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A Real Boy

By Sophia Adamowicz in Issue Thirteen, January 2024

The hands that drag him are huge and gnarled and knotted—hands not of flesh, but of wood. He rakes through the soil, breathless as a swimmer striving against the tide, and clings onto a root that breaches the surface._Dirt jams under his nails; splinters split his nicotine-stained skin as he holds on for dear life. But the backwards pull is too strong. It stretches him until his arms almost pop from their sockets and, with a ragged scream, he’s forced to let go.

Leaf litter kicks into the back of his throat, choking off a cry for help. He can’t even crane his neck to look again at the branch-like fingers wrapped around his ankles because his body burns as if every muscle’s infected. His shirt has ridden up, exposing his torso to the twigs and stones and… Jesus Christ, his nipples! They’re scraped down to the nerve endings.

But just as the pain sharpens to a point, it ends. The chestnut trees stop rushing away from him.

Blinking, he lifts his palms from the ground. In the twilight, the flayed skin looks like the petals of a magnolia flower. A mosquito whines, impatient.

The wooden hands release his ankles. With an agonised grunt, he turns himself over, looking down to see the ballooning mess of crushed bone at the ends of his legs. The thing is still there, still watching him. Arms of plaited branches and ivy snake around the trees. He whimpers as the sound of dry snapping ricochets off the trunks like gunshots.

“Please, please don’t hurt me!” he begs. “I’ll do anything you want. Just don’t hurt me any more.”

The piping voice slits his eardrums without disturbing the night air. Will you? Do anything?

“Yes! Yes!” Thank God this creature, whatever it is, speaks English. His shitty Italian would fail him at this moment.

Then I want one thing.


I want the truth.

He hesitates. “If I tell you the truth, will you let me go?”

I won’t hurt you any more.

A creaking sound comes from the thick darkness between the chestnut trees. All he can see is the long, long arms planted on either side of him. But look! There’s a third one. No—it’s sticking into the air at a jagged angle. And there’s a fourth. Legs. The thing is sitting with its legs wide open and its knees bent. What he took for a tree in the oily moonlight is a giant erect phallus, its tip bulbous and glinting. What he took to be undergrowth is still undergrowth, but it’s also a nest of pubic hair, trembling and chirruping with insects.

A day’s worth of cheap red wine comes thundering up his throat. The thing watches him turn over onto his side and spew pink. It’s silent. Judgemental.

“Am I… am I dead?” the man asks, spitting out the last of the vomit.

You’re still alive, the piping voice replies. It reminds him of something on a VHS he watched as a kid with the volume turned right up as the headboard of his mother’s stinking bed thumped against the wall.

“What the hell happened to me?”

Before this nightmare, there was the sickening crunch of metal and the world turning over and over. Before the crunch, there were the lights. Before the lights, there was the screech of tires on the road to Collodi, and before that, the man and his wife in the front seats and a Grazie mille and getting into the back seat opposite that house with a limp puppet hanging from a tree, and before that, the flick of a thumb in the growing darkness, like the flare of a cigarette lighter.

“They went over the edge,” he says. “The couple who picked me up. They crashed.”

A stab of conscience. A song comes back to him now—a cheery song from that video. Always let your conscience be your guide. Whole world of good that’s done him.

“Did they die?” he asks.

What if they did? replies the monster. Would you care?

He swallows, staring at those huge, gnarly arms, that dick that could tear him in two. He’s made a promise to tell the truth. God only knows what would happen if he doesn’t keep it.

“No. No, I wouldn’t.”

For as long as he can remember, he hasn’t cared. People are his means of getting what he wants. It’s not like he’s able to succeed in any other way. His own mother called him a failure. But what chance did he have? He was born like this—without that spark that makes everyone else wish on stars, chase dreams, add something to the world.

What were you going to do to them, the kind man and the nice lady who picked you up? The voice is that of a little boy. It might have been his voice, once.

“Nothing, I…” It feels like there’s a rock in his throat. He tries to cough it out, and tears spill down his cheeks. “I was… I was going to take their wallets.”

Is that all?

“I don’t know.”


Something pierces the darkness between the tree trunks. A spear. No. It’s a nose, sharpened into a spear. Above it are two crescent moons, the shining beams of black eyes.

“Their c-car, their car,” he gabbles. “I was going to take it.”


“And I…”

But he’s crying too much to say it. The monster’s fingers pinch the rag of his t-shirt and, after a desperate attempt to scramble backwards, he’s lifted high into the cloying night air. The crescent moon eyes glint. The monster’s nose is as wide as his face and is pointing directly at it, ready to gore. Hot urine runs down the hitchhiker’s legs and stings the purpling, fish-like things that used to be his feet.

Go on, amico. You can tell me.

Crickets trill. Always let your conscience be your guide. A marionette with black lacquered hair and painted red shorts jiggles across his memory. The same marionette, or a version of it anyhow, was hanging from the tree in the village near Collodi. That’s where the story comes from, isn’t it? The tale of the little wooden boy who wants to be real.

It’s funny. It’s fucking hilarious. Weeping tips into laughter.

“You can’t do anything to me!” the hitchhiker yells, tears streaming down his face. “You’re not real. A fairy tale from round here, that’s all you are.”

A fairy tale, the thing repeats. Yes. But even fairy tales come from real things. They have roots. A vast, spidery leg stirs.

“I’m lying by the car, dreaming this,” the man insists. “And you’re in my head, a thing I imagined after seeing that puppet.”

There’s an aching silence, and then the monster replies, If I’m in your head, what’s the harm in telling me what you were going to do to those people?

“Okay, okay.” He turns to wipe a trail of snot across his shoulder. He’s got nothing to lose by speaking. If he makes a confession in his dreams to a wooden boy from a fairy story, is he really admitting to anything?

“Well, I guess I was going to go through with it—what I was planning back in France.” The piping voice says something, but it’s drowned out by the memory of a child watching videos of nursery rhymes on a tablet. Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques, dormez-vous?

“In France, there was a kid in the car. I couldn’t do it. I mean… I mean, I didn’t get the chance.”

Come now! To do what?

The monster shakes him. It’s a movement like the rush of wind through leaves. The hitchhiker swings fifty feet in the air, pain shooting through his ruined ankles. Words come tumbling from his mouth.

“I was going to threaten the wife first, put my arm around her neck, get the guy to pull over. I’d have taken their stuff, done away with him, then her—when I play it through in my head, I like the women to watch. That’s the best bit, seeing their faces. And when I wake up from this fever dream, I’m going to rob their bodies and leave them there in the smoking wreck of the crash.”

Mosquitos gather around him, a prattling audience. He doesn’t mind if they hear. His tongue darts out to lick his lower lip.

“Then, I guess, I’ll get myself a little house in the Tuscan hillside from some old bint who lives alone. She’ll have an accident while she’s watering the flowers. The streets around here are steep. Lots of stairs. Elderly people. Falls happen. After a few weeks, once I’ve stripped her cupboards bare, I’ll move on, and I’ll keep moving and I’ll never get caught, not by you, not by anyone, because I can’t go back home to that rotten house and that bitch who never gave me anything and who took and took and stripped everything out of me from the day I was born until I finally made her shut up, I made her stop. She’s still there, on the sofa in front of the TV. It’s been weeks now. Hot weather. The flies’ll have laid their eggs, or maybe they’ll sense that she’s poisonous and keep away from her. There, you happy?”

He's crying again, and they’re not tears of laughter. The wooden boy says nothing. The forest is silent but for the whine of mosquitos and crick of insects in the bushes below. For they are bushes. And the hand that holds him is only a branch. It was a dream. Thank God, thank God.

He closes his eyes and gives the grief and the guilt permission to flood his heart. For the first time, it feels flush with human blood, so full that it presses against his ribcage and the walls of his chest. It hurts.

You’ve done so well.

“No,” the hitchhiker sobs. “No, you’re not real. I’ll wake up. I’ll wake up soon and get myself a strong, black coffee and smoke half a pack of…”

Then he remembers. He fumbles in his jeans pocket and—voila!—his fingers curl around the cigarette lighter. This bastard is going up in flames.

It only takes two flicks for the wick to catch. He touches the fire to the branch that’s holding him, the delicate, difficult feelings of a moment ago crushed by the urge to destroy.

As a leaf crisps and curls, the air fills with the high buzz of insects, as if every life that nestles in the monster’s foliage is screaming. There’s a dark, rich thrill to it—the breaking of an ancient taboo, the slaughter of a god. It reminds the hitchhiker of what he did to his mother back at home.

He suns his face in the flame. If it grows and consumes him—if it burns this whole damn forest to the ground—then so be it.

But the next moment, the fire wavers and dies. The hitchhiker flicks the lighter two, three, five more times, but it doesn’t work. A whimper creeps up his throat.

Hush, hush, amico. You’re safe now.

In the light of the twin crescent moons, the spear-sharp nose is moving towards him. The creaking sound he heard before scratches against his eardrums. He wriggles, trying to escape from the grip of the branch. It holds him fast.

The spear is growing, spinning as it lengthens. It’ll drill right through the middle of his face, where his nose cuts a line between his sunken eyes. His wriggle becomes a thrash, but he can barely move his legs given the numbness in his mangled feet, and his arms are lifted up on either side of his head by strands of ivy. He hangs suspended in the air, a marionette.

“But you said! You said you wouldn’t hurt me if I told the truth!” he yells, bruised by the betrayal.

A high laugh pipes through the forest.

Don’t you know the story? asks the wooden boy, as he touches noses with his new plaything.

© 2024 Sophia Adamowicz

Sophia Adamowicz

Sophia Adamowicz is a writer, tutor and medievalist based near Cambridge, UK. Her work, both fiction and nonfiction, has appeared in magazines including Cunning Folk, Crow & Cross Keys and Salt & Mirrors & Cats. When she's not tied to her desk, Sophia is a great advocate of karaoke. She collects ghost figurines and enjoys nothing more than spending time with her partner and their cats, Prufrock and Milquetoast.

Fiction by Sophia Adamowicz
  • A Real Boy