Summers at the Beach House (Part 1 of 3)
We go there every year. Me and my family.
And it’s a great place, all but lost in a thickness of jungle; the dirt road leading up to it all overgrown with thistles and vines and brush. Dandelions carpet what you could sort of call the driveway. Trees hang over it. The house is ramshackle, two storeyed, flaky-painted; old-style terracotta roofing tiles, encrusted with lichen, grow grass and small flowers, are home to nesting birds and butterflies. It’s so beautiful.
It belongs to a friend of Dad’s; and he lends it to us every summer. We’d come tumbling out of the house as kids, bursting with excitement, fighting our way through the undiscovered garden, eager to get inside, to let the holiday get going. No TV. Didn’t care. We kids might not have wanted to admit it, but we were happier without it, going out walking the beach each day, swimming, playing cards and board games into the evening, sing-a-longs, beach-fires, barbecues. We had our own little heaven.
At night. I would hear her. Once all the noises of living had stilled, once the rest of the family were tucked in their beds and sleeping. I would hear her. The soft whisper of her presence, the way it shimmied through the walls, reaching out, stroking the silence. A voice without words, a coldness, a shadow on the room. I could reach out and touch the floor, feel the presence of her reaching back up.
“You can’t hurt me,” I whisper to her. Each night we’re there. “You can’t hurt me. You’re nothing but bones.”
I should know, I’m the one who put her there.
I was eight years old that summer.
She was… probably thousands… I don’t really know about her. I don’t understand.
But she looked maybe nine or ten. And she was standing there by the water, staring out into the horizon, one hand wrapped around the other wrist, while her pink-patterned skirt fluttered in the wind. And she looked lonely. Wistful. She looked as if she was waiting for something.
I was eight. Full of confidence. So, I just rocked on up there. “Hi.”
She turned, looking at me, as if trying to fully take me in.
“Hi, I’m Jodie.”
She hesitated. I wonder, now… She said, “Miriam.”
It sounded odd, grown-up. “Is it Miri for short?”
“Do you live around here?”
“Yes. Back behind the caves.”
A flash of inspiration: “Do you know the caves?”
“Can you show me?”
Mum and Dad were going to lose it, I figured, finding out I’d been off exploring caves, unsupervised, and not telling them. But if she knew her way around, if she knew secrets, little hidden pockets that we could have to ourselves… And so:
We walked along the beach. She wasn’t talkative, and she had her strange way of looking at me, of sizing me up. She had her twisty little smile, and a sparkle to her eyes that I couldn’t help but find a little mesmerising. Who was this girl? Unlike all the girls at school…
“You got family?”
“Just. Foster people. Sometimes.”
“You’re not, like, homeless?”
“Not that. I have a home. But I don’t like it.”
“Oh.” And: “What’s not boring?”
“You. Maybe. I’ll show you.”
The pair of us walked to the end of the beach, skipping over waves and drawing giant circles in wet sand. We left footprints going the wrong way and chased a couple of seagulls away from a wild looking clump of seaweed. I put a chunk of it on top of my head and wore it as a wig for a few hundred metres. We got to laughing. I realised: she was strange but okay.
“I’ll show you something… not boring.”
She bypassed the gaping main entrance to the caves and walked past the rockpools, leading me instead up the hill and parting tussock grass to show a narrow hole in the ground.
“Where does it go?”
“Some caves. Different ones.”
“Is it safe? Could we get caught and drown when the tide comes up?”
“No. Just not stupid.”
An odd twitch of smile. I should have seen it, seen something… I was young enough – almost – to believe in monsters. “It’s safe.”
She led me down. It was narrow. Small enough that most adults would struggle to fit. And that appealed to me. That we had this escape, one that our parents literally couldn’t come after us into. And once we got down, through pitch dark and scratching roots and crunching dead insects, there was a cavern, lit by a crack in the roof that somehow gathered more sun than it should be able to. And beneath its filtered light there were rockpools, there was crusted salt, faces of stone that were polished and coloured. Shells of every kind. And there were bones.
I thought: she’s collected these things.
Because she could show me the skeleton of a bird, one that she’d posed as if in mid-flight, and skeletons of rats, of a cat, of possums and rabbits.
“How do they get in here?”
“If I call them.”
I studied her. “Bullshit.”
“You want to see more?”
“If I show you the others, you have to be my friend. I mean really have to. I can’t show them to you otherwise.”
“No, I mean it.”
“I am your friend.”
“Good. Come here.”
But these bones. They didn’t have anything like an explanation. One of them had two heads, and there was a creature with a long, flat face – almost as if somebody had stood on it in the moment of creation. One that looked more like a tree.
“Did you make these?”
“Like ‘here two-headed monster, come here boy’?”
“It’s nice in here. It sings. You can hear it from far away.”
I was finally afraid.
“It’s like my home.”
“I should get… back. I mean…”
“There’s one more.”
This. This was a person. This was a human child of about our age. The bones of one, clean, posed in a seated position on a rock with the head tilted upward as if contemplating the ceiling.
No way. No. I turned around to get out of there. But she was standing right behind me, and she wasn’t the way she’d been before, her face was changed, all frayed and tugged out around the edges, hard-looking; and her mouth drooped downwards, opening wide on a sea of teeth. Her eyes bulged. Her hands were too big for her and they ended in curling, pointed fingers – little ringlet-knives.
I stumbled backwards. I tried to say her name but no words came out.
Out of her there was only gurgling. And she advanced on me.
I was fuelled just by instinct. Terror. I know I was shouting at her, though I don’t know what I was saying. I pushed her. And when there was give – when she faltered backwards – I pushed her again, pushing her over onto her back, landing in one of the rockpools.
I ran after that. I crawled through the tunnel, scrambled out onto the hill, and sprinted down the beach without looking back. Following? Chasing? I just ran until I was home, until I could race inside, hurry up to my room, bury my face in my hands and cry. I had no idea what was happening to me. No idea at all what to do.
She came to my window that night.
She threw stones at the window to get my attention. And then she stood there, inches from the glass, her face all deadly-composed and still-angelic, her eyes having an odd purple brightness, her curls flapping in the wind.
She beckoned at me.
And I… I wanted to believe in a little girl. In somebody not that much different from myself. In a friend I’d met earlier in the day. I needed to believe in it, because it came with the assurance that the world was how I thought it was, and not infested with monsters and terrors, with dangers beyond my imagination. I shook my head, though, like I would to another child. “I can’t come out,” a whisper. The walls between this room and my sisters’: barely thicker than cardboard.
She beckoned again. She glanced behind her.
“Come on. Come with me.”
I went. I pulled a jersey on over my pyjamas, put a pair of slippers on, and crept down the stairs. I did it, even after – pausing there, midstep – I remembered that I slept in the second storey.
She was floating to the ground when I got outside.
“Who are you?” The accusation slithered out, too slippery to be stopped.
“But you’ve got… bones. Human bones. Hidden in a secret cave.” I listened to how it sounded, how fanciful. But I’d seen them. “Where did you get him?” I assumed a him, without knowing why. Maybe something in the pose… “And who was he?”
“But he must be missing or something. He must have belonged to someone and he must have had a name, and they might still be looking for him…”
“You’re my friend. You said.”
“You ran off and left me.”
“You scared me.”
She looked momentarily puzzled. “I didn’t mean to.”
“You showed me all those dead things.”
“Interesting things. Like I told you.”
“I showed them to you because you’re my friend.”
“You don’t have any other friends, do you?”
“Or foster parents.”
She shook her head. “I have you now.” Her eyes were marble-shiny, the irises were purple and engulfed the pupils.
Like the birds, and tree-monsters, and two-headed creatures. Like the boy who came when he was called.
I began to back away.
“But you came out.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Didn’t know what?”
She didn’t understand. And I believe it to this day. She didn’t know what there could be about her, what needed any more understanding than any other thing out there in the world. And yet she’d tricked me, sort of, in little ways. A sneaky predator. I was stepping backwards, with her stepping forwards in time with me. And I knew I needed to scream for help, even if I got into trouble and all the world except me would only see a little girl out here with me, doing nothing naughtier than sneaking out at night.
I imagining Mum and Dad feeling sorry for her.
I imagined her living in her house and showing her sideshow face onky to me, while she collected neighbouring children and polished their bones at night.
She said, “Come with me. Like you said you would.” She smiled little pointy teeth.
Still stepping, stumbling, my foot caught on something – a croquet hoop, a dropped shoe – and I fell awkwardly, halfway onto my back. She was big, looming over me. I was scared and she was reaching for me. My hand scrabbled around in the grass, and the croquet mallet just caught inside my fingers – Mum’ll kill us for leaving that out.
If we hadn’t…
If a decade ago or so we hadn’t run indoors for dinner leaving our game half-played, our stuff scattered over the lawn… A whole reworking of a whole life. Never this memory. Never this playing over and over again in my head:
Me: rolling onto one side. Me: lurching upwards, swinging the mallet in both hands. Her: hit in the stomach, jolting backwards. Me: standing up. Advancing on her now. Her crying – with those violet eyes, a down-turned, scarlet, needle-toothed mouth. Me: swinging the mallet. Then doing it again. Again. Again. Again. Holding it in my hand and seeing it bloody, seeing pale curls clinging in the blood; sticky bits; white chips like polystyrene.
I couldn’t scream.
I was screaming for plenty on the inside, but I couldn’t turn the screams into real, living sounds. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the lump on the grass in front of me, splayed skirt, bare feet. A butterfly clip in the tangle of her hair: what monster pins its hair back? Why would it do such a little-girl-normal kind of thing?
It dawned on me in increments. That I’d done something momentous. Something too huge to put a frame around, too big to fit into anything it meant to be an eight-year-old child in the real, sane, everyday world. There were no fangs, no claws: the world was going to see a child, and standing over that child…?
She was a monster though, I promise she was. Just before…
All I knew, really, inside a brain that was pulsing, nearly exploding, was that I couldn’t face getting found out for whatever this was. I couldn’t face my parents, policemen, barred windows, the end of a proper life. I was hardly even me, picking her up, dragging her over to the basement door and hauling her inside. I found a chest beneath some piles of books and blankets. It was half empty. Almost as if it was meant to house her. I bundled her in. Dropped the croquet mallet on top of her. Closed the lid. Covered it up again in blankets and books. Walked away.
Never think of it again. Just never think of it again.
And in the morning, in silence, my blood-stained pyjamas buried deep in my bag, I sat in the back of the van and went home.
Picture credit/discredit: writer's own work