‘Where do rocks come from?’
‘I said, where do rocks come from?’ Sally pushed ineffectually on her dad’s leg, trying to take his attention away from the phone in his hand.
‘Sally, I have to some important work stuff, can you go annoy your mum?’
‘Mum went to the shop.’
‘Fine, but I’m busy, so can you please go away?’
Sally stared at her dad, disgust etched across her face, but he didn’t even glance in her direction. After a few seconds, she unleashed a snort of fury, turning and stomping away.
It was so unfair, they were supposed to be on holiday, but ever since they’d got to this stupid cabin all it had done was rain, and now Dad suddenly had to deal with some ‘important’ emails even though he’d promised to take Sally to go and find frogs in the pond down the lane.
Well, if that’s how it was going to be, she’d go by herself.
Sally wasn’t supposed to go to the pond without an adult. Her mum claimed that she and water had a magnetic relationship. It was the only way to explain the fact that Sally fell into every pond, river and medium-sized puddle they came across. The problem was that while she excelled at falling into the water, she hadn’t mastered getting out again afterwards. She could swim! A little bit.
But if Dad was going to be a big meanie and tell her to go away, well, Sally would do what he said. Pulling on her yellow raincoat and her bright pink wellies, she stormed out the door, making sure to slam it as she went.
Truthfully, Sally didn’t want to go to the pond by herself. The long winding path through the woods that took you there was scary. Some points had to be made, though. She was a seven-year-old with principles, and one of them was that parental figures should never get away with being rude. Even so, she started her stomp towards the woods slowly, hopeful that the sound of the slamming door would bring Dad running after her, ready to apologise and live up to his promise.
It didn’t, and even a half-speed stomp eventually brought her to the little path. She hesitated for a moment but having come this far there was no option marked turn back. Staring intently around her, checking to see if there was any obvious bears or wolves, she pulled up her hood and stepped onto the path.
Two minutes later, Sally was happily skipping along between the trees, the threat of death by mauling forgotten in the fun of escaping from the house. It turned out to not be so bad. The trees were sheltering her from the rain while walking between them made Sally feel like she was in a fairy tale. In her head, she was riding a horse, chasing down an evil wolf who had dared to offend a beautiful princess. When Sally caught it, she was going to dish out a right good kicking and ask it to say sorry. Then, when the wolf apologised, it would be so impressed with her that they’d become best friends and go on all kinds of adventures together and because it was a wolf and not a dog her dad wouldn’t be allergic, so it would be able to sleep in her bed, and she’d get cuddles all night long. Sally had wanted a dog for a long time, but she wasn’t allowed.
As she got closer, her story trickled away, excitement taking its place. The path was leading to the pond, and the pond was the one thing about this holiday that Sally loved. It wasn’t just because it was water for her to fall in, despite her mum’s jokes. No, it was all the exciting things you could find around it, from animals to weird looking plants and slippery rocks. Sally wanted to be an explorer when she grew up, and she felt that ponds were one of the best places to explore. The only place she’d ever been that was better had been a cave on their last holiday. It had big rocks that stuck to the ceiling and hung down like spikes, although her daddy told her that they weren’t going to fall on someone’s head and kill them. She’d been a little disappointed about that but appreciated that it was probably for the best.
What had Sally really excited about the pond, though, was the prospect of frogs. She’d never seen a frog in real-life, only having witnessed them on TV, but Dad had said that with all the rain there would definitely be some around. Sally was sure that an animal which jumped like a frog and made a silly sound like ribbit was going to be one of the best things she’d ever seen. The best thing she’d seen already was a polar bear, although it wasn’t as good as it should have been because it was in a zoo which meant it was in a cage and that made her sad. Sally had tried to come up with a plan to break it out, but Mum had said that while it was an excellent idea, the polar bear might not understand that Sally had been helping it and would eat her by accident. Instead, she’d decided that when she grew up and was in charge of everything, she’d help the polar bears.
The frogs wouldn’t be in a cage, though. They were wild animals, and Sally knew all the rules about wild animals. A man had come into her school and told them. She knew that you shouldn’t go too close because that would scare them and that you should be quiet and move slowly. The man had also told her that you shouldn’t feed them because it might make them sick, but Sally fed the ducks all the time, and they seemed to like it. Although she never gave them bread and Mummy had shouted at her once when she’d angrily told an old woman that it would make them ill. Sally still didn’t understand why she’d got into trouble. It was the old woman who was an idiot. The injustice of it all infuriated her.
There would be no old women there today. As she left the woods, she was all alone, a big smile breaking out as she looked out over her playground. The pond wasn’t the kind of pond they had in the parks back home, one where all the plants are kept nice and tidy by a gardener. No, this was a wild pond, the water turned green by the things growing inside it and the banks overgrown with tangles of wildflowers. She’d been told to be careful when walking near the side because what you thought was ground might be tangled up plants and your foot would crash through into the water. When her parents weren’t looking, she’d let that happen on purpose, wanting to see how cold it was. It had been freezing, forcing her to tearfully admit that her toes were in danger of falling off, and she needed to go home. Still, that had been a good lesson and this time she knew better.
With the forest behind her, all Sally’s concerns about coming here alone had vanished, and she got to work. There was a lot of exploring that needed to be done.
An hour later, Sally collapsed into a heap, a big grin on her face. She was hungry, her stomach grumbling in a way that told her she should have brought a snack, but it had been a fantastic hour of exploring. She’d found all sorts of bugs, some weird plants that she’d never seen before and what she was 90% sure was poo, although she wasn’t able to ascertain from which animal it had emerged. There was only one problem, so far, no frogs.
As she lay there, catching her breath, oblivious to the wet grass she’d chosen to lie down in, Sally reflected on that failure. There had to be a frog here somewhere, her dad had been sure about it, and he was very smart. Too smart in Sally’s opinion, that’s why he was always having to do work when he should be playing with her. She’d have taken a slightly dumber daddy if it meant more time to go on adventures.
Sitting bolt upright, Sally listened intently. Had she heard it? Or was it her imagination, creating what she was desperate to hear? It wouldn’t be the first time, for months she’d been convinced a monster was living in her closet because of all the weird sounds it made. She’d tried everything she could think of to catch it and hopefully become its friend, but it had turned out to only be a stupid old family of mice. Mice weren’t interesting. She’d seen them loads of time. Although she hadn’t let Mum put down a trap that would kill them. Sally didn’t think it was fair to save the polar bears but to kill mice.
That time there was no doubt about it, she’d heard a frog, and it was somewhere nearby. With ninja-like reflexes, or at least that’s how she imagined it in her head, Sally rolled onto her stomach, ears straining to see what direction the sound was coming from.
It was down by the pond, in among the mess of plants on the very edge of it. Sally knew she had to be careful. After all her hard work exploring and discovering this rare species, it would be awful to scare it away. So, she slowly began to crawl through the mud towards the sound, her raincoat getting stained a delightful brown colour as she slithered through the wet slop. Not that Sally was bothered. Clothes could be washed. A frog was a once in a lifetime thing.
It was on the other side of a tangle of plants that were right in front of her. All she had to do was pull them aside, and it would be there, staring her in the eyes. Reaching out slowly, Sally began to draw the green knotted shoots apart, working as gently as possible and ignoring the scratches they left on her hand.
They seemed to take forever to give up the fight, but they eventually did, the slight crack of broken stems ringing out rather too loud for Sally’s liking. Not that it bothered her for long. Sally’s thoughts quickly flew away from such things as plants making a noise. For, in front of her, staring up at her out of the mud was a face. Not a frog face or any other kind of face that you’d expect to find in such a place, no, a human face, and it was smiling at her.
Sally stared, her brain proving unable to process what she was seeing. It was a face, a face that was sticking out like someone emerging from the bubbles in a bathtub, the rest of their body hidden away. Except, how did he get under there?
‘It’s rude to stare, you know?’
‘It’s rude to be a face in the mud!’
That wasn’t something Sally had ever been told, but she was understandably flustered, the words coming out before she’d had a chance to think about them.
‘I don’t think that’s true, Sally. I can’t help what I look like.’
Sally had to concede that point. She truly believed that nothing should be judged for the way it looked, which was why she had tried to keep a cockroach as a pet until Dad had found it and done a lot of very silly screaming.
‘Okay, I’m sorry, but why are you a face in the mud?’
She was satisfied with that response. It felt like the right question to ask.
‘It’s rude to ask questions without saying hello first, Sally.’
Sally sighed; adults were always inventing rules like this. Grown-ups were always telling her how she had to go to school and learn things, but when she wanted to learn something in her own time, they never seemed to appreciate the questions she asked.
‘Fine, hello, face in the mud.’
It was then that Sally realised something, ‘how do you know my name?’
‘I’ve been watching you. You came down here with your mummy and daddy, yes?’
That was true and seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Watching her explore was a lot more interesting than something boring, like the news.
‘Do you live here?’
‘Kind of, I live here and a few other places too. Places that will allow people like me.’
‘People like you?’
‘The world can be cruel to people that are different, did you know that Sally?’
She nodded, sitting down on a patch of grass as she started to relax. ‘Mummy always tells me that we shouldn’t treat people differently just because they’re not like us.’
‘That’s a good lesson to learn.’
‘We had a nice man who was a…’ Sally hesitated for a second, trying to remember the word, ‘refuge? Anyway, he came and lived in our house for a while, and people were mean to him because he’d come from far away. Except, he’d only come because people were nasty back at his home, so he had nowhere else to go. He gave me some sweets from his country once, they weren’t as good as our sweets, but I said thank you anyway.’
‘I think the word you were looking for was refugee, Sally.
‘That’s right,’ Sally nodded. ‘He didn’t even look that different, there are lots of people at my school who look like him, and they’re all nice. Well, most of them.’ Sally had remembered an incident that had ended with her being pushed into a puddle because she wouldn’t ‘shut up’. That hadn’t been nice.
‘I’m glad you think that way, Sally, but there are a lot of people who don’t. Nasty people.’
‘Uh-huh, Daddy says they’re selfish, and then I’m not allowed to say the word he uses, but it’s a bad one. Is it because of them that you’re stuck in the mud?’
‘I’m not stuck in the mud, Sally.’
Sally considered this for a second. He certainly looked stuck. All she could see was his face, from his forehead to his chin. It made him look very plain, but he was an adult. Not an old adult, she thought he was probably younger than Mum and Dad, but an adult all the same.
‘If you’re not stuck, why are you in the mud?’
‘I like it down here.’
‘In the mud?’
‘No, below the mud.’
Imagination was one thing that Sally didn’t lack. She was a difficult child to surprise because there was little you could present to her that she hadn’t thought up herself, and when it came from her mind, it was usually more interesting. However, she did understand how the world worked, and she knew that living in mud wouldn’t work.
‘I don’t think you do, Mr Face. Have you maybe fallen over and bumped your head? If you wait there, I can run home and get Daddy. He’ll be able to help you. Maybe call an ambulance? At the very least you can have a bath, you must be very smelly.’
‘No, Sally.’ For the first time, he snapped at her, making Sally move away from him slightly, getting back to her feet in response to the perceived threat. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you, but I don’t need help from your dad. I know, why don’t I show you what it’s like under the mud? Then you can see what I mean.’
Now, this was a conundrum. On the one hand, not going away with strangers was rule number one. Her mum had repeatedly made sure that she understood that even if they offered her something interesting, she was supposed to say no. However, Sally was an explorer. As far as she knew, no-one had ever been to a place under the mud, so surely this was what she was supposed to do? If she could discover a whole new world by the age of seven, then it seemed only a matter before they sent her to Mars or somewhere even cooler.
‘Is it safe there?’
‘Of course, I wouldn’t take you anywhere dangerous, Sally.’ The anger the face had shown had vanished, replaced by gentle persuasion.
‘I’m not supposed to go anywhere with strangers.’
‘We’re not strangers, though, are we? We’ve been talking for ages.’
Sally had to concede that point, and if the face had wanted to do something terrible to her, it could have. There was no-one else around.
‘Well, what’s your name? I think it’s important that I know your name.’
‘That’s very sensible, Sally. I am Mr Rodgers, but you can call me George if you want.’
‘Okay, George. Well, I would like to see the place under the mud, please.’
‘Excellent’ George almost hissed the word, and a chill instantly crept down Sally’s spine.
Before she could react, a hold opened in the ground in front of her. It wasn’t a welcoming hole (if such a thing can even exist), but one that made it clear you wouldn’t want to fall down it. Sally took one look and realised that maybe this was a moment where being an explorer was not the best idea.
‘Um, actually, maybe I should go home, my dad might be worrying.’ Sally thought quickly, backtracking slowly, ‘I can come back tomorrow, though. Come down your hole then.’
At that moment, Sally broke, turning and trying to take flight. Before she could take a step, something reached out and grabbed her ankle, causing her to crash painfully onto her stomach.
‘Now, Sally,’ George’s voice had somehow got louder, filling the air around her, ‘it’s rude to back out of an invitation.’
Whatever had wrapped itself around her leg began to pull Sally backwards, back towards the hole. She scrambled desperately, trying to pull away, but it flipped her over, which is when she saw it.
George was no longer a face in the mud. He was the mud.
He was human-shaped, or at least the part of him that she could see was. It was like he was sculpted out of mud, bits crumbling off him as he stood, the face Sally had previously talked to the only thing that looked at all normal.
It was his hand, for lack of a better word, that had grabbed her around the leg, his arm stretched out to a grotesque size. Sally’s body froze, the terror of what she was seeing causing every muscle to seize up and hold her in place. That was a problem, as while she lay still, a deer in the headlights, she was dragged ever closer to that hole, and Sally was even more confident it was not a place she wanted to go.
That was the thought that broke through. While what she was staring at was terrifying, the idea of being pulled underground was worse. With a scream, Sally began to writhe around even harder, yelling and screeching as loud as she could as she flailed from side to side.
‘Be still!’ The creature that it was becoming increasingly hard to think of as George boomed at her, his second arm moving towards her, trying to hold Sally in place. She was done listening to him, though. When it came within range, she lashed out with her foot, kicking it as hard as she could. Instead of the satisfying thump of a boot connecting, she got a squelch, and when she tried to pull away, her foot wouldn’t move. It had sunk into the mud, holding her in place while George let out a chuckle that had little to no laughter in it. With another scream, Sally tried to grab the ground, but there was nothing to hold, tufts of grass coming free in her hands.
George’s face leaned down to look her in the eyes, still chuckling as it did so.
‘Oh, you’re such a smart little child, aren’t you, Sally? You’ve got a head full of so many ideas. In my experience, the more ideas, the tastier. I bet you’ll taste delicious.’
As he spoke, Sally filled with rage. How dare this horrible man go around pretending to be her friend and then try to eat her? She wasn’t a meal, and no-one was going to eat her thoughts. With all that anger welling up inside her, she did the only thing she could think of, punching him square in the face as hard as she could.
There was a moment of silence, shock seeming to ring out before George let a yell of pain, his hands letting go of Sally as he reeled back, grabbing his face.
‘You punched me? How dare you punch me!’
Sally wasn’t done, though. She pulled herself to her feet and walked towards him again, clenching her tiny wee fists. As he looked up towards her, she swung again, hitting him square between the eyes with a satisfying thud. He yelped that time, pulling back from her and seeming to get smaller.
‘Don’t hit me. Stop it!’
‘You were going to put me in a hole!’ Sally shouted, stepping forward to swing again.
‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ George was practically crying, curling up into a ball on the floor as Sally stood over him.
‘You’re just a big bully.’ Sally declared, calling him the worst thing she could think of.
He was snivelling now, the scary creature that he’d been reduced to a whining ball of mud, something barely worth looking at.
‘I think you should go down your own hole and never come out, not until you’ve learnt to be nice to people.’
George began to frantically nod, ‘I will, I will, just please don’t hit me again.’
‘In the hole!’ Sally shouted, pointing towards it.
He crawled over, apologising as he went before sliding down into it, Sally watching on with a stern look on her face. As he disappeared below the ground, it closed above him, leaving mud, ordinary, everyday mud. Or at least Sally assumed that’s what it was. She gave it a poke to make sure.
Satisfied by that, everything that had happened suddenly crashed down onto Sally’s shoulders, and she started running, running as fast as she could away from the pond and back towards the cabin, back towards her family and the safety that they offered.
The charge through the woods passed in a blur, Sally’s head down while her legs and arms pumped away as fast as they could. She didn’t even notice she’d left them until she collided with something.
‘Sally!’ Her mum shouted, grabbing onto her to steady them both, ‘watch where you’re going, I could have dropped the shopping.’
‘Mum! Mum! Mum!’ Sally was jumping up and down in front of her, shouting and waving her arms. ‘I went down to the pond where I saw a monster and it tried to pull me down into a hole but I punched it in the face!” It all came out in one breath, ending with Sally acting out her punch, adding a kick for good measure.
‘You went down to the pond by yourself? Sally, I told you not to do that.’
Sally stared at her mum in shock. Out of everything she’d said, that was what she’d chosen to focus on. ‘But Mum, I saw a monster.’
‘Uh-huh, I’m sure you did, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to break the rules. There will be no hot chocolate before bed tonight.’
‘Mum!’ Sally whined, ‘that’s not fair. It tried to eat me.’
‘Well, maybe it won’t get hot chocolate either.’
‘You don’t believe me.’
‘I believe you just fine, but no matter what happened at the pond, you know you shouldn’t have been down there. Did you fall in?’ Sally shook her head, ‘well, that’s something then. Go in and wash up, it’s nearly lunchtime, and you’re filthy. Where is your dad?’
‘He was working,’ Sally’s lip was sticking out sulkily, she couldn’t believe this was how it was all ending.
‘Well, go and tell him it’s lunchtime and that he’s in trouble for letting you wander off by yourself.’
‘I really did see a monster, Mum.’ Sally tried once more before leaving, earning a smile as she looked up pleadingly at her mum.
‘Of course, sweet-pea. Monster fighters still need to eat, though.’
Sally sighed, defeated by logic and the sound of a grumbling stomach. It wasn’t fair, but then again, what was?