"Want to come up to the Wood? We could play Star Wars."
Martin considered. The Wood was the thin strip of uncultivated land at the top of the school field. The grassed and mowed part petered out in a mild incline before the trees began. It was perhaps a hundred feet long and fifteen feet wide before it met the wire fence that separated it from the gravel footpath, yet to the boys the space was a jungle, the wildest part of their suburban lives. The trees, mostly oaks and birches, alternately towered and stood invitingly climbable; the undergrowth provided hiding places; the worn earth tracks, so adaptable for games, ran the length of the Wood. There was an itching–berry tree, a holly bush whose hollow centre could shelter those brave enough to risk its scratches, and the Dragon, a great fallen log, by turns fortress, stage and spaceship.
"I don't want to," he said after some thought. He'd had the dreams again last night.
"There's toadstools up there. I hate toadstools." The lie slipped out of him unexpectedly. He weighed it mentally, admiring its lines. "Let's stay here, play tag or something."
His brother shrugged. "I could kick 'em down with my boots. Come on."
Martin followed him: the events had played out like a familiar story. Richard was his younger brother, but Martin always found himself tagging along like a four-year-old. Sometimes at night Martin would keep himself awake pondering the difficult riddles of life; the question of why his brother always took the lead was prominent among these. Even now that he had agreed to play, he could tell before it was ever discussed who would be playing the good guys.
Recently, things had got worse. In the last few months Richard had got himself involved with a particular bunch of kids, too loosely organised to have a name, though Martin thought of them as "Paul's lot". Richard spent much of his free time playing with them, now, and less time with Martin. Martin might have been glad not to be bossed around so much, but in fact nothing appeared to fill the vacuum that Richard had left. Martin spent his breaktimes wandering alone around the school field, yearning for the bell. When Richard was around, things were no better: he seemed to have learned new and still more uncomfortable management techniques during his social climbing.
"We could go to the dragon," said Richard. "We could it for the Death Star."
"Yeah, we could do that..."
The sunlight flecked the earth before them, green under the trees. The birds sang on, unaware of plans to destroy planets. Martin stuck his hands into his pockets and tried not to look at the undergrowth. White blossoms caught the corner of his eye. His nightmares flowed back.
Suddenly, his brother asked, "What are Nastiers?"
"Um." The weight of his dream held onto his mind. "Why'd you ask?"
"Heard you talking about them in your sleep last night."
Richard picked up a stick and began slashing at nettles. Martin watched with mild dread. "Did I say much?"
"Just kept saying it, over and over again. 'The Nastiers... the Nastiers...' and something about the Wood."
Martin shuddered. The Nastiers had first started to grow in his imagination in the spring, when the small heart-shaped leaves appeared under the hedges. Gradually they filled his dreams with their menace, popping up underfoot, filling the rooms, choking the ground, daring him to touch them. By day he had given them wide berths, sometimes even crossing the road. However hard he tried to avoid them, still they filled his imagination.
One day in early summer he had been tortured by the thought of himself lying down to sleep, and waking up as a single great Nastier, four feet across its sickly shining leaf, nodding gently in the aircurrent. He had run out into his garden the next morning, and the plants had flowered, tall spires of tiny white petals topping their towers of leaves, staring him down, glorying in their plantish treason.
"It's just a plant, a kind of plant. I don't like them much," he said. "Those ones."
"You were having nightmares about a plant?" Richard went over and kicked at the nearby patch of Nastiers. He looked back quickly enough to catch Martin wincing. The plants shook and were still.
"It's nothing," said Martin. "Let's go to the dragon."
Soon after they entered the Wood, Martin cursed under his breath: Paul's lot were already there. A few seconds passed before Richard saw them too. He called out to them, and ran off to join them. Martin was alone. He sighed, and walked on towards the seclusion of the dragon.
He sat astride the fallen log, looking out over the school field. With his hands he gripped the bark, tracing patterns in the cracks while his thoughts flowed over him. The voices of Paul's lot were too far away to pick out words. They were as much a part of his peace as the song of the blackbirds. Both reminded him that it wasn't so bad being alone. Sometimes. Maybe. At least Richard wouldn't drag out old arguments with him now, and at least he had space to think.
He looked around for the voice, to both sides, and finally behind himself: Paul was standing at one end of the log, with a grin on his face. Like a long-stemmed rose given to a lover, he held a single Nastier in his hand.
Martin's stomach jumped and twisted. Chills passed over his body. Richard had betrayed him. He scrambled half to his feet and backed away.
The other end of the log lay in a mass of nettles, beyond the edge of the Wood proper. Paul climbed onto the far end and began walking slowly towards him. Martin was trapped: Paul in front, and the nettles behind. Paul's friends appeared one by one, with quiet giggling, then open laughter. They clustered around the far end of the log. A few climbed up behind Paul. Most were carrying Nastiers.
A few weeks earlier, a kid in Martin's class had come in from break with nettle rash over most of his body. Martin's teacher had asked why, and the kid said that Paul told him to jump off the log into the nettles. The teacher asked whether Paul could have told him to jump off a cliff. Martin had been in the Wood that morning. He'd seen it all. The teacher never heard about the pointed sticks.
History seemed about to repeat itself. Martin took a step backwards, almost losing his footing. He caught his breath: Paul's eyes, the leaves of the plant, the plant's white flowers, were all picked out in feverish detail. He's got me, thought Martin. He's got me and I can't get away.
Then with the same strange dream-like clarity, it came to him. His fear was not Paul, but the unnamable terror of the Nastier. If Paul had trapped him, it was only in a prison of himself.
Martin bit the inside of his cheeks to give himself strength. He grabbed the plant from Paul's hand and crushed it. It smelled of herbs, and garlic. Paul took a step backwards in surprise, and slipped. Martin leapt forwards and to the right, landing on the grass ahead of the nettles, and ran as hard as he could towards the school. A few of Paul's lot gave chase in a disinterested sort of way, but soon gave up and returned to their leader.
Martin didn't stop running until he was inside the school, and didn't start crying until he was safely in the cloakroom, washing his hands over, and over, and over again.