‘Looks like they’re working someone over,’ I said. Will let out a breathy moan.
‘Let’s go, Kev,’ he said. ‘I feel sorry for whoever it is, believe me, but Ronnie’s got his whole gang with him.’
‘Just a sec,’ I said, squinting. I thought I could see someone among the jostling crowd. Someone I recognised.
‘Come on Kev,’ he said again, slowing to a stop.
This time I barely heard him. I was positive now, I could see a boy with red hair, long and lank, being pushed back and forth by Ronnie Fallow and his cronies. I thought I could hear the faint sound of sobbing on the afternoon breeze, but it was hard to make out over the cruel laughter of the other boys.
A terrible anger kindled somewhere inside me, a glowing ember that burned fiercely in my belly. I knew who that red hair belonged to. Paul Figg.
Paul was a kid from the year above, a nice guy, if you took the time to get to know him. But he wasn’t good in social situations, and often misunderstood the things people said to him. He was autistic, the easiest of easy targets, and Ronnie and his mates had Paul outnumbered ten to one.
The ember that had ignited in my belly grew. Like a bunsen burner with the gas turned up its flame scorched a boiling, white-hot liquid something that seemed to be expanding inside my chest, swirling and raging against my ribcage. I could hear Paul’s sobs more clearly now. He was asking the boys to stop, telling them he was dizzy. His nose was bleeding.
Before I even knew what I was doing, I was running as fast as my legs would carry me towards the crowd. I ignored Will’s startled shouts, calling me back. I closed this distance in ten seconds flat, barrelling into the nearest boy at full speed, shoulder first. The impact took us both to the ground and knocked the air clean out of me. I rolled over a few times, and everything seemed to go black. I realised I was squeezing my eyes tight shut.
‘Is that, is that Kevin Swaffer?’ said a deep, man’s voice. It was Ronnie Fallow. I opened my eyes. His ugly face looked down at me from a long way away. He was tall and thick set, the only boy in Year 9 with actual, non bum-fluff stubble.
‘I don’t know what you think you’re playing at Swaffer, but you’re going to regret that.’
He cracked his knuckles and the other boys smirked; they were looking forward to the show. I could feel that white hot liquid something, burning me up from the inside moments before, seep meekly into the soil beneath me. It was replaced with a cold, empty feeling I was more familiar with: fear. What the hell was a I thinking? I could have just walked away.
I saw that the boy I had knocked down, Rich Cooper, one of the meaner guys in Ronnie’s gang, had torn through the knee of his school trousers. He was looking at me with murder in his pig-eyes.
‘Get up,’ said Ronnie. There wasn’t even a hint of mercy in his voice.
I stood, trying as hard as I could to keep my knees from shaking. Whatever it was that had come over me when I ran over had well and truly worn off. I knew I was in for a beating.
I saw Will edging closer, ashen faced. He must have seen what I’d done. He knew what came next. I caught his eye and tried to beam reassuring thoughts into his head. He looked as though he wanted to help, to stand up to Ronnie, but I knew he wouldn’t. I hoped I wouldn’t hold it against him later.
‘Hold his arms,’ said Ronnie. ‘Rich, come here. You get the first punch, only try not to break his nose or we’ll have to let him go. Just catch him on the jaw, OK? Just below his eye.’ He jabbed his finger in my face, indicating the bullseye.
Two boys, I couldn’t see who, pinned my arms behind my back as Rich Cooper stepped forward. His cheeks were flushed, his dark eyes furious. For a terrible moment, I thought I was going to wet my pants. My knees were shaking now and there was nothing I could do about it. I glanced over at Will and saw that he had tears in his eyes. I realised distantly that Paul Figg was nowhere to be seen, but it didn’t seem like much of a consolation.
I decided not watch, preferring to look away, to pretend that this wasn’t really happening. I do the same thing at the doctor when I get an injection. It’s a nice theory, but the needles still hurt all the same. I looked out over at the lake, and the Island caught my eye, its trees swaying in the wind.
It’s amazing how quickly the human mind works. In the time it took Rich to set his feet, take a deep breath and wind up to knock my block off, my brain had hit upon a brand new, crazy idea, formulated it effortlessly into words, and fired them out of my mouth like bullets from a machine gun.
‘I’ll stay on the Island!’ I said, far louder than I’d intended. Rich paused. He glanced at Ronnie, uncertain.
‘I said I’ll stay on the Island,’ my voice under control this time. Ronnie raised an eyebrow. I had his attention.
‘When?’ he said.
‘I’ll do it tonight, and I’ll stay till sunrise. But you have to leave me and Will alone from now on. And Paul, too.’ I hoped I sounded braver than I felt.
Everything was very quiet. The boys in Ronnie’s gang knew the stories about the Island, everyone at Westmore did. They waited for Ronnie to speak. He stood with his chest puffed out, shirt sleeves rolled up over muscular, hairy forearms, but I could see his eyes darting over to the lake every couple of seconds. I realised with surprise that he was just as scared of the Island as everyone else.
‘Alright,’ he said after a long pause, ‘you’re on. You stay there tonight. All night. We’ll be back at sunrise. You leave the island early, I pound little Pauly Figg and I’ll pound you, for ruining my lie in. You make it through the night, and we leave you alone. Deal?’
Will was trying to catch my eye, shaking his head rapidly, but I’d come too far to back out now.
‘Deal,’ I said. Will hung his head.
‘What were you thinking?’ asked Will later, trying to keep his voice to a whisper so the other boys wouldn’t hear. We were waiting for one of Ronnie’s mates to come back with a boat or raft of some kind. ‘They were only going to beat you up.’
‘Only going to beat me up?’ I responded, knowing full well how Will would feel if the shoe were on the other foot. ‘Only going to beat me up?!’
‘Exactly! It would have hurt, sure, but you’d still be alive at the end of it.’
‘Come off it, Will,’ I said, trying to sound casual. ‘You don’t believe that crap do you? About the Island?’
‘It isn’t the Island that’s the problem. It’s what lives on the Island.’ I didn’t have to ask what he meant. I knew that he was talking about the Grubber.
The story of the Grubber was a favourite at Westmore, sort of an urban legend that was passed down from one generation of students to the next. It went something like this:
A long time ago, around a hundred years, there was this kid at Westmore called Eric Andrews. Eric’s family was poor, which meant that Eric was poor. He couldn’t afford new books or pencils, and his packed lunches consisted of a couple of pieces of stale bread, or sometimes nothing at all.
He wore the same thing to school every single day, and his clothes never seemed to have been washed; they were stained and grubby, and the whites were a few shades closer to brown than they were supposed to be. The other kids teased him, holding their noses as they passed him in the corridors. They called him all sorts of names, but the one they liked best was The Grubber.
One freezing winter’s evening some of the meanest kids in school, probably kids much like Ronnie and his gang, decided to play a prank on Eric. They waited for him in the park, a big group of them hiding in the shadows. Eric soon appeared slowly making his way home from school, shoulders hunched. He wore no coat, despite the freezing wind.
The kids jumped Eric as he walked past, tripping him up and pinning him against the frosty ground, calling him a dirty little Grubber. Ignoring his cries, they stole the only thing in the world Eric cared about: his father’s ring.
The ring was the only possession of any value Eric owned, and he wore it every day, even though the other kids teased him about it. It was small and golden, and set with a bright red stone. Despite how poor he was, he never considered selling it, even though it must have been worth a lot of money.
One of the boys (who looks a lot like Ronnie, in my version of the story), took Eric’s ring while the other boys held him down. He threw it into the middle of the lake, where it vanished with a soft plop.
Everyone laughed at the brilliant prank, and, satisfied that they had succeeded in keeping Eric in his rightful position at the bottom of things, began to head home.
With a quiet calmness, Eric unbuttoned his shirt. He was impossibly thin, his bones jutting against his skin so that it seemed as though you could see his whole skeleton. Some of the other children slowed, looking back. Eric unlaced his shoes, and took them off one by one. The other kids stopped now, confused, surely he wouldn’t… he couldn’t? Eric walked towards the water, his jaw set.
When his right foot splashed into the lake, he broke a paper-thin layer of ice that had formed in the shallows. By now, the other kids realised Eric meant business. A few called his name. Not a nickname, but his actual name. Eric wasn’t listening.
He dived into the water head first and swam out in a messy doggy paddle. He wasn’t a strong swimmer, and he was soon puffing out small clouds of misty breath at an alarming rate.
With the shouts of his classmates ringing in his ears, Eric took a deep breath and plunged downwards, his socked feet kicking the air as he propelled himself beneath the black water.
The kids on the shore stood and watched. Nobody breathed. Ten seconds went by, and a few stray bubbles broke the surface near to where Eric had disappeared. Thirty seconds later, all was stillness. After a full minute, one of Eric’s classmates had the presence of mind to run for help. Eric’s body was never found.
Ever since that night, kids at Westmore have claimed to see things in the park. A dark figure skulking around the Island in the lake, melding with the shadows. Or strange shapes in the water, just below the surface, hinting at something large, prowling the depths.
According to some, Eric Andrews never left the lake, and whatever became of him lived on as the Grubber, a phantom, a creature from a nightmare.
You’d hear stories too, you couldn’t avoid them at school. Someone knew so-and-so who’s brother used to go to Westmore with a kid who went to the Island looking for the Grubber. The stories all ended the same way. Nobody ever returned. Some even said that if it got you, if it bit you, the pestilence in its mouth would turn you into a Grubber too, and that these freakish creatures were slowly spreading across the country from park to park.
But I knew it was just a story. It had to be a story. It was just an island, and Eric Andrews was just a kid who was on the wrong end of a joke that got out of hand.
I was jolted from these thoughts by Will nudging me on the arm. He looked worried.
‘Kev,’ he said, and I realised he’d already said my name two or three times.
‘Just take this, will you?’ He forced a small, cold something into my hand. It was a penknife. I recognised it at once, since he carried it with him everywhere, a hangover from his days in the Scouts. Somehow, all my friends seemed to have been Scouts at some point. Or failing that, on the chess team.
Will claimed the penknife was for protection, but the longest blade was barely longer than my thumb, and only half as dangerous. Besides, I knew he just liked playing with all the gadgets.
‘What do you think I’m going to do with this, file its nails?!’
But Will was deadly serious.
‘Just in case,’ he said.
At that moment Martin Parker, one of Ronnie’s boys, appeared. He dragged a dingy behind him on a short rope, the inflatable boat bouncing over the grass in his wake like an excited puppy.
‘Time to take a trip, Swaffer,’ said Ronnie. I swallowed hard and nodded once to show that I was ready. Martin slid the boat onto the lake, a thousand tiny ripples shattering the surface. I managed another weak smile for Will, who looked as though he might burst into tears at any moment, and climbed in.
Turning back, I saw that Martin was trying to give me something. He dropped a small golden ring into my hand. His face was grave, and I could see that he was afraid of what I was about to do.
Surprised, I nodded my thanks. According to the story, it was good luck to take a ring with you to the Island, kind of like an offering to the Grubber. Martin must have raided his sister’s jewellery box or something. He turned away, head down. He didn’t want to catch Ronnie’s eye.
I took up the little paddle, pushed off against the bank, and struck out for the middle of the lake. The sun was setting, and with each stroke drawing me ever closer to the Island, I felt a sense of growing unease.
What was I doing? Why had I agreed to this? Not only agreed to it, but actually volunteered for it.
‘Come on Kev,’ I said under my breath. ‘The Grubber isn’t real. Ronnie Fallow, Rich Cooper? They’re real. Better to take my chances with a fairy story than those two.’
It was true, of course, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that Will was right. That this was, a bad idea. I remembered a conversation I’d overheard one lunchtime at Westmore between a couple of Sixth Formers. One of them had been doing some research on the net, looking at old newspaper clippings.
He’d found articles about kids who’d gone missing in the park. Articles about suspected kidnappings where no motive was ever identified, and the victim never found. There were even, according to the Sixth Former, a few articles about kid’s who’d been found dead near the lake, their bodies broken and torn as though savaged by some wild creature. It was blamed on some kind of big cat, escaped from a travelling circus, but they never found any trace of it. The Sixth Former said there were tens of strange stories like these, over the years, but that nobody had ever bothered to join the dots.
I could still remember, word for word, what the boy had said. There’s something on that Island. Something hiding, waiting. I don’t know what it is, but I do know that it has killed, many times.
Deep down, I knew it was just a stupid urban legend, I knew the Sixth Former had just been joking around, trying to freak out one of his mates, kids at Westmore did it all the time. But now that I was alone, everything looked a shade more sinister than it had before.
It reminded me of that feeling I get sometimes after watching a horror film, when I see monsters lurking in every shadow, and a trip to the toilet in the night becomes an ordeal. The Island loomed ahead, large and forbidding.
The prow of the dingy nudged up against a muddy beach. I sat perfectly still for a moment, listening intently, but I couldn’t hear anything other than the gentle rustle of the wind in the trees. It’s just an empty island in a park. Nothing to be frightened of.
I turned to wave to the boys on the bank, but to my surprise, there was nobody there. The sun seemed to have set quickly while I’d been on the lake, almost as though I’d been paddling for hours, when in reality it could only have been ten minutes at most. I shrugged, confused.
For lack of a better idea, I decided to explore. I figured that the best way to banish my fears was to prove to myself that I was alone. An owl hooted somewhere out of sight. It sounded muted and far away, but it still made me jump. I started off into the darkness, trying to imagine myself as the king of a deserted castle, safe behind a mighty moat.
The trees and bushes that covered the interior of the Island were surprisingly thick, and progress was slow. After ten minutes or so of scrambling and fighting my way through the undergrowth, I stopped suddenly, looking around. Something had just occurred to me.
From the lake shore, the Island looked quite small. I’d seen it a thousand times on my way to and from school, and I was pretty sure it could be crossed in a minute, two at most. But here I was after ten minutes, and as far as I could tell, I was still somewhere smack in the middle. I tried to work out whether I could have gotten myself turned around, whether I might have been walking in circles this whole time. It seemed unlikely.
A small shiny something caught my eye, half buried in the mud at my feet. Curious, I bent to retrieve it, turning it over in my hands to clean off the dirt. It was a ring.
The faintest hint of panic reared its head in the pit of my stomach. I wondered whether the ring had been brought here by someone else who’d visited the Island, looking for the Grubber, and if so how they’d lost it. I felt for my own ring, the one Martin Parker had given me, nestled in my trouser pocket.
I knew that my inaction was only serving to increase my mounting fear, so I struck out once more for the other side of the island. If anything, the undergrowth was getting thicker; branches and brambles scratched at my face and tugged at my clothes like tiny hands determined to hold me back. I was forced to keep my eyes on my feet as stray roots seemed to appear out of nowhere, threatening to trip me.
Try as I might, I couldn’t get the image of the ring lying in the dirt out of my head. Someone else came looking for the Grubber. Someone else was here. What happened to them? The words of the Sixth Former kept playing in my head on a continuous loop.
There’s something on that Island. Something hiding, waiting. How many kids had been here, over the years, looking for the monster?
I started to run, no longer caring about the cuts and scrapes, about the tree roots. I was desperate to get out of the cloying darkness of the trees, to see the lights from the school up on the hill; I wanted to remind myself that civilisation was only a stone’s throw away.
I tripped suddenly while in full flight, landing flat on my face. I must have caught a root as I ran. Except, it hadn’t felt like a tree root. It felt like something had closed around my ankle. Something soft, but strong. I twisted like a snake to look back the way I had come, but there were only trees, looming ancient and still in the darkness.
I realised with surprise that I had stumbled out of the undergrowth. For a moment I thought I must have made it to the other side of the Island, but no, I had come to a small clearing surrounded by tall trees.
In the centre of the clearing was a little wooden hut. It looked like an old-fashioned hunter’s lodge that had been ravaged by wind and rain. There were scorch marks on one of the walls, as though someone had built a fire there once; perhaps to keep the chill of night away, or perhaps to keep something… else, away. I shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts.
I’d never heard any mention of a hut on the Island, but I was starting to realise that there was a lot more to this place that I’d previously realised. I was eager to get away from the silent trees, and the idea of being able to close a door behind me was a welcome one.
I knew that I’d allowed myself to become scared and disorientated in the darkness. I was acting like a child, blundering around, letting ghost stories speak to me from the shadows. I realised I was on one of those nighttime trips again, sneaking to the toilet after having watched a horror film, only on a grander scale.
The hut was damaged but still functional, so I let myself inside and closed the door behind me. Moonlight filtered in through the odd gap in the beamed ceiling, creating pretty silver patterns on the floor. Still, there was barely light enough to see by, and I had to grope around in the darkness, half blind.
I felt like a toddler, wobbling this way and that, finding out about my surroundings simply by walking into them. I knocked over a chair, the sudden loud noise making me jump half out of my skin, throwing up a cloud of dust that I tasted rather than saw. I gave myself a moment, gathering my nerves again, and felt my way across the room. It was even darker here, almost pitch black.
I bumped into something at waist height that turned out to be a table. I felt around, my fingers questing like ants on a patio. I nudged something with the thumb of my left hand. Something cold and hard. I held my breath. Another ring. I ran my hands over the rest of the table, slowly at first but then with an increasing speed that matched the escalating rhythm of my heartbeat.
The table was covered in rings of all shapes and sizes, laid out neatly like butterflies in an inspection cabinet, to be enjoyed one after the other.
I reached for the ring I had found amongst the trees outside, small and hard in my pocket.
Someone’s playing a prank on me, I thought, but I didn’t really believe it. Suddenly, a low noise broke the silence.
I whirled around like a madman, heart thumping painfully in my chest. The door to the hut had swung open. The room was still shrouded in blackness, but I could tell at once that something had changed, and it took only a split second to identify what it was. Where before all had been quiet, now I could hear a small, steady noise. Breathing. Low, wet breathing coming from somewhere in the room.
I stood stock still. A shift in the air brought with it a terrible, evil stench. As a child, I had once found a dead mole in the garden. Fascinated, I had scooped the little creature up and kept it in a box. When I came back to it a week later, I was disgusted by the fat, wriggling urgency of a million milky white maggots that had eaten the carcass from the inside out. The smell of that box, the smell of death and decay, of rotten fur and festering innards, of old blood, will live with me for the rest of my life. That same smell suddenly choked the air around me.
Before my brain had a chance to register what was happening I bolted for the door. In my haste, I tripped over the chair that I’d knocked over earlier. I tumbled to the ground and rolled into something soft. For a moment, I thought I’d fallen straight into the clutches of whatever it was that had crept into the hut, but I realised I had landed in a pile of clothes. Children’s clothes. The overheard conversation between the Sixth Former’s blared in my mind. Stories of children going missing in the night, never to be seen again. I would have screamed if I’d been able, but I couldn’t form the sound, and the rotten air made me gag and retch. I scrambled to my feet and fled.
I burst into the trees in what I hoped was the direction I’d come from minutes earlier, making for the dingy. I had no idea whether that thing, whatever it was, was in pursuit; I didn’t have the courage to look behind, and I couldn’t hear anything over the blood pumping in my ears.
I couldn’t say for how long I ran, but it felt like hours. I ran until my legs were on fire and I was certain I would fall if I didn’t stop. Then I ran some more, ignoring the countless cuts and bruises I suffered from the razor-sharp undergrowth.
Eventually I burst out of the trees onto the small muddy beach. To my immense relief I saw the dingy perhaps fifteen metres away. I felt tears wet my eyes at the sight of it. Willing myself onwards, I ran, desperate to escape. I didn’t know what it was that lurked on the Island, but I no longer doubted that something did.
I realised almost at once that there was a problem. I could hear a rushing, whooshing sound coming from the boat. Four long, ragged slashes had ripped open the dingy along one side, tearing through thread and rubber, releasing air like blood from a gushing arterial wound.
With the boat useless, there was only one option left to me; I was going to have to swim for it. The idea of getting into that cold, inky water filled me with dread, but if that’s what it took to get off the Island, so be it. Just then, something shifted below the surface, a subtle, eel-like movement. I froze.
A figure rose up out of the water, dark and dripping. At once, the foul smell from the hut filled my nose and stung my eyes, overwhelming my senses. I had come face to face with the Grubber.
The Grubber was a man, or perhaps it was truer to say it looked like it had once been a man. Away from this place, I could have mistaken it for a homeless person. It had that same bedraggled look, the dirt encrusted skin. But its hands were elongated and hooked, with thick, ragged fingernails more akin talons, and its hair was a mass of oily black, hanging down around its face. It wore a few scraps of filthy rag that might once have been the uniform of a schoolboy.
Then there were the eyes. Crimson eyes that burned into my flesh like hot coals, branding me with their hatred. No, this thing, whatever it was, was not human.
For a few seconds, I couldn’t move. I felt warmth between my legs as my bladder emptied, but I was too afraid to feel any shame. Distantly I could sense my body recalibrating into some sort of primeval setting, some last resort of the desperate, of the witlessly scared.
Without warning, the Grubber lunged for me. It moved with surprising speed and I only just evaded its claw-like fingers. A wet, slopping sound emanated from its mouth as it sought my flesh with rotten teeth. This time I managed to scream, the kind of bloodcurdling, heart-stopping sound that conveys pure terror into the hearts and minds of anyone who hears it.
I lashed out, fingers sinking into the mass of its hair. It was wet and sticky and my skin crawled to touch it. I squirmed out of the Grubber’s reach, kicking out wildly, barely evading those gnashing jaws. I turned and fled once more into the darkness of the trees.
I knew the Grubber was following. I couldn’t hear it, and neither could I see it, but this time the air was thick with that familiar death-smell. I ducked and swerved with all the agility I could manage, certain that at any moment I would feel jagged claws tear the skin of my back.
I willed myself to think as I ran. I was tiring, and for all I knew, whatever it was that hunted me could keep this up indefinitely. I didn’t have much time.
I could try to reach the shore and swim for it, but it was clear to me from the way the Grubber had moved beneath the water that it was far more at home there than I was; I might just as easily try to escape a shark in the middle of the ocean. I could try and find some place to hide, but I was certain the Grubber knew every inch of its domain. I realised in a sudden moment of clarity that there was only one option left to me. I was going to have to kill it.
The stench of death, so overpowering moments before, receded. I stopped, bent double, sucking in huge lungfuls of cold, crisp air. I could taste blood in the back of my throat.
I reached into my pocket, found Will’s penknife. It seemed even smaller than before, insignificant, a little red pebble. Still, it was all I had.
I made it back to the clearing without any further sign of the Grubber, and I set myself up with my back to the hut, cutting off the chance of an ambush from behind. The ashes from the old fire I’d seen earlier crunched as I shifted my weight from foot to foot. The darkness took on physical form, pressing in on me, weighing me down. What I would have done for a match.
Somehow, having made the decision to stand my ground, to fight this creature from hell, some of the fear I had felt earlier ebbed away. Sure, I was scared. More scared than I’d ever been before. But along with the fear came something new. A small ember, a feeling, something, in the pit of my stomach. The same sort of something that had compelled me to stand up for Paul Figg. That ember had gotten me into this mess, it was my best chance of getting out of it.
Still, I couldn’t really hope to win, but I’d rather die facing the Grubber like a man than cringing in some corner, waiting for it find me. I unfolded the penknife’s longest blade, and waited.
I stood by the hut a long time, peering into the darkness amongst the trees. Once or twice I thought I saw something, some furtive movement, a rustling of branches or a shifting in the shadows, but I could never be sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. Perhaps the creature was watching me, weighing up the situation. I had no way of knowing. A barn owl swooped low over the clearing on silent wings, startling me.
Just when I was beginning to doubt my plan, the Grubber slunk into view. Despite its man-like form, the creature walked on all fours like a jackal, stalking towards me with a shambling, shuffling gait. It might have been comical anywhere else. The Grubber moved awkwardly, but I wasn’t fooled; I’d seen how quickly it could strike when it chose to.
The now-familiar smell reached me before the creature did, filling my nostrils with a carrion scent, the smell of flesh gone bad, of maggots growing fat on congealed blood. I took a few tentative steps forwards. I was shaking violently, but the ember in my stomach still glowed. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. I raised the knife.
The Grubber reared up onto its hind legs, towering over me, and for a few seconds, we stared at one another. Those deep red eyes flicked over my body, and I once again tasted the creature’s hatred on my skin.
It struck before I could react, a claw clamping round my wrist with ferocious strength. The Grubber’s fetid jaws snapped at my face, it’s dripping maw flapping eagerly as it sought my flesh. I felt a sharp pain shoot up my left arm. I was powerless to resist, but as it moved in for the kill, I slammed the penknife into its belly with all the strength I could find.
The piercing screech that rent the night air was like nothing I’d ever heard before. It was a fox’s terrifying scream amplified through the belly of a whale. It was the sound of screeching tires and ten thousand nails tearing themselves free from their fingers on a giant blackboard.
Despite its injury, the Grubber didn’t relinquish its grip on my arm for even a split second; if anything, it held me even more fiercely. The creature pulled one clawed hand back to strike me, and I knew I was about to die.
Suddenly, the imagine of Rich Cooper appeared in my mind. Earlier that day (had it really been that same day?) Rich had made to strike me in much the same way, after I knocked him down. I could see him standing before me in my mind’s eye and I remembered how scared I’d been. How scared I had thought I was. I had not know fear then. The absurdity of the comparison, the sheer ridiculousness of the thought, made me laugh. Not a laugh of any mirth, it was the wild, spiralling laugh of a madman, of someone on the outermost edge of a great chasm, staring down into the void of insanity.
To my amazement, the Grubber cringed. It released its grip on my arm immediately, bent double as if suddenly crippled by the tiny wound I had dealt it with the penknife. But no, I realised, it wasn’t the knife wound that was causing the creature pain, it was my laughter.
Suddenly, I understood. I saw through the cloak of horror that the Grubber wore, and remembered the boy it had once been. The Grubber had grown into a fearsome, nightmarish creature, but once, long ago, it had been frightened little Eric Andrews. A poor wretch who was bullied without mercy. I knew what I had to do.
‘Quit your whining you little whimp.’ I shouted, in the most aggressive, derisive tone I could muster.
The Grubber writhed.
‘You make me sick! You smelly little wretch. Look at your filthy clothes! Can’t you afford anything better? They stink. You horrible little Grubber.’
The Grubber howled, a sound of agony that tore against me like a gale. But I didn’t feel terror as I had before. I felt pity. It was a sound of ancient pain, deep and dark as a well. It was pure, bottomless suffering written on the air.
As it howled, the Grubber began to change. The thick, oily black hair shortened, neatening into an old fashioned side parting. The tattered rags became a shirt and blazer, dirty and stained, but whole again. The crooked, broken talons became regular fingernails, and after a matter of seconds, the thing that had been the Grubber was gone entirely. In its place sat a boy, crying and crying.
He looked up at me, blinking away his tears.
‘Have they gone?’ he asked.
‘Have who gone?’
‘You know. Marcus and the other lot. Why won’t they just leave me alone?’
I didn’t know what to say, so I just stood there, open mouthed.
‘It was him, you know. Marcus. He threw my Dad’s ring into the lake. I went in after it before I really knew what I was doing. I didn’t want to, but I had to get it back. I’ve been searching for hours, longer maybe, but I can’t find it.’ He sniffled, wiping away tears and mucus with a dirty sleeve.
I had an idea.
‘You know, I think I did find your ring, actually, while I was exploring the Island.’ I reached into my pocket and produced the ring Martin had given me earlier. I handed it to Eric. ‘See? Here it is.’
Eric’s face lit up, but the smile didn’t last long.
‘Oh,’ he said, visibly deflating, ‘this isn’t it. It’s nice, but mine has a little red stone set in the middle. I’m never going to find it.
‘I tell you what Eric, why don’t you take my ring?’ I said. ‘Perhaps you can wear that instead? At least until you find yours.’
He looked at me, eyes narrowing suddenly.
‘You’re playing a trick on me aren’t you? Everyone’s always playing tricks on me. And nobody ever gave me a present for no reason. Most people don’t even speak to me. In fact, some people don’t even look at me.’
‘I mean it Eric. It’s yours. I want you to have it.’
He still looked doubtful, but after a moment’s thought, he slid the ring onto the little finger of his left hand. It fit him perfectly. At once he seemed to grow insubstantial, ghostlike.
‘It’s a beautiful ring, Eric.’ I said. ‘It really suits you.’
He smiled shyly.
He sat down in the middle of the clearing, cradling his hand in his lap, admiring the ring.
‘You know, I’m so tired,’ he said suddenly, stifling an expansive yawn. ‘I feel like I’ve just woken up from the longest, most unsatisfying sleep you could ever imagine. Do you mind if I rest here a while? Will you keep an eye out for Marcus, wake me up if he comes back?’
‘Sure, you sleep. But I don’t think you have to worry about Marcus anymore.’ I could see that he wasn’t convinced. ‘If I see him, I’ll wake you up, OK?’
‘Thank you,’ he said, lying down. ‘You know, I don’t think I recognise you. Do you go to the school?’
‘Erm, yeah sort of.’
‘You must be in the year above then, I suppose. I don’t know any of the older children. What’s your name?’
‘I’m Kev. Nice to meet you.’ I tried to shake his hand, but by now he was too insubstantial, and my fingers passed right through him. He didn’t seem to notice.
‘Kev?’ He frowned. ‘What a strange name.’ He yawned again. ‘You know, I hope we can be friends, one day. I’ve always wanted to have a friend.’
I was about to answer, to tell him I’d very much like that, when Eric’s outline shimmered beneath me. He was more ghost-like than ever now, and as a slight breeze stirred my trouser legs, Eric Andrews evaporated before my very eyes.
The sun was beginning to rise as I emerged shivering from the lake and into the park. My head was pounding and my eyes ached. I was trembling, slightly.
I thought of Eric, alone on the Island, trapped somehow by the careless cruelty of his classmates. A cruelty which had warped him, contorted his soul, twisting it until all the humanity had been wrung from him. Nobody would ever know the damage that cruelty had caused over the years, or how many lives the Grubber had claimed. I thought about the rows of rings arranged on the table inside the hut, and the pile of clothes I’d fallen into when I tried to run.
I couldn’t see Ronnie and his gang yet. I tried to imagine what I would say to them. Could I tell the truth? Would they believe me? I found it difficult to bring the image of Ronnie to mind, as though my experience on the Island had changed him somehow, or at least changed the version of him that existed in my head. Perhaps it was because I no longer feared him. He was just a man, after all. A boy, even.
The lake-water had washed away most of the dirt and grime from my skin, revealing hundreds of cuts and scrapes, mostly shallow but a couple that still bled. Amongst them on my arm I saw a strange horseshoe-shaped wound, purple with bruising and ragged with torn skin. The same pattern was repeated on the underside side of my arm where the skin is white and fragile. It throbbed and itched. I felt feverish, and my thoughts seemed to bounce around inside my head, going nowhere.
My heart was beating too fast, thumping against my ribcage as though trying to shake itself free. My vision fuzzed momentarily, then came back sharper. I was finding it difficult to remember why I was there, what had happened to me.
I looked back toward the Island and felt my body relax a little. There was something else too, something like longing, clear and defined against the static in my head. I thought I could hear Ronnie’s voice carried on the wind from a long way away, but I couldn’t remember who Ronnie was.
I took a few steps towards the lake. I felt the water lap my ankles. It was warm now, soothing against my skin. A small voice in my head that I distantly recognised was shouting, screaming at me to stop. The voice was called Kevin.
I was up to my waist now. I turned back toward the school. I could see a group of boys moving down the hill, but I knew they couldn’t see me. I flexed my jaw, tasting a flood of fresh saliva in my mouth. I took a deep breath, and slipped silently down into the darkness.