‘Welcome to Storybook Cottage!” screeched the sign, in cheery letters as tall as a child. The paintwork was chipped and cracked, and flecked with rust, but you could still make out a family of four: blonde girl in pigtails, her older brother with nut-brown hair and the two parents in pinafore and holiday slacks.
Zac slouched against the security fence, flicking a cigarette into the dirt. He half-smiled, half-sneered, in a carefully-cultivated blend of joy and contempt.
“This is awesome”, he said, “I fucking love these places. They’re so authentic”. And then, having declared its awesome authenticity, took an imitation polaroid picture on his phone, trundled down the path with his fingers entwined in Belle’s.
The park had been closed for months, but the storybook cottages still peppered the hillside, like a miniature alpine resort. Each one held a different tableau, although the power had been cut abruptly, leaving the animatronic characters frozen in mid-pose. Little Red had her arms thrown up in alarm at the lusty wolf, his tail thrust obscenely through his legs. Goldilocks lay dreamily, oblivious to the three gawping bears. And you could still turn the crank on the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, to make her beat the exposed bottoms of her children.
“Amazing”, giggled Belle, scratching idly at her nose, then turned and shrieked at the lifelike statue of an old man carrying a rake.
The two of them fell about laughing, the brownie going to their heads now, the ground turning slowly with the crunchy Autumn leaves.
“You’re not supposed to be here”‘ said the statue, stepping forward uncertainly, but unblinking, “The place is closed down. Trespassers get … prockerscuted”.
“Oh, we didn’t know”, said Belle. “We’re so sorry. We’ll leave”. And they both stepped slowly back, while Zac reached surreptitiously for his camera phone.
The caretaker stepped with them, a slow sadness in his eyes and fingers. “Don’t go. I’ll … I can give you a tour.” And so they moved from hut to hut, the caretaker flipping the circuit breakers of each diorama and sending the actors shuddering into life: Snow White being kissed lasciviously in her sleep, Jack and Jill dashing their heads on the bottom of the hill, Humpty Dumpty laying at the base of a wall, scrabbling desperately at the yolk spreading out in front of him,
The animatronics were so fine, Belle could even see Humpty’s lips move.
She pulled on Zac’s pleather sleeve. “Eh, maybe we should go?”
“In a minute, babe”.
They saw Sleeping Beauty, covered in atrophied flesh and bedsores. They saw a naked Emperor in chains, driven through town by a jeering crowd. They saw a giant grinding bones to make bread, licking shreds of flesh and marrow from his fingers. Now Belle was as entranced as Zac.
The last house was covered in sugar-crusted lumps and biscuit crumbs, with window frames carved from licorice and glass frosting. Inside they could make out a toffee-lattice cage and a pair of honeycomb thumbscrews, a gibbet made from candy cane complete with a caramelised corpse.
With a nod, the caretaker opened the portal. Zac and Belle compliantly shuffled inside, and closed the toffee-lattice cage door behind them.