Caution

Photograph by Ben Lambert, Story By Shaun McKenna

“It means ‘Caution,’” she said.  “A red triangle is always a warning.  The exclamation mark means ‘Be Careful.’“

 

“Careful of what?” 

 

She shrugged.  “No idea.  I’ve never been further than the sign.”  She finished spreading the toast and put it on the plate with the orange roses.  “Here.”

 

Two minutes later, wiping my buttery lips, I asked if anyone knew what was beyond the sign.

 

She shrugged again.  “I suppose.  People go that way sometimes.  A few of them come back.”

 

“What do they say?”

 

“I haven’t asked.”

 

“Why not?”

 

She smiled, and used her finger to sweep a wayward lock out of my eyes.  “I’ve never needed to go that way so it didn’t matter.  Bed, now.”

 

“Five more minutes?”

 

“Bed.”  She was firm.

 

At the top of the stairs, I shouted down.  “If you don’t know what’s there, how do you know you don’t need to go that way?”

 

“Bed,” she called.  “Your Dad will be home any minute.”

 

My room was full of shadows from the tree outside.  I got into bed, wriggling myself into the familiar hollow in the mattress.  Tonight the stain on the ceiling looked more like a sea turtle than the dragon it had been all week.  The exclamation mark probably didn’t mean all that much, I told myself.   Just “Toads Crossing” or “Holes in the Road.”  Father said the roads got worse every year.  That would be it.

 

Only …. if they can’t afford to mend the roads, why go to the cost of putting up a sign?  The paint was always fresh.  Red triangle, white ground, black exclamation mark.

 

“Caution.”

 

Perhaps there was something in the woods.  Wolves or soldiers or a dragon.  I knew a dragon was unlikely but if there were wolves or soldiers, why wouldn’t they come into town?  Was there a sign facing the other way, just round the bend, out of sight, warning anyone who approached?

 

But why?  Who would be scared of us?  Most of us, anyway.

 

There were voices downstairs now.  Father was home.  His sandwiches would be waiting for him on the plate with the orange roses.  It was the last piece from the service Auntie Kit gave him on his wedding day.  She still had money in those days.  

 

I yawned.  Above me, on the ceiling, shadows chased each other and the sea turtle swam away to find a floating log to rest on. 

 

 

 

“It’s the edge of the world,” said Tod.  We were perched on the wall by the playground.

 

“That can’t be right,” I said.  “People come back sometimes.”

 

“They come back changed,” Tod said.

 

“Well, they would,” said Lin.  “If they’ve seen the edge of the world.  Anyone would.”

 

“I wonder what it’s like,” I said. 

 

Two pairs of dark eyes stared at me.

 

“Like a cliff?” I went on.  “Something you can fall off?  Or like a fog getting thicker?  Like a song fading out?”

 

“Let’s play football,” said Tod.  

 

Lin leaned in.  “Cyrus says it’s a big spider’s web,” she said.  “Walk too far and you get stuck in it.  The more you struggle, the more you get wrapped up.  Then things come and eat you.”

 

“What things?”

 

“He wouldn’t say.”

 

“You’d stop before you reached the web,” I said.  “You wouldn’t get stuck then.”

 

“Not if it’s invisible,” said Lin.  “You wouldn’t know till it was too late.”

 

“You can be in goal if you want,” Tod said.

 

“I’m going to look,” I declared.  “After school.  Who’s coming?”

 

“I’m in detention,” said Lin.

 

“Tomorrow, then.  That’s a plan,” I said firmly.

 

 

 

 

There was always an excuse.  In the end I realised that nobody would come with me, or talk about it.

 

Caution.  

 

I wouldn’t go at night – I have never trusted starlight.  It was summer, though, and dawn came before anyone was stirring.  I knew which stairs creaked so I reached the kitchen safely, though I half expected Father’s voice to roll in like thunder from above.

 

The plate with the orange roses was piled with last night’s sandwiches.  Beef and piccalilli.  I didn’t wonder why Father hadn’t eaten them, I just wrapped the plate in a tea towel and put it carefully at the bottom of my bag.  

 

Out on the road, birds sang as though their lives depended on it.  

 

Caution.

 

The sign did not tower over me physically, I was too tall for that.  It’s how it felt, though.  I must have stood beside it for five or six minutes, my stomach fluttering.  At last, I took a step forward.  Nothing happened.  Nothing, that is, beyond the sudden thrill of transgression that warmed me like a blush.  I took another step, then another.

 

How easy it was, almost anticlimactic.   By the time I turned to look back, the town was hidden by trees.  There was no sign of a spider’s web, not even an invisible one – for surely, indigestible buckles and spectacles would remain stuck to it.  I would see them. 

 

The road wound gently uphill.  At the crest, it fell away into the valley beyond.  I stared for an hour before I ate my breakfast.  The bread was dry, the beef stringy – probably why Father had left the sandwiches.  It didn’t matter.

 

I could see Lin’s web.  Spread out across the valley floor,  a pattern of roads and paths and tracks and streams, all somehow connected.  You could go straight on for miles or round in circles or double back on yourself, whatever you wanted. 

 

I was about to put Auntie Kit’s plate back in my bag when I changed my mind and left it on a fallen tree.  Someone might find it and know from the orange roses that I had been here.  

 

I set off down the hill.  At a crossroads where crow corpses were nailed to a fence, I turned left.  Soon there was a sign.  Red triangle, white ground, black exclamation mark.

 

I didn’t break my stride.  A few yards further, I started to whistle.

 

I am whistling still.

© 2016 A Thousand Word Photos

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