(Previously read at The Visitation at Old Low Light)
At sunset Davey led the others down to the cave by the beach where he saw the monster.
‘I bet there isn’t even anything there,’ Sean said. He was the oldest and the shortest, and his ears stuck out from the sides of his head like the wings of a bat. ‘Bet he’s made the whole thing up just for the attention.’
‘Shut up, Sean,’ said Kev, who wasn’t the oldest but was the tallest and was usually in charge because he was bigger than the others and already had hairs sprouting in the dark corners of his body. He showed them to the others, sometimes, to remind them why he was in charge. ‘I want to see the monster.’ Kev liked monsters. His mum and dad let him watch a lot of videos with monsters in them, which he leant to the others even though his parents told him not to. They came in black plastic boxes with pictures of naked women on the front, most of whom were missing limbs. He never leant them to Davey though, because Davey was too scared to watch monster videos, and they all knew it.
‘What kind of monster is it then, Davey?’ Sean asked. ‘Is it something big and hairy, with huge teeth and giant claws?’
‘Don’t be stupid, Sean,’ said Kev. ‘It won’t be furry if it lives in a cave by the sea. It’ll be like a fish, so it’ll be wet and scaly and slimy.’
‘How can it be a fish if it lives in a cave? How does it breathe?’
‘It breathes air and water, obviously,’
‘That’s dumb,’ Sean replied. ‘How can something breathe air and water?’
‘No they can’t.’
‘Yeah, they can. Because they’re not fish.’
‘Why do they live in the sea, then?’
Kev didn’t know that, but he found it difficult to confess his ignorance where others would hear. ‘’Cause they’re so big, and the sea’s the only place where they can live where there’s enough room.’
Sean considered this. Not for very long though: he was easily distracted, and when he had a thought that was too hard to answer, he used to start thinking about the girls in his class, and what they looked like under their skirts.
‘Hey, Davey,’ Kev began. ‘How much further is it?’
Davey raised his hand and pointed at an outcrop of rocks. It didn’t look far.
The sun hung over the sea like a glowing orange, shimmering against the purple sky. Seagulls swooped and dived overhead. Davey stepped nimbly across the edges of the rock pools, while Kev kept on slipping, and Sean just stomped right through them without worrying about staining his trousers, or who would have to clean them.
‘What do you think the monster looks like?’ Sean asked.
‘I told you,’ Kev said, ‘it looks like a fish.’
‘Yeah, but what sort of fish?’
Kev chewed on his lip, tried to have a think. ‘I reckon it’ll be like a huge crab. Except it’ll be person-sized, and it’ll stand up like a person would.’
‘And it won’t have a head. It’ll just have a lot of those feeler things, like octopuses have.’
‘Octopi,’ Sean suggested.
‘Whatever.’ Kev was starting to get excited. ‘And they’ll be millions of these little tentacles, and it’ll use you to pull you in close and suck your head inside so it can eat you. But it won’t eat you straight away. It’ll eat you slowly, peeling off your skin a strip at a time with its tongue, until the only part of you left is your skull. And when it’s done it’ll tie your skull around its waist, so you can hear the skulls knocking against each other when it walks.’ And Kev made a popping sound with his finger inside his mouth, to show what it would sound like.
‘Eww!’ Sean’s mouth twisted in disgust. ‘You got that from a video, didn’t you?’
‘No I didn’t!’ Kev insisted, quite indignant because for once he had come up with a monster by himself. Well, he might have seen something like it in a video game, once. ‘What do you think it’ll be like.’
Sean shrugged. ‘Dunno.’ He never had much in the way of imagination, unless it was thinking up new ways to sneak into the girls’ changing room. ‘Don’t really care, so long as it’s not like a ghost.’
Kev rolled his eyes. ‘Ghosts aren’t monsters.’
‘Yeah they are!’ Sean didn’t care much about monsters, but the thought of ghosts interested him. He liked to collect stories of murders, snippets of crime, urban legends. Anything that had a taste of cruelty to it. And what was a ghost, but the memory of a cruelty? ’Have you ever heard of Red Molly?’
‘That’s a bad name for a ghost,’ Kev said.
‘Molly was the wife of a fisherman,’ Sean said, ignoring Kev’s disdain. ‘She used to sell her husband’s catch down by the fish market. She used to chop the fish with a massive cleaver, bigger than her head, chop, chop, chop.’ Sean lowered the plane of his hand with every “chop,” to slice an imaginary fish. ‘But Molly’s husband was lazy, and a pretty bad fisherman. And when he didn’t have enough money for his beer, he used to beat Molly senseless, called her useless for not selling his catch at a fair price. Until one day, after he came home more drunk than usual, he lashed out at her, and she couldn’t take it any more. So she grabbed the cleaver, raised it above her head, and brought it down on him so hard it split his skull.’
‘Well that was stupid,’ Kev said. ‘What did she do with the body?’
‘She dumped it in the sea, obviously. And she thought that was over. Except, here’s the thing: the next load of fish she had brought in, she noticed it tasted a lot better. Sort of tangy, like the fish had been cooked in lemon. And Molly wasn’t the only one: soon she was selling so much more fish she couldn’t keep up, and she ran out of stocks pretty quick. And she realised that whatever her husband’s body had done to improve the fish, it was wearing off. So what do you think she did?’
‘I don’t know,’ Kev admitted.
Sean smiled. ‘Well, let’s just say that there were a lot of people who went missing that year’
Kev screwed up his face. ‘Really?’
‘Sure. And people kept going missing for months and years after that. Until she was caught, of course: there’s only so long you can go chopping up bodies and dumping them in the sea before someone notices. The police caught her, and they hanged her, and that was that. Except…’
Sean grinned evilly. ‘Well, every now and then, you hear strange stories from the fish market. Fisherman who say they heard something scratching against the bottom of their boat; fish that when you bite into them, they taste like blood. I even heard a story about one guy, a tourist, who bit into a fish supper, and saw an eyeball staring back at him— ow!’
Kev punched Sean in the arm. ‘You’re a bloody idiot, Sean! You’ve just made that up!’
Sean rubbed his arm. ‘Sure, the last part. The rest is true though. I’d rather it was a monster in the cave, not a ghost. At least you can fight a monster.’
They could see the cave by now: a jagged crack in the side of the cliff, so dark it felt like a tear in the beach, a hole that the landscape would pour into like water down a plughole. As they walked, they saw flocks of seagulls resting on the rocks at the mouth of the cave. Except they weren’t resting. Most of them weren’t even moving.
The sunlight trickled away behind the horizon. Kev began to wonder if they would have enough light to make their way back to the beach. Sean began to shiver, and he wished he’d brought along a warmer coat. But they couldn’t turn back. Not while the other was watching. So they kept following Davey, and neither could begin to guess what he might be thinking.
When they came to the mouth of the cave, they peered inside. Darkness waited for them, cold and inviting, covering everything so that it was impossible to make out details, just streaks of salt and lichen. The three of them stopped, and waited, until one of them found the courage to go inside.
‘You first,’ said Kev.
‘You go,’ Sean answered. ‘You’re bigger than me.’
‘And you’re older. So you should be braver.’
They both stood there, staring at each other, and neither noticed that Davey had already gone inside.
‘Davey! Where are you?’ Kev called into the blackness, but the only answer he got was his own voice, echoing from the alls of the cave.
Kev and Sean looked at each other. Then they went inside.
On and on they stumbled, further and further from the last dying fragments of the light. They called out for Davey, shouted his name, which rebounded off the walls of stone. Every now and then one of them would reach out, or fall, and their hand would touch the rock, or rub against some could slimy thing that could have been alive, once.
‘I think we should go back out,’ Kev said.
‘Yeah,’ Sean added.
When they turned around, hoping to find their way back to the beach, they spotted something that pierced the gloom: a shaft of light, streaming from outside. In the remnants of daylight, they could make out Davey’s shape, outlined in silhouette. The look on his face was strange to both of them, and it made them feel sick to their very stomachs, for it was a look that neither of them had seen Davey make before.
Davey was smiling.
Before they could say or do anything they heard a noise, a low rumbling sound like nails scratching along the rock around them, a voice that whispered to them from the edge of nightmares.
Are these the ones you promised me?
Davey nodded, his face twisted by shadows.
Good, said the voice of the cave.
Kev and Sean stood still, paralysed, unable to move even though they desperately wanted to, as a cold, horrible something stirred in the darkness around them, slithered over the rocks. And even though they couldn’t see it— never saw it— they could almost feel it creep towards them.
Davey turned and walked away as the walls of the cave began to close.