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Forty-one short stories
by Holly Gramazio

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39 across

Forest?

She follows snapped twigs and the sound of distant shouting, then a constellation trail of broken glass. The stars grate under her feet, and the sky is clouded yellow-brown like dirt. She stops and listens. There's water running under the ground, and a dark huddle of conversation on the other side of a bench, then a crash from the east, where the trees grow denser and burrs pull at her trousers. This isn't parkland any more, it's something else: forest? Fairy-tale?

On the far side of a dozen branches she stops, balanced at the edge of a footpath, midway between two street lamps. Polka-dots of red and green shine from each distant intersection, but there's no traffic, just a faint white blur of perpendicular cars. She crosses and accelerates into trees on the other side, over vines and through spiderwebs, and she can still hear them running when the wind's blowing back towards her, irregular drumming that sounds like the opening drops of another storm.

When the drumming stops she thinks she's lost them, but inertia carries her on for a few slowing paces and the trees open in front of her. In the distance, silhouettes are piling against a tall fence and tumbling over, the first to go pulling the next after until they all disappear into the Japanese garden. She can see the tops of the trees, outlined against the muddy sky, and she's breathing too loudly to hear what they're saying but there's shouting and whistles, and before they'd all climbed over there'd been steam piping out of their mouths. She hadn't realised it was so cold. She doesn't feel it. Her hand scrapes along the wood as she follows the fence around, and the gate's locked (of course it is, the council workers lock it at sundown), but she wedges her foot between vines, dislodging a misplaced petunia, and pulls herself over, twigs and leaves showering from her clothes as she lands on the other side.

Inside the garden there are no voices, not even far away. She walks along the dark path and everything's empty: ripples in the pond still washing against the edges and back in, deer-scarer clacking to a halt. Shards of glass fall from the soles of her shoes as she crosses the bridge, trailing like breadcrumbs when she looks behind her.

On the other side, the raked patterns of the stone garden have been covered in scrawls and denting footprints, curved lines that look like bicycle tracks, stone angels from arms and legs swept in arcs, a dozen wide-lettered messages that she can't read. It could be English, but it's too dark to be sure.

She crouches by the pebbles to catch her breath and listen, but the sounds don't come back. Out on the other side of the fence (and it's harder to climb now), there's still nothing: cars in the distance, a brief siren. The trees grow sparser again.

She's almost given up when metal slams against metal in a gust of wind. She pulls hair out of her face and there's a gate, hanging open, rattling back in the wind. On the far side she can see swings moving like pendulums, and see-saws like levers, and tunnels and benches around them, and a tree with such thick roots bursting out of the ground that she hardly notices the stepping stones behind it, or the long-legged shadow-puppet figures rocking back and forth, perched on playground animals. The gate shuts behind her and she can hear the clanks and laughter.