Light filtered down through the foliage and splashed warm paint onto Jacob’s forearms. He could feel the hair on them bristle with the warmth, and felt the trickle of old rain down his back that, before they decided to relieve themselves, had been accumulating in the bowels of the leaves above him. One step after the other, his feet shuffled through the damp undergrowth, the occasional snap of a small twig under his calloused heel piercing the quiet stillness that seemed to press into the forest like rubber to a mould.
The little boy was being chased through the forest, only able to see a couple of strides into the dark trees whichever way he looked. His ears strained to hear the calls of the others, and he followed their shouts blindly – he thought he could hear laboured breathing, and the crunch of leaves and twigs dissolving under the enormous weight of his pursuer just a breath away. As if suddenly injected with a cocktail of adrenaline and fear, he quickened his frantic pace, and burst out of the trees into a clearing. Lit only by the muted glow of a veiled moon, he followed a set of disappearing brown legs back into the ocean of trees.
Jacob’s wandering hands found the hard edge of a tree, and a spiral lip that snaked its way down the trunk. A rubber tree, he thought. He traced the whittled wood and pressed his fingers into the old dry rubber that lined it. It was hard and full of bits of leaf.
Three hands shot out from behind a tree, and pulled him behind it. A fourth attached itself to his mouth. Its tight grip temporarily suffocated him, but soon loosened; a wash of air came flooding back into his lungs. He was being pressed face-forward against the side of a tree, and felt sticky rubber sap suck at his skinny stomach.
Jacob continued wading through the leaf-litter that covered the floor, his feet adjusting to slight inconsistencies in the terrain, bending and contorting themselves to fit around bits of rock and damp wood. His left foot struck a root submerged by the leafy blanket, and he stuck out his arms to break his fall. His hands sunk into the ground before him, his nose pressed to the floor, creating a small well in the tightly-packed dead leaves. Jacob rose to his feet, and was in the process of wiping the dirt off his hands onto his polyester shorts when he felt a pair of strong jaws cut into the skin of his hand, like a fillet knife slicing open the pale underbelly of a fish. He flung his hand about wildly, trying to dislodge whatever creature had burrowed its mandibles into the flesh above his wrist, but the creature tightened its long mandibles and would not let go. Trembling from the pain, Jacob grabbed the creature in his other hand, feeling dozens of tiny legs and a long body squirm inside his closed fist. He inhaled sharply before ripping the creature from him, and flung the carcass away. He felt a sticky paste between the fingers of his pulling hand, and realised he must have crushed the centipede’s body so tightly that it burst, leaving a puddle of little writhing legs and insect guts in his palm. He examined the damage to his bitten hand, and found a head and a pair of mandibles still embedded into the side of it. Jacob’s nose picked up on the faint scent of salty sea-air.
He stood like this for a while, his stomach pressed to the side of the tree. Eventually, the hands released him, and he was able to look into the faces of the parasites attached to them.
“Stupid. You’re about as quiet as an ox.”
A lanky boy bent down to be at eye level, and raised his hands to his head, stamping the ground in an imitation of an ox. Two others laughed, joining in with his impression, enveloping the little boy in a prison of stomping hooves and horns.
The little boy opened his mouth, eyes pleading. “I thought he was chasing me. I tried to–”
He was cut off by a backhand across his cheek from one of the others. This boy was shorter, with a round belly, and wore a stained white singlet. He looked to be the eldest out of the three; he had small patches of black fuzz along his jawline and above his lip.
“Shut up.” His voice was nasally, but unusually high for someone of his stature.
The little boy closed his mouth immediately, his wide eyes fixed on a couple of straggly hairs sprouting from above Singlet’s lip. Lanky laughed. “Let’s punish him.”
The little boy felt a hard push from behind him, and walked forwards through the dark forest. It was only a short walk before the trees started thinning, both in density and in size; and then, suddenly, there were no trees at all. They had come out of the vast forest and onto a beach. The visibility here was a little better, although from where he was standing he could not yet see the sea.
“I have an idea.” It was the third boy, the one who had not yet spoken. He stood up straight, with his arms crossed, as though addressing an important crowd. “What we should do, is put him in a hole.” He leant back on his hind leg, evidently pleased with this idea. Lanky looked from one boy to the other, waiting for a response, before Singlet nodded, and said, “Yes.”
They moved towards the shoreline, and stopped when the third boy felt the sand was dense enough. “Someone has to dig it,” he said.
“Get the boy do it.” Lanky grabbed him and pushed him into the middle, between all three of the boys.
Singlet barked, “Dig.”
Jacob sat on the edge of the shoreline, his feet in the cold water. He could hear the gentle roll of waves, and felt the coarse wet sand between his toes. He leant forward, and washed his hands in the ocean, rubbing off the slime and letting the salt water clean his wound. He felt water seep into his shorts, swirling around between his thighs before seeping back down the sand and into the sea.
The sand was packed so tightly he struggled breathing. It was heavy and constantly pushed against his chest. It was as if he was trapped in a mould of clay and sand that had set against his body. “Please don’t do this,” he sobbed. “Let me go!” He could see the three boys towering over him, smiling; a job well done.
“Shouldn’t we let him out now?” Lanky turned to his friends.
“No. Let’s leave him here, teach him a lesson. C’mon, let’s go.”
Singlet grinned at the little boy, and stood over his head before letting a long strand of saliva dangle from his mouth. He swung it like a pendulum into the little boy’s face. “See ya, Spitface,” he smirked. Then he was gone. Then they were all gone, and the little boy was left all alone.
He woke up to the sound of screaming, and felt a sharp pain in his eyeball. He reached up to rub them, but found his arms were pinned to his sides by a cocoon of wet sand. He started to panic, and realised that the shrill scream that had awoken him was his own. He tried to close his eyelids, but found there was something in their way; something that was moving inside his eye. It rotated, and as it rotated the little boy’s eye rotated with it. His screams doubled, and he looked around, catching sight of the thing with his other eye. It was an orange crab, with two claws attached to his face; one on the bridge of his nose, and one in his eye. He could see the crab jerk its claw, and heard, rather than felt, the snap of tendons in his face. He felt juice spurt from his eye and run down his cheek, dripping into his screaming mouth. The crab pulled its claw out of him, and the boy could see his whole eyeball impaled on its claw, transparent liquid trickling from the puncture down the claw and into the sand. The little boy fainted.
Jacob squeezed the pair of mandibles embedded in his flesh and felt their grip loosen. He slowly drew them out from the hole in his skin, little by little, until he finally felt the whole thing come free. He threw the insect’s severed head and jaws into the sea and let the water wash over his hands. He felt it seep into the deep wound, and winced at the antiseptic sting of salt. He felt the niggling of a few grains of sand lodged in his eye, and reached up to poke his fingers into his eye sockets, fingers feeling around the scarred tissue for the source of discomfort. Unsuccessful, he dipped his face in and then out of the water, leaning back to lie on the wet sand. He let the water trickle from the sides of his face into each socket, feeling them fill to the brim with the familiar coolness of the sea.