.
He glared wide-eyed into the blackness beneath the bushes, and a pair of beady eyes blinked back at him. Whatever it was, it emitted a snuffling sound, and he could hear it shuffling about in the leaf litter as the branches that hung down above shook gently. Gripped by fear but enthralled by curiosity, he stepped slowly towards it. At lightning speed something huge and dark leapt from the bushes. The last thing Ralph remembered seeing was a black, spiny shape the size of a cow.
* * * *
Ralph woke in bed with a dry throat. His alarm was going off. He went straight to the toilet and threw up. The taste of his sick was vile. He had no recollection of leaving Morning Wood. How had he got home? He looked in the mirror and pulled his lips back from his teeth. To his disgust they were covered in thick, black mud. He threw up again and stuck his face under the cold tap, rinsing his mouth out and gulping down the fresh, cold water.
He cleaned his teeth with shaking hands and removed his t-shirt as he hit the button to switch on the shower. The shirt was a ruin. The front was filthy, but it was the back that shocked him the most. It was stretched out of shape. Ripped to shreds. Closer inspection revealed hundreds of small holes. Baffling.
He glanced into the toilet, where his blackish, slimy vomit still languished. He grimaced as he moved in to take a closer look. He thought he recognised the little dark dead things that floated in the bowl. A slow realisation dawned on him as he confirmed what he saw.
Slugs and worms.