In the Hollow Lands, the children dwelt forever, spirited away by the Bogeyman. Why he did this, no one knew. Once taken, he tossed them into the cursed woods to fend for themselves against its many dangers. Most didn’t survive long. Some were swallowed by hungry trees. Others were dragged into the dark by things even the Bogeyman seemed to fear. And others just faded away one day, lurking like ghosts until they disappeared completely.
The Bogeyman seemed to take no joy in it. He sat in his ramshackle cottage atop a hill ringed with brambles, silently surveying his kingdom and its unwilling subjects. Sometimes, he would go inside and use the door that led to other times and places, returning with a new child in tow.
Penny had somehow made it past the terrible things in the woods. She’d avoided the hag that liked to drown whoever she could catch. She’d run faster than the three-legged hound. When the withered-faced viper nearly killed her, she managed to smash its skull in with a thick branch she brandished as a club. She faced the dangers of the woods, along with a handful of children who had followed her. Not all of them had made it. Their screams were fresh in her mind, but their silences were worse. Debbie and Tommy had vanished without a trace, taken without even a chance to utter a warning.
But she’d made it, and with the few children remaining (she didn’t bother counting for fear of being discouraged), they pushed their way through the thorns at the bottom of the hill. By then, they were exhausted, and the pain was easier to ignore once the strength had left them. It didn’t matter. They would reach the cottage.
Not every child made it through the brambles. Penny wondered if they’d ever escape or if it was their fate to stay there forever. If so, it was her fault. She’d led them here with promises of freedom, but she’d known they were nothing but bait. Penny had been eight when she’d been taken, but time was impossible to measure in the Hollow Lands. She was bigger than the other kids. Stronger. She’d been here longer than almost anyone, and she’d done things no one should have to do to survive. But she’d made it here.
The Bogeyman smiled as Penny approached the porch. A hot wind blew across his kingdom.
“Send us home, or we’ll kill you,” she said.
The Bogeyman laughed, and clouds rumbled overhead. “You and what army?”
She glanced behind her. There was no one else there. The few kids who had made it through the brambles lay defeated by the steep climb.
The Bogeyman stood. He was long and lean, a creature in a tattered black suit with a bowtie and eyes of black glass. “Do you think you’re the first child who thought to bring the fight to me? Oh, Penny, such foolishness.”
Penny tightened her grip on his club. “We just want home.”
“You are home.”
She drew on what little strength she had and charged the Bogeyman, who slapped aside the charge, long fingernails drawing shallow gashes across Penny’s cheek. The girl fell to the ground. She didn’t cry. She wouldn’t cry.
The Bogeyman sighed. “You belong to me. You always will.”
She stood, balling her hands into fists.
“You’d be a lot more threatening if you weren’t wearing those Scooby Doo pajamas,” said the Bogeyman.
Screaming, Penny ran at the Bogeyman, taking him by surprise. No child had ever challenged him twice. They tumbled down the hill, past the exhausted children, into the brambles at the bottom. They tore at her flesh. More pain. So much at this point that she didn’t even notice it anymore.
The Bogeyman noticed. He howled as he struggled to free himself. Gray blood oozed from his wounds and his spindly right arm snapped off in a thorny tangle. He pulled himself free and cackling, fell to his knees.
Penny yanked free. Blood dripped into her right eye and her arm felt broken. The things, the hag, the monsters in the darkened woods, bayed and hooted from the other side of the brambles. She ignored them.
She grabbed the Bogeyman by the collar and dragged him back toward the forest. The monster seemed so light as to be insubstantial. Like darkness with nothing to fill it.
“Think about what you’re doing,” said the Bogeyman. “When I’m gone, who will protect you from the other horrors that lurk in the shadows?”
She threw the Bogeyman over the brambles. The things in the woods fell upon him and tore him apart. He screamed. A lot. She listened to every scream and vowed to remember them all.
Penny lifted Jessica from the ground and shook her away. Jessica would have to make the climb herself, but at the top, the Bogeyman’s door to other worlds was waiting.
“I’m scared,” Jessica said. She couldn’t have been more than six.
“I know. But you’re almost there.”
“Can’t you go with me?”
Penny glanced at the darkened woods where monsters lived. Monsters and lost children.
She plunged into the thorns, and the things silently fled into the eternal night rather than face her.