Summers at the Beach House (Part 3 of 3)
I met Duggan the next year.
I was thirteen and so was he. I’d been dreading the holiday, almost to the point of uncontrollable anxiety. What if it was easier to let the truth out?
And then I met him.
His family had just bought the house next door. When I say next door, it was actually about half a kilometre down the road, and around a bend, with a steep path leading down to a house surrounded by trees, absolutely hidden from the road. But part of the charm here was the sense of isolation. And so, that’s what ‘next door’ looked like.
And Duggan. He was gorgeous. As soon as I saw him walking along the road I felt my guts twist, and a cold thrill run through me, fully head to toe. Had I just fallen in love? That was what I thought. Or wanted to think. Was just desperate for the distraction of. I’m not sure I know. But I headed straight for the road, acting like I was just on my way to get a paper or some milk.
“Hi,” I was bold. “I haven’t seen you before.”
“Just moved here.”
“Oh. We come every year.”
“You like it?”
That almost tripped me. Almost made me stutter and stumble. “I- It’s okay.”
“Well, when we were kids…” I threw that loftily into the air, “But it’s not so much the same these days. There’s still the beach though. There’s places to swim and all that.”
“You could show me, I guess.”
“If you want?”
“Sure. I think I’m free. That’s my place over there if you want to come by after lunch.” I wasn’t even thinking about Mum and Dad and what they’d have to say about that.
“Cool.” Keeping it calm. Casual.
“Duggan, by the way.”
I held out my hand, fingers angling sharply down: “Jodie.”
And we shook on it.
And this became my holiday romance. I think I’d thought I wasn’t capable of having such a thing. Being the way I was. Having her, always there. But it turned out I was a teenage girl after all. I was planning what to wear even to go down to the beach, convincing Mum I needed a new swimsuit – could I have a bikini? – and starting to wear make-up – little bits, hopefully below Mum’s radar – when I went out. I was aware of their indulgent smiles, the way the two of them watched me from afar. My sisters with their mix of curiosity and childish jealousy. “You’ll have a boyfriend in time,” I told them imperiously, “when you get a bit older,” once again ignoring Mum’s soft, amused glance.
Duggan was active. He was happy to go out walking, and also bike riding. He was fun. Chatty. Unpretentious. I felt like I could let my hair down around him, say things that I would never have thought I could say to a boy. I could share things. Not the thing, but other things, about school, or my parents. We made a contest of our insecurities. Then we lay in a field of long grass, eating ice-creams and looking up at the clouds. We compared our favourite bands and TV shows, and he reached over to hold my hand.
“He seems like a nice boy,” Mum said cautiously.
“I’d like to meet his parents.”
“He lives just up the road.”
“True.” She chewed her lip, wondering if it might be too bold to just walk on up there and introduce herself.
“I’m not having sex with him.”
She nearly spilled her coffee.
“Well of course you’re not. Good God, the things you come up with.”
“Well, I could be…”
She gave me a look made of thunder. “No. You. Could. Not.”
I shrugged, “Okay.”
“I mean it, Jodie.”
“Okay.” We were nowhere near there. I don’t think I’d even considered it. It felt way too old and way too scary to be messing with. We’d held hands. He’d put his arm around me. We hadn’t even had our first kiss yet.
That came at sunset, on the dunes.
It was a good one. Not that I had anything to compare it with at the time. But I do remember noticing the warmth and softness of his lips, being vaguely surprised at the feeling that ran down my arms, through my chest, that settled in the lower belly, a not-quite-tingling, a sense of lightness. This illusion of blossoming into an adult.
We stayed out late that night.
We watched the sun go down over the sea, watched the sea turn into a soup of fire-coloured paint. Watched it settle into a shade of rose pink, that turned purple, then black. We talked about ourselves, about our families, our friends. He told me about a cousin who’d died in an accident, and how he’d seen it happen, and how he found it hard to let go of the memory.
Was it just me with secrets then?
I don’t know why. I grabbed him by the wrist and jumped up to my feet. “I want to show you something.”
“No, not that. No. Come with me.”
I’m pretty sure he thought we were still going somewhere to make out. But I led him where I thought I would never go again, up that dune, into the solid ground of a grassed hillside, searching amongst the sharp, long-haired grasses.
“What are we looking for?”
“It’s a hole. An entrance to a cave.”
He suppressed the grin that said: knew it, we’re going to down there to suck faces.
I thought: I’ll have to. Tongue. A little grope. But that’s it.
I pulled aside the grass. Nothing. My head snapped around, looking everywhere.
“What is it?”
“It’s not here.”
“It’s gone. It’s not here.” I felt hysteria closing in on me. But it was there. I know it was.
“Maybe it caved in.”
“Or you got the wrong place.”
“It’s here. Somewhere.” It has to be.
“It has to be here somewhere.” I was stumbling through the grass, tearing it up.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes! Yes, it does!”
“What’s up, psycho?”
“It’s here! Help me find it please.”
He was puzzled. He was looking at me a completely new way. He was seeing a side of me… Had only Miri ever seen it? “Okay. All right.” He was humouring me. Maybe only pretending to look.
But I tripped over it in the end. On my knees, dragging away dirt and grass, pointing to what I’d found.
He looked down the tunnel. “Are we going to drown in the incoming tide?” Like what I’d said to Miri.
“Are you scared, then?” Much as she’d said to me.
“Now, I didn’t say that. Maybe I should go first?”
I rolled my eyes.
“In case there’s something down there.”
“The bogey-man?” But of course… of course… And my second thoughts were descending on me rapidly. The ways this could go. And there was one place I couldn’t let my tongue go to. Not even with Duggan. But that place was burning in my head, desperate to be freed. My soul wanted the weight of it gone.
“A drunk or a homeless dude or something.” His mind wasn’t where mine was. “Follow me.”
“You don’t know where you’re going.”
“It looks pretty straight.”
I shrugged one shoulder. “Okay, then.” The dice had been thrown. Too late to un-throw them. It was all just going to have to scatter where it did.
We crawled down the tunnel – tighter and more daunting than when I’d been eight – and into the wide, water-floored cavern. There was next to no light, just a crescent moon in the sky. But Duggan had his phone out, which had a strong torch. In that light the animal bones looked eerie, looked big enough to be true giants. When Duggan shone the torch around they seemed to leap off the walls.
“Cool,” he said after a few moments.
And real. This had happened. And it’d happened the way my memory told me it had. There was another test though. Against all better judgement I said: “There’s more.”
“But wait! There’s more!”
“If you don’t want to see it…”
“No. I do. How did you find all this? Or did you collect it?”
“A… friend did.”
“She a bit of a weirdo?”
You don’t know the half of it.
“But in a good way,” he said quickly, thinking maybe he’d insulted my best friend.
The half of it, even a quarter of it… What was I doing? But I took him on through to the next cave. To where the two-headed monsters and fantasy hybrids were. To where the boy sat on a rock, neatly posed, ponderous, dead and once-human. I let him see it all. And I expected to find more, but I didn’t. She’s dead though isn’t she? So how’s she going to call them, how’s she going to collect them? Looking at the boy I felt the chill of knowing that I could have ended up sitting right next to him, that that’d been her plan for me. One croquet mallet in a different place and that could have been how this whole thing played out.
Duggan was staring. He looked at me with horror. “What is this?”
“We… found it…”
“That’s a real dead kid.”
“Well, who was he? Who put him here?”
“I don’t know…”
“Some serial killer. Some murderous mental patient or something. Are there more of them?”
Not thanks to eight-year-old me. I just shrugged.
“Have you… I don’t know, looked? Told anybody?”
“I haven’t been down here for five years.”
“You would have been… eight…?”
“That I’d think this was cool?”
“I suppose. I…” Had to see it again. Was too scared to go alone. Had to know it was the way I remembered it being.
“This is real. Jodie, he was a real person! Somebody loved him, and they had to put a headstone over an empty grave. He had a freakin’ name!”
“I don’t get you. This.” And he was glancing at the monsters. He was seeing more sides of it, finding nowhere to put them in his concept of the world. We were too old now to believe in monsters.
“I’m sorry,” I ventured.
“Whoever did this was sick.”
“Yes. I get it.”
“We should go, okay? I’ll walk you home.”
I knew it was the last time we’d walk anywhere together. The last time he’d talk willingly to me.
I’ve been back to the house since then. To the beach. Never to the cave. Or the basement.
I don’t know if Duggan told anybody, ever, about that night. Or what they did. Or might still do. I never heard. I saw him once or twice but he always turned away, avoided my eyes, walked a different way. He made things clear, and I let it happen. I know what we had – adolescent infatuation, rite of passage, whatever it was – is buried now, beneath her, beneath what I showed him.
This is the last year. I’m seventeen now. Next year I can leave home; study; work; travel. I can put this place behind me.
But I don’t know. Because it’s more than just this place. And that’s the trouble with knowing there’s monsters. It’s not a knowledge that you can put back in its box. It’s a knowledge that follows you, that makes you look at things twice, with a slant, with different expectations. And sometimes I see… there’s a face that twists for a moment, or eyes that light up very briefly, or there’s the sharp teeth embedded behind brightly painted lips. Sometimes just in an ordinary place – at the cinema, on the streets, some boy behind me in class. So I know. And yet I don’t know… why does nobody else seem to see it?
In my room at night she keeps up her whispers. She has very few words, but she fills me with her feelings: thwarted and hurt, angry, frightened, lonely, hungry. Sometimes her feeling almost become mine, as if she can seep through the wallpaper into the palm I lay against it while I sleep, as if she can slip into my body and find her way through my veins, as if we can share this flesh for a while. And do I owe her that? The flesh I took away from her.
I’m going to come back here one time more. I don’t know when. But when I do it’ll be with petrol, and rags, with a lighter. I’ll find the house deserted, and I’ll burn that evil thing to the ground. Maybe she’ll escape in the smoke – as the smoke – and go floating up into the clouds. Maye she’ll disperse in the winds, or find her way to the stars. I don’t know. I don’t know anything at all. Maybe – maybe not – we’ll both be finally free.
Picture credit/discredit: writer's own work