It had been over a month since the Robertson’s had moved into their new house and Douglas was still sulking about it. Their new street was so plain. All the houses were identical, rows upon rows of the same. They looked like they were made out of cardboard, like they were those stage homes used on film sets that were in fact just shells with nothing inside. They just didn’t seem real. Douglas left like a tiny doll walking around in a street of toy houses. It was a street of beige, quiet and ordinary.
Douglas hated it. Sure, his bedroom was double the size of his old one and his parents had bought him a new bunk bed, toys and plenty of books but he still hadn’t made any friends at his new school. Every day, he kept his head down and wrote in his jotter in silence while the other children talked and played without acknowledging him. The only people he ever spoke to at school were his teachers who feigned concern in his shy demeanour but were never overly interested.
The truth was Douglas didn’t want to make any new friends. He was quiet happy to sit in the grassy corner of the playground at lunchtime on his own, eating his tuna sandwiches and reading his new library book. The only person Douglas wanted to be friends with was the little girl next door.
Every day when Douglas came home from school, he would run upstairs, throw his backpack and jacket onto the bed and peer out of his bedroom window, watching the little girl playing in the garden next door.
The little girl would only ever play in the garden when it was raining and, lucky for Douglas, it was almost always raining here. The little girl had wild red curls that fell down to the small of her back in tangled layers. She never wore a raincoat or carried an umbrella. She usually wore normal clothes, usually little yellow or purple summer dresses, and a pair of pale blue wellington boots with pink and yellow flowers stuck on.
As soon as the first raindrop touched the lime green grass of next door’s back garden, the little girl would be out, skipping and dancing in the rain. Douglas always tried to imagine what music she must have been thinking about because surely nobody could dance like that if they weren’t thinking of music.
The little girl would skip and twirl and cartwheel on the lawn for what seemed like hours in the freezing rain but she never seemed to feel the cold. Occasionally, she would uproot one of the daffodils from the perfect little flower beds that framed the square lawn and sing a silent song into the yellow petals, like the plant was a microphone. After the sun went down, the little girl would be called inside by an angry voice that was never seen and after protesting for a few minutes, she would stomp inside and wouldn’t be seen until the next rainy day.
One Friday afternoon as school finished, the wind was so strong that it threw the wheelie bins from their driveways, whipped them across the street and the exposed rubbish was flying in the air like dead leaves. The rain was pummelling down so hard and cold that Douglas couldn’t feel like hands. He ran home as fast as he could, partly because the coldness was seeping to his bones, but mostly because he knew the little girl would be out dancing – the worse the weather, the happier she was to dance.
When Douglas’s mum saw how drenched he was, she took off his jacket and wet socks and dried him off with a towel while Douglas impatiently bounced on the spot and begged his mum to hurry up. As soon as his mum was done shaking Douglas’s dripping hair with the towel, he ran up the stairs, rushed to his bedroom window and pushed his face and hands up against the glass.
She wasn’t there. The little pristine garden with bamboo fencing and handmade birdhouses was empty. The lawn was free of its usual tiny footprints and the little girl’s boots were placed neatly beside on the patio. Douglas’s eyes flickered as he scanned the garden, hoping the little girl would pop out from somewhere and start dancing, but she never did. Douglas went across the room and pressed his ear up against the wall to see if he could hear any voices from next door but it was silent. Not a peep. Not even barks or whines from the neighbour’s dog. Douglas couldn’t understand what had happened.
Douglas sat at the window all night, watching as the rain pattering on his window melted his view of the garden into stodgy shades of green with the grey sky bleeding into the grass. He sat for so long that he forgot to do his homework and didn’t even read any of his new book from the school library. He just sat on his stool, watching the empty garden and wondering what had happened to the little girl.
The next morning as Douglas nibbled at his breakfast and tried to watch cartoons that were failing to hold his attention, his mum knew something was wrong.
“What’s the matter, my little munchkin? You’ve hardly touched your cornflakes.”
“I just don’t know,” Douglas whined.
“You just don’t know about what, sweetie?”
“The little girl next door. She wasn’t out playing yesterday. She was just gone!”
“Ah, yes I’ve noticed you admiring her,” she smiled. “Why don’t you go knock on their door? You haven’t even met her properly. Just go round and ask her to come out to play.”
For a moment, Douglas hesitated but his curiosity overpowered his momentary reluctance and he decided to venture to the neighbour’s front door.
After finishing breakfast and getting dressed, Douglas toddled round to next door and rang the doorbell. As he stood, he hesitated again and was just about to run away when he heard the key turning in the lock and the door cracked open. Standing on the other side was the little girl Douglas had been admiring for weeks, standing about a head shorter than him, still in her pyjamas with sleep in her eyes. As she yawned and scratched her head, she looked at Douglas and gave a coy smile.
“Hello,” she half-giggled.
“Hi. Em, my name’s Douglas. I live near door,” Douglas said.
“I know,” she giggled again. “I’ve seen you watching me.”
The little girl’s rosy, freckle-covered cheeks flushed as she smiled. Douglas blushed too. He always thought he’d been subtle and he was embarrassed that the little girl had secretly spotted him.
“Where were you yesterday? You always play in the rain but you were gone!”
“I like to disappear sometimes,” the little girl said with a wink.
“What’s your name?” Douglas finally asked.
“Guess! I bet you can guess my name,” the little girl teased.
“I don’t know!”
“Well then, you’ll never know!” The little girl said as she skipped inside and gestured for Douglas to come in.
She led him through the living room, into the kitchen and out into the mystical back garden Douglas.
Even though his own back garden was only over the fence, the air seemed to smell different here. The garden seemed to look quite hazy too – almost dreamlike – as though he was looking at it through steamed-up glass. The plants in the flower beds were planted with such precision that their colours aligned to make swirling patterns in the soil. The grass was the brightest lime green Douglas could have imagined. It reminded him of the edible grass in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory and suddenly everything in the garden seemed to look good enough to eat.
“But it’s not raining. You only play in the garden when it’s raining,” Douglas said.
The little girl pushed her curly red locks away from her face and looked at Douglas with a thoughtful expression.
“Well, nobody. I’ve just never seen you play in the sun before,” Douglas said.
“That’s because I disappear,” the little girl smiled.
She was talking about disappearing again. Douglas didn’t understand what she meant. He looked down to the bottom of the garden and noticed at the small wooden shed that he had previous imagined had garden tools inside but now he thought it might be the little girl’s playhouse.
“Is that where you disappear to?” he asked as he pointed to the shed.
“No, silly! I’ll show you. Take your shoes off, sit them next to my boots,” she smiled.
Douglas slipped off his trainers and placed them neatly beside the little girl’s wellington boots.
The little girl lay down on the grass in the very centre of the garden and gestured to Douglas to lie next to her. For a moment, they lay in silence looking at the sky. As Douglas studied one of the passing clothes, it soon morphed into the shape of a fire-breathing dragon that looked like it was about to swoop down and snatch him away into the sky. He closed his eyes tightly and when he opened them again, the cloud was back to the shape of an ordinary white candyfloss blob in the sky, much to Douglas’s relief.
“So, now what?” Douglas asked.
“Just wait a minute! You’ll see,” the little girl giggled as she grabbed Douglas’s hand in hers.
Douglas blushed again and felt a wave of embarrassment as he realised how sweaty his palms suddenly were against hers but the little girl only gripped his hand tighter.
The grass underneath them was still damp from yesterday’s rain but after a moment it began to feel dry and soft like a pillow. Douglas soon forgot about the topic of disappearing and was happy to lie out all day when he noticed the feeling of the grass changing. The smooth and fragrant blades of green seemed to turn to a murky brown. Douglas thought it was perhaps the brightness of the sun playing tricks with his eyes but something else felt different too. The ground suddenly felt weaker under the weight of his body. The now dark brown grass began to grow and the blades slinked around his jeans and as he looked at his arms, he noticed that the grass was growing around them too. He snapped his head around to the little girl but before he could say anything, she beat him to it.
“Shush, it’s okay. You’ll see,” she smiled.
The dark strands of grass that Douglas thought looked like long spiders legs grew quickly and wrapped themselves around their tiny limbs, gripping them so tight he couldn’t bend his knees or elbows anymore. Everything was stiff and his arms and legs were lying out straight like a stick man’s. Within a few minutes, the two little children were encased inside the animated grass and Douglas’s body began to feel heavier and heavier. He was sinking.
It was just like what Douglas imagined quicksand in the jungle in old movies felt like. It was as though something was pulling him and he was frozen stiff, too afraid to struggle in case it made him sink even faster.
He looked to his hand still clinging to the little girl’s but both his and her hand were submerged into the ground, he tried to wiggle his fingers and grip her hand tighter but he couldn’t feel his hand anymore. The little girl’s body was completely buried in the mud with only her head sticking out like she’d been buried in sand at the beach. She smiled reassuringly at Douglas.
“Wait until you see what’s under here. You won’t ever want to leave!” she grinned.
The tips of Douglas’s toes disappeared under the liquid mud. His torso and head were all that was left above ground. Douglas thought about screaming for help and trying to get out but he couldn’t move or make a sound. It felt like one of his nightmares, the one where he is being chased and tries to scream at the top of his lungs but nothing comes out. He would open his mouth as wide as he could and push out all the air out from his lungs until they were empty but not even a peep would leave his lips.
The more he sank, the less Douglas could feel. Everything seemed to go numb in the ground. The mud began to lick at his ears and around his face as his features were the last to be submerged. The little girl was completely gone now and there wasn’t even a trace, an imprint of her body. The grass on her side went back to normal, like she had never been there at all. As Douglas sank deeper, he could feel the mud was just about to touch his eyes and he knew he needed to close them soon. But before he did, he took one last glance up and across to his house. He could see his bedroom window. His mum was standing there.
The window pane muffled her screams but Douglas could hear her in his head. She banged on the glass as the last of Douglas’s little button nose slipped into the ground.
The only trace of Douglas and the little girl was their shoes. The little girl’s pale blue wellingtons and Douglas’s light up trainers sitting neatly together beside that pristine green law in that perfect little garden.