The Cottage at the Bottom of the Hill
I’m unsure what to do with my second book, The Cottage at the Bottom of the Hill. My first book, Forces, has been self published but with this one, I really feel like it’s a story I should hold onto until I finally have a breakthrough with an agent. Of course, there’s always a chance I’ll never find one and then the book will remain unread by anyone outside my friends and family, but positive thining and all that. At any rate, I thought I could at least publish the first chapter and here seems as good a place as any. If you stumble across it, let me know what you think.
1. The New Kids in Town
The cottage at the bottom of the hill. To most people it was an abandoned building that had been left to rot, to crumble away and become nothing but a faint memory. To the children who lived in the small village of Greatchurch though; it was something else; it was whatever they wanted it to be. Nobody knew anything about the cottage or how long it had been there, but throughout the years, all the children who had grown up near it had made it whatever they thought would be the most exciting. Some said it was haunted while others speculated it was an old witch’s house. To others, it was simply somewhere to play where they could get up to the type of mischief that youngsters do. One boy, eleven-year old Martin, was about to find out that there was much more to this cottage than he could have ever have imagined. He had played there many times and in fact, it was his favourite place. But that was about to change, and it all started with the arrival of Sally and Ben Gibbs.
The two of them arrived with their parents towards the end of the spring. Ben knew all too well what time of year it was thanks to the hay fever he endures in the lead up to summer. Before they moved, he wasn’t able to go out and play. The pollen had such an effect on him that he was kept indoors as much as possible. Normally that would be fine as he had many things to keep him amused at home, but this latest spring proved to be a difficult one for the whole Gibbs family.
Their parents, Jim and Clare, hadn’t meant to let the cat out of the bag, it was a simple slip of the tongue after one too many glasses of wine one evening. But once it was said, they couldn’t take it back. Sally would always know she was adopted.
At eleven years of age, this was particularly hard to process. Not that it’s an easy thing to discover at any age. It would be fair to say that tensions in the Gibbs household were high and young Sally was in no mood to try and make things better. She immediately started looking at things differently, not least her twelve-year-old brother. She started to believe that Ben was starting to look at her differently too; no longer seeing a sister but just someone he lived with. This wasn’t what Ben was thinking, or at least he was trying not to think it. But he couldn’t hide away from the fact that he was struggling to get his head around the news almost as much as she was. They had both often wondered why they looked so different to each other. Sally was of average height with wavy dark brown hair, while Ben was a tall boy who’s naturally messy hair was a light blonde. Other siblings they knew had differences too, so they didn’t read too much into it- until recently at least.
Whilst Ben withdrew into himself a bit, Sally began to act out. She would throw tantrums if she didn’t get her own way. She would refuse to eat her dinner if it had anything even close to the colour of green on the plate. She also made a point of staying awake far past her bed time. But when she heard that her father had a new job and the whole family would be moving, she lost the will to kick up a fuss. All the worries she had about not being a part of the family anymore were added to by the fear she had about moving to a new area and starting a new school. Ben didn’t like their school much, so he was much more open to change than she was. And so, the Gibbs family packed up their things and left. For Sally, she was still trying to work out whether she was still a part of this family or not.
Sally hadn’t asked her parents why she was adopted or whether they knew anything about her biological parents. She made it clear she didn’t want to know and would never want them to tell her. Ben knew though. On the drive to Greatchurch, he asked them after noticing Sally had fallen asleep with her headphones in. They agreed to tell him, as long as he swore to them that he would never tell his sister unless she asked. He promised. He soon wished he hadn’t asked though. He knew that if Sally heard the story then she would feel better about herself and the whole situation, but a promise is a promise. Thankfully, the first few days in their new home found them all too busy to think too much about how he was going to keep this information to himself. The first distraction was who out of the two children would get the bigger room. Both had valid arguments as to why it should be them, but Sally won out.
‘It’s just because she’s adopted’ Ben said, much to the anger of Jim and Clare. If it hadn’t been for all the family drama of late, Ben would most likely have been grounded for a comment like that. They both pointed out to him that it was a nice gesture to allow his sister to take the room. He asked for a new Xbox game as a consolation present, which they reluctantly agreed to. Anything to keep the peace at this point.
Then there was exploring the neighbourhood. Greatchurch wasn’t the biggest of villages. There wasn’t a huge amount to do and it took Sally and Ben about half an hour of wandering around before they realised that.
‘It’s got one park and the only swing is broken’ Sally said to her parents in a huff as they returned home.
‘Well, why don’t you ring the council?’ Jim joked, too distracted by the ever-growing list of flat pack furniture that he needed to attempt to put together.
‘What’s the number?’ Sally asked, making her way to the phone. Clare was quick to take the receiver out of her hand and put it back down before she could even think about trying to find the right number to call.
‘Have you sorted your bedrooms out yet?’ Clare asked, disappointed that the peace and quiet they had with them out of the house didn’t last for longer than thirty-minutes.
‘Won’t take me long, it’s the size of a shoebox’ Ben said in a sulky fashion.
‘Well go help your sister then’ Jim replied, not in the mood for either one of his children to try sulking around him while he was so busy.
‘Nah’ Ben responded, ‘I’m going to go play in the back garden’. Ben took his shirt off and replaced it with his Crystal Palace football team one. He then picked up his football and went outside. He quickly realised he had nobody to play with, so he just started kicking the ball against the wall of the house again and again. He hoped he could be entertained by this for at least a few minutes. After two minutes, he was already growing restless. He was however quickly distracted by a voice from the other side of the fence.
‘You new here?’
Ben looked around to see if he could spot where this voice was coming from. He spotted a face peering over the fence, looking straight at him.
‘Yeah, just moved here’ Ben replied, unsure what to make of this stranger staring at him.
The boy took a big bite out of the chocolate bar he was holding and continued to talk, not really caring that his mouth was full.
‘My name’s Martin. What’s yours?’
‘Nice to meet you, Ben. Can I come and play?’
Ben was unsure. There was something odd about this boy that he thought may irritate him. But then he realised that he was going to have start making friends with the other kids sooner or later. ‘Sure. You going to climb over the fence?’
‘No’ Martin replied. ‘I’m not the best climber. I’ll just come around the front. See you in a minute.’
‘See you in a minute’ replied Ben.
A couple of seconds later, Ben heard Martin call for him. ‘You want me to bring you a chocolate bar?’ he yelled out.
‘What about crisps?’
‘I’m fine for food.’ Ben was beginning to regret telling Martin he could come over. He already seemed to be one of those excitable children that he always struggled to get along with.
Ben then heard the knock at the front door and heard his confused mum invite Martin in. ‘Ben, you’ve got a visitor’ Clare said as she led this new face into the back garden.
‘Yeah, that’s Martin.’
‘How have you two had time to meet in the three minutes you’ve been out here?’ Clare asked.
‘I live next door… Ben’s mum.’ Martin answered for Ben, realising half way through his sentence that he didn’t know what to call her. Clare told him that she much preferred being called Mrs Gibbs as opposed to “Ben’s mum.”
Martin wasn’t overweight, but he looked like he could end up that way if he kept on snacking. He obviously didn’t mind though. He already had another chocolate bar and two packets of prawn cocktail crisps in his pocket.
The two of them kicked the ball about and got to know each other. Whilst Ben continued to think they wouldn’t get on, they at least quickly discovered they had computer games in common. Although Martin was a PlayStation fan whereas Ben loved his Xbox. They did realise that at least they could go and play with each other’s consoles to see what they’ve been missing.
‘Hey, you wanna come play in the woods?’ Martin asked.
Ben had seen all he thought there was to offer with Greatchurch. The idea of some woods didn’t do a great deal to excite him. Martin was persistent though, telling him that his favourite place to play was down in those woods at the bottom of a hill. Ben agreed, if only because he got the feeling that Martin wouldn’t stop going on about it until he did.
Martin went back to his house to tell his mum where they were going, whilst Ben asked Clare if it was OK for him to go. It was, but she had a condition; he had to invite his sister.
‘Mum, that’s not fair’ Ben exclaimed, frustrated that he wasn’t allowed to hang out with his possible new friend without Sally tagging along.
‘Either you ask her to come, or you don’t go’ she replied. ‘There’s your choices. It’s up to you.’
Ben went to Sally’s room and asked her if she wanted to go in the least enthusiastic way ever. He was hoping that if he asked her and made it sound boring then she wouldn’t want to join them. It didn’t work. She quickly put her shoes on and the two of them went and sat on the curb waiting for Martin to join them.
‘Surprised you even wanted to come’ Ben said, making it clear he would rather she didn’t. ‘You don’t have to. You can stay at home if you want.’
Sally quite enjoyed the fact that Ben would rather she didn’t come. It made her want to go even more than she already did. ‘Surprised you wanted to go, what with your hay fever. You can stay home if you like?’
‘It’s mostly gone for the year. You know it’s only the middle of spring I get it’ he replied, annoyed that she was having so much fun trying to wind him up.
Thankfully, the tense sibling conversation was interrupted by Martin who walked past them, tossing two bags of crisps in their direction. ‘Come on then’ he said, eager to get to the hill and to show them his favourite place to hang out. He was so keen to go that he didn’t even stop to ask who Sally was. Instead, she introduced herself as they were walking.
It was about a ten-minute walk to the woods and about five minutes further to the hill; certainly not the quick few minutes that Martin had led them to believe. He used the time to tell them what they were going to see; the remains of an old building- a cottage.
‘Sometimes bigger kids hang out here’ he said. ‘But if they do, we’ll go somewhere else and come back when they’ve gone. They just smoke and things which is disgusting. It makes the place smell more than it does already. I also have to ring mum every twenty-minutes else she’ll get annoyed.’
‘Every twenty minutes?’ Sally asked. ‘That seems a bit much.’
‘Couple of kids went missing a while back’ Martin said. ‘She gets more worried than normal lately.’
It became apparent to Ben and Sally quite quickly that Martin wasn’t the smartest kid in the village. His use of the English language wasn’t always as good as it could have been and it took him a good couple of minutes to tie his shoelaces when they came undone. Still, despite being overly excited about almost everything, including a badger they walked past, he seemed like a nice boy. At least this would be one friend they had made.
Arriving at the top of the hill, they looked down and saw the cottage. It was as Martin had said; burnt out and just the shell of a building. Luckily for them, there didn’t seem to be any bigger kids hanging out around it today. It was surrounded by grass and trees and looked as if it didn’t belong there, as if it was left to rot whilst the world around it changed.
‘Come on’ said Martin, clumsily making his way down the hill and almost falling several times. Sally and Ben followed at a much slower rate. They didn’t see the excitement of an abandoned run-down building.
‘What do you do here?’ Sally asked.
‘I sometimes pretend it’s my hideout from zombies’ replied Martin, before adding that he was happy to pretend it’s whatever they wanted it to be.
‘I could pretend it’s an old building with nothing inside it?’ Ben asked, sarcastically.
‘Oh, use your imagination’ said Sally, willing to at least play along with Martin so they had something to do.
They made their way towards the cottage but as they did, things started to get very strange. A loud bell chime sounded, just once, echoing around the woodland. Only there was no bell around that they could see. Birds then came flying out of the trees, the noises from all the crickets and other wildlife stopped and there was an icy chill in the air that had no business being there in July.
‘Does this happen often?’ Ben asked, starting to get a little apprehensive.
‘No’ Martin replied, showing he was just as concerned.
Martin’s response unnerved both Sally and Ben. They hadn’t been able to get him to stay quiet the whole way there, yet now he was just giving a one-word response. The three of them stood there, staring at the cottage trying to work out whether they should go inside or do the sensible thing and return home.
Before they could make a decision, another bell sounded. It was much louder than the one they had heard before. They all jumped and turned around to see what was there. Only there was nothing. Martin told them that the nearest church was back in the centre of the village. All that surrounded them now was trees and grass.
‘Let’s get out of here’ Ben said.
‘Good plan’ Martin agreed, already starting to jog back towards the hill.
‘Wait!’ yelled Sally.
Ben and Martin looked at her and saw she was facing back towards the cottage. They too turned to see what she was staring at and both of them were astounded by what was there. It was still the cottage, but it wasn’t a burnt-out, run down shell anymore. This was a fully intact building. It had windows with curtains drawn, a light on inside, smoke coming out of the chimney and even a sturdy looking wooden door. That door was about to unnerve them even more. It slowly opened with a loud creak, as if it were gesturing at them to come inside.
‘How does that even happen?’ Ben asked with a nervous shake to his voice.
Nobody answered. What could they say? There was nothing that could even begin to explain what they were seeing.
‘I think it wants us to go in’ Sally said, edging closer to the opened door. Ben and Martin grabbed her and pulled her back.
‘It’s a building’ Ben snapped, growing ever more scared. ‘It doesn’t want anything.’ Both he and Martin were insistent they needed to get home and try to explain to their parents what had happened. Sally was curious though. She broke free from their grip and jogged to the door, heading straight inside without hesitating.
Between Ben and Sally, it had always been her that was the brave one- Ben had always been wary of things he thinks may hurt him. Now with everything that had been going on, she was almost looking for danger. She was seeking out trouble as if it would help distract her. Unfortunately, this reckless attitude was going to affect Ben and Martin too.
‘We can’t go in there’ Martin said to Ben. All his excitability had faded now. He was simply just a scared child at this point.
‘I can’t just leave her’ Ben replied. He wanted to in a way. He was furious that she would go in like that. He slowly made his way to the cottage door with Martin nervously following behind. The two of then looked at each other and then walked inside. As they entered, they saw that the interior had changed too. They had seen it through the window when they arrived and it looked normal. It had just been stone walls and nothing of note to look at. Now, it was carpeted and furnished. Before they could really see what was in there, they were distracted by a loud bang. Without touching the door, it slammed shut with force behind them. What they didn’t know was that outside, the cottage instantly turned back into being remains again as soon as the door closed. As for Sally, Ben and Martin, they were nowhere to be seen.