It’s the most wonderful time of the year! And also the busiest for me, as it turns out, so I’ve been falling behind with all sorts of stuff. Normally I make a bit of a fuss about Halloween on the blog, but the fates have conspired against me this time round. So instead I have a link to last year’s short creepy story, Constance Withers and the Wall, and below is an even shorter short that may hopefully provide a few chills*(even though it’s set in the midst of summer).
*bonus: based on real events! Oooooooo!
It was an unreasonably hot day, even for July – and particularly for a day at the beach, when we were more used to grey skies and a set of sturdy windbreaks surrounding our small family outpost. It was so hot I was content to just sit in my deckchair, comic resting on pink knees, letting the heat lull me into a light doze, but as far as my mum was concerned dozing in a deckchair was a job for grown-ups. She gave me a Look.
“Grandad and Uncle Peter will be back from the pub in a minute. They’ll be wanting their chairs back.”
Resigned to my fate I allowed her to slap a fresh layer of sun cream over my shoulders before being gently poked, bucket and spade in hand, back towards the sea.
It was too hot. I wandered instinctively towards the stone outfall. It was the best place to catch crabs, and my older cousins would often spend hours sitting on top of its slippery walls with their orange crab lines, dangling broken mussels into the grey water. Now the tide was out, and the outfall would be a long track of mud caught between tall stone walls. There wouldn’t be any big crabs to catch, but there would be other small curiosities for a bored child with a plastic bucket.
I followed the walls of the outfall down to where they started, glancing up at the big green stones as I went. They were thick with seaweed and pocked with barnacles and mussels and other clinging creatures. When the tide was freshly out the tops of the walls were dangerously slick, but today the sun had dried the seaweed to a fine crispy layer, the scent of which was an alien salt in my nose.
I rounded the final blocks of stone and peered up towards the tunnel. To my surprise, there weren’t any other children around. The walls of the outfall rose to either side of me, green and stinking, leading to the flat square of darkness at the far end. Beyond that, I vaguely understood, would be some sort of drainage system, where waste water would flow down the outfall into the sea. At the time, it never occurred to me that this might not be the best place to play. It apparently never occurred to my parents either, at least not then.
Between the walls the sand turned to mud, never quite dry even in this weather, and it sucked at my feet as I squelched my way in. The breezy salt smell of the beach deepened, laced with a darker scent of rot and ancient fish. Brown and black varieties of seaweed clung to the walls, with great fat blisters that would pop if you squished them between your fingers. There were barnacles too, great grey clusters of them, and I peered closely at this strange strata of life. As much as I enjoyed reading comics in the sun, I could amuse myself for hours with tiny beasts and flora. I forgot about the smell, and the muck oozing between my toes. Seagulls cried overhead and the distant crash and rattle of the sea was a comfort.
I only came back to myself when a faint prickling on the back of my neck let me know that I was no longer alone. I looked back up towards the tunnel and saw a shadowy figure standing under the arch of stones. For a few moments, I was confused. It was hot and I was sleepy, but I was reasonably certain that no one had come past me, and I would have noticed if someone had been foolish enough to jump down from the walls. But there was definitely someone there, standing right back in the shadows. As I watched, they waved at me.
I stood up straight, quickly using one finger to hook my swimming costume back out of my bum crack. The kid waved again.
I felt a flicker of annoyance. With eight older cousins I valued my time alone. Most of them were off down the amusement arcade now, leaving me to my own devices. I wanted to keep my silence and listen to the sea.
Even so, the kid was waving at me frantically now, and seemed reluctant to leave the shadows of the tunnel. I walked up, yanking my feet from the sucking mud, and as I got closer I realised the figure was a boy, perhaps a year older than me. He was wearing dark blue swimming trunks that clung wetly to his thighs, and his skin was fish belly pale.
“Hello,” he said, when I was standing just a few feet away from him. His throat sounded full of sludge. “Hello there.”
His voice was bad – his face was a horror. My bladder felt uncomfortably full.
“There are big crabs back here, and other things. Do you want to see?”
The boy’s lips were blue and his eyes were muddy holes; I thought I could see something moving in those dark sockets, a busy flexing of many tiny legs. His brown hair was plastered flat to his head, and clustered at his ears and at his temple were thick colonies of barnacles, poking right out of his flesh. He reached a hand out to me as if to lead me into the tunnel, and I saw that the skin on his hands was rippled and almost translucent, as though he’d been in the water forever. His shins were scrapped bloody.
“Honestly,” he said, smiling. Clear water ran from his mouth. “The biggest ones only grow in the dark.”
The sun was a hot presence on the top of my head, but I could feel a deep chill blowing out of the outfall, bringing with it a smell like copper pennies – abruptly I remembered the amusement arcade, pushing coins into the tuppeny pushdowns – and a sound that made me think of seawater over shingle. Surely that noise should be coming from behind me? The noise was growing louder as I stood there, as if something large were rushing towards me.
“I’m sorry, no,” I said, finally finding my voice. “I don’t want to.”
An expression of impatience flickered over his face.
“But I need someone to come,” he said. His brows creased over the space where his eyes should be. “Someone has to come back here.”
I looked beyond him to the tunnel. The darkness was like a solid thing and I could see nothing beyond him, but I knew that I was more afraid of it than the boy. The darkness was waiting. It was tired of waiting.
“No,” I said again, and I turned and ran. There was a terrible moment when the mud sucked at my feet and I stumbled, coming terribly close to pitching face down in the wet. I fully expected to feel the boy’s pruney fingers close around my neck then, but there was nothing, and I ran and ran, cutting my feet on stones and broken shells. I didn’t look back.
The next day the weather had changed completely, as it has a tendency to do on the coast. It was overcast and cold, with a nip to the air that spoke more of September than July. Nevertheless my family trooped down to the beach again, my granddad carrying the mallet for the windbreaks in one callused fist. I refused point blank to leave the little circle of deckchairs and towels, despite repeated threats from my mum, and instead sat with a blanket over my knees and a small paper bag of lemon sherbets on my lap. The tide was in, and the upper stones of the outfall loomed off to my right, unseen beyond the bright stripes of the windbreak. I was happy to keep it that way.
It happened less than an hour later. There was a flurry of shouts, and a high keening cry. My mum stood up, and then my aunt, and then they both left at a sprint. I had never seen my mum running anywhere. I pulled the blanket up to my shoulders, shivering. Sometime later they returned, both ashen faced.
“Poor little mite,” said my aunt. She was missing one of her flip flops, which I later learnt had been lost as she’d tried to drag the girl out. The pull of the water had sucked it right off her foot. As she spoke, the wail and woop of an ambulance siren trembled up the beach. “Didn’t stand a chance.”
My mum ran a hand over her face. “That place should have been bricked up years ago. I’ve always said it.”
I stood up, letting my sherbet lemons fall to the ground, and looked over the windbreak. There was a pale figure standing on the top of the outfall, his blue trunks a smudge of colour against the grey. I didn’t need to look at his ruined face to know he was smiling.
“Did they take her out?” I said to my mum. My voice was shrill. “Did they take her out of the outfall?”
My mum’s face softened a touch. “Of course they did, love. We got her out and laid her on the sand. She’s not in the outfall.”
I nodded once, fingers brushing against the windbreak’s rough weave. Not in the outfall, no, but I didn’t think that mattered. I didn’t think that mattered at all.