“Heads or tails, boy?” he asked.
I could barely hear his voice. It was like something between a whisper and a croak, like the snapping of twigs in the undergrowth, the fracturing of bones.
I looked up at him from where I sat on the floor. Just the same way as I had sat in assembly at school that morning. Except now I was sitting on dirt and dead leaves in the forest. And my hands and feet were tied together with wire. In assembly I had been told off for talking. Now I was too scared even to breathe.
“Well, what’s it gonna be? Heads or tails?”
The man shuffled over and knelt in front of me.
His eyes were too big for his face. There was a pale sort of yellow colour where there should have been white. And black where there should have been brown, blue or green. He had lines around his mouth that seemed to be there to hold it up like those ropes that hold up tents. A smell came from within him that made me want to vomit. He only had a few teeth and his lips were as dirty as the ground beneath me.
I could see blue sky through the tops of the trees and I could hear a plane somewhere far off. And here I was, thirteen years old, tied to a tree. An hour ago I had got home from school, changed into my normal clothes and taken my two dogs for a walk. I did it every day, well every school day anyway. They were Spaniels. Rescue dogs. I got them as a present for my birthday a few weeks back. I named one ‘King’ and one ‘Charles.’ I thought it was original but I don’t think anybody else did.
“I will ask you one more time, boy. What will it be? Will it be heads? Or will it be tails?”
He leaned towards me and grinned horribly before standing up and moving over to where King and Charles were tethered to a metal peg that he had banged into the ground. They had long given up barking and yelping. King seemed to be asleep or maybe just sulking. Charles was looking at me the whole time. I could see him shivering. It was getting colder, but not cold enough for a dog to feel it.
“There, there little dog. Not long now.”
Charles writhed on his leash and tried to back away as the man put out his big, grimy hand.
“Heads,” I said at last.
“What’s that, boy?”
“Heads,” I repeated, looking at the dead leaves by my feet.
“A fine choice.”
Charles writhed some more and began to yelp as if he alone knew what was coming next. Even King managed to clamber slowly up to a standing position.
The man reached into the inside of his coat pocket.
I assumed he was looking for a coin.
I assumed wrong.
The blade of the knife looked so clean in his disgusting hand. The sun was drawn to it and it made it glisten like silver. I was appalled at its beauty.
And I could do nothing as the man bent down over King and straddled him, one knee on the ground either side. I didn’t hear the knife go through King’s neck and I couldn’t hear the plane anymore. But I did here a pitiful thud as my little dog’s head dropped onto the forest floor. And in one motion he swung his arm and the blade carved Charles’ head from his quivering body.
“I’d have gone for tails myself,” said the man as he wiped his knife against his soiled trousers. “But them’s the choices we make in life, boy. Them’s the choices.”
And then he was gone.
“Heads or tails, boy?” he asked.