Echoes

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: The Horror House
Echoes is R J Dent's short story about childhood friendship and jealousy - and death in a town by the sea.

Submitted: April 11, 2016

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Submitted: April 11, 2016

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Echoes

by R J Dent

 

It made the national news.

For a year after, the residents of the picturesque seaside town talked of little else. Friends of Robert’s family kept copies of the newspapers his disappearance had provided headlines for. The headlines ranged from shrieking alliterative tabloid sensationalism at its worst, to a slightly calmer, more informative recounting of events. Some included an appeal for information. However, in all reports, the details were the same, for despite their different political biases, newspapers always treated an inexplicably missing child in the same way.

Such a thing is an outrage and all newspapers sell outrage.

Robert Taylor, an intelligent and reasonably popular twelve year old, had left his house one sunny Easter holiday morning and met up with four friends at a pre-arranged meeting place. From there they had gone to the beach of Carbis Bay to play amongst the rocks and the rock pools and in and out of the small caves dotted along the cliffs. After a while the five children had decided to play hide and seek. Robert had asked to hide first – in fact, according to the other children, he’d been very insistent about this one particular detail. His fervent insistence had unnerved them and their acquiescence had been nervous and hurried. Robert had promptly run off into the afternoon air to hide as his friends counted to two hundred. Then they searched for him.

They have not found him yet.

After an hour of searching, the four children gave up and walked to the local police station, where they tearfully told the duty policeman, Sergeant Stuart Goddard, what had happened.

That night, a line of police officers and civilian volunteers walked the length and width of the halogen lamp-lit beach of Carbis Bay, shining torches and pushing poles into every crevasse, hollow, enclave, pool, cave and such like. By the first pale light of morning they searched for a final time, finally calling a halt to a fruitless search. The evidence was incontrovertible; Robert Taylor (alive or dead) was not on the beach.

The four children were tactfully questioned again, but they all swore vehemently that they had played only on the beach of Carbis Bay – they had not gone and played in any of the other bays. Were they sure? Of course they were. Had they – just by accident – wandered along to Porthmoor Bay? No, they hadn’t. Or perhaps to Rock Point? No. Definitely not. Nor anywhere else. They’d played in Carbis Bay all day, only leaving to go to the police station and report Robert’s disappearance to Sergeant Goddard.

Robert’s parents had made a televised plea for help, offering a very large sum of money to anyone who provided information that led to Robert being found.

Time passed. Days, weeks and months went by and Robert was not found. The general consensus was that he’d either hidden in or by the sea and had been washed away by the waves, the tide and the currents, or that he’d been abducted by a child molester/killer.

Whatever happened to Robert Taylor will never be known.

 

*

 

Me, Sarah, Jasmine and Alex had hung around the bowling green for what seemed like ages before Robert showed up. Old Vic the park keeper had told us to ‘stop hanging about’ the entrance to the green, so we’d called him a few choice names as he sedately rolled and sprinkled, then moved away a bit – not too much though, just enough to annoy him with our continued peripheral presence.

When Robert got there, he was sweating a lot, the way fat kids do. We were all sweating a bit, it was very hot – but him the most, as usual.

“Where are we going?” Sarah asked.

Alex and I exchanged surreptitious conspiratorial glances. We had discussed our ‘goals’ the previous evening. We wanted to take Jasmine and Sarah to Rock Point, a small bay half a kilometre west along the coast. It was a secluded and sandy suntrap, and it was screened from the other bays by a lot of tall rocky outcroppings. Once there, Alex and I would have complete privacy – and if we could find a way to make Robert go away, we’d be able to get Jasmine and Sarah to do what we wanted. So we’d sat and devised a plan. We’d worked it out.

“Rock Point,” Alex said on cue.

“Too far!” Jasmine protested instantly.

Before anyone else could voice a further negative reaction, I chipped in with my rehearsed lines.

“Chris Watling said last night he saw a jellyfish stranded on the rocks there – a huge purple one with millions of legs.”

“That’ll probably be an Aurelia aurita,” Robert said. “It’s a medusa that drifts just about anywhere between the Arctic and the Equator. It’s made of non-living jelly with stinging cells in its mouth only, so it can narcotise struggling food. Post-breeding adults usually get stranded en masse, so there might be more of them. Cool, let’s go.”

He set off down the beach path, and Jasmine and Sarah followed him without question. They simply didn’t want to be by themselves. They’d rather traipse out to Rock Point and look at a jellyfish that they didn’t really want to see than spend most of the day on their own.

And that was it, 3-2 decided. We’d won. Robert’s encyclopaedic knowledge of jellyfish had tipped the balance in our favour. Alex and I followed behind the trio, gloating inwardly at our easy triumph. We weren’t surprised – Robert always came out with stuff like that. Most of the time it turned out to be useful. Now all we had to do was find a way to make him go away.

“Did Chris Watling say if it was alive or dead?” Sarah asked suddenly. As usual, when she spoke it was always pertinent.

“He said it was moving when he saw it,” I supplied.

“Then it might still be alive,” Robert said.

We increased our pace, crossing the hot sand of Carbis Bay and making our way along towards Rock Point. We finally reached the huge rocks that bordered Rock Point and clambered up them. Alex was the first one of us to reach the top. He peered over.

“I can’t see a jellyfish,” he stated, putting just the right amount of righteous indignation in his voice. “I bet Watling was lying.”

“They’re not all that easy to see,” Robert panted.

For the briefest of moments, a look of distaste crossed Jasmine’s face. I wondered what it had been in response to.

Robert’s knowledge of things was almost an advantage of a kind – a sort of balance to him being fat. It was his edge. Everyone has an edge in one thing because they have a deficiency or a lack in another area. Robert lacked leanness and grace and athleticism, so he had a lean and graceful and fast mind. He was smart. He Knew Lots of Things.

 

*

 

Every day at school, our form teacher, Mr Watts, asked the class a general knowledge question. Whoever answered correctly first got a merit. One day during the last school term, Mr Watts asked a general knowledge question about snooker and pool. Mr Watts had a friend who could play pool, but not snooker. Why not?

As the class pondered, Robert put his hand up. He was always first to put his hand up.

“Let someone else have a chance, eh, Robert?” Mr Watts said, mock-solemnly. And then mock-waited.

A few inane answers followed as we sluggards valiantly tried: he didn’t know the rules of snooker; he couldn’t count below twelve; he had no memory; and so on, ad nauseum. All wrong. All stupid. Finally, the unbearable-because-anticipated moment arrived.

“Well then, Robert… Would YOU like to put everyone out of their misery?” Mr Watts asked. It was his own particular favourite question. He enjoyed asking it. It made his lips wet when he said the words. If he’d looked carefully at Robert, he’d have seen that Robert was (as always) starting to look uncomfortable, but Mr Watts never looked carefully at anything. No one ever did.

“It’s because he’s colour-blind,” Robert said and as he spoke a collective sigh of realisation went through the class. Of course! How could we have overlooked such an obvious answer? Only, it hadn’t really been that obvious at all. And still wasn’t to some.

“Yes,” Mr Watts said, unnecessarily. “He’s colour-blind, so therefore it means…” Vast tracts of time made Mr Watts’ voice fade away. Robert had no need of Mr Watts’ approbation. Nor had we. We all knew that every time Robert opened his mouth he was right. He never spoke unless he knew what he was talking about. Being colour-blind means you can play pool but you can’t play snooker. Lucky break. There are metaphors in everything. Triangles too.

Of course, Robert got awarded a merit for his answer, but he didn’t need or want such trinkets – he’d already gained whatever reward he was ultimately after long before that moment – long before the question was asked, was thought of, was etymologically formulated, if the truth were known. Robert was strange like that – he generated hundreds of merits, but didn’t really want – or care about – any of them. In fact, he often got in trouble for giving them away. He simply didn’t seem to care about the things that everyone else, including me, cared about. It was as though he was his own arbiter in all things, as though he acknowledged no source of value other than his own. Sometimes I tried to make myself not care about stuff, in imitation of him, but it never felt as though it meant anything when I did it.

Things like that made Robert special, but they also made him weird.

For their own reasons, Sarah and Jasmine liked having him around. I used to think that he served as a chaperone – knowingly or unknowingly, I don’t know, but definitely someone there to stop Alex and Sarah and me and Jasmine from getting the chance to find out as much as we could about each other on beautiful sunny days.

Whenever we met up with Jasmine and Sarah, they’d always inevitably ‘made an earlier arrangement’ to meet Robert somewhere. And he’d always show up. It was as though he was psychic or something. Either that, or they really had made an earlier arrangement to meet him at a specified place and time. And he was never late. Never. An earthquake wouldn’t have slowed him down. A nuclear fucking explosion couldn’t have stopped him. He was irrepressible. He was ubiquitous. A life force. And that was why I had amended my first thought. That’s why Jasmine and Sarah wanted him around. He made those little dead things feel as though they were alive. Somehow.

Robert had a secret. No, Robert had many secrets.

Robert was a friend of Jasmine and Sarah. He was their friend, not ours. Still, he was cool to have around sometimes, like when he’d built the dam. And flooded the Downs.

 

*

 

“Watcha doin’?” I asked, finding Robert up to his knees in water, while Jasmine and Sarah sat on the hill and watched as he directed the flow of the built-up stream.

“Robert’s building us a dam,” Jasmine said haughtily.

“A cofferdam,” Sarah added.

“What’s a cofferdam?” I asked, thinking I’d been tricked into being the first line feeder of a very bad joke.

“It’s this,” said Robert, wading out of the water and letting me see what he’d done.

It was nothing much to look at – just a board, some stones, another board and a prop, but you could already sense it had a huge and vital and somehow urgent power about it. It was meant to do something. Something big. You could feel it, see it, hear it, smell it, taste it – and know it.

“What’ll it do?” I asked, not really that innocently.

Robert stood there looking at me for a moment, really hard, like I’d not seen him look at me before. Then he shook his head and looked away. He muttered something and pointed at the swelling stream.

“Whatever,” he said off-handedly.

“We want you to flood the Downs,” Jasmine said. The way she said it you just knew she’d been saying it a lot. It sounded like drama lines she’d rehearsed very badly.

All I was thinking was of siding with Jasmine, so I asked the BIG question. And set the whole thing in motion.

“Will it flood the Downs?”

We all looked at each other. Four of us. Four right-angle corners of a square. Four conspirators. Robert. Sarah. Jasmine. Me.

“Yes,” said Robert quietly. “It will flood the Downs.”

And it did.

 

*

 

As I scrambled down onto the warm and soft sand of Rock Point, I thought about the weeks I’d spent grounded for being one of the fabled Four-Who-Flooded-the-Downs. One of the legendary. One of the mythical. One of the magical ones. Only it didn’t feel all that magical to me. Somehow I felt excluded, not included. Robert and Jasmine and Sarah made a threesome. A trinity. A trio. A triangle. Three was a magic number. Not four. Four was the horsemen of the apocalypse. Four was definitely not a lucky number. Four was foul and I was four. So, somehow, without even being aware of how, I was excluded. Never in a definite or tangible way, but enough to let me know. Just like those odd pieces of jigsaw you find, all the time knowing they’re not really random. And it was in this state that I came to make friends with Alex.

Alex was reliable. That’s all I asked. Without knowing it, he was also calm after an emotional storm. To his credit, he never questioned our friendship. Maybe that showed he was more sensitive to my needs than I ever could be to anyone else’s – other than my own.

“It’s lovely here,” Sarah said, and I suddenly knew I’d been pursuing (if that’s what my few feeble attempts at seduction could be called) the wrong girl. How could I now metaphorically and literally start chasing after Sarah, when I’d clearly spent the last three years expressing an interest in Jasmine. What of offended parties? As I thought about this, I wondered if anyone would be offended? Jasmine? Alex? Robert? Sarah? Alex would go with whatever I said, Jasmine wouldn’t be too upset, and not for long, Robert… Well, right here was the blind spot. I simply didn’t know how the trio would be after a shake-up. Probably okay, but… one never knew. A new angle always causes a rethink, especially in a triangle.

I raced across the warm sand behind Sarah and I laughed joyfully. Life was sunshine, warm sand, a few rocks, the cry of gulls, the smell of salt, the steady pound and splash of the sea, the contours of a beautiful girl. Abandoned, I reached out impulsively and touched her and… she welcomed my touch.

The details of Rock Point lurched back into focus as we sprawled across the beige sand, laughing at nothing in particular.

“Here at last,” Alex said, which started us all off on another gale of laughter. There was something infectious about it, the way a particular mood just grabbed us there and then and we all felt it.

Laughing, Robert got up and stood with his back to the towering cliffs. He jigged around. Jasmine picked up a shell and playfully threw it at him. Robert laughed and dodged. The shell hit the rock face of the cliff and smashed.

“Missed,” Robert quipped as he swayed from side to side. We all howled with laughter at his antics. Robert looked momentarily puzzled, then pleased, which made us laugh more. He started a lumbering dance. Alex picked up another shell and threw it at Robert. Robert dodged again. The shell exploded against the rock. It showered the stones on the beach, sounding like rain.

“Missed again,” Robert chanted.

We all scrambled for shells, stones, seaweed, whatever, and started pelting Robert. He dodged and danced and sang and laughed.

We all laughed too. It was hysterical.

“Missed again... missed… missed again,” Robert sang tunelessly. “Missed… missed again… missed…”

 

*

 

I do not know whose stone it was. None of us does. We are all telling the truth. Probably.

It was a big stone. It was white and smooth and warm on the outside and had one end broken off to show its innards, which were grey and hard and cold. This stone was not the first one thrown, for many had already hit the cliff behind Robert with dull tokk sounds, sounds that had echoed dryly around the bay named Rock Point. This stone hit Robert on the head. Not on the forehead like you see in films, but on the top of his head and it made a soft noise like I’d never heard before and then it bounced off him and hit the cliff… And that made us all laugh again… so much so that I think I was the only one to see Robert fall so heavily and so saggily to the ground. And it was the next noise, the terrible sound, the echo-like splatter that his head made when he hit the rocks that made me vomit, rather than anything else.

I don’t know how long I’d been shouting for, but when I stopped, the others were all crouched wailing on the sand around me and I was standing over them, telling them to be quiet.

Once I’d got myself under control, I squatted down next to them.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s check him out.”

“What are you!” Alex screamed. “A fucking doctor!”

Alex’s shouting made me feel nervous, so I slapped him hard. It was a powerful blow that rocked him sideways. I thought he would want to hit me because of it, but after a moment, he nodded at me, got up and went and looked at Robert. I joined him. There was very little blood. Robert looked very dead.

“His pulse,” I said, averting my eyes from the terrible-looking hole in his head.

We both felt for his pulse and I put my hand on the left side of his chest. There were no signs of life.

Back with the girls, we huddled together, safety in numbers. Four could be strong. Four could fight and win. Four was foul, but could be fair. We were not the four horsemen of the apocalypse. We were not death, death, death and death?

“So what do we do?” Sarah asked.

I wanted to kiss her right there and then and I should have because I never got a chance later. Afterwards none of us ever spoke to each other again – not as real people, anyway. Not as we were at that precise moment. The mood was palpable.

“We bury him,” I said steadily, “and we never tell anyone.”

We all nodded as one. Four could fight and win. Four was foul, but could be fair.

We trekked over the rocks to the edge of the bay, to the farthest rock cluster and then went beyond that to the waterline, where we found two large stones set firmly in the damp sand. Alex and I dragged Robert’s body out there and carefully wedged it between the two rocks. Then we dropped two huge slabs of rock on top of him. It squashed him down. Then we used the handfuls of rocks that Jasmine and Sarah brought to fill in any gaps we’d missed.

As we added stones and shingle, I couldn’t help thinking about Robert building his dam and it started me crying.

“Damn his dam,” I said stupidly.

The others nodded.

“Damn his dam,” they repeated.

“Damn his dam,” we all said. Then we made it into a mantra and said it four times. Four can be fair. Four can fight and win.

“Okay,” I said, after we’d washed the last few spots of blood off the rocks. “Everyone gets their final say, then we go to Carbis Bay and from there we go to Sergeant Goddard. We tell him we played hide and seek on Carbis Bay beach and Robert hid first, then vanished.”

They nodded in agreement.

“And we absolutely swear that we were only on Carbis Bay beach for the whole day. Nowhere else. Not anywhere! No matter what they threaten or do or say! Because… if we say what we did, then… he’ll come back.”

I don’t know why I said that. I just did. It surprised me. Scared me too, because I knew that somehow, if we ever told anyone else, anyone at all, then Robert really would roll away the stones of his rock prison, rise up, come and find us, then kill us.

The others nodded quickly. I nodded too and deliberately left that one unspeakable image hanging over us. Then we softly said our words. In the silence that followed, we decided we would go our separate ways from the moment we left Rock Point. We would each take the secret of Robert Taylor’s death to our own graves. We kept our vow. Four is fair.

I put the last stone in place and left the beach.

 

*

 

 

Echoes

Copyright © R J Dent (2010 & 2016)

 

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