Once upon a time, thought Lily as she skipped along, there lived a beautiful young princess. In her head the princess had her face and was laying on a bed of pretty flowers, sleeping peacefully and waiting for her prince. She had heard the tale a hundred times and couldnʼt wait to hear it again, Grandmother told it so well.
Turning the corner she came across a bush of bright red roses. The flowers were so pretty she decided to pick one for Grandmother. She set down her basket, reached out… and felt the sharp prick of a thorn. A bead of blood welled from the tip of her thumb. Tears stung her eyes but she bit her lip and stopped herself from crying. She put her thumb in her mouth. It tasted like pennies.
Lily took up the basket and continued on her way, hurrying past Mr Woodsmanʼs house as quickly as she could. She could not say why, but Mr Woodsman made her feel all strange. Perhaps it was his wild eyes. She was almost past his window when the curtains parted. He smiled and waved but Lily walked on like she hadnʼt seen him, escaping to the tale in her head, of the beautiful princess – and now here comes the handsome prince. But she could feel his eyes following her, like insects crawling all over her skin.
She hated passing Mr Woodsmanʼs, it was as if he knew she were coming. Every time she went to visit Grandmother at Three Oaks House, Mr Woodsman would part the curtains just as she walked by. But still, it would never stop Lily from visiting Grandmother.
Grandmother was ill and weak, she had been as long as Lily could remember, and Mother would give Lily grape juice and banana bread to bring to her. She always said it would do her good. Perhaps it did, Grandmotherʼs face would shine like the sun when Lily walked in wearing her scarlet raincoat, carrying her little basket. The thought made her smile, and she forgot all about Mr Woodsman and the prick of the rose.
Mr Wolfe was stood on his lawn as usual, his hands deep in his pockets, smiling as he watched the children wandering home from the park. Mother told her not to talk to him, but Lily liked Mr Wolfe: he was always happy and he always said hello. And he would take a sweet from his pocket and give it to her with a smile, mussing her hair with his huge hand saying: “Donʼt tell your mother, sheʼll have my hide!”
He smiled his usual smile now, as he saw Lily approaching. “Good day, little red!” he called, “off to see your grandmother?” Tufts of hair grew out of his big, funny ears.
“Yes, Mr Wolfe,” replied Lily.
“Oh you are a good child,” he said, reaching deep into his pockets. After a moment he frowned. “I seem to have run out of sweets. There are more inside the house, come along little red!”
Lily went with him into the house. As she entered she looked back at Mr Woodsmanʼs house and saw the curtains jerk shut.
Inside it smelled like Grandmother and Lily smiled and felt at home. She could not understand why Mother would tell her to stay away from this nice man. Old Mr Wolfe smiled. “I think theyʼre upstairs,” he said. “One moment, little red.” He started climbing the staircase.
Lily took a seat, her little red shoes dangling off the floor, thinking once more of her story. The prince has to save the princess, she thought, but what from? She hated monsters, they scared her, and so did witches too.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! came a banging at the door, so sudden it startled Lily almost to tears.
Mr Wolfe was hurrying back downstairs. “OK, hold on!” he called, “Iʼm coming!”
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! again, angry and loud – so loud. What was happening? Lily was terribly frightened; tears streamed down her cheeks, her face felt flushed and hot.
Mr Wolfe walked to the door. Glancing into the living room and seeing Lily crying, he said, “Shush, little red, donʼt be afraid,” but his eyes were scared too.
The click of the lock and the door burst open. “Where is she?” demanded a voice. A thumping of footsteps and Mr Woodsman bulled into the living room. His wild eyes settled on Lily, who sat on the floor bawling in fear.
He stopped dead. “What have you done to her?” he said, his voice quiet and hard as stone.
“Youʼre frightening the poor girl,” said Mr Wolfe, pushing past Mr Woodsman. “Donʼt be afraid.” He reached out for her.
“Donʼt you touch her!” howled Mr Woodsman, lurching forward. He grabbed for Mr Wolfe and pulled him from Lily, throwing him across the room with a growl. The old man stumbled, fell. His head hit the edge of the coffee table with a sound that made Lily sick, and he collapsed onto the floor.
And now he lay unmoving, staring sightlessly at the ceiling.
Mr Woodsman stood with tears in his wild eyes, staring at the old man, and Lily could not look away from the dark red pool growing underneath Mr Wolfeʼs head.
And now Mr Woodsman was crouched before her, saying something to her, over and over. “Look at me, Lily,” he said, “look at me.” He took her head in his hands and turned her face to his. “Did he touch you?” he asked in a shaky voice. He was crying. Lily was crying no more. “Donʼt worry, youʼre safe,” and he took her in his arms and lifted her from the floor.
As he carried her out, she squeezed her eyes shut and desperately tried to recall the story of the beautiful princess. But it was no use – each time she closed her eyes all she saw was Mr Wolfeʼs lifeless stare. Outside, the dying light of day cast long, dark shadows and painted the sky red.