DIVINITY, VOL 4, 8 Horror and Fantasy Shorts, comes from 6 countries and across 3 continents. It’s both creepy and sublime, wondrous and forbidding, yet imaginative and lyrical, packed with heroism, supernaturalism and madness.
The rumble of the Dwarf Probe detaching from the HavenCraft shook the station so hard that Piper fell to her knees and thought that the walls and floor would crumble from the force. With the tremor ended, however, she got to her feet and felt a simultaneous sense of relief and terror with the weight of what she just did.
She had walked around, exploring the newly empty corners of the quarters her comrades had left behind. They had only taken the essentials with them, fuel, the navigation equipment, all but one of their molecular synthesis tools, and nearly all their tools to capture energy from the next star they’d find, to gather enough energy before returning to the Craft to get all the supplies to make this new star their new Haven.
Piper poked her head into one of the rest chambers. She blinked in surprise, once, twice.
The Captain’s quarters…
Piper opened the door and peeked inside, eyes straight ahead.
Even with her absence, the room carried an aura of brilliance and steadiness that reflected The Captain’s character. Her bed was neatly made, the blanket barely wrinkled, the pillow placed dead center of the head of the bed, as if calculated to the nearest half-millimeter. Her spare coveralls were neatly hung in her standard, small closet, and her spare boots were placed with the same precision as her pillow. Even being secondhand, thirdhand even, her coveralls were neat and only lightly discolored. Only one pair of her boots had a single scuff on them. The Captain never said anything about it, but Piper suspected that she held herself to such a high and disciplined standard, not to gain the confidence of the fellow residents, but to gain the confidence of her own self.
Confidence was hard to come by, these days.
Piper swiveled her eyes to the left and found exactly what she was looking for.
She stepped inside the room and knelt in front of the bookshelf. Very few at Haven had enough books to fill a shelf, if at all. Piper had a few related to various chemistry disciplines. She had been privileged, studying to assist the Chief Synthesizer in putting together all the bonds and molecules needed to build what the population needed. A noble, but mostly wasted effort, and the past few decades had been nearly solely devoted to creating fuel for the Dwarf Probe.
But the Captain had rows and rows of books, maybe forty total. Most were nearly falling apart at the seams, some were almost unreadable with the yellowing of the pages, but they were there. And they all now belonged to Piper.
She gathered seven into her arms, not even looking at the titles, and held them close to her chest. She felt a wave of exhaustion hit as she lifted them, and realized that she needed to return to the Great Window.
She walked down the wide hallway she’d taken on the way to the quarters, passing more rest chambers as she did. More treasure chests to loot.
She approached the Window area, the great expanse where all would enter several times a day. There were small benches set up, but all but the weakest either stood or sat on the ground. The great red light streamed in, warm, inviting, therapeutic.
She entered and screamed, dropping her books. One of their spines, a dry husk of its younger self, cracked and fell apart, a small spurt of dust kicking up.
It was a man.
But all the others had gone on the Dwarf Probe, and Piper searched in vain for a reason that one would have stayed behind. She herself had argued with her comrades, and eventually the Captain herself for months, everyone trying to convince her that she was crazy for staying.
There was a haze in the distance, down in the valley.
That’s not unusual, at that time of day, at that time of year. The temperature falls quickly in the afternoon and gossamer threads of mist form lower down.
Sure enough, as I descended past bare rock ribs and winter-brown clumps of bracken, I entered that haze, a Pernod of thickening fog. As I continued, broad, squat shapes emerged, great tumbled boulders that at some point had detached themselves from the crags above and careered down the slopes. Trees began to appear, shades and shadows on the edge of vision, barely noticed on the edge of the gloaming.
By the time, I reached the thicker woodland of the valley floor and wet fallen leaves were clinging to my boots; it felt very cold. My head-torch was switched on, but it was only of value if I pointed it directly before my feet. Aimed straight ahead or to either side, it just illuminated milky-white mist.
Finally, the track reached the road. It was dark as well as foggy, now. The last bus of the afternoon had long gone so I turned left and padded steadily along the tarmac. I tried to think of the last person I’d met, or the last person I’d even seen. Probably the tiny stick figures I’d seen on top of Helvellyn from the frosty sunshine of my own peak.
On this early winter night there were no cars from which to beg a lift, but it was only two miles to the hotel. I was approaching the first lights of the straggling village, perhaps 25 minutes after joining the road, when the haze finally cleared, suddenly, like a cinema special effect. Then I was walking through a sharp, clear winter’s evening with the first glinting of frost on the tarmac. I could see the village lights reflected on the lake, without a ripple anywhere. In the heart of the village, I reached the great, gaunt oblong of the Victorian hotel, not as grand as it once was, perhaps, but still an imposing presence.
I’m more of a youth hostel kind of guy but there had been a deal on, and I was glad I’d booked in for dinner. I scraped my feet on the step (always respect the carpet) and burled in through the revolving door. I nodded to the girl at reception and received what I thought was a rather frosty look; surprising, as she was the one who had checked me in the day before. Had a day on the hills made me look so wild, so different?
I took the lift up to the second floor, walked towards my room and fished in my pockets for my key. It was one of those things like credit cards that you wave in front of an electronic pad.
I couldn’t find it.
I rifled through my wallet, emptied it, ransacked my rucksack, pulled everything out of the pockets in my jacket and my trousers. There was no sign of it.
I took the lift back down to reception. There was a mirror in the lift, and I practised looking contrite, appropriate to having lost a key. Back on the ground floor, I approached the girl, the person who had been a smiling picture of welcome the night before. She was a stern presence tonight. ‘I’m Mr McCall, from Room 241,’ I said. ‘You checked me in last night. I’m afraid I’m just back from the hills and I seem to have lost my key.’
She clattered her purple-sculpted fingernails on the keyboard. ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have a record of a Mr McCall on the system. And Room 241 is occupied by… someone else.’
‘What? But you checked me in last night! Like I said. Just after six. It was you. You must remember?’
‘No, sir, I don’t recall having seen you before. However, we do have vacancies. Do you want to book in?’
‘I am booked in! I’m in Room 241! All my clothes are in there! My suitcase, everything!’
She must have pressed some sort of panic button because a manager appeared, an older woman, suave and smart-suited but with a hint of steel beneath the surface.
‘Can we help you, sir? I’m Ms Dennold, the duty manager.’
I watch carefully as it rests on my chaise lounge. Sat myself with hands sheathed to the elbows in claret, I have poured generously into his trembling glass, provided grapes with only slight hints of rough cutting. Its eyes settle somewhere between the top of my head and the oil painting of my parents. I have lived lonely in my castle for so long that the colour has all turned stale; the silk has turned to cobwebs. The velvet is so drenched with blood that we can no longer tell what is dye and what is death; how many gallons have been shed and soaked up. Sharp corners follow you always and catch echoes. There are a hundred long corridors fit for racing down, if one ever had a child or friend. Rocks have long shot out the ornate windows, and I have long ceased replacing the wood boards when they rot. Old visitors would complain of the dust and dim light, the china plates and furniture left to fall into ruin; the clock always oscillating between midday and midnight. The cracking paper, grown grotesque with points and curls that were once purple, shrinks from corners, like dewy lettuce leaves folding back. Remembering to smile with no teeth, my voice lilts to grow musical and warm – to soft-speak the shivering thing with tones of saffron into a haze of almost-sleep.
On moon days, when melancholy has held me in bed for weeks upon months, I rouse myself with force. I float along upturned soil, chin held up as though pulled by elastic threads and a heart that I batter with threats. At my best I need only the barest of weapons to convince my prey to come hither. Sometimes just a smile will do. You have never seen such unsettling perfection that will not age and derelict with her home: eyes and canines that bicker so silently over which will pierce you first. My hair rushes for the ground like cascades of worm silk; my face, so unfairly proportioned the religious villagers cursed me and would not look in my eyes.
And I have nothing to do these days but catch strays. Invite them in and serve cold duck; bewitch them rotten and take out each eye. These eyes, most nights, become ornament: crystalline bluebells for lonely corners, that whisper to the sparkling sea. I hang up their shirts to replace the curtains long nibbled at by moths, spend endless nights sewing pocket squares into bunting. And I butcher, and I ravage, and I sing myself to sleep.
Do not look in her eyes, do not look in her eyes, chant the old hags. Eyes are the mirror of your wanting: eyes are the black pits of lost light wherein flesh is soaked in and gobbled up.
The eyes were staring at me through the window, colder than the breeze that caresses a lake in the winter.
They were intimidating, but they didn’t scare me. In fact, they were interesting. Something within them was enough to whet the appetite of anyone that peered into them, and it was the only thing that was present in them. No feeling, no liveliness. Just the incomprehensible, captivating, tempting…
The year was 1985, and I was standing outside the front window of Schroeder’s Antiques, a quaint, unimpeachable store that stood on the edge of the street of Maple Lane. It was surrounded by a handful of other businesses and stores, so it was typically overlooked. Not by me, though. I had always loved that store. The smell of the old wood filling my nostrils always relaxed me, eased my nerves. Besides, it was a nice distraction from all of hullabaloo rummaging through the town.
It wasn’t everyday that something like this happened in a small town like mine. Four children murdered in a span of three weeks? It was almost too much to handle. The town was still trying to wrap its head around it, but I didn’t want to. I just tried to ignore it. I had to ignore it. Dark things had no business being in such a bright place. And I guess you could surmise that my mind was on the list of bright places. You know what thoughts like that could do to you.
But I couldn’t ignore the doll in the window. Those eyes. The way it stood in the window like he was waving at everyone on the other side. He had been there since the first murder. I could remember him so vividly, yet I don’t remember why. I had never stood outside the window of the store before, I had always gone in. But yet it still lingered in my mind that I had seen this particular doll before, felt it before. And though I couldn’t recall every exact detail of it, it appeared to me like garden variety on that day on Maple Lane. Some part of me could only place one singular plastic balloon in his hand when I had first seen him, but somehow he had four as I watched him that day.
The eyes that were gazing at me were queerly human-like. Mere yellow orbs with their own life inside of them, like they each had their own heart. And though they were plastic you could almost see the breath rising behind them. I knew it wasn’t the case, though. There was no way that a doll could be even remotely human-like. That was stuff that only happened in movies.
Even if the doll was a clown, and it resembled something so alive, like it did there in the front display of the store.
In the reflection on the window in front of the clown’s face, I could see Jax. My son with chocolate brown hair like mine whose eyes would light up when the sun glinted against them just right. My pride and joy, the one that made it seem like everything that was good in the world was thriving inside of him like glorious caged heat. Jax was seven-years-old, and he had the liveliest attitude I had ever seen. How thrilled would he be to see a doll like the clown in the window.
One of Jax’s favorite things was to go see the circus with his father whenever it came to town. I never came along — the circus had always creeped me out — but Jax would always come home cheering of all the remarkable things he had seen. The music, the acrobats, the animals. But he had always loved the clowns; those seemed to be his favorite.
So of course, when his dad left and never returned, it was hard to see something like that stolen from him. To Jax, the clowns were his father, and when his was father was gone, so were the memories. The saying goes to let the dead dog lie, but when the dog was something that Jax needed, then I couldn’t just turn my head and walk away. It was medicine that he lurched for.
I scrutinized the doll a little closer. His demeanor seemed to send chills backflipping down my spine. His skin was a pallid, porcelain white, a scarlet painted-on smile hung over his face like Christmas lights. Those eyes that were staring so intently at me were a bright hazel, narrowed almost to slits, like a cat’s. He was dressed in a rainbow jumpsuit, with red pom-poms running down his front, finished with oversized, orange shoes. Tufts of vivid, sunset-orange hair protruded from his hairline, rays of the sun circling his head.
With my hair tickling the nape of my neck, tugging my sweater closer around my body, I made a decision. Swinging the door open to the store, I strolled in, the familiar smell of the ancient oak overwhelming my senses, giving me a similar feeling of strong vellichor. It seemed like I was the only customer. There was only one other person in the store besides me: a short, stout man with a thick mass of curly, brown hair on his head, dressed in a red floral Hawaiian shirt tucked into worn jeans. He was standing behind the counter of the checkout desk, and he flashed me an amiable smile upon entering. Anything to keep a customer, I guess. Any other reason couldn’t service the forced smile on his face, and it wasn’t like this place was Disneyworld.
It was a hot late summer’s day, and as the sun’s rays were reflected on the glass of the estate agent’s window, it was difficult to see the houses they were advertising. James, a town guide who worked for the council, and Rosie, a newly qualified schoolteacher, were linking arms and looking at the descriptions. Their eyes suddenly latched on to one of the photographs.
The Old School House
Period property in need of modernisation. This is believed to date from the 16th Century, and was a former school.
Lounge / diner with large dormer window
Rosie gave James a squeeze. “Huns, this looks lovely. It’s just perfect. Can’t we go in now and make an offer? Please?”
James gave a nervous frown. “Look at the price. Can we afford it?”
“Darling, you’ve got a good job at the council. You could be a museum curator in ten years. By that time I could be a Head of Department. We can do it! Please say yes!”
Moments later they were through the door.
Rosie stood in the centre of her new house. A fresh maroon carpet had been laid, a sofa nestled by the bay window, and many unpacked boxes littered the floor. She looked up.
“Don’t you love the smell of an old house? You can smell history, past loves, past conquests and romances and arguments!” James stood still. The smell reminded him of his time as a guide at Hatfield House, where he would take wide-eyed tourists to the room where the lives of kings were made and broken. “This is ours now”, he mused. “The panelling over the old beams will have to go though.
Rosie turned and smiled. “You know what? I’m knackered. We’ve still got all these boxes to unpack, but I just can’t face it right now. How about we get some fish and chips and get an early night?”
James gave her hand an affectionate squeeze. “Good idea! I’ll just pop down now. Have we unpacked the kitchen stuff yet?
“Yes – that’s one box I have done. See you in fifteen. I’ll be ready for you!” She gave him a broad smile.
It was just after Midnight when Rosie woke up with a start. She was sure she had heard something. She slipped on her kimono dressing gown and tiptoed down to investigate. A wine glass was lying shattered on the stone floor of the kitchen, its stem, still intact, pointing accusingly at her. She stood for a moment. She was sure she had unpacked all of the glasses, laid them in the cupboard above the sink in neat rows, and closed the door. She wasn’t so sure now. Maybe she had left the door open. Her memory was beginning to blur. She’d ask James in the morning. Determined to make no sound, she sidled gingerly up the stairs, opened the bedroom door, and very slowly and quietly eased it shut behind her.
The Easter Sun was streaming in through the bedroom window when James rolled over in bed and gave Rosie a kiss. “So how was your first night in our new bed?”
“Beautiful, slept like a baby”, Rosie lied
Maybe it was just a dream. Maybe it didn’t happen. Rosie slipped on her dressing gown again and crept downstairs. She always liked to have breakfast before she got dressed, something that often annoyed James, who stepped out of his side of the bed, slipped on a T shirt and shorts and followed her down, as Rosie turned towards him in the kitchen.
“Did you leave the cupboard door open last night?”
“We the jury find the defendant guilty of six counts of murder in the first degree.”
With those words, three long months of sequestration was ended, and the twelve individuals who held the fate of Jonas Slab in their hands could go back to their lives. The trial had been intense-Slab was accused of murdering at least six people over the course of three years. The evidence was vile and nightmarish- more than one of the jurors had begun to have nightmares, and several talked frequently of needing the number of a good therapist.
It was not all bad. The jurors bonded. Tess-mother of three-and Abigail-grandmother of eight- had formed a mother/daughter bond. Reggie, Clive, and Zed had all decided it would be fun to go together to see their mutual favorite football team- the Houston Texans-play during the upcoming season. Sam and Liz had been flirting a lot during the time, and several jurors had placed bets on whether or not he would ask her out before the trial ended. Alexis and Ted won when after the previous night’s deliberation ended, Sam caught Liz in the hall and asked her to coffee after the verdict. Luis, Jeb, and Olga were just glad to be done.
Jonas Slab waived his right to appeal and declared- “I just want it over with.” His execution was set for one year to the day after the trial concluded.
They all received the notice about a week before the execution.
A jury summons.
They all had the same reaction- not surprising considering that they had just given three months of their lives the year before.
But a summons is law, so begrudgingly, they all showed up. Even though the location was at the old courthouse (Which they paid no attention to), and the summons was for eight in the morning (Which they did pay attention to).
When Reggie saw Alexis, he thought it odd that both would get called again. Olga, Liz, and Clive arrived next, then soon after all the rest were in the dark courtroom, in a vacant building. Ted was a contractor, and he noticed right away that the building was altered. But he couldn’t tell why.
Abigail noticed Liz and Sam were on opposite sides of the room. “Sam, did you not come with Liz?” Liz averted her eyes, and Sam gritted his teeth and mumbled, “We’re not together anymore.”
“Guys, something isn’t right,” Ted began. “This room has pipes it shouldn’t.”
The painter threw down his brushes in disgust. He stepped back to examine the canvas. Everyone said his talent was self-evident. So, what was missing? His latest work was a portrait of an old family friend who was also his agent. Stefan had commissioned the work himself as he found it hard to see the artist struggle to make a living.
From a youthful age, it was clear this painter was brilliant. Art school had confirmed this. When they met, his wife had expressed her utter belief in him. Three years on and even she was beginning to lose faith.
His paintings exuded class and know-how… and yet. They simply would not sell. At least not for the price he needed to earn a crust. All who knew him were baffled. Artists who were far inferior had become internationally famous. He, however, was faced with penury or giving up on his life’s goal. In his heart, the painter sensed his work needed that elusive spark, but he could never discern what it was.
‘Darling,’ said his wife, ‘Stefan will love it.’
She rubbed his back reassuringly as he bent to pick up the brushes.
‘I hope so,’ he sighed. ‘But I can’t charge him what I need to.’
‘He can afford it.’
‘No. Look at how he has helped us. He’s lent us so much money. And he’s yet to see a penny back. I’m going to let him have it for free. Darling, could you fix me a drink?’
His wife placed his gin and tonic behind him on the table with his paints and left the room.
A minute later, she heard glass shattering and her husband curse.
Months passed and it seemed he would have to give up on his dream. He began looking for a job, though the thought of actually taking one was tantamount to suicide in his mind.
He was typing out his C.V. when an email arrived from Stefan.
‘Hi guys, I hope you’re well. I feel most embarrassed, but at the same time elated for you. I had this collector over for supper and he was so taken with the portrait! Would you be offended if I sold it to him? I know it was really a gift for me, but if I can get a good price…’
In a quiet road leading off Brighton’s Trafalgar Street, Scott Kingdom was putting the finishing touches to a graffiti masterpiece–a giant multi-coloured tag, depicting the word ‘Scare’. Designed to appear as a 3D image, it featured a flock of giant bats flying out of an ‘S’ shaped crack in the brick wall. A student at the local art college by day, he was responsible for many of the area’s most skilfully composed murals. He specialised in anamorphic perspective; a technique used by artists to trick the eye since the Renaissance. Influenced by pavement chalk illusionist Kurt Wenner, Scott hoped soon be recognised for his work in the way someone like Banksy, Paul Insect or Darren Cullen was. He had already earned a little money, receiving commissions to brighten up a wall in Kemp Town and a warehouse in Hollingbury, among others. Still, he could not still resist the thrill of going out at night to illegally spray his designs in the graffiti hotspots of the city, wanting them viewed and compared with the best of the local street art.
Scott grew up in Horsham, West Sussex and had moved to Brighton six months previously, to take a degree at the art college, encouraged by its vibrant street art scene, and reputation as a haven for members of the counterculture. He also wanted to escape the ever-watchful gaze of his narrow-minded, overly aspirant parents. Brighton was a cosmopolitan place with a dark, sleazy underbelly that appealed to the rebel within him. It was a place where it was easy to slip under the radar of officialdom, and where individual self-expression celebrated, or so he had imagined. While Scott had expected to find himself at the centre of a group of like-minded souls in Brighton, instead still felt like an outsider looking in. Brighton already had its graffiti heroes and was, as he was discovering, a very tough place to make an impression.
Scott’s part-time job in a supermarket paid towards the rent of his student room and allowed him to buy the best quality spray paints available. He also volunteered his time teaching school kids how to paint street art as part of community projects, and this year intended to take part in the city’s world-famous B Festival. Scott’s best friend, Calum, was a lanky and slightly less cool teenager at the same college. Calum was on the photography course and dreamt of being a photojournalist on a top magazine. He was nerdily obsessed with graffiti, knowing the names of all the legends of London, Paris, New York, Rio and beyond. Calum regularly photographed Scott’s work for various magazines and websites. The escaping bat design has already taken Scott the best part of the night to create, and Calum had now arrived to photograph it. “Sweet” was his only comment as his shutter began to whirr.
The local police patrol car passed by cruising down Trafalgar Street towards London Road. The guys hid in the shadows until it had gone. Upon returning to the wall however, Scott and Calum could not believe what now faced them. Black paint sprayed over Scott’s artwork, and painted upon it, in luminous white, was a realistic-looking cracked gravestone with ‘RIP Scott’ written on it.
“Were there any tags on the wall when you started, man?” Calum asked, looking worried.
The shadows danced in the flickering torch light, my trembling hands pressing lightly against the smooth stone wall as I observed my surroundings coolly.
The cobbled hallway stretched on and the torches that were mounted every dozen feet or so did little to help my vision penetrate the dim light.
Every step I took was attempted with the utmost secrecy as I made my way in the direction of the college’s magical archives.
As I rounded the corner, the sounds of hushed voices fluttered in the air. Instinctively, I felt every muscle in my body tense. Standing stalk still, I forced myself to hide away into one of the hall’s many narrow classroom doorways.
“You must search for Malik! He cannot be allowed to perform the ritual!” A whispering voice spoke as an assortment of footsteps seemed to join it. “It’s your fault he can even accomplish this in the first place.” Another voice answered; this one sounded effeminate, angry and annoyed.
It could have been one of the many professors that lectured here but it was too difficult to tell at this distance. Tilting my head away from the whispers, I had to remind myself to not idly waste time. Pushing out from my dark shelter, I turned and double backed the way I came searching for a detour.
The voices and footsteps were echoing out from the far corner down the hall and they were all too close for comfort.
Years of preparation were in danger of being destroyed! I had spent so many days and nights secreting the materials in and out of the archives that were usually reserved for only the most accomplished of scholars.
My eager and apparent innocent demeanor had earned me the title of the assistant to the curator and I had taken every advantage it afforded me to delve into the taboo secrets that were forbidden by law.
Blood rites, conjuration and divination into the outer planes were a few of the many subjects I had conspired to learn under my instructor’s complacent watch.
Reminding myself of the task at hand, I realized that the large wooden double doors of the archives had just come into view. I quietly padded down the last steps of the northern most stairway towards the doors.
It seemed no one had even searched down here yet in the archives themselves. My pursuers must have assumed that I would attempt the rituals away from the college grounds to avoid their interference.
‘They think too little of me.’ I thought to myself, a smug smile growing on my face as I reached for the wooden doors’ iron handles. My reach faltered as I realized my hands were trembling. It was difficult at this point to tell if it was from fear or excitement.
Shaking the thoughts away, I resumed pushing heavy oak doors open. They swung easily; the archives left unlocked by a ‘certain someone’ earlier in the evening when they watched the Curator leave for the night.
The doors were truly a testament of the craftsmen who balanced them delicately on their hinges in the year’s past. The very same hinges that squealed loudly in detest to their late-night use.
Surprise shot through me as I sharply turned to look over my shoulder at the staircase.
I forgot to grease the bloody hinges!
The yawning silence that followed went uninterrupted for a brief few moments. Relief flooded through my mind as I exhaled a breath that had somehow found itself stuck in my chest.
Grinding my teeth in frustration, the doors closed with similar argument as I shut them.
This time however, I swung them quickly to cut the noise down as I crossed into the threshold of the room. Hustling over to the nearest bookshelf by the door, I reached behind it into the tight space between the wall and the shelf.
The object I was searching for was still there. A hard beam made of yew that I had stashed away days previously. I had it cut by the village woodsman to a very specific size weeks ago. A size that with some clever positioning would work well as a barricade.
Awkwardly pushing the beam into the frame of the door, I grunted with exertion as I delivered some small applications of brute force to ensure it was thoroughly lodged across the entry way.
Satisfaction grew in my heart as I turned away to face the grandeur of the college’s archives.
The gull stabbed at the bread with its beak. Kieran threw another slice. Then another.
A second gull landed and nudged its rival aside from the free lunch. The first bird lunged at the usurper and they exploded in a flurry of wings and feathers.
‘Kieran, don’t!’ his mother said.
‘Nothing but vermin, them creatures,’ his stepfather remarked from behind the daily paper.
Kieran turned from the gulls to the bright, shimmering shore. Scores of families had set up camp for the day. Everywhere he looked he saw overweight Mums and Dads, small children building sandcastles, dogs yapping. A nearby group of youths, a mix of lean boys and girls in undersized bikinis, were laughing aloud at some secret joke. There was no one Kieran’s age.
Kieran was eleven, a small dark-haired boy with eyes the colour of emeralds and a habit of squinting. His vision was perfect, but somehow the world seemed better through narrow eyelids.
The gulls ripped the bread to crumbs. They screeched in disappointment and flapped away. Kieran returned his attention to Mum and Archie.
He squinted at his mother. She looked a lot like him, except her locks were lighter and her eyes a dull brown. Archie, now in his third month as Kieran’s official stepfather, was a porky man with shiny bald pate, a greasy moustache and eyes as big as golf balls.
‘Feel free to wonder off, Kieran,’ Archie said, lowering his newspaper.
‘You’re so thoughtful, Archie,’ Mum added. “Kieran doesn’t want to hang around all day with crocks like us.’
Archie’s wide-eyed scowl burned into his stepson as if to say ‘clear off, I want your mother to myself, with no dumb kids in the way.’ Kieran retaliated with a frown, but his resolve melted faster than ice cream in the sun. He had to be careful. Archie’s temper was like a lurking crocodile. Kieran never knew when it would erupt from the depths and strike.
Kieran turned down his lower lip and threw his mother a look. She didn’t notice.
‘Yup, okay,’ he said at last, collecting his bucket and spade and stumbling off.
Kieran walked towards the far end of the beach, where jagged rocks broke through the sand like razors. As he came closer the sound of the holidaymakers faded.
The rocks were deserted.
‘Here there be monsters,’ he remarked in a glum voice.
He stopped at the first slab of basalt and rubbed the back of his hand across his lips. His flesh reeked of sunshine and sweat, summoning up a memory from last year.
Last year with Dad.
The two of them had explored this slanted world, charting rock pools, hunting crabs, inventing stories. Dad liked to pretend each sea-puddle was an uncharted lagoon teeming with bloodthirsty creatures. Everything was fun.
“Here there be monsters”, Dad used to say, over and over, grinning his cheeky grin and pushing back his wispy hair.
But Dad was gone now, Mum had seen to that. Mum and Archie.
Kieran sighed and inched nearer to his favourite rock pool. He knew from his explorations with Dad that this was the largest, the size of a paddling pool. A glassy underworld where fish and crustaceans lurked in seaweed jungles.
‘Here there be monsters,’ Kieran mumbled sadly, kneeling down on the stony rim.
He sat very quietly, as his father had taught him, and watched as the pool revealed its inhabitants. Small fish darted from side to side, searching for an escape back to the Atlantic. Shrimps glided over the sand like submarines. Limpets clung to the rock, hard as stones. Ruby red anemones trailed poisonous fronds in the water.
There! A slender, silvery young crab scuttled into the shadow of the rocks.
Kieran beat his chest in best King Kong fashion.
‘I am the giant of doom. Come to destroy-oh!’
A severed claw popped out.
‘Who’s snacking on you then?’ Kieran remarked to himself.
He waited. The minutes ticked away. Then, as he was about to give up and move on, something stirred. He almost missed it. A ripple in the sand, nothing more.
He hunched over the pool and lowered his head to the surface. A crescent of translucent skin had emerged from its hiding place, then halted. Perhaps it had seen him?
Kieran leaned back and froze every muscle in his body. More moments passed. The creature began slowly drifting out, across the sandy floor.
‘A jellyfish!’ he said. At least he thought it was a jellyfish. It reminded him of all the dead jellyfish scattered along the shoreline. Revolting blubber pancakes. This creature had a similar appearance. A circle of clear flesh, riddled with veins and dark spots.