Winter Holidays - Story 1 - The Pale Little Girl By the Side of the Road by Tim Jeffreys

Hearing a crunch of gravel from the driveway in front of the cottage, Harriett Redgrave let out a small exhalation, stood and crossed to the window. Though her husband, John, had got the log burner started shortly after their arrival, she still hadn’t removed her coat. Neither had she touched the glass of white wine John had poured for her before he set about putting up the Christmas tree. She’d spent the last hour perched on the edge of the sofa, in good view of the vintage school wall clock on the wall, clasping and unclasping her hands. As much as she enjoyed spending Christmas with her four children, the anxiety she felt as she waited for each of them to arrive was unbearable.

“That’ll be our Nicholas,” John said. He had strung a set of Christmas lights around his shoulders in order to test them.

Harriett rubbed at the mist on the window and squinted to see through the swirling snowflakes outside. She recognised the green Volkswagen parked on the driveway as belonging to her youngest daughter.

“You’re quite wrong,” Harriett said. “It’s Beth.”

“Beth arriving before Nicholas,” John said, frowning. “That’s a first. Has she brought her chap with her? What was his name again?”

“No, she’s alone.”

Seeing her daughter move towards the front door, Harriett hurried to open it. Beth entered the cottage shaking snow from her hair and laughing. She kissed her mother then crossed to her father, looking around as she did.

“Love the cottage.”

“Your father chose it. He wanted a sea view this year.”

“Lovely,” Beth said. “And snowing too. It’s perfect.”

“Get your coat off,” John said.  He pointed at the Christmas tree. “You can help me with this. How’s Uni? Leave your mother. She’s fretting like always.”

“I worry about the roads in this weather,” Harriett said. “Nicholas is normally the first to arrive and there’s still no sign of him.”

“Oh, he’s here,” Beth said. “I saw him.”

Harriett, now at the window again peering out through the little patch she’d cleared in the condensation, turned to her daughter. “Whatever do you mean?”

“I passed him a little way down the road. He had parked up and he was having a snowball fight.”

“A snowball fight? With who?”

“That kid.”

“Kid? What kid?”

“A little girl. I assumed she belongs to that woman he’s seeing now. Didn’t you tell me she had a child?”

“Zoe had a little boy, but that was only a fling. It’s over now.” Harriett shifted her gaze to her husband. “Whatever can he be doing out there?”

“You know how Nicholas is,” John said, and turned to his box of decorations.

“Funny,” Beth said. She took a glass angel from the decorations box, held it up, and smiled at it. “They gave me the oddest look.”

“Did they?”

“I saw them playing together on the top of a little hill by the side of the road. Looked like they were really enjoying themselves. I beeped the horn as I passed, and waved at them, and they just stopped what they were doing and stood watching me go by. I was going to stop but that look they both gave me made me feel a bit…”

“A bit what?” Harriett said.

“I don’t know. A bit like I was intruding.”

Harriett bit at her bottom lip. “However can this girl be?”

“Pale little thing,” Beth said. “Now I think about it, I don’t know if she was even wearing a coat. Must live around here somewhere.”

“There’s nothing around here,” Harriett said. “We’re slap in the middle of nowhere. Aren’t we, John?”

“More or less.” John shrugged. He looked into his wife’s worried face for a moment, then brightened and turned to Beth. “Listen, I thought we were finally going to meet this new chap of yours. Didn’t you say you were bringing him along this year?”

“Oh, Patrick is coming. We travelled separately because he has to leave on Boxing Day. He’ll be here soon, I expect.”

“I hope he doesn’t run into any trouble,” Harriett said. “It’s really coming down out there.”

“Oh, he’ll be fine.” Beth noticed the bottle of wine her father had left on the dining room table and disappeared into the kitchen to find a glass.

Harriett resumed her position at the window and frowned at the thickly falling snow. Hearing the scrape of tyres on the gravel, she moved her face closer to the glass and could just make out a silver car pulling up alongside Beth’s Volkswagen.

“It’s Nick, at last,” John said.

“It’s Livvy,” Harriett said. She watched her oldest daughter climb quickly out of her car, grab a small suitcase from the boot, and hurry towards the cottage. Harriett was at the door before Livvy had a chance to ring the bell. Her hair and shoulders patterned with snow, Livvy gave her mother a quick kiss on the cheek then hurried into the lounge where she parked herself on a footstool in front of the open fire.

“Olivia. Good trip?” John said.

“Bloody nightmare,” Livvy said. She combed the snow out of her hair with her fingers. “Car’s heater packed up a couple of miles back. Thought I was going to freeze to death.”

“Want a drink?” Beth said.

“Something hot, please.”

“There’s some mulled mine somewhere,” John said. “I’ll go and boil it up for you.”

“Grand.”

“You didn’t see your brother, did you?” Harriett said. “Beth said she passed him. She said he’d stopped to have a snowball fight with some girl by the side of the road.”

“I did see a girl,” Livvy said. “A mile or so back. She was just standing there. No coat or anything. I stopped to speak to her because she looked lost and I thought she might need a lift or something, but all she kept saying was that she wanted to show me something. She wanted me to go with her because she had something she wanted to show me. I told her she was going to catch her death wandering around without a coat. She already looked half frozen. But she just kept going on about this wonderful thing she wanted to show me. In the end I just left her there.”

“You left her?”

“Yes. There was something off about her. I don’t know. She gave me the creeps.”

“And Nicholas?”

“I didn’t see him.”

“Did you see his car?”

“I don’t know. I might have passed it without realising.”

“What did she want to show you?” Beth said. “The little girl. What was it?”

“No idea,” Livvy said. “Something really wonderful, she said. I didn’t like the way she looked at me, so I got out of there.”

“How did she look at you?”

“King of hungrily. She had these big blue eyes and they were just fixed on me.”

“Oh, I’ve just realised who she is,” Beth said.

Harriett rounded on her. “Who?”

Bath smirked. “Why the little match girl of course.”

Harriett shook her head. “Beth, really.”

Livvy shivered and moved closer to the fire. “So, Nick’s still out there?”

“He’ll be here soon,” John said, reappearing from the kitchen and presenting Livvy with a glass of mulled wine. He gave a measuring look to his wife. “Let’s not start to panic. It’s still light out.”

Harriett glanced at the clock on the wall. “It won’t be for much longer. It’s almost four.”

“I think you were right to abandon that little girl,” Beth said to her sister. “When I was in India, they warned us about these children who would ask tourists for help and then lure them to a secluded spot where men waited to beat them up and rob them.”

“For God’s sake,” John said, flicking his eyes to Harriett. “That’s the third world. That doesn’t happen here.”

“It’s happening everywhere now, Dad. Open borders and all that.”

Harriett wrung her hands together. “John, I’m worried about Nicholas. Perhaps someone should go and look for him.”

Before John could answer, the sound of a car engine was heard from the driveway. All four of the cottage’s inhabitants hurried to the window. Harriett gave a startled gasp when she saw her middle daughter climbing out of a green Mazda.

“It’s Andrea. I’d forgotten all about her.”

They all watched as Andrea ran from the car towards the cottage. Harriett jumped at the sound of hammering on the front door.

“Somebody let her in.”

Beth went. Harriett heard the front door open, then Beth saying, “Christ, what happened to you?”
Andrea came panting into the room. Her eyes were wild, and she had a bloodied scrape on the left side of her forehead.

“What happened?” Harriett said. She began helping Andrea off with her coat, then took hold of one of her hands. It felt like a block of ice. She rubbed at it then steered her daughter towards the fire where she sat her down in an armchair and pressed Livvy’s abandoned glass of mulled wine into her hand. The other members of the family clustered around.

“Girl,” Andrea said, between gulps of wine.  Girl out there, wanting to show me something.”

“You didn’t go with her?” Livvy said.

“I was worried about her. She said she wanted to show me something, so I followed her. We walked for a bit, then I saw this glade of trees. There were people there, gathered in this little glade, but they didn’t look right.”

“Didn’t look right? What do you mean?”

“They just didn’t look right. They weren’t dressed properly, for one thing. I think one woman was naked from the waist up. In that weather! I asked the girl who they were, and she said they were all her friends. She said she wanted me to be her friend too, but I got scared and ran. That was when they all started chasing me.”

“Chasing you?” Harriet straightened and looked at her husband. “John, call the police.”

“Wait a minute, dear. Then what happened, Andrea?”

“I kept falling over in the snow. I hurt myself.” She put her free hand to the scrape on her forehead. “I thought I’d lost my way, but then I saw my car. I only just made it.”

“John, we should call the police. Nicholas is still out there.”

Andrea gasped, meeting her mother’s eyes. “He’s not, is he?”

“Beth said she saw him having a snowball fight with that little girl.”

Andrea looked at Beth. “The same one? Pale? Long straight blonde hair, almost white. Big blue eyes. Kind of a… weird look in them?”

Beth shrugged and glanced away. “Not sure. I didn’t stop.”

“We have to go and look for him,” Livvy said.

John said, “We can all go.”

“I’m not going back out there,” Andrea said.

“Don’t be daft. I’m sure there’s some reasonable explanation for all this.”

“Call the police,” Harriett said again.

“Now, now,” John said. “Why don’t we just go for a drive first and see if we can spot him. We’ll be able to find his car at least.”

Harriett went out into the hallway followed by Beth and Livvy and began distributing coats, hats and gloves. When Andrea got up and began putting her coat on too, Beth looked at her and said, “I thought you weren’t coming.”

“I’m not staying here by myself,” Andrea said.

“We’ll take my car,” John said.

As one, the family exited the cottage and trooped out into the falling snow. Already there was a couple of inches build up on the ground. Harriett glanced back towards the cottage, and through the lounge window she saw the coloured lights of the Christmas tree and the orange glow of the fire. They should all have been enjoying their first glass of wine now, maybe some of the canap├ęs she’d brought, and catching up on each other’s news. Nicholas and his father would be talking about rugby, whilst Beth made her sisters jealous by telling them about everything she’d been up to at University. “Wait until you get out into the real world,” Andrea would say, whilst Livvy nodded in agreement. “It’s not all gap years and getting up at noon for a two o’clock lecture.” It was Harriett’s favourite part of the Christmas season, that moment when she could relax because her family was all together again.

Except they weren’t together again, and she couldn’t relax. Andrea had arrived at the cottage with some bizarre story about half-naked people hanging out around a glade of trees, and Nicholas was still out there somewhere scampering about after some child. She thought of Beth’s tale about children luring tourists to be beaten and robbed in India, and she couldn’t help but picture her son lying bloody and unconscious in a ditch.

“Hurry up, John,” she said as she watched her husband fidgeting with the car keys.

“Oh my God,” Beth said, suddenly. “What about Patrick? I totally forgot he was coming too.”

“Who’s Patrick?” Livvy said.

“My boyfriend. I’d better ring him... Damn it, he’s not picking up.”

“He’s probably driving, dear.”
“I hope so.”

John eased the car off the cottage’s driveway and reversed out onto the road. He drove slowly. The only sound was the swish and squeak of the wipers as they worked to keep the windscreen free of snow. After only a few minutes, Harriett found she could no longer see out of her side window. For some reason, perhaps thinking to lighten the mood, John turned on the car radio. Maria Carey’s voice squealed out of the speakers.

I just want you for my own, more than you could ever know. Make my wish come truuuuuuuue. All I want for Christmaaaaaaaaaas is yoooooooooouuuu… Eeeee…

“Turn that off,” Harriett said. She had always hated that song, but now it was like a screwdriver in the temple. That voice. The shrillness of it. “Turn it off.”

John glanced at her but said nothing. He switched off the radio.

Harriett tuned to look at her daughters who were huddled together in the back seat.

“This was a bad idea. We should have just called the police.”

 ***

They found Nicholas’ green Hatchback parked by the side of the road about a mile from the cottage, but there was no sign of Nicholas. Climbing up onto the snowy embankment, Harriett began calling her son’s name. Her husband and daughters joined in, all apart from Andrea, who hung back by her father’s car. When her father called to her, she reluctantly went to him.

The light was fading and the surrounding landscape had taken on a bluish tint. Harriett could almost feel the temperature dropping as she stood there.

“You said something about some trees, with people?” John said to Andrea.

Andrea’s mouth opened and closed. She glanced at her mother. “You’re not seriously thinking to go there?”

“Maybe Nicholas is with these people. We have to check.”

“Did you not hear what I said about them? Something about them was just... wrong. I think Mum was right. We ought to just call the police.”

“Well, let’s see if we can find these people first. You stay here if you want. Your mother and I will go.”

“Dad?”

“Which way was it?”

Andrea grimaced, looked as if she might say something, but then simply pointed over her father’s right shoulder. Beth began moving that way, wading forward in the snow.

“There’re footprints,” she said. “We can follow them.”

“Wait, Beth,” Harriett called. “Wait for us.”

She wished she’d had the time to change into her Wellington’s. The leather block heels she had on weren’t made for walking through snow. Nevertheless, she hurried after Beth who was following a line of footprints.

“We’ll have to be quick,” Andrea said, glancing at the sky. “It’ll be dark soon.”

“These footprints,” John said. He stopped to place his foot alongside one of the prints. His foot was almost twice as big.

“A child,” Harriett said.

“The little match girl,” Livvy said in a dull tone.

“And she was walking barefoot,” John said. “Look, you can just see the indents of her toes.”

“Her?” Harriett said. “How do you know it was a her?”

“That’s weird,” Andrea said, before her father could answer. “Isn’t it? Don’t you think that’s weird? Who lets a child go walking around barefoot in the snow? I’m telling you, something’s not right about all this.”

“Well,” Harriett said. She was trying to ignore her own churning unease. “I suppose we’ll find out.”

They continued in silence until they saw the copse of trees Andrea had described. The setting sun, obscured behind a blanket of cloud, was behind them, turning them to stark silhouettes, black against the blue. There was no sign of any people.

John turned to Andrea. “Are you sure about this?” He went on before Harriett could say anything to stop him. “Are you sure you didn’t just imagine it?”

Andrea’s features tightened. She flicked her eyes to her mother. “Of course I didn’t. Why would I make up something like that?”

“You know sometimes you like to…”

“John,” Harriett said. She gave her husband a warning look.

When the rest of them came to a halt, Beth had continued walking towards the trees. Now she scampered back to join her family. Her cheeks were red, and she exhaled great plumes onto the cold air.

“There’s a house down there. After the trees. Just beyond the slope of the hill.”

“A house?”

“It looks pretty dilapidated. Abandoned.”

“I’ll go,” John said, catching his wife’s eye. “I’ll take a look.”

When he began striding down the hill, though, the rest of his family followed.

The house had no grounds or driveway. It was just there. It didn’t seem to belong. It looked as if it had just been plonked there, or as if it had dropped out of the sky. Harriett made a little moan in the back of her throat on sight of it so that Andrea gave her a look of foreboding.

The house appeared just as Beth had described it. Dilapidated. Abandoned. The lower floor had two bay windows with a doorway in between. The front door itself was gone. In fact, Harriett thought she could see it lying on the ground in front of the house, half buried in snow. The bay windows were boarded over. There were three windows along the upper floor, two of which still appeared to have glass in them. The one on the far left, however, was just an empty black rectangle. It was this more than any other aspect that chilled Harriett, that open portal on the blackness inside the house.

“Oh John,” Harriett said. Her lips were numb with cold and it was hard to form words. “Let’s go back. Let’s just call the police.”

“Wait,” John said. He gazed intently at the house. “Isn’t there someone there? Can you see…?”

Harriett looked again at the house. She now saw that there was indeed someone standing in the doorway of the house – a small pale figure. As she squinted to better make out the figure, Harriett decided that it was a girl of perhaps eight or nine years old. The girl was doing something with her right hand, making some kind of gesture.

“What’s she doing?”

“She’s waving to us. Isn’t she?”

“Not waving. Beckoning.”

“She wants us to go in there? She must be joking.”

“I want to go home,” Andrea said.

 ***

At the first sign of snow, Patrick Evans was already regretting agreeing to spend Christmas with Beth and her family. When she told him her parents always hired a cottage out in the country for Christmas, it had sounded like the perfect way to spend the holidays. Certainly preferable to spending Christmas with his own family who would be bickering before the first gift was unwrapped. Once he was on the road, he’d soon realised that actually getting to the cottage in these weather conditions was going to prove difficult.

He was also in two minds about whether he wanted to meet Beth’s family. Their relationship was getting more serious than he was comfortable with, especially since he’d met Chloe. He’d spent one night with Chloe when Beth was away on a field trip, and now she wouldn’t stop texting him. He liked her. She wasn’t as serious as Beth, and not as committed to her studies. He could have fun with her.

He wasn’t sure that meeting Beth’s family was the right move in the circumstances. From the look of things, though, he was going to spend Christmas Eve sleeping in his car by the side of some country road.

His mobile had been ringing, but he’d been too busy navigating a roundabout to answer it. He pulled over to check it and to look at the road atlas again. He saw that Beth had been trying to call him. Probably worried. He called her back but there was no answer.

He looked at the road atlas and was relieved to see that he had almost arrived at the cottage. He started the car engine and was about to pull out into the road again when he saw her. She gave him a start at first, standing perfectly still as she was at the side of the road just inside the glow from his headlights. As if she’d just materialised there. It was a girl, about ten or so. She looked directly at him. He noticed she wasn’t wearing a coat.

“Hey! What…?” He lowered his side window and shivered at a rush of cold air into the car. It was then that he noticed the other people. They stood grouped together further along the road, at the very edge of his headlights’ reach so that he could hardly make them out. He returned his attention to the little girl who had shifted closer to his half-open window. There was something unnerving about her. The way she stared at him, unblinking, with a half-smile on her lips.

“Hey, aren’t you cold?”

“Do you want to see something good?” the girl said.

“What? Where’re your parents? Do you need help?”

“I want to show you something,” the girl said. “I promise you’ll like it.”

“What?”

Patrick looked through the windshield again and saw the group of figures ahead moving forward fully into the beams of his headlights. It was a group of women and men. Something about the way they moved struck him as odd. Were they drunk, perhaps?

Then he saw that one of the women was Beth. She must have come looking for him. She must have come with her family to find him because of the weather and the roads. He wondered who the little girl was. She backed up a little as he sprung the car door and lifted himself from the driver’s seat. He placed one Converse trainer into the snow.

“Beth?” he said, leaning around the car door and waving. “Hey, Beth. It’s me. I made it. I—”

Beth twitched her head up to look at him, and he knew at once that he had made a terrible mistake. Some instinct made him retreat back into the car and pull the door shut. The people outside were moving forward now, clustering around the car and banging on it with their hands. The car skidded on the snow as he reversed onto the road in a panic.

“What the fuck? What the fucking fuck?” he was saying to himself over and over.

As he tried to turn around, the car skidded again and plunged into a ditch on the opposite side of the road. He was thrown forward and struck his head on the steering wheel. When he lifted his head, he could see only blackness with snowflakes twisting through his car headlights. But then he saw her, ahead of him now, directly in front of the car. The little girl. Looking straight at him and smiling.

---

Tim Jeffreys is a UK-based writer of horror and speculative fiction. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in various anthologies and magazines including Weirdbook, Not One of Us, and Nightscript.

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