In this episode we follow a pair of students as they make an eerie pit stop and try to find somewhere to spend the night. But something unexpected seems to following them, or maybe it's always one step ahead.
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Hello and Welcome to ‘Scintillating stories.’ In this show we read short stories by a variety of authors.
A road trip can be such fun, playing music and watching the scenery speed by, taking all your worries with it. You should pay particular attention to the odd little villages that you pass through. You might catch a glimpse of a strange secret.
White Rabbit: A Little Haze Story
By Marianna Hawk
Jay and Michelle were on their way back from university when an old oak fell on a Ford Fiesta. It was impossible to see. Rain dribbled down the window, blue lights pooling across the glass like drip paint.
Winds howled across the rural road, pelting cars and pedestrians with hail. Newspapers flew like tumbleweeds. Sodden police officers in florescent jackets steered the approaching drivers away, and they were next in the queue.
The officer trudged to them and knocked on the window. Jay wound it down a crack and rain spat on his face.
‘What happened over there?’ Jay shouted over the patter.
The officer crouched to meet his level, droplets tumbling off his hat. ‘A tree fell on a family car.'
‘Jesus,’ Jay said. ‘Are they all right?’
The officer’s thin lips pressed together. ‘We’re not disclosing any details at this point in time. All I’m telling you to do is to turn around.’
‘But our accommodation is literally down the road. Is there a way we can get through?’ Jay pleaded.
‘Nope. This section is closed for investigation. Now, I suggest you turn away before I begin to lose my patience.’
Scowling at him, Jay wound the window up and wiped the wet off his cheeks. He indicated and turned to the opposite lane. Reflected on the side mirror, the officer watched them go.
‘Pig,’ Michelle spat.
Jay steered in to a country road he had never driven down before, and he asked Michelle to turn on the Sat Nav and type the accommodation’s address. The Fiat stumbled over potholes. Leaves slapped at the doors; twigs clawed the windows.
He turned to a main road and accelerated, the drops swept back as though blown through a straw. After ten miles, the Sat Nav told him to turn into another country lane; Jay groaned, but did so anyway.
AFTER TEN MILES, TURN RIGHT.
‘Almost there,’ Jay said hopefully and pressed the accelerator to sixty, waiting for their white tower block to grow over the foliage.
The dashboard flashed red.
‘What the hell?’ Jay said.
Michelle glanced at him. ‘You’re running out of fuel.’
‘No shit,’ Jay muttered. He turned his hazards on and tucked the car on the edge of the road. A Toyota trundled past them.
‘That’s exactly what we need,’ Jay said.
Michelle opened her phone to text her flatmate, but her signal blinked on and off.
‘Shit,’ she grumbled and put the phone on the dashboard.
Jay got out of the car, the rain dotting his hair and shoulders, and wandered for a signal and dialled a number. Through the mirror, Michelle watched him pace back and forth with the phone against his ear. After some time, he hung up and marched back to the car, dripping all over the seat.
‘Well?’ Michelle said.
‘He said they can’t come out right now because of the storm, but they’ll sort it tomorrow.’
Michelle groaned and pinched her nose. She opened her phone again, but the signal was still gone.
‘I guess it’s no use calling Wayne and Dani for a lift, then?’ Jay asked.
Michelle sighed. ‘No, I guess not. Besides, it’s Friday night. They’ll be pissed by now.’
‘Hey, don’t stress about it. We’ll sort something out. We can spend a night at a hotel or a B&B or something.’
The corners of Jay’s mouth sagged at the thought of leaving his car, but he slipped out his phone and began to type. ‘Fine. Let’s see what we can find.’
Blue lines veined across his screen and one of them led to a nearby village called Little Haze. He clicked on an icon of a sleeping stickman and put it into street view, revealing a murky image of an empty street; the hotel at the side of the road was Victorian with stained glass windows.
‘Found one. Let’s go,’ Jay said and exited the car before Michelle could ask for prices or reviews. She jumped out after him and cried at the cold drizzle down her neck.
Their flashlights spotlit the way as they staggered up the road, the mud caking their trainers and dragging them back. Rain drummed onto Michelle’s hoodie until the cotton clung to her skin, her teeth chattering.
‘Do you even know where you’re going?’ she called to him, but the rain drowned out her voice.
His flashlight traced along the dirt until it glowed upon a sign: WELCOME TO LITTLE HAZE with an illustration of a hopping rabbit. As a graphic design student, Michelle thought it would make a pretty tattoo, but now was not the time to dream of new ink.
Their trainers squelched past the sign and they dove under the streetlights.
Semi-detached houses had mowed gardens and trimmed hedges with mythical creatures and animal skulls on their doorsteps. Chimes and crystals adorned the trees, their edges glittered in the rain like Christmas lights.
Jay kept track of every street sign they passed: Drizzle Drive, Puddled Place, Slippery Slope, Murky Sight and Faded Away.
And then they reached Silent Street.
It was so dark they couldn’t tell where the sky ended and the road began. Houses were black boxes with jungle lawns and ivy tangling in the pipes. The only residents the street had left were the spiders knitting on garden gates and lonely deckchairs; garden gnomes and fairy ornaments locked in the earth's chokehold. Michelle huddled close to Jay, linking her arm in his.
They reached the hotel – or what was left of it. Wooden planks boarded the doors and windows and cracks split between the bricks; raindrops pearled on spiderwebs. All windows were cracked apart from the one on the front doors. The stained glass depicted a white rabbit sitting on black inked grass, its nose scrunched up as if it was twitching.
‘For fuck’s sake!’ Jay snapped.
‘Jay,’ Michelle said, beaming her light on a sign. ‘Take a look at this.’
THIS HOTEL CLOSED ITS DOORS IN APRIL 2007 AND PLANS FOR RECONSTRUCTION ARE DUE JULY 2008. WE APOLOGISE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE. IF YOU NEED SOMEWHERE TO STAY, GO TO SOGGY BOTTOM AND FIND A WOMAN NAMED WENDY. THANK YOU.
‘Well that was a waste of time,’ Michelle spat and squeezed the drops out of her braids. ‘And we got soaking wet for nothing.’
Jay typed the location and scrolled, accidentally shining the light in her eyes, making her wince and turn away.
‘I think I found it. It’s this way.’
He turned and the window caught his eye. Where there was an image of a rabbit a moment ago, a white lily bloomed across the glass, two of its petals aligned where the ears had been. He shook his head, believing it was the trick of the light, and he and Michelle went back to where they started.
Soggy Bottom was the heart of the village. There was The Moth and Lantern: a pub glowing with torches and game machines, outdoor tables and chairs were worn after decades of punters and damp weather. Across the road was Hazy's Fisheries, the mascot a cardboard cut-out of a fish with a hook through its mouth and crosses over its eyes. Next door was Wendy’s Tearoom, an antique building with anemone flowers in baskets.
Their soles squeaked as they trudged over.
The first thing they noticed of the tearoom was not the ornate vases or the royal blue cushions on gold chairs, but the dog beds along the walls, each with names engraved on plaques. Eleven dogs slept, and a German Shepherd and a Great Dane perched at a table with a saucer of biscuits between them, reminding Michelle of a cat café in London.
An older lady sat cross-legged at the counter flicking through a Take a Break magazine. Her chestnut hair was voluminous, but stiff with hairspray. Her fingers were gnarled like tree bark, but adorned with crystal rings.
She glanced from her magazine. ‘Hello.’
Jay smoothed his hair to appear presentable despite being soaked through. ‘Hi. We’re wondering if we can book a room for the night, please.’
Her red lips slipped into a sympathetic smile. ‘This isn’t a hotel, dear. What gave you the idea that it is?’
‘W-well the sign said we should go to Soggy Bottom and find someone named Wendy. I assume that is you?’ Michelle said.
‘Oh. I see you’ve been to Silent Street, then?’
‘Yeah,’ Jay said, his eyes to the floor.
The woman smiled sadly. ‘The owner died before talks of reconstruction were made. She had no family left, so there was no one else to keep it going, and eleven years later the council still hadn’t touched it, or the whole street for that matter.’ She set the magazine down and grinned at them. ‘But not to worry. You’re in the right place now and that is the main thing. How about we have a nice cup of tea to warm up, yes?’
The students settled at a dark, polished table. The Great Dane and German Sheppard sat with them, panting hotly with chocolate on their breath. Adjacent to Jay, the German Shepherd wore a blue bandana with white rabbits hopping in repetitive print. And then, in a blink of an eye, the white rabbits turned to dog bones.
Jay nudged Michelle to tell her what he saw, but Wendy returned with a whole tea set with lumps of sugar, milk and biscuits. The two dogs fidgeted with excitement.
‘There you are, you two. Two teas and a saucer of bickies,’ she chimed. The dogs gobbled up the biscuits, slobbering all over the table.
Wendy dropped three sugars in her cup and rattled the spoon against the china. ‘I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before. Are you new to this village?’
‘Well, we didn’t really come to visit. My car broke down, you see,’ Jay explained.
‘Oh that’s a shame when that happens. Well, let me introduce myself. My name is Wendy King. I’m the mad tea lady of Little Haze. And you are?’
‘I’m Jay and this is Michelle’ – Michelle twiddled her fingers with one hand while stuffing a digestive in her mouth with the other – ‘We’re university students.’
‘Oh wonderful,’ Wendy said politely. ‘Which university?’
‘Ravenskeep,’ he said.
‘Ahhh,’ Wendy gasped, her eyes dazzling. ‘Now do you know why they named that university Ravenskeep?’
‘Because it’s a gothic name for a gothic building?’ Michelle asked with her mouthful.
Wendy shook her head. ‘Not quite, but it’s a good guess. You see, the man who once lived in that building came from this village. His name was Kenneth Grant, and the fog gave him the gift to attract ravens. He doesn’t attract them on purpose, they just come to him like flies to honey. He brought in so many ravens to his cottage that he couldn’t fit anymore in, so he moved to a large mansion outside Lancaster where the birds had more room to fly around. He lived in that mansion until he died, and apparently when they found his skeleton there were still live ravens all over the place! It honestly looked like The Birds, but that’s where the name came from to commemorate where the ravens were once kept,' she said. 'But it is just a story at the end of the day!’ Wendy added hurriedly. ‘I’m sure they made that up just to make it sound interesting. Biscuit?’
Jay shook his head. Michelle had another.
‘It is a good story, though. I wish our university was as interesting as it sounds, but really it’s just our tutors drooling over Mark Rothko,’ Michelle said.
‘Or Tracey Emin,’ Jay added. Michelle pretended to snore.
They finished their teas and Wendy cleared the trays. ‘There is an inn across the road called the Moth and Lantern, and you can get a nice hot meal there for only eight pound fifty. Tell them I’ve sent you. I always send outsiders there.’
‘That’s brilliant, thank you!’ Jay said.
‘And one more thing,’ Wendy said, stopping them mid-step. She hesitated, chewing her lip. ‘Just...just keep away from the woods, all right? We don’t want you to get lost.’
Jay and Michelle looked at each other, uneasy. They nodded. ‘Will do,’ they said, finally.
‘Good. And that will be seven pounds for the teas, please.’
Laughter tremored the walls when they entered the pub. A throng of middle-aged men crowded the bar and downed one pint after another; a large group of university students, whom none of them recognised, feasted on rump steaks, pies and halloumi fries. Candles flickered by the booths and gaming machines dazzled by the bar.
The barman peered at Jay and Michelle as though trying to recognise them.
‘Excuse me, mate,’ Jay started, ‘do you have a room we can book for the night? My car’s broken down and we’ve got nowhere to go.’
‘I’ll check with the missus,’ the barman said. ‘Sandra?’
An elderly lady with tall, silver hair poured more drinks. ‘No. All rooms were booked this afternoon.’ She eyed them across the bar. ‘You two are not from here, are you?’
‘No,’ Jay said.
Sandra’s deep wrinkles fell with her frown. ‘Oh. Talk about being unlucky. Sadly all the rooms have been taken, but is there anything that I can get you though, my lovies?’
They gazed at the students’ feast. A blonde girl unbuttoned her jeans and pushed her steak aside, half of the meat uneaten along with a bundle of chips. Whilst Jay salivated over their meals, Michelle drew to the dessert menu on a chalkboard.
Jay pulled out his phone and ordered two steaks.
Sandra fumbled for her notepad and scribbled it down. ‘Ah-ha. And what about drinks?’
‘A Carling, please,’ Jay said.
‘And a Bloody Mary,’ Michelle added.
Jay tapped his phone on the card machine and the barman nodded and served two glasses, glittering with perspiration.
Michelle blinked at hers. ‘That’s water.'
The barman was affronted. ‘No, it’s a Bloody Mary.’
‘Are you daft? Does that look like a Bloody Mary to you?’
‘Try it if you don’t believe me,’ he said, glaring at them before turning to a punter, who waved his fiver like a handkerchief. He served him his water in a pint-glass, and the punter guzzled it down and burped hotly. Four women laughed as they sipped wineglasses of water; the university students toasted and took shots.
Too tired to complain, Jay sipped and an apple taste frosted over his tongue. His eyes widened in surprise, smacking his lips.
She scowled at him. ‘Does it really taste like cider?’
‘It does! It really does. Go give yours a try.’
‘You’re not taking the piss, are you?’
‘Michelle, when have I ever lied to you?’
She sipped and a burst of tomato juice, vodka and spices exploded in her mouth, the fire trickled to her stomach. In the distance, shrouded in bodies, the barman nodded to them.
Michelle took another sip. ‘Hmm. It’s good.’
They took their drinks to a table adjacent to the four women, who finished their wineglasses and collected their coats. On the coaster was a glowing white rabbit between two oak trees with veiny branches, and a moth, illuminated in the rabbit’s glow, kissed its nose.
A punter cried in triumph. Coins belched out of a slot machine, startling Michelle. Glaring at him, she turned back, and the image on the coaster changed to a blue moth with owl-like eyes on its wings.
‘Err, Jay. I don't know about you, but I've been seeing a lot of rabbits lately.'
‘I’m glad I’m not the only one who saw them. I thought I was going mad,’ Jay said. He leaned close to her as though he was about to tell a secret. ‘Did you see the dog’s bandana?’
Michelle nodded, disturbed. ‘ I thought I saw rabbits on it too, but I wasn’t sure because it was so subtle. What do you think it means? Why do we keep seeing rabbits?’
‘Maybe it’s a sign. Maybe the rabbit is symbolic of something,’ Jay guessed, remembering his lectures on semiotics at Ravenskeep.
Michelle pondered. ‘All I can think of is the rabbit is the symbol of fertility and the beginning of spring. But we’re in October, so that can’t be it.’
‘And the fertility bit? Do you know anyone who’s having a baby?’
‘Not that I can think of. And even if I did, what has that got to do with us being lost?’
‘Unless we…you know.’
‘Oh for god’s sake, Jay! No, that’s never going to happen, no offence.’
‘I know. I’m only teasing,’ he said and sipped his Carling. ‘But in seriousness, is there anything else we can think of?’
Michelle sighed tiredly, slouching over the table. ‘I don’t know, Jay. I really don't know.’
Sandra came with their meals: two eighteen ounce steaks with chips, cherry tomatoes and onion rings. Michelle downed the rest of her Bloody Mary and pushed her chair back.
‘I’m going to get another drink,’ she declared.
‘I don’t blame you. I think I’ll get another one too.’
The village clock chimed midnight and Jay dragged Michelle through the doors, her trainers skidding along the cobbles. Fog rose from the damp like a ghost from a corpse. Sandra shut the curtains and the inn vaporised behind the mist.
‘Do you have the car keys?’ Michelle’s voice slurred, her breath hot against his cheek.
He patted his back pockets. ‘Shit! I think I lost them!’
‘Jay!’ Michelle whined. ‘Then how are we going to sleep in the car?’
‘Just joking. They’re right here,’ he grinned lopsidedly and jangled them.
‘You twat! You scared the shit out of me!’ she yelled and punched his arm, knocking him sideways.
Suddenly, a white glow caught their eyes.
‘Jay, are you seeing what I’m seeing?’ she said.
The glowing shape hopped from the bushes and sat on the damp pavement. As if sensing the drunk university students, its head flitted to them, its eyes like miniature buttons. Its shine glistened its whiskers. A white rabbit.
‘Yeah,’ he breathed.
‘I think I’ve figured it out now,’ she whispered. ‘I know it sounds stupid, but I think the rabbit was watching over us, like a guide or a guardian angel or something, and now it’s here. I think the rabbit is going to help us.’
‘I guess you’re right.’
‘Let’s see if I can talk to it.’ Michelle crouched, beckoning to it and made kissing noises. ‘Here, bunny, bunny, bunny!’
‘It’s not a dog, Michelle,’ he snorted.
The rabbit stared at them.
‘Was that why you were watching us this whole time? Are you going to take us somewhere safe?’ Michelle asked.
The rabbit turned and leapt towards the woods, and Jay and Michelle chased its glowing light.
Cobblestone turned to soil, and fog hung over them like a ghost tapestry. The rabbit leapt over roots, weaving through oak trees whilst Jay and Michelle staggered behind. The fog thickened, the air now milky. The rabbit’s glow dwindled in the blanket white.
A stitch plucked Michelle’s side and she yelled at Jay to stop.
‘Come on, Michelle. We’re nearly there.'
‘I just need a minute,’ she panted.
‘But what about the ra –’
The rabbit vanished. He searched for its beacon of light, but it was the two of them again.
‘Fuck!’ Jay cried. ‘Why the fuck did you stop?’
‘Oi! Don’t you ever shout at me!’ Michelle snapped and jabbed a finger in his chest. ‘It’s not my fault I left the gym. Look, we’ll find it, okay? It’s a glowing rabbit for god’s sake. It won't be hard to find.’
More profanities bubbled in Jay's throat, but bickering was getting them nowhere. He looked for signs of the rabbit's presence, for drawings on tree bark, for prints in the soil, but the fog was so thick he couldn’t see his trainers.
He exhaled through his nose. ‘Okay. Okay, I’m sorry. Let’s go.’
‘Thank you,’ Michelle said.
They turned on their flashlights and continued walking. Oaks disappeared one by one. The longer they walked, the more the woods seemed to grow white walls.
‘This is so damn foggy,’ Michelle complained. ‘I honestly don’t know where it all comes from. I swear it wasn’t as bad before,’ she said, waiting for Jay’s response. She didn’t get one. She turned around. He wasn’t beside her. ‘Jay? Jay? Where are you?’
‘Jay, don’t try to scare me like this. I’m not in the mood. Please come out.’
‘Please, this isn’t funny.’
In her panic, Michelle never noticed the fog coiling around her legs and her waist, her lower half turning to smoke. The wood became paper white, the fog erasing the skies, the stars and the trees. The mist enveloped her. And then she was gone.
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