The car pulled up in front of the school. Todd looked out of his window towards the main entrance of Horace O’bryant Middle School. It had been a just over a week since he had been released from quarantine and given the all clear, two weeks since the incident at the house. This was his first day back at school and he was a little nervous. He got out of the car and turned to close the door. “Todd,” his dad said leaning over to the passenger-side window, “are you sure this is what you want?” Sam had tried to convince his son to take Uncle John up on his offer of arranging a place at Cody’s school. He had been worried about his son’s safety and if he’d had his way, Todd would have gone to school surrounded by armed guards. In the week he’d spent on Sentinel after being released from quarantine, Todd’s dad had spent nearly every minute with him. It was understandable though, he had almost lost his son that night. But Todd was adamant that he wasn’t going to hide for the rest of his life, nor did he want to be shielded from the real world like his cousin. Somehow, he had managed to convince his dad to let him return to his normal school. He was a little suspicious that his dad had acquiesced so easily.
“I’ll be fine, quit worrying about me.” Todd said a little too sharply and shouldered his backpack. Taking a deep breath, he walked through the main entrance and towards the playground. He received more than a few strange looks from the other kids as he walked onto the playground. Several people pointed at him and whispered to their friends. He started to wonder if this was such a good idea, maybe dad had been right, maybe he should have waited another week but Todd had been eager to get back to school. He’d already had a rough start to the eighth grade and missing two weeks near the start of the school year probably wasn’t going to help.
He was about to turn around and head back to the gate when he heard voice cut across the playground noise. “Todd, you’re back!” Todd looked up and saw a boy his own age running towards him.
“Hey A J.” Todd had joined the school at the start of the school year after moving to Key West earlier in the summer. He hadn’t had much time to make friends but thankfully, most of the other children in his class hadn’t made it too hard for the new boy to settle in. Todd had been lucky enough to find himself sitting at a desk next to Andrew Jarvis on his first day and once the usual adolescent awkwardness had passed, he had made his first friend since moving to Florida. “Did I miss much?” He asked as A J skidded to a stop in front of him.
“Never mind that,” A J asked him, his eyes wide open, “is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“Billy Taylor’s dad’s a cop,” A J explained, “and he said that his dad said that you got shot, that there was blood everywhere!” Several of his classmates were also starting to move over towards them, forming a small group around him.
Todd sighed inwardly, so much for the cover story that Uncle John had drilled into him. If A J knew then it was a good chance that half the kids in school knew as well; things like that spread quickly across the playground. He could try to deny it, stick to the cover story, but that would be difficult if half the school was already convinced of the truth. Besides, he hadn’t been comfortable about having to lie to his new friend in the first place. “It’s not as bad as Billy’s making out,” he said hoping his dad wouldn’t be too mad about this.
“Are you calling my dad a liar?” Billy said from behind Todd.
“That’s … that’s not I meant.” Todd stuttered, more than a little intimidated by the larger boy.
A J asked him again. “Well, did you get shot or not?”
Sam watched his son enter the school before driving off. As well as being impulsive, his son had a stubborn streak a mile wide. Todd got that stubbornness from his mother. Like her, once he had his mind set on something, there was very little that could be done to change it. He could have put his foot down, sent Todd to that boarding school whether he wanted to or not but for some reason he didn’t. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to take any steps to protect his son. As he stopped at the intersection waiting for the lights, he reached over and switched on the dashboard mounted GPS unit. The LCD touch screen lit up and displayed a map showing the car’s current location. Sam pressed the little magnifying glass icon, activating the “Find” function, and an onscreen keyboard replaced the map. He tapped on the keys, spelling the word “Todd” and pressed the “OK” button. The map reappeared centred over the school where had dropped his son off. A blinking yellow dot appeared over the school; Sam pressed dot and the screen blanked for a second. A live satellite feed appeared and zoomed in on the school playground. Sam could see Todd standing with a group of other children, oblivious to the fact that he was being watched from space. Last night, he had given Todd a present. A brand new digital watch, crammed with features, half of which he knew the boy would probably never use. Todd had rolled his eyes at the gadget but had taken the present nonetheless; it was a cool looking watch after all. What Todd didn’t know was that Sam had placed a GPS chip in the watch; a chip that Sam could use to track his son’s whereabouts at all times using one of Overwatch’s satellites orbiting over the US. Sam had effectively “lojacked” his son, something he knew Todd would be furious about if he ever found out. The car behind him beeped its horn, the lights had turned green.
Across the road from the school sat a grey utility van with the logo of a local cable company plastered on its side. A worker sat in front a nearby utility box, a rugged laptop on his knee as he ran a series of connection tests, occasionally cursing. To the casual observer, he appeared to be nothing more than a technician trying to track down a fault within the area’s broadband or cable TV connection. However, the act was a lie; his work with the utility box was merely a cover for his real job.
He watched the young boy that he had been ordered to spy on get out of his father’s car. The last time he had seen Todd Marshall, he had been lying in his father’s arms bleeding to death after he had nearly emptied an entire clip into the boy. With their mission complete, they had returned through the portal only to learn a few days later of the boy’s miraculous survival. Part of him was glad that he had survived, he had never been comfortable with shooting the boy. Still, you don’t argue with orders given by a man that orders the death of a child merely to underscore a point he is trying to make.
The man tapped a series of notes in coded shorthand on his laptop as Todd entered the school. He hoped that he wouldn’t be ordered to finish the job; this Todd seemed like a good kid. Looking up from the laptop, he saw Todd surrounded by a group of school kids and lifting his t-shirt up. “What’s that all about?” He wondered.
“Brutal,” A J whistled as Todd lifted his t-shirt. He had been browbeaten by Billy into showing his chest after admitting that he had been shot. Todd had learnt on his first day that Billy usually got what he wanted and he didn’t want to have to explain to his dad again why he had black eye. Although the nanobots had repaired most of the damage caused by the gunshots without leaving any marks, a knot of scar tissue had been left behind on the right hand side of his stomach where several bullets had hit close together. The flesh had been torn ragged by the entry of the bullets but the nanobots had been able to knit the flesh back together making it appear as only a single gunshot wound. “Did it hurt much?”
“Dunno,” Todd lied, “I woke up in hospital a couple of days later. Don’t remember anything about Sunday night.” He tried to downplay the situation, make it sound less serious than it actually was. Then Billy just had to pipe in with the fact that Paragon had been present at Todd’s house. If this had been New York, where Todd had lived for ten years before moving to Key West, no one would have cared about the presence of the super. Super-battles were so common there that they barely made it to the traffic reports, never mind the nightly news. However, here in Key West, supers and super-battles were rare. Todd thanked God that no one had any idea that Paragon was his uncle or that his dad freelanced for Overwatch.
“You met Paragon?” A J said wide-eyed. “That is so awesome, what was he like?”
“Er … did you miss the part where I said I was unconscious and I don’t remember anything.” Across the playground, he saw his homeroom teacher walking towards the classroom block. “Hey, I’ll catch up with you guys in class.” Todd picked up his backpack and jogged away from the group towards his teacher. “Miss Gunderson!”
Sarah Gunderson turned around at the sound of his voice and flashed a kind smile when she saw him running over. “Todd, I didn’t know you were back at school today. How are you feeling?”
“I’m okay Miss,” Todd said smiling back. He liked Miss Gunderson, unlike many of the teachers he’d had previously, she didn’t make him feel stupid when he asked a question in class or didn’t understand something because of his dyslexia. She also had the patience to deal with him fairly when he acted up in class and made sure that if he needed extra help because of his problems that he always got it. She was a new teacher, having only started at the school at the start of the year and she was still enthusiastic about teaching.
“That’s good to hear. Now, what can I help you with?”
“I missed the math test on the 21st and I was wondering if there was any way I could take it during lunch?”
Miss Gunderson raised an eyebrow, “I thought you hated maths, it always seems to bring out your most colourful language.”
Todd blushed, it was true that sometimes he got so worked up in math lessons that he occasionally cursed out loud in frustration without meaning to. “I know, but I studied really hard for it and I’d like to at least have a go. I’ll probably fail it anyway but I want to able to tell my dad that I tried.”
She laughed softly, “I’m sure you’ll do your best. But perhaps during third period would be a better time to take the test, I wouldn’t want you to miss lunch in order to do some algebra sums. That would be cruel.” The school bell rang and children began to filter towards their classrooms. “I’ll have a word with Mrs Willis and see if I can arrange it for today.”
“Really, thanks Miss, you’re the best.” With that, he turned and ran off to join his classmates, waving as he ran. The teacher watched as Billy came up behind Todd and said something that made the smaller boy scowl. Todd clenched his fists as his face flushed red but to his credit, he managed to control his anger and turn back to A J. Miss Gunderson could see what has coming and she quickened her step to try to intervene. Billy cuffed the back of Todd’s head and she could visibly see the moment that Todd’s patience snapped. The smaller boy span around yelling “LIAR” and struck the side of Billy’s face. The bully leapt onto him sending both of them to the ground where they started kicking and punching each other.
That afternoon, Sam was in his study sitting at his desk. Piled next to him was a stack of unmarked coursework. As well as his research position, Sam also taught a couple of classes, something which gave him a great deal of pleasure. After spending two weeks off work with his son, there were a number of assignments that needed marking and he had decided to work from home so he could clear the backlog. Yet try as he might, he found it hard to concentrate on the mysteries of molecular engineering. His eyes kept wandering across the desk towards another stack of papers, Todd’s test results that he’d brought with him from Sentinel. He started flicking through the test results, hoping inspiration would strike, anything to take his mind off the appointment he had tomorrow with his lawyer about the possible charges he might be facing for injecting Todd with the nanobots. Even though it had been a desperate act done in order to save his son’s life, the Advisory Council had decided to go forward with the charges. On top of it all, earlier in the day he had received a most unwanted phone call from his son’s school.
The front door opened and Sam heard his enter the house noisily. “Baxter, is dad home?” He heard his son yell from the hallway.
“I’m in the study son,” he said answering for the computer, “can you come in here for a minute.”
Todd ran into the study. His face was red, as if he had ran home all the way from the bus stop. His t-shirt was dirty with a small tear near the bottom and there were a few spots of blood on its front. Despite the state of his clothes, Todd was grinning. “Dad,” he said breathlessly while holding a piece of paper, “you’ll never guess…”
Sam looked at his son sternly as he interrupted him, “Todd, the principal called. He said you were fighting again with Billy Taylor.”
Sam pinched the brow of his nose and sighed. “No buts Todd, we’ve talked about this before. I know you find school difficult, and that Billy Taylor is a little thug, but you have to learn to control your anger better. Do you want to get kicked out of another school?”
“Billy Taylor said you were making drugs in the basement and selling them to college students and the bad guys found out and were angry that you were stealing their customers and they came to our house to threaten you and I got shot because you wouldn’t give them a cut of the profits.” Todd said quickly without taking a breath.
“And that’s why you punched him?”
“He started it,” Todd whined defensively, “was I supposed to just stand there and let him tell lies like that.” But his dad wasn’t listening, he kept on talking about not using violence to solve his problems. As he spoke, Todd just got angrier and angrier. He looked down at the piece of paper in his hand, which until a few moments ago had seemed so important.
“Well, what are we going to about this?” Sam asked, looking at his son across the desk.
Todd screwed up the paper was holding into a ball and looked up at his father. His eyes were red and he was holding back tears as he glared angrily at his father. Why couldn’t he make his father understand, why couldn’t he just see that it wasn’t his fault? Why did he have the ruin everything? Dropping the ball of screwed up paper to the floor; he spoke quietly, barely above a whisper but loud enough for Sam to hear. “I hate you.” Todd turned and ran out of the room, not wanting his dad to see him cry.
“Todd wait,” Sam said getting up as his son fled. “Damn,” he thought, “that didn’t go well.” Maybe he had come on too strong, been too hard on him. After all, his son had been provoked into the fight. Sam had so much on his mind; maybe he should have cut his son some slack. Walking around the desk, he picked up a photo frame and sighed. The photograph was the only one that he had of the three of them together, Todd, Helen and himself. It had been taken only a few weeks before the crash in which his wife had died. “I’m a terrible father.” She would’ve known what to do, he was sure of it.
Putting the photo frame back on the bookshelf, Sam noticed the screwed up ball of paper that Todd had left on the carpet. He reached down and picked it up, smoothing out its crumpled surface. It was a graded test paper and in the top corner, circled prominently and with the words “well done” written next to it, was the grade; an A plus. Todd had gotten every single question correct. Sam scanned the paper, all the working out was there, all in Todd’s handwriting. “Wow,” Sam said to himself, “his first A.” No wonder he had been so happy when he came home, he thought, all that hard work had paid off. Then it hit him, Todd must have rushed home to tell him and the first thing that happened is that he received a lecture from his father over a silly playground brawl.
Taking a deep breath, he slowly walked up the stairs towards Todd’s bedroom. Sam knocked on the door. The only answer he got was a muffled “go away” which he ignored and opened the door. Todd had been lying on his bad, his face buried into his pillow. He sat up quickly as Sam came in, wiping his eyes and nose on the back of his sleeve. “What do want now?” Todd said glaring at him from under his fringe.
Sam sat down on the bed next to him handed him the test paper. “You left this downstairs.” His son took the paper off him, sniffing slightly.
“I just wanted you to be proud of me for once,” Todd said quietly, a tear he couldn’t hold back falling onto the test paper.
“Todd,” Sam said in surprise, “I’ve always been proud of you.”
Todd shook his head. “But, you’re like the smartest person in the world, how can you be proud of someone like me. I’m always in trouble at school and I never get good grades. I’ve never got above a C in my life. If I was good at sports that’d be something but I suck at that too.” As he spoke, Sam began to realise that this wasn’t something new; Todd must have been bottling these feelings up for weeks, months perhaps even years. How long had he been hiding these feelings and how could he have not seen them? “My seventh grade teacher was right, I’m a moron.”
“Todd Marshall,” he said turning his son around to face him, “you are not a moron, you are my son and I am proud of you.” Todd opened his mouth to interrupt but Sam kept on talking, saying something he realised he should have said long ago. “You’ve always had difficulties at school because of your problems. But unlike other kids, you’ve never used them as an excuse to just give up. You’ve always tried your hardest to overcome them, and it’s not been easy; it’s been hard but you never stopped trying. That’s why I’m proud of you.” A small smile appeared on his son’s face.
“Really?” Todd asked him.
“Of course,” he answered, pulling his son into a hug. “Just do me a favour, no more fighting to protect the family honour. One superhero in the family is enough.”
Todd awoke in the early hours of Tuesday morning with a thumping headache and a mouth more parched than the Arizona desert. Bleary-eyed, he stumbled out of bed and shuffled his way towards the bathroom. He winced as he switched the light on, temporarily blinded by the sudden light, even though he should have expected it.
“Is everything all right?” Baxter asked quietly from a speaker in the ceiling, the volume of his voice lowered because of the early hour.
“Just a headache, and a bit thirsty,” Todd grunted, “I’ll live.”
“There is a bottle of headache tablets on the bottom shelf of the medicine cabinet.” The computer said helpfully.
“Thanks.” He reached over to the medicine cabinet, having to stand on his tiptoes to reach it, and felt around for several seconds for the bottle before finding it. Todd read the instructions before tipping one of the tablets into his hand and swallowing it along with a gulp of water from a glass. “We’ll see if it’s fast acting or not,” he muttered rubbing his temples in front of the mirror. He stood there for a couple of seconds, looking at his reflection. The weather had been warm and he had gone to bed without a vest or t-shirt. In the glass of the mirror, he could see he could see the knot of scar tissue. Despite how “awesome” his friends at school might have thought it was, to him it was an uncomfortable reminder of just how close he had come. His headache took that moment to send a stab pain rippling across his head. “What sort of alien nano-thingies,” he hissed through gritted teeth, “can heal a dozen gunshots but can’t do anything about a simple headache.”
He was about to leave the bathroom when something strange happened. Grey static washed over his vision, blinding him for several seconds. Todd stumbled towards the sink in panic and was about to call out to Baxter when his vision suddenly cleared. Staring at his reflection in the mirror, and panting heavily with beads of sweat dribbling down his face, he became aware of something very disturbing. Floating in the bottom left of his vision were a series of glowing green characters. Todd didn’t recognise them and he had a feeling that they belonged to no earthly alphabet. Another series of characters appeared in the upper right that changed rapidly; an ever changing sequence of alien letters and pictographs which only stopped when they read “LANGUAGE SETTING: EARTH/HUMAN/ENGLISH.” The characters in the bottom left of his vision changed at the same time to read, “OPTICAL SHUNT ESTABLISHED – BEGIN BIOHOST INTEGRATION PROCEDURE YES/NO?”
True to his word, Anthony had kept what Ryan had told him a secret. Although he did manage to convince Ryan that Susan at least should be told. Afterwards, Ryan had been symbolically grounded for a week. He wasn’t really being punished; he just had to have the appearance of being punished for Trey’s sake. Eventually things returned to normal, both at home and at school. The only thing that changed was that the whole experience had strengthened the relationship between Ryan and his foster parents. He had even taken the step of telling Jake an edited and sanitised version of what had happened to his family. For Ryan, finally telling someone the whole truth of what had happened had been a release, lifting something that had been weighing down on him for over four years. For the first time since that night, Ryan felt genuinely happy and could almost forget about his brother.
It was a dismal May morning nearly a month later as Ryan boarded the school boat for the trip across the bay. The water was choppy and Ryan hung over the side of the boat feeling queasy. It didn’t help that Jake was playfully tormenting him with a greasy bacon balm. The ten-minute boat ride felt like hours and he was glad when they finally arrived at the island and he was able to walk on solid ground once again. When they disembarked, the clouds started spitting rain and as the morning progressed, the weather steadily deteriorated. During the first period, instead of listening to the oral presentations in his history class, Ryan found himself looking out of the window at the dark clouds that hung dramatically low over the island.
“So while the Cornish Wreckers are largely considered a myth,” Celeste said as she stood at the front of the class, “there WAS an incident involving a suspicious shipwreck in 1689.”
“Ryan!” Mr Willis snapped as he threw a balled up piece of scrap paper at the boy. “Pay attention. Please continue Celeste.”
“A ship, heavily damaged, washed up on the shore of St Piran’s Island. Only one person, the captain, survived. The story told is that he ranted and raved about a doom coming to the town. That night, the lord’s only son, who had only just turned fourteen, was murdered. The captain, so the story says, was found dead the next morning, drowned in the highest room of the house.”
As she sat down, someone at the back of the class called out “woo, spooky.” Laughter rippled across the classroom.
“Alright nine B, settle down. Thank you for the … er … ‘informative’ presentation Celeste. Thomas, you’re up the next.”
At eleven o’clock, a special assembly was called and the 400 odd upper and junior students were crammed into the small assembly hall. They were told that the weather forecast for the afternoon had worsened, an unexpected storm was growing in the English Channel and it was expected to hit the Cornish coast sometime in the next few hours. As a precaution, the school would be closing early. Junior students would be going home first following the assembly; upper students would follow after lunch. There was a mixture of groans and cheers at the announcement.
“Are we being evacuated or something?” Ryan nervously asked one of his classmates as they filed out of the assembly hall.
“Nah,” Ben said, “this happens a couple of times a year.”
“Seriously?” Ben was a few months younger than Ryan and a good few inches shorter. He had an unruly crop of blond hair that seemed perpetually windswept underneath his bandana head wrap, even indoors. Three weeks ago, the teacher had moved Ben next to Ryan in order to help him with his maths, not that Ryan really needed the help. At first, it had been awkward but eventually the two boys started talking and Ryan had found himself inexorably drawn in to Ben’s circle of friends.
“When the weather get’s bad, they just close the school for the day. It’s kinda like a snow day but without the snow.” Explained Tommy, another of Ryan’s classmates and one of Ben’s friends. “You’ll get used to it.” They returned to what remained of the morning lessons eager to finish school early, although some of the children, Ryan included, were not looking forward to the rough boat ride ahead.
By lunchtime, the sea around St Piran’s Island had become very rough indeed; too rough in fact for the school’s boats to make the trip safely. A very brave teacher was selected to stand up in front of 120 teenagers from years 9, 10 and 11 and tell them that because of the conditions, further trips back to the mainland were postponed until tomorrow. They would be spending the night. The teacher was lucky that there wasn’t a riot when he told them that they would be spending part of their Saturday morning at the school.
The rest of the day passed excruciatingly slowly. Instead of wasting the afternoon, the children were kept busy with their normal afternoon lessons while the rest of staff prepared the sleeping areas. They brought the camp beds out of storage; setting them up in the gym, the assembly hall, the canteen and some of the classrooms. Although an extremely rare occurrence, being cut off from the mainland was a situation that the school was prepared for.
Outside, the strong winds and driving rain swept across the island, rattling the windows. As evening closed in, the children were assigned their sleeping areas. Most of the students were assigned either the assembly hall or canteen in the old manor house. With the need to separate the boys from the girls, there was inevitably some overspill. A small number of students had to be found alternative sleeping arrangements.
The 18th century manor house was the original home of the family that had donated the island to the community. Apart from the assembly hall and the canteen, the house was mainly used for staff purposes; the school having long outgrown the listed building’s original facilities and expanding into purpose built structures around the grounds. The first floor and the attic of the house were normally out of bounds to students but with sleeping space at a premium, four students were forced to use the attic. Ryan; along Ben, Tommy and Tommy’s cousin Jason, were the four lucky “volunteers.”
The boys followed the teacher up the stairs and into the attic. They expected to see a dusty and cobweb ridden attic, but when the light was switched on, they were surprised to see that the room was relatively clean and tidy. Even if the air was a little stuffy from being sealed for an extended period. The attic was decorated with plain pine panelling and looked like it had been converted for use as an office but for some reason had never been furnished or used. Along one side of the roof ran a large skylight that gave a spectacular view of the storm wracked seaward coast of the island.
“So,” Ryan said as he looked out of the window, “if the school get’s struck by lightning, we’ll be the first to get fried then, being in the roof.”
“I’m sure the school is well insulated,” The teacher said as she helped Ben with his camp bed.
Ryan turned his back on the window and looked for a spot to set his camp bed up. “Yeah, but are we?”
“Don’t mind him miss,” Ben said, “he’s just nervous that we’re gonna get stuck here over the weekend and that he’s going to be forced to do extra maths homework.”
“Heh,” laughed Tommy from across the room, “he faced down three knife wielding thugs singlehanded but he’s scared of a little algebra and lightning.” Not long after he had returned to Cliffport, the incident in Truro had made the local papers and since then, he’d been teased about it mercilessly.
“Shut it,” Ryan said jokingly as he threw a pillow across the room at Tommy, “or I’ll get you and make it look like Jason did it.”
“Hey, leave me out of this.”
Night closed in rapidly, cloaking the island in darkness. Ben, who’d always been fascinated by stormy weather, was sat at the window watching the rain. “Hey guys,” he said, “there’s something you should see.”
“Go to bed Ben, some of us are trying to get some sleep,” someone said in a muffled voice.
“No seriously,” he said getting to his feet and pressing against the glass, “you really have to see this.” He was joined at the window by Ryan, yawning as he peered out into the night. “There’s a ghost ship washed up on the beach.”
“Yeah right,” Jason said disbelievingly, “how do you know it’s a ghost ship?” Jason didn’t believe for a minute that Ben had seen a ship wrecked on the beach, ghostly or otherwise.
Ryan stepped back from the window and looked at Jason and Tommy with an expression of astonishment on his face. “Because you can see right through it!”
“No way,” Tommy and Jason said unison as they got up and ran to the window. There, driven on to the beach, was double-mast sailing ship. It’s ripped and ragged sails flapping in the wind as the rain swept across the deck. Just as Ryan had said, if you looked carefully you could see the surf on the far side through the ship’s translucent hull.
Ben pulled on his boots and began to put on his coat. “Where are you going?” asked Jason.
“Where do you think,” Ben answered stopping at the stairs down from attic, “I’m gonna check it out.”
“But it’s pissing it down!” Jason said.
Ryan turned his back on the window, sat down and started pulling on his shoes. “Not you too?” Tommy asked.
“I’m not letting him go out alone in this storm,” Ryan said as he pulled on his coat and joined Ben at the stairs. He turned to face the two boys still at the window with a mischievous grin. “Besides, there’s an actual, real live ghost pirate ship on the beach!”
“How do you know it’s a pirate ship?” asked Ben. Ryan just shrugged in response.
Tommy and Jason exchanged a look, both rolling their eyes, grabbed their own coats. “If you two are going then we’re not going to get left behind.”
“What’s the matter Tommy,” Ryan asked playfully remembering the other boy’s earlier jibe, “scared of being left alone in the dark and spooky attic?”
Slowly, the four boys crept down the stairs, speaking in hushed whispers. Listening carefully, they waited a few seconds to make sure that no teachers were on the prowl and they made their way to the main staircase and out of the building.
The wind and rain had eased slightly but they were still soaked by the time they reached the fence at the back of the school. The seaward side of the island was out of bounds for various reasons and a fence ran between it and the school. However, generations of schoolchildren had found their way beyond the fence, either climbing over it of squeezing through gaps or holes. Ben clambered through one of the holes in the fence and led the others towards a path. The path wound down the steep back of the island and rounded a pile of rocks before opening onto the beach.
Lying lengthways along the beach was the ship. From the closer vantage point, the ship appeared more real even through its translucency was more apparent. A gaping hole had been gouged in the side facing the beach, some of its cargo spilling onto the sand.
“So,” Ryan said as he looked at the ship in wide-eyed wonder, “are we really looking at an actual ghost ship, washed up during a mysterious storm.”
“Yep,” Jason said, “do you reckon we can get on board?”
“Only one way to find out,” said Ben as he set off running down the beach towards the ship.
Jason, Ryan and Tommy only hesitated for a second before following Ben. They stood together at the hole, staring into the darkness of the cargo hold. Now they were standing next to it, a shiver ran down Ben’s spine. “Maybe,” the boy thought to himself suddenly, “this isn’t such a good idea.” Before he could voice his concerns, Ryan had clambered up the spilled cargo and pulled himself into the hold, Tommy and Jason following soon after.
Wide-eyed with wonder, the boys walked around the hold. Tommy picked up a cutlass and began waving it around, pretending to be a pirate. Jason ducked under one of the boy’s wild swings, cursing as he did so. Another couple of inches lower and the rusted blade would have hit him in the face. As the two boys argued, Ryan knelt in front of one of the barrels. Curious, he ran his hand along the wooden surface of the barrel. He pushed hard against the wood and his hand slowly passed through it. His hand tingled, goose bumps spread up his arm and it felt like he was pushing his hand through a thick, sticky paste. Ben suddenly gasped and pointed towards the stairs leading to the deck. Ryan quickly pulled his hand out of the barrel, half-disappointed that it wasn’t covered in ectoplasm, and looked at where Ben was pointing.
Standing halfway down the stairs was a man dressed in the clothing of a 17th century sailor. Like the ship, he was translucent. The ghost took an unsteady step down the stairs. Ryan stood next to Ben and looked up at the ghost in amazement. “Dude, there is a ghost pirate on a ghost ship. This is frickin’ awesome. Why did I not bring a camera?”
The ghost took another faltering step down the stairs and raised a hand towards Ryan and Ben. “They have returned,” it said in a gurgling voice as water bubbled out of its mouth. A gust of wind blew in through the hole in the side of the ship, shredding the ghost like a cloud of smoke. The remaining wisps of its essence were sucked up the stairs by the wind and onto the deck. Running up the stairs, the four boys emerged on the deck. There was no sign of the ghost. Ryan leaned over the seaward side railings, looking down into the swirling seawater. At first, all he saw was the black water as it washed up against the side of the ship, but after a few seconds, he noticed a pair of pale yellow eyes looking back up at him. Ryan stumbled back away from the railing bumping into Ben who had been standing just behind him.
“Hey, be careful Ryan,” he said, “the deck’s slippery.” Ben saw Ryan’s fearful expression. “What’s wrong?” Ryan found that he was unable to speak and just pointed at the railing. The other boy went over to the railing where Ryan had been standing and looked over. He too saw the yellow eyes looking up out of the water. The eyes blinked as Ben leaned over the side and an arm reached out and grabbed the side of the boat. It was green, covered in scales and slime with webbed fingers and a large aquatic fin along its forearm. Whatever the arm belonged to began to pull itself up the side of the ship.
“I think we should get out of here,” Ryan said pulling Ben away from the railing.
“I agree.” Ryan and Ben ran towards the stairs, grabbing Tommy and Jason on the way.
“What’s the hurry?” Jason asked as Ryan pushed him towards the stairs.
Ben glanced back towards the railing. “We’re leaving.”
A hand appeared over the side of the railing; its claws splintering the wood as it gripped it. “That’s why!” Yelled Ryan pointing at the claw. “Now move your ass before I kick it.” Half falling down the stairs into the cargo hold, the boys fled the ship, hitting the waterlogged beach running. They ran across the sand knowing that it was more than just the wind and the rain that was at their backs. Ben stumbled in the darkness, sprawling flat on the wet sand. As he ran past, Ryan dragged the smaller boy to his feet and they continued running. “I ‘aint leaving you behind buddy.” They ran to a small ridge of sand topped with rocks that ran along the top of the beach and skidded down its backside coming to a rest in a tangled pile of limbs.
Ryan crawled up the sand dune and poked his head over the top of the ridge, looking out towards the ship. A figure appeared at the railing above the hole in the side of the ship. It was massive, nearly seven foot in height and its pale yellow eyes glowed in the darkness. Only when the lightning flashed could Ryan see the gills, fangs, scales and fins of its true form. Its eyes swept across the beach as if looking for someone or something, its nostrils flared as it sniffed the air.
“What’s going on?” A female voice said from behind them. Ryan span around and saw Celeste standing behind them and looking at the group with a quizzical expression.
Ben grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her to the ground. “We’re hiding from that,” he hissed pointing at the creature. “What are you doing out here?”
“Same thing as you,” she answered peering over the top of the ridge, “oh, and it’s coming this way.”
“Crap, we’re fish food,” Ryan muttered. Jason and Tommy started to panic as Ben tried to calm them down. He glanced over at Celeste. The girl was looking at him as if waiting for him to do something. “Ok, there’s only one of them. Tommy and Jason, you go that way. Ben, Celeste and myself will go the other. We’ll circle round the island and try to lose it. Agreed?”
“Split up, isn’t that usually a bad idea?” Tommy asked.
“He can only follow one group giving the other a chance to get away.” With the creature getting nearer, the others did not need much encouragement. On the count of three, Tommy and Jason tore off down the beach in one direction and Ryan and the others ran in the opposite.
The creature didn’t hesitate, setting off in pursuit of the larger group. Ryan cursed his luck when he saw that the creature was chasing them. They eventually ran out of beach, the sand coming to an abrupt end as a rocky spur jutted out from the cliffs into the sea.
Ryan was the first to rocks, vaulting on to them in a single leap before turning and holding a hand out for Celeste. As he pulled Celeste up on to the rocks, Ben leapt up. The rocks were slick with rainwater and Ben slipped, falling back on to the sand. He landed on his back, hitting his head on a stone. As Ben yelped in pain and held the back of his head, the creature caught up them, standing over the boy lunging downwards to attack him. Without a moment’s thought, Ryan jumped off the rocks towards the creature. With both feet together, he struck the creature’s chest sending it sprawling to the ground. As it lay dazed, he helped Ben to his feet and pushed him up the side of the rocks. “Christ Ben, I thought being on the rugby team meant you were supposed to be good at running and avoiding tackles.”
“Shut up,” Ben said as the jumped down the other side and caught up with Celeste, “my opponents are usually less than six feet high and only want to take the ball off me, not kill me.”
They ran down a small path that ran along the foot of the cliffs. On one side rose the steep rock face, on the other a 6-foot drop into the sea. The only thing separating the path from the waves was a metal railing. Thankfully for them, the wind had died down otherwise they would have been swamped by storm driven waves. Ryan chanced a glance behind him. Whatever that creature was, there was no sign of it. Its absence unnerved the boy. Something told him that it wasn’t going to give up so easily.
Ben and Celeste stopped as they rounded a corner, leaning against the rocks catching their breaths.
“At least we know what’s going to cause all those dolphins to beach themselves,” Celeste said between pants.
“What did you just say?” Ryan asked, unsure whether he had actually heard what he had just heard.
“I said, at least we know what caused those dolphins to beach themselves.”
The cliff here was not as steep, more a scree slope than a vertical wall. Ben looked at the path then at the slope. With the path so close to the water, he suddenly felt uncomfortable knowing that an aquatic monster was chasing them. The boy started climbing the slope, heading for the small plateau at the top of the hill, which gently sloped down towards the back of the school. He was quickly followed by Celeste and then Ryan. As Ryan headed for the slope, he heard a splash behind him. Turning, he saw the creature land on the path after leaping from the water. Glancing over his shoulder at his two friends, he had just enough time to scream “Run” before the creature struck him. Its arm slammed into his chest, sending him flying through the air and knocking him out of the way. Ryan’s back hit the metal railing and he slid over the top. At the last second, he managed to grab it and he was left hanging over the side, his feet dangling in the cold seawater. The creature’s blow had left him winded, and took him a few seconds to recover. He looked up as Celeste screamed, the creature was charging up the slope towards her and Ben.
Grunting, Ryan pulled himself back on to the path. He gritted his teeth as a stab of pain rippled across his chest; he knew that he’d have a bruise there tomorrow morning. Running up the slope, he saw Celeste dodge to the side avoiding the creature’s expected attack. The attack never came however, it surged pass Celeste heading for Ben. “Ben,” Ryan yelled, “watch out!” The smaller boy turned and faced the creature, his fasts balled ready to throw a punch. He lashed out at the creature but the punch failed to connect. Ryan could only watch as the creature grabbed Ben’s fist mid-swing and squeezed it as it snarled. Ben was forced to his knees, screaming in pain. As Ryan struggled up the slope, the creature picked up Ben and slung the kicking and screaming boy over its shoulder. It turned, and started making its way back down the slope towards the sea. Seeing this, Ryan forced himself up the slope, his feet digging into the gravel. The creature swung its arm out in an attempt to knock him aside but this time Ryan was ready for it. He ducked under the arm and slammed himself into the creature’s legs. It fell back, dropping Ben. The loose gravel beneath their feet slipped and the three of them tumbled down the slope. Celeste reached out and grabbed Ben as he slid past but Ryan was too far away. He rolled all the way to the bottom, coming to a rest against the railings, the back of his head smacking the metal pole.
Celeste looked down the slope and saw that the creature had already stood up. It was moving towards Ryan, its claws extended. The boy was slumped against the railings and he didn’t appear to be moving. As the creature approached him, she realised that he wasn’t conscious. She screamed at the top of her lungs for him to wake up.
Everything was blurring around Ryan as he struggled to remain awake. Ryan could feel himself slipping away and as hard as he fought against it, he seemed unable to slow his slide into unconsciousness. He was ready to succumb to the darkness when the sound of his name being screamed lanced through his consciousness, waking him. His eyes snapped open and he saw the creature standing over him, its massive fists raised and ready to smash down on his face. With a yelp, he rolled to the side, the fists narrowly missing his head and instead buckling the metal railings. Ryan scrambled to his feet and as the creature turned to face him again, he punched it in the side of the chest. The creature hissed as the punch connected but showed no sign that it had been hurt be the blow. It struck out at the Ryan who dodged backwards, the claws slicing the air just inches in front of Ryan’s face. He punched the creature again, skinning his knuckles on its rough skin. Again, he hit the chest area and again, the creature showed no sign of being injured. This time however, Ryan could feel cartilaginous plates lying beneath its skin, almost like natural body armour. There was no way he’d be able to hurt the creature by attacking its chest. The only attack option left to him was the head, but the creature was at least a foot and a half higher than he was. A thought popped into his head. It was a long shot, but it might just work.
Halfway up the slope, Ben watched as Ryan nimbly dodged the creature’s blows. Ryan seemed to be waiting for something but whatever that was, Ben was sure it wouldn’t work. The creature was just too big and too strong to take on alone. Ryan needed help. He started to scramble down the slope but was stopped when Celeste grabbed his wrist. “Wait,” the girl said.
“Wait,” she said with greater emphasis, “and watch.”
The moment that Ryan appeared to be waiting for seemed to come. They watched as their friend darted backwards several steps before running towards the creature. He jumped, his right foot landing on the lower rung of the metal railing to his right, followed by his left foot kicking off the upper rung. The boy launched himself at the creature, twisting and spinning through the air, his left foot lashing out in a vicious spin kick that struck the creature in the right side of the head. Even up the slope, Ben and Celeste could hear the crack of bone snapping as the creature crumpled to the floor. Ryan landed behind the creature’s body, panting heavily.
Ben looked at Ryan in amazement and turned to Celeste. “Did you know he could fight like that?”
“Yes,” she said lightly, “but he didn’t.”
Before Ben could respond, Ryan had joined them. “Let’s go,” he said hurriedly.
“Is it dead?” Ben asked.
“Dunno, but I ‘aint hanging round to find out.”
Climbing up the scree slope in the dark was hard enough but the path back down to the school was narrow and slick with rain. They took extra time on the treacherous path and it was a good twenty minutes before they were in sight of the school fence. Tommy and Jason were at the hole waiting for them. The cousins were relieved when they saw the group round the corner.
After making sure each other was ok, they climbed through the hole and slowly made their way back to the school. It turned out that sneaking out was far easier than sneaking in. Their way in was barred by the school principal and two other staff members. The children were ushered into the main building and they stood in a line, dripping wet, as the principal walked back and forth in front of them. Mr Winters stopped and rubbed his temples in annoyance.
“The five of you,” he said sternly, “in my office, tomorrow morning.” The boys were frog marched upstairs back to the attic while Celeste was taken back to the assembly hall.
The next morning, Principal Winters had been furious with them. They were each given a week of detention and told to write a 500-word report on the subject of “Why I thought it was necessary to endanger my life by going out in the middle of a storm.” All told, they had probably gotten off lightly. They were lucky, as the principal put it, that they weren’t all suspended on the spot. Duly chastised, they had joined the rest of the student body in the dining hall awaiting the boat back to the mainland.
They sat together at a table in the dining hall, none of them wanting to speak about last night events. Ryan was looking down at the table, seemingly studying the generations of names and dates scratched into the wood. He absent-mindedly traced the outline of some of the scratches with a biro as he thought about last night. Jason returned from the vending machine and put a can down in front of Ben. “Happy birthday dude,” he said sitting down next to him, “it ‘aint much but it’ll do until we escape this place.”
“Thanks,” Ben said, taking the drink, “I hope the boat comes soon, the last thing I want is to spend my birthday trapped the school.”
“Wait,” Ryan said abruptly, his attention suddenly focused on Ben, “today’s your birthday?”
“Yeah,” Ben answered.
“Your 14th birthday?”
“So, last night was the night you turned 14?”
“Christ,” Tommy whispered to his cousin loud enough for everyone to hear, “I know Ms Simmons said he needed help with his maths but I didn’t think he was this slow.”
Ryan ignored him. “That’s it, that’s the reason why it was after you.” His friends looked at confused. “I’ve been trying to figure out what that creature was after you,” he explained, “but I couldn’t work out why.”
“It’s called a deepling,” Celeste said interrupting, “there’s a couple of old Cornish legends about aquatic fish-men that live in the sea. They’re said to be the descendents of the inhabitants of the sunken kingdom of Lyonesse.”
There was several seconds of silence as the boys looked at Celeste, unsure what to think.
“Anyway,” Ryan continued, “why go after Ben? He’s just a normal regular kid, there’s nothing special about him.”
“Thanks,” Ben said, slightly miffed at being referred to as “nothing special.”
“When the ‘deepling’ first attacked I thought it went for Ben because he tripped and was the closest. But later, it knocked me out of the way, ignored Celeste and went right for Ben, picking him up. It only really attacked someone else when they got in the way.”
“You mean you.” Jason said.
“Yeah, and that ghost. When he pointed at us and said ‘they have returned’ it wasn’t pointing at us, it was pointing at Ben, warning him.”
“Yeah, but why me?” Ben asked, now thoroughly confused.
“Because last night was the night you turned 14. The same thing happened in 1689, when that ship ran aground.”
“What ship?” Tommy asked.
“The one in my oral history report, remember?” Celeste answered.
“But what’s that got to do with me?”
“Good question,” Tommy and Jason said together.
“I’ll show you, follow me.” Ryan led them out of the dining hall and into the foyer. On the wall by the main staircase was a large engraving depicting the Seymour-Conway family tree, the original owners of St Piran’s Island. “Look,” he said pointing at the tree, “in 1689 the 14-year-old son of Lord Conway died. Just like in Celeste’s story. Twenty-six years later, the 14-year-old son of the next lord died. Again, in 1754, 1796, 1797 and 1832 the sons of the local lord all died aged 14. I bet if you looked into the records, you’d find they all died on the night they turned 14.”
“I still don’t get what this has to do with me?”
“Ok, here in 1912, Melissa Seymour-Conway married a local man, Trevor Ford.”
“Wait, my great grandfather was called Trevor and my great grandmother was called Melissa,” Ben suddenly said.
“Right, two years later in 1916, Melissa’s younger brother died aged 14. Two years after that, her father died. Probably due to the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Her mother never remarried and with her death in 1934, that meant that your great grandmother was the only surviving member of the Seymour-Conway family. According to his family tree anyway.”
“You mean,” Ben said as he slowly started to realise what Ryan was getting at.
“That you, Benjamin Ford, are a direct descendent of the family that originally owned this island. A family that was cursed for some reason so that all their sons would die if they spent their fourteenth birthday on the island.” Ryan folded his arms in smug triumph.
“Dude,” Jason said slapping Ben on the back, “it’s not every day that find out you’re descended from nobility and cursed to die a messy death all on the same day.”
“Oh come on,” Tommy said, “you’re not believing this crap are you?”
“I dunno, my grandfather said that his mum wouldn’t let him stay on the island as a kid and made him promise not send my dad to school here when he was a kid. Maybe this was the reason.”
As his friends talked, Ryan inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. At first, he had feared that the reason the creature had appeared was that it had been sent by his brother. He knew that his brother knew that he was now living in Cliffport, and after the incident with Trey, he knew that his brother knew how to use magic. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that Mark would be capable of summoning some monster to do his dirty work. When he had first realised that Ben had been the target of the creature and not him he’d been relieved. He felt a little guilty about that.
“So what happens now?” Ben asked.
“Now you go home,” Celeste said, “and enjoy the rest of your birthday.”
“Yeah, before the creepy fish men get you,” Tommy teased.
“Hey you lot,” a teacher called out as he came out of the dining hall, “boat’s here.” They went back to the rapidly emptying dining hall and grabbed their school bags.
The weather outside contrasted strongly with yesterdays. The grey clouds had dissipated, the morning sun was shining brightly and the boat ride home was quick and uneventful. Ryan noticed that Ben did not take his eyes of the water during the trip. He went over and leant against the railing next to him. “They won’t be coming for you again you know,” he whispered quietly.
“How do you know that?” Ben asked still staring into the water as the boat sliced its way across the bay.
“Whatever the reason, the curse only seemed to affect people when they turned 14. After last night, you should be safe.”
“Maybe,” Ben said, “but I’ll feel a lot safer when we get back to shore.” Ryan looked up from the water to the cliffs as the boat entered the harbour. The boat was passing a gap in the dry stone wall that ran along the cliff tops. Blocked by a temporary orange safety barrier, it was the one created by the car that had knocked him into the water two months ago. Looking at the seventy-foot drop into the water below, Ryan shivered as he remembered what had happened that day. “You’re not the only one.”