's 2016 Horror Write-off:

Rose Hollow

Submitted by Jacob Roberts

When the last bell rang, Mark ran out the back door of the red brick elementary school, dodged between a group of kindergarteners lining up to board a bus, and ducked behind the new trailer classroom. He watched from the shadows as the other students gradually departed from campus, shivering in their winter coats even though it was only September.

Mark suddenly realized that he was freezing too, and vigorously rubbed his hands together while silently cursing himself for losing his mittens last winter. He also cursed Joe and Maggie for making him wait in the cold. They were supposed to have shown up already. He wondered if they really cared about finding Travis after all.

Mark stuffed his hands into his pockets and leaned back against the trailer classroom'd vinyl siding, which depressed under his weight. The new classroom showed up earlier that year to accommodate the overflow of students that was quickly outgrowing the cramped elementary school. The janitors took advantage of the extra space by piling trash bags behind the trailer, leaking spoiled milk that dried on the pavement and left a permanent nauseating stench. Mark wrinkled his nose. No one was going to look for loitering kids here.

He peered around the side of the trailer, but the schoolyard was completely empty. If Maggie and Joe took much longer, Mark knew that his babysitter was going to call his parents and get him grounded. He would need an alibi.

He kicked a pebble in frustration and sent it skittering across the ground. It knocked into the bike rack where he had locked up the old bicycle he rode to school every day. A chunk of broken asphalt was sitting on the blacktop next to it. Mark walked over, picked it up, and smashed it into his bike"s kickstand until it bent into the spokes of the wheel, preventing it from turning. No one could be angry at him for being late if his bike couldn't move.

Footsteps pattered on the pavement behind him, and Mark dropped the asphalt and looked up. Maggie and Joe were jogging toward him.

"I was beginning to think you weren't going to show up," said Mark, wiping black dirt off his hands.

"The vice principal was smoking out back, so we had to wait for him to finish before we could sneak out," said Joe.

"let's just get this over with," said Maggie.

After checking that the playground and field were clear, they raced around the trailer until they arrived at the chain-link fence that served as the border between the school grounds and the woods. Walking along the fence, Mark searched for the bent section of chain-link that he and Travis had crawled under last week. Suddenly, a shrill voice crackling with prepubescence made them freeze in their tracks.

"What are you babies doing out here all alone?"

Turning around to look for the owner of the voice, Mark breathed a sigh of relief. It was just a pack of middle schoolers. Curiously, they were dressed in matching crimson scarves, hats, and gloves.

"Yeah, shouldn't you kids be at home playing with your beanie babies or something?" asked the most pimply-faced middle schooler.

The whole pack laughed. One of them squatted down to Mark's eye level, removed his glove, and licked something off the palm of his hand. Mark could smell his tangy, rancid breath.

"What are those things?" asked Joe, gesturing to what looked like a bundle of multicolored straws in one of the middle schooler"s hands.

"Oh, these?" the middle schooler asked, turning over the contents of his hand as though noticing them for the first time. "Pixie sticks. You kids like candy, don't you?"

The middle schoolers emptied out some of the straws and offered outstretched hands filled with orange and red powder. A light breeze blew some of the powder into Joe"s face, sending him into a coughing fit.

"Thanks, but we have to go now," Mark said warily, helping wipe off Joe"s face and jacket.

The middle schoolers shrugged and walked away, giggling sporadically. When they disappeared around the side of the school building, Mark turned back to the fence.

"So do you remember where you got through last time?" Maggie asked.

"This way," said Mark.

Eventually he settled on a particularly rusted segment of chain-link and pulled up a corner, offering just enough space for them to squeeze through one at a time. Their backpacks wouldn't fit, so they left them on the school side of the fence and trudged down a hill into the forest.

After a few steps into the woods, the foliage became so thick that the school disappeared completely. Despite the early chill, the leaves on the trees had not yet fallen. In fact, they had barely started to change color, as if they became healthier as the weather became colder.

The group pushed through the underbrush, occasionally ducking under red vines that rose out of the ground, only to bend and fall back to the earth, forming a series of snarled arches. The vines appeared to be covered in a fine fur, but upon closer inspection Mark saw that the fur was actually thousands of tiny, sharp thorns. Eventually they reached a log poking out of a gulley. Mark recognized the spot. The vines seemed to grow higher and in more abundance here, and their tendrils clawed at his pants as he looked over the edge.

"This is the last place I saw Travis," said Mark. "He was convinced that he had to keep going to get to the hollow, that he had to get back to it no matter what." "You guys keep talking about this hollow," said Maggie, "but I don't understand what you think it is."

"We don't know what it is. that's what we're here to find out," said Joe. "I'm just here to find Travis," she said.

Sitting on their jackets, they slid down the side of the gulley and into the undergrowth below. The sky was already beginning to darken, and the crimson vines reflected the color of the setting sun. Mark felt their thorns sticking onto the outside of his clothes, but instead of holding him back they seemed to urge him forward. Or maybe they were just bending in the breeze.

"it's getting late, and my mom"s probably called the police already," said Joe, whacking away a vine and causing its thorns to break off on his sleeve. "We should turn around."

"don't worry, just another few minutes and we can head back," said Mark. Eventually the red vines became so thick that they could no longer see the ground; they were walking on layers of crackling tendrils matted on the forest floor. The trees above seemed to be changing color too, although none of their leaves had fallen. Pushing through one last stand of shrubs, the group broke into a clearing. Here, the vines formed a spiral pattern across the ground that looked vaguely like the petals of a rose. In the very center of the clearing, the vines twisted and weaved together into a spherical mass the size of a small hill. On one side of the mass was a gaping hole. Inside was darkness.

"The hollow," Mark breathed.

They carefully edged closer to the maw of the hollow. Although the sunlight was fading, the interior was suddenly illuminated by a warm blushing light that reminded Mark of shining a flashlight through his hand, the kind of thing he used to do with Joe and Maggie while making up ghost stories at sleepovers. But they were far from the tent where they used to pretend to camp out in his backyard. This was real. Inside the hollow, there were no sharp corners or shadows. Mark felt like he was gazing into the carved-out center of a cozy ball of red yarn. He could almost see himself lying down in there and falling asleep.

"Look!" Maggie cried, jostling Mark's shoulder.

She was pointing at dozens of photographs lining the inner wall of the hollow, hanging above a pile of discarded clothes. Strange. Somehow Mark had not noticed that a moment ago. Among the photographs was a picture of Travis smiling through his moppish hair, a single thorn holding it in place like a thumbtack. Mark thought he saw a drop of red liquid oozing down the photo where the thorn punctured it, but on second glance it was just a trick of the light. Joe stood next to them, mouth hanging open in disbelief.

"Those are Travis" shoes," he said, pointing at the pile of clothing scattered across the thorny floor of the hollow. "He needs them. I should grab them for him." Joe moved robotically toward the opening. Maggie grabbed at his arm to stop him, but jerked her hand away and yelped in pain. Looking at her palm, she saw that it was covered in tiny scratches where the thorns embedded in Joe"s sleeve had cut her. Crouching down to crawl inside, Joe pushed aside a smattering of objects including a threadbare blanket, a single glove, and a frayed scarf. Wherever he brushed against the vines, his skin came away with hundreds of fine thorns sticking out of it like reddish hair. When he reached the spot where Travis" sneakers lay, he sat down and started untying his own shoes.

Maggie whimpered as blood started to drip from her hand, shaking Mark out of his trance.

"Joe, what are you doing? Get out of there!" he yelled.

Joe looked at him blankly while removing his sneakers, and then his socks. As if testing the water in a bathtub, Joe tapped his bare toe against the thorny floor and pulled it back to examine it. His toe was punctured by a layer of stiff red fuzz. Joe caressed the tips of the thorns lightly with his fingers, bending them slightly before letting them snap back into place. Tiny beads of blood oozed from the bottom of each incision.

Seemingly pleased with the condition of his toe, Joe methodically removed the rest of his clothes. Then he lay down on the bed of thorns and rolled around violently, coating every inch of his exposed skin in slender red hair that danced with the movement of his body like the feelers of a deranged insect. As his body writhed and flopped, Joe"s head and neck stayed almost completely still. His unblinking, vacant eyes stared directly at Maggie and Mark. Finally, he plunged his face into the bed of thorns, eyes wide open. Mark screamed.

"Come on, we have to leave," said Maggie, tears streaming down her cheeks.

She cradled her bleeding hand under her armpit while tugging Mark behind her. Gradually, they made their way across the clearing, the vines under their feet undulating like the tide of the ocean, gently urging them back to the hollow. Mark forced himself to not look behind him as they hiked through and woods and crawled back under the fence. They picked up their backpacks from the ground, leaving Joe"s bag where it lay, and ran to their separate homes without exchanging a word. Half an hour later, Mark burst through the door of his house. He ripped off his thorn-encrusted jacket and threw it on the floor where it lay like a wounded animal. His babysitter, anxiously talking on the phone across the room, looked up at the sound of the door opening.

"he's here," she said. "He looks okay. I"ll call you back later."

She put down the phone and rushed over to him.

"Where were you, Mark?"

"I'm sorry, my bike"s kickstand got jammed and I got lost on the way home," he said, choking back tears.

"Do you have any idea how worried everyone was?"

"I know, I'm sorry. But you wouldn't believe what happened."

"It doesn"t matter now," she said, glancing at the jacket on the floor bristling with red filaments. "You must be freezing. Here, take these gloves before you catch cold. I knitted them for you myself."

She handed him a pair of fuzzy maroon mittens. Mark slipped them on. They were warm and comforting and the way the fibers brushed and scraped against his skin felt just right.