Marlbury mysteries winte.., p.1
Marlbury Mysteries Winter Unveils: Part Three,
By Liz Nelms
Copyright 2017 Liz Nelms
This novel is entirely a work of fiction.
The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
Holly could feel the warmth of the tree-man’s body through her soaked t-shirt, a reminder that the graceful Cedar tree of yesterday had done the unthinkable, become a human. And, despite his initial inertia, he was on his feet, walking, and without doubt, very much alive. Overhead, the storm shrieked through the trees as they crossed the bridge over the brook.
Holly pushed the wider implications of what had occurred that morning out of her head, they were simply too much to deal with. Instead, she concentrated on the pragmatics. Firstly, he needed some clothes.
Once inside, with the front door firmly closed on the storm, Holly guided him into the lounge.
She heard him gasp – he had seen himself in the mirror above the fire, he glanced from the mirror to Holly and back again.
‘Is that me?’
‘Yes. That’s a mirror, it shows us what we look like.’
He reached a hand out towards the glass and then withdrew it. He held his hand up to his face, ‘what is this?’
‘It’s your hand, you have two.’ She nodded towards his other hand. Holly pulled a blanket off the back of one of the sofas and draped it around him, and then helped him to sit on the sofa nearest the fire.
The tree-man looked around him. The lounge was decorated for Christmas, with red and gold candles on every available surface. A Christmas tree twinkled in the corner.
He had one hand placed on his abdomen with a puzzled look on his face.
‘What is it?’
‘It feels strange. Here.’
She thought for a few seconds, and then asked, ‘are you hungry? Do you need food?’
‘I feel weak.’ He answered simply.
‘You need to eat food.’ Clothes would have to wait; she didn’t want him collapsing on her again.
Assuming the tree-man had never eaten before she wondered what to give him as she began to rifle through cupboards in the kitchen. What did trees eat? He’d only been human for an hour, so did that mean he was like a baby on the inside? Should she give him milk? Even with Holly’s limited scope of meal preparation, she knew he wasn’t going to get enough energy from a pint of semi-skimmed. Then she saw Carole’s Christmas Cake under a large glass dome, waiting patiently for Boxing Day; the family rule was that it was not to be cut until Boxing Day tea. However, this was an emergency and cooking would take time, not to mention she couldn’t actually cook. Messily hacking a large chunk out of the pristine white cake, she prayed that Carole would understand once she explained everything, she tipped the slab on a plate and put it on a tray along with a bottle of mineral water.
She made it back into the lounge just in time to see him pick up a banana from the fruit bowl on the low coffee table.
She placed the tray down and sat next to him. He was turning the fruit over in his hands, he sniffed at it, and then looked at Holly in confusion.
‘You have to peel it before you can eat,’ she explained.
Ah. He didn’t know how to peel it.
She took the banana from his hand and removed all the skin before passing him the pale fruit.
He held the unsheathed banana by his fingertips and frowned.
OK. He didn’t know how to eat either.
She peeled another banana and looking at him said, ‘this is how we eat,’ she took a bite and chewed slowly.
‘Then it goes to the back of your mouth, and you swallow.’ She pointed at her throat. He copied, at first he chewed carefully and watching Holly’s throat, he too swallowed. Then his eyes brightened, and he bit off a larger chunk, chewing more quickly. In no time the banana had gone.
‘This tastes… wonderful.’ He grinned.
‘It’s just a banana, but then… I guess you’ve never tasted food before.’
‘Never.’ He agreed, reaching for another.
Next she passed him the water, he looked at her uncertainly, so she held the glass, tipped, to his mouth. After the first taste, he grabbed the glass from her hands and drank deeply.
His eyes fell on the cake, which she passed to him and he demolished the substantial chunk with several bites. Holly went through to the kitchen to see what else she could offer her unexpected guest, she dug out some huge baking potatoes, leaving them on the kitchen island whilst she figured out how to turn the oven on. From behind her she heard a loud crunch. He had followed her into the kitchen and had taken a bite out of a raw potato.
‘I like this best,’ he managed between mouthfuls.
She stared at him for a few seconds. Jeez, he really was enjoying the raw potato, skin and all.
‘I’m sure the rest will taste better cooked,’ Holly assured him, opening the microwave door after giving up on the complexities of the oven.
For the next hour, there was zero opportunity to ask questions, as she watched in fascination as his tremendous appetite took him through several baked potatoes, endless rounds of toast and two enormous bowls of porridge, where he mastered the use of a spoon amazingly fast. However, when she opened a pack of bacon his expression suddenly clouded.
‘Not that,’ he pointed at the pink, glistening strips. ‘It smells wrong.’
‘OK,’ she pushed the bacon back into the fridge, ‘looks like you’re a vegetarian then.’
‘Something feels odd.’ His eyes, panicked, found hers. He was holding his lower abdomen this time. Surely he wasn’t going to chuck all of it back up? If there was one thing she didn’t do, it was vomit.
A favourite phrase of Jack’s popped unwelcomingly into her head, what goes in must come out.
If she’d had to teach him the basics of being human, like eating, then of course if followed that she needed to go over everything else. She was so glad none of her friends were around right now. She would never, ever, live it down.
* * *
After leaving him in the downstairs cloakroom, she sat in the lounge, and waited, not daring to go back and check if he was OK. If he needed her he’d shout wouldn’t he? Hopefully he wouldn’t. Her face burned when she remembered some of the explanations she had just given him. That was one conversation she never wanted to repeat.
A loud meow from the doorway heralded Jupiter’s arrival, he meandered into the room in Holly’s direction.
‘Hey Joop! Where have you been fella?’ She rubbed the soft fur on his head. Jupiter purred and did the slow blink that all cats do when they show affection. He jumped up onto her knee, then she heard the cloakroom door click open. As soon as the tree-man appeared, Jupiter abandoned Holly’s lap and trotted across to him, tail raised high in greeting and wound his stripy body around his calves.
The tree-man pointed to the large framed photographs on the wall. They were black and white, arty shots her family had posed for, taken some time last year. Holly was in all of them, one of her by herself, one with her parents and one with her and Carole.
‘That is you, who are the other humans?’
‘That’s my family, my Mum and Dad, and my Gran, Carole.’
‘You look like Carole.’
‘Yes, she thinks so too.’ It hadn’t occurred to her that he was technically an orphan. ‘I suppose you don’t know any other human
‘No. Only you.’
It was hard to imagine having no family or friends and only knowing one other person.
It hadn’t escaped Holly’s notice that Jupiter jumped up onto him as soon as he sat down. Her Dad joked that Jupiter was like a German Shepherd, he had a good nose for scenting out the bad, and for knowing who he did or didn’t like, the postman’s ankle could attest to that.
The tree-man rubbed Jupiter under his chin and around his ears, Jupiter’s purr buzzed through the air as he attempted to climb up to his shoulder.
‘You look better.’ She acknowledged.
‘I am at full strength. Thank you for giving me food.’
Well, she could hardly let him starve.
‘It was no problem.’ Her eyes slipped down to where the blanket didn’t quite cover his chest, if she was going to sit and talk to him sensibly, and find out some answers, she needed to be focussed. ‘I’ll find you some clothes.’
* * *
Fortunately, her Dad was almost the same size as him so finding jeans and a t-shirt wasn’t too difficult. She took the clothes into the lounge.
Jeez. He was naked again. What was he doing now?
The tree-man was stood in the front bay window, looking out across the lawns towards the steep bank that led up to Marlbury Woods, but he’d left his blankets behind. She fervently hoped Carole didn’t choose that moment to turn in the drive, she didn’t want her Gran to put her car in the brook.
Holly hurried across the carpet and passed him the pair of jeans. He held them up and assessed them speculatively, she laughed and gently took them from him.
‘Let me show you.’ Pointing out to him the holes where he had to push his feet through was interesting, actually getting his legs inside them even more so. He almost lost balance and fell so she stood close by, hands up ready to break his fall, as he pulled them on.
‘We need to find you a name.’
‘I have a name.’
‘You do?’ All this time she’d been trying not to call him tree-man out loud in case he found it offensive.
‘My name is Crae.’
‘Crae. OK. I’m Holly.’
He took a step nearer, smiling. ‘I know.’
Of course he did. He had been calling her. Was that only this morning? She helped him pull the t-shirt over his head when a loud meow came from the hall, Jupiter was howling to go outside. Holly left Crae to finish dressing, she went to open the front door and the cat shot out.
‘Wow! she stepped back from the open doorway and hit the hard bulk of Crae, who had followed her. ‘It’s wilder than ever out there!’
They both surveyed the scene of siling rain, so thick that they could barely make out the trees on the other side of the garden. Crae moved around Holly and stood in the shelter of the porch. He looked up at the angry sky and across at the trees bent out of shape, he winced at the sound the roaring wind made as it tore blindly through the boughs. Small twigs and leaves were being ripped from their branches and scattered across the lawn. Holly moved next to him seeing the crease of consternation across his brow.
‘I don’t like this.’ His dark eyes flickered across the sky. It seemed Jupiter didn’t either, as having finished his ablutions in the nearest flower bed, he zipped between their legs back to the warmth of the fireside.
‘It’s just a storm, it’s Winter,’ she explained, trying hard not to laugh, he had been human for a couple of hours and he was worried about the weather? She touched his arm lightly, ‘don’t worry, this is normal.’
She took hold of his hand and pulled him inside.
‘Come on, we need to talk about more important stuff.’
* * *
Following him back into the lounge, she realised that along with gaining a better colour, he had lost the strange, stiff gait he had had this morning. And although he looked and sounded the same as any other man his age, she just could not wrap her head around how he came to be here.
‘How do I know you’re human? I mean, properly, a human?’
He lifted his huge shoulders in a shrug. ‘I am. I am no longer a tree.’
‘Do you know why you changed?’
‘Shall we start with what you do know?’
Crae looked at her steadily.
‘The reason I am here is...’
‘Is?...’ She prompted.
‘To be your soul mate.’
She stared at him, speechless.
Her soul mate.
‘Holly, one thing I am sure of is that I was sent here to be with you.’ He gazed at her intently, waiting for her to absorb his words, ‘to protect you.’
She tried so hard not to laugh out loud at that, protect her? Hadn’t she been the one to drag him, starving and weak, from the forest this morning?
‘I don’t need protecting! Nothing ever happens in Marlbury.’
He moved to sit closer to her.
‘You are beautiful.’
‘Thanks, but I am the first female you’ve met!’ She slid a little further away along the sofa.
‘We are meant to be together.’ He spoke with utter assurance.
Holly jumped up, not convinced that the question and answer session was going in the kind of direction she had anticipated.
‘I’ll make us some hot chocolate.’ She needed some excuse to not be sitting quite so close to him.
Not that it wasn’t pleasant, in fact, it was rather too nice, the urge to reach and touch him was becoming stronger. Was it because he was all by himself in the world? And was it that which was pulling on her heartstrings? Or was it something else? Here she was, completely alone with him, and she felt safe, despite only knowing him for a few hours. And yet, all the months she and Dex had dated, she’d always made sure her friends were around. Not once had she invited him down to Brookhill. There had been something about Dex she didn’t trust.
In the kitchen, at the back of the house, she flicked lights on because the sky was so dark outside, even though it was barely afternoon.
So much had happened since Carole had left this morning, and it was looking like she would be out all day. Not that she could really ask for Carole’s advice on this one, how could she explain that she was attracted to someone who was a tree three hours ago? Under usual circumstances, this kind of conversation was only ever entrusted to Kelsie, but imagine that one now?
Oh hey Kelsie, you know my art project – sketching trees in Marlbury Woods? – You’ll never guess! One of them is now a gorgeous, muscly young man and I want to draw him naked! Wait, what! Did she really just think that?
Not. Going. To. Happen.
On both counts.
She poured hot water into the mugs and sighed. Although, it had to be said, no boy had ever called her beautiful before, not ever.
Back in the lounge, she put the mugs on the coffee table, noticing that Crae was on sentry duty at the front window again.
‘Who is that?’ He was staring out towards the driveway bridge.
‘It’s probably Carole, my Gran.’ Holly didn’t bother to look at first.
‘No, this is not your Gran. This is someone very different.’
Holly’s head shot up at that, she wasn’t expecting anyone else here today, especially not in this storm. She could see the outline of a man’s shape on the driveway.
No! What was this? Think of the Devil?
Whatever his reason for his utter randomness, she knew it wasn’t good. He was slowly making his way towards the front door as if he wasn’t sure who may be home or what kind of reception he would get. The doorbell jangled. Crae was already half way out of the lounge.
‘It’s OK, Crae, I know who it is.’
‘I don’t have a good feeling about this human,’ he looked at her in earnest.
He wasn’t on his own.
Holly opened the front door a crack, enough to notice Dex rearranging his crotch, he clutched a cheap bunch of cellophane-wrapped, supermarket flowers in the other hand. He was beyond disgusting. What had she ever seen in him?
‘Why are you here?’ She asked, warily.
‘Aw, come on Holly, that’s not friendly.’
‘That’s more like it,’ he smirked, leaning casually against the porch wall. ‘Those photos on Instagram don’t do you justice. You should’ve got those extensions done before. Half the football team are using you as a pin-up… in their bedrooms, if you get my meaning.’ He leered at her. Revulsion must have shown on her face as he suddenly lurched forwards and shoved the door fully open.
‘News has it that Holly’s all alone. Mummy and Daddy gone away yeah?’ She stepped back from him, reeling from the smell of stale alcohol on his breath.
‘I’m not alone.’ She warned, ‘back off!’
‘Hey come on babes, it’s Christmas! I only want a little Christmas kiss,’ he wheedled, flinging down the flowers on the hall side table. Brazenly he reached out a hand, awfully close to her breasts, but she stepped back again. She had seriously underestimated him, she didn’t think he would turn up at her house, let alone try and molest her, then she remembered Lysa Benshaw in the pub – and that had been in front of most of the village.
As he stepped ever closer, she leaned away. He sneered nastily, ‘what’s the matter? Turned Lezzie? Always thought there was something funny about you and Kelsie.’ He made another grab for her.
‘You prick! She cried as she dodged him again, falling back into the coat stand. Dex wasted no time in taking his opportunity. He grabbed her arms so tightly she screamed, and as much as she attempted to get away from him she felt her knees giving way as he tried to pull her onto the floor. And then suddenly he wasn’t there. She looked up to see him flying through the open door. Briefly, Crae flashed past her and out on to the drive.
Oh Jeez. Holly scrambled to her feet, shouting after Crae to stop, but by the time she got outside he had picked Dex up by the neck and by the belt of his jeans. Dex was dangling like a hooked fish, his arms and legs flailing and kicking, but unable to escape the strong hold Crae had of him. Every expletive Holly had ever heard, and a few she hadn’t, were being spat angrily from Dex’s mouth. There was a thick, dark streak of mud up his legs and all over his jacket, from where he had hit a puddle when Crae had thrown him through the front door. Crae was strong enough to break his neck she figured, and realising that he didn’t know the rules about assault, and worse, murder, she took off after him. The way Crae’s back and shoulders were set as he strode purposefully down the drive through the coursing rain told her just how mad he was too. Was he going to throw him in the stream?
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