It was still there. Kate peered over the potted, neatly clipped hedge, and could see the thing’s legs, or fingers, or tentacles – she wasn’t exactly sure what she should call them – winding around the grate and venturing onto the sidewalk. As she watched, it snagged an empty crisp packet and pulled it down into the shadows eagerly. She thought she might even be able to hear it slobbering down there, and she shuddered with a delightful sort of fear.
“Kate, sit down.” Her mother sounded a little too shrill – it was her ladies-that-lunch voice, and Kate hated it, but she sat back down anyway, swinging her legs. “Don’t you want to show Meghan your new game? On that new ipad I got you?” The word ipad came out like a product announcement.
Kate dug into her bag obediently enough. She hated the bag. It was soft pale leather, which was all very well, but there was absolutely nothing interesting about it. She’d seen one with a dragon on it, but her mum wouldn’t buy it for her. One day, she thought, as she pulled the ipad from the bag, I’ll have my own money, and everything I buy will have dragons on it. “Here,” she said, pushing the tablet at the little girl sitting next to her. “There’s a game on there. There’s princesses in it, or something. I dunno, I haven’t played it.” The other girl took the ipad, frowning slightly, and watched Kate delve back into the bag and come up with a book.
“Kate! That’s very rude.” Her mother gave a brittle sort of laugh, and took the book off her. “This is social time.”
Kate scowled at her. “You just told me to get a game out.”
“Yes, but you can play that together.” She smiled encouragingly at Meghan. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it?” Meghan shrugged, already absorbed in the game, and Kate’s mother looked anxiously at her companion, who exposed very white teeth.
“Aggie, I’m sure if Kate wants to read Meghan won’t mind. They do seem to have rather – ah – different tastes.”
“Oh. Yes, well – not like you and me, right?” Aggie gave another brittle laugh, and Kate took the opportunity to snatch her book back. She was just getting to the good bit, where all the monsters were coming out. The monsters were always her favourite part of any book.
“Nothing like you and me,” the other woman agreed, but Kate noticed she didn’t meet Aggie’s eyes. She looked up at her mother – stretched all thin and pale and tucked into her ladies-that-lunch clothes. Was it her fault? Was she ruining the lunch? Her mum said she did that sometimes, but she couldn’t help that she was much more interested in the small things that lived in the gutters above the shoe shop than what was in the shoe shop itself. They didn’t involve blisters, for a start. But then her mother started talking about some new exercise she’d read about in a magazine and Kate lost interest, opening her book to where she’d left off reading in the car.
“Hey,” Meghan said.
Kate looked at her, irritated. “What?”
“What were you looking at over there? Before?”
“There’s a monster in the drain.”
Meghan regarded her for a long, thoughtful moment, then said, “You’re such a freak. No wonder no one’s friends with you.”
Kate shrugged. “At least I don’t go around pretending everyone actually likes me, when everyone knows it’s just that your Dad’s rich.”
“Well, your Dad could be a billionaire and you’d still be a freak.”
“I’m not even going to tell you where the monster is,” Kate replied, looking back at her book. “Hopefully it’ll eat you.”
“You’re so stupid. Monsters aren’t even real.” But she sounded unsure, and Kate’s lips twitched up at the corners as she stared at the pages, and wondered how soon they could leave.
“It’s been just wonderful. We must do this again soon.” There were smacking sounds as the two women air-kissed each other outside the cafe, and looked down expectantly at their daughters. Meghan looked away, curling a lock of hair around her finger, and Kate stared fixedly at the drain behind her. “Kate?” Aggie said, and her voice had a pleading undertone. “Say goodbye to Meghan.”
Kate kept watching the drain. The thing had slid its tentacle-fingers out between the bars and was stroking Meghan’s shadow, just behind her heels. Kate could actually see it touching the girl’s flat grey copy, and the way the shadow distorted with every stroke, as if it were cringing away in fear, even though Meghan herself never moved. There might even have been a low growling coming from the drain, too, but that also might have been her stomach after three lettuce leaves for lunch.
“Kate! I said, say goodbye to Meghan.”
The tentacles wrapped around the girl’s shadow and gave it a quick, experimental tug, as if to see how well attached it was. Meghan jumped, and looked at Kate, frowning, as if the other girl had poked her.
“Kate! Jeannie, I’m so sorry, she really is behaving terribly today -”
“Don’t worry about it.” The other woman’s voice was smooth, and she put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “I’ll call you.”
“Oh – yes. Of course.” Aggie nodded, tucking a loose wisp of hair behind her ear with a hand that trembled slightly. “Of course.”
The thing was gathering Meghan’s shadow up, rolling it like sheets from the dryer in sticky arms, and Kate could see what it wanted to do. It was going to pull the whole thing loose and bundle it away through the grate before it could re-attach itself. What happens if you lose your shadow? She wondered. Can you grow a new one?
Meghan’s mother was turning her to go, and the tentacles were hunching themselves up, ready to pull. Kate looked at the girl, at her bored, pretty face and boring pretty clothes, and wondered for a moment if she should just see what happened. The tentacles tightened, and Meghan’s shadow began to stretch. Kate sighed, then she darted behind the other girl, shoving her away as she went and all but sending her into the hedge, stomping down hard on the monster as Meghan stumbled, almost falling, hearing a high, furious squealing over the sound of the women’s shouts, and seeing red – crimson red, bullfighter red, cartoon red – spattering as the tentacles split under her heels, surprisingly fragile. The thing released Meghan’s shadow even as the girl screamed, flailing to get her balance, and it twanged back to her, crowding under her heels in panic. Kate skipped away from the drain before anything could come after her, and looked up at the two startled women and the frightened girl. Jeannie had rushed to catch her daughter, and now she kept an arm tightly around her, staring at Kate as if she were a dangerous animal that might attack at any moment.
“Um,” Kate said, and gestured at the drain. “Cockroaches?”
“Oh, how disgusting,” Jeannie exclaimed, pulling Meghan away with her as if expecting the insects to come pouring out of the drains and swarm them both. “But what on earth were you doing? Why did you push Meghan?”
“Um. I – I thought they were going to run up her leg. And she might be scared.” It didn’t sound very convincing even to her, but Meghan’s mother gave a mystified nod.
“Okay,” she said. “Right. We’ll go then.” She turned away without saying anything else, and Meghan looked back at Kate.
Freak, she mouthed.
Monster, Kate mouthed back and pointed at the drain. The other girl shook her head and looked away again, but not before Kate saw a shadow pass over her face that might have been belief. Or it could just have been relief that they were leaving.
Aggie was pinching the bridge of her nose, her eyes closed. Now she opened them and looked at Kate. She seemed to be trying to find something to say, but in the end she just shook her head and walked away, leaving her to follow. Kate took a last mistrustful look at the drain, and did.
Kate lay at the top of the stairs, the big ginger tom cat crouched on his haunches at her side, listening to the raised voices drifting from the kitchen.
“She’s impossible,” Aggie said, her words softened at the edges. “I can’t take her anywhere.”
“Maybe she just doesn’t enjoy these play-date things. Maybe we just need to let her make her own friends.”
“She’s seven. We’ve been here for four years. She has no friends.”
“Come on, that can’t be true -”
“It is! Face it, she’s – she’s not right. Something’s not right.”
There was a pause then, and Kate could feel tears pricking behind her eyes. She’s not right. Was that true? Was she a freak? Just because she sawthings – she couldn’t help that. It was like – like some people could play music. She couldn’t, she’d been dropped by three piano teachers. But she could see things. That wasn’t so weird. Was it? The cat pressed his head into her cheek, and she sniffled.
“So what do you suggest?” Her father’s voice was slow and deliberate, and it made her shiver with sudden anxiety.
“We go back to the doctor. The teacher’s already suggested she needs some sort of ADHD medication.”
Kate could imagine that. Her teacher wasn’t right. It was her eyes. They were too far inside her head, as if she were looking out from behind a pretty, smiling mask, but inside was something old and hungry. She always made sure she wasn’t alone with her teacher. Not that she was the only one out there that wasn’t right.
“I don’t think that’s the issue, Aggie. She’s just got an over-active imagination, I’m sure of it. I don’t want her on some drugs just because she won’t make friends with your chosen few.”
“Robert – she still thinks there’s pixies in the garden, for god’s sake. She’s too old for this.”
“I know adults that put milk out for pixies still.”
“Yeah, and I’m sure they’re fully functioning members of society.”
Kate heard the rattle of ice cubes, the clink of glass on glass, and if she had been a little older she might have appreciated the irony of it.
“Have you considered the problem might be less Kate and more this?” She could imagine him, the distasteful look on his thin face, waving at the bottle her mother kept in the freezer.
“Oh, don’t throw that at me. You move me out here, to the middle of nowhere, and every time I try to do something civilised, Kate goes and ruins it -”
“Don’t say that. This is not her fault, Aggie.” There were hard edges in his voice now, and Kate heard a chair scrape back. She scrambled to her feet and fled silent into her bedroom, the cat running light footed next to her. She slid under the covers as she heard the stairs creak, and the cat scooted under the bed. She closed her eyes and tried to quiet her hammering, hurting heart.
He was so quiet she jumped when his fingers touched her cheek, wiping away a tear that had made its way out unnoticed. “You’re not very good at pretending to sleep, sweetheart.”
She opened her eyes and looked up at him, his glasses reflecting the light from the hallway, not saying anything.
“She doesn’t mean it, you know. She loves you.”
“She still thinks I’m a freak, though,” she whispered, and was surprised by a new tear.
Her father shrugged. “All the best people are freaks. All the interesting people are freaks. It’s what makes them interesting.”
“I’m not sure I want to be a freak, though.”
“That, little one, is not something we tend to have a lot of choice in. However, we can learn to not show it quite so much, so only the people we trust know.”
Kate rubbed her eyes wearily. “So, act normal? Pretend to like all the stupid stuff everyone else likes?”
“That’s up to you. But I would suggest not telling people about the things you – see.” He seemed uncomfortable with the last word, and she sighed. He didn’t believe her either.
“They’re real, though.”
“I’m not saying they’re not. But when other people can’t see what you see, it makes them uncomfortable when you to talk about it. And then they want to do things like put you on meds.” He shrugged. “And we should avoid that.”
Kate nodded. She’d seen kids on meds. They faded. Adults were faded already, some more than others, but kids were normally bright still, all primary colours, blooming like flowers in a dark forest, as bright as the other creatures she saw, the pixies and the cats and the things she couldn’t name, all dancing through the world unseen and unnoted and unimaginably beautiful. As kids got older, all that brightness seeped away. Except for some, like her teacher. She shivered again at the thought of her, prowling the classroom, the unseen wolf among the sheep. But kids on meds – yeah. They were as washed out as the adults.
“So, I lie?” she said.
“Call it a lie of omission.” He smiled at her. “You can tell me, though. I’ll listen.”
“Okay.” But she rather thought she wouldn’t. Because there’s no point telling someone who doesn’t believe you, when all they do is nod and smile and say, that’s nice, dear. “I’ll stop.”
“Good.” He kissed her cheek, and paused at the door as he left. “You want it left open?”
“No. There’s no monsters, right?”
He chuckled, but to Kate it sounded sad, as if he’d lost something he could never get back. “That’s right, sweetheart. No monsters at all.” He pulled the door to as he went, and after a while, when the bottled sound of the TV began to seep up from downstairs, the ginger cat crept out from under the bed and jumped up next to Kate. She stroked him, running her fingers through his coarse fur, hearing his purring amp up, steady and comforting.
“You know, though, don’t you?” She asked him. “You see them too. I know you do.”
The cat blinked at her in the darkness, not responding, and headbutted her fingers when she stopped stroking him.
“I wish you’d talk to me, Chester. I’m – this is lonely. I’m lonely. Why am I the only one that sees these things?” She was crying again, and the cat crawled up to press his face to her, smelling of dust and rain and magic, as all cats do. “Am I a freak? Am I not right? She said it, Ches, Mum said that.”She twisted onto her side, burying her sobs in the pillow. “I know they see it,” she managed, her voice muffled by tears and the bedding. “They have to see it. It can’t be just me. It can’t! I’m not wrong!” The cat licked her ear, then sat up, looking back at the window as she continued to cry. A shaggy black and white cat sat on the windowseat.
Now what? His arched whiskers asked.
Bollocks if I know, Chester shrugged back.
The black cat padded across to the bed and jumped up, laying down on the girl’s other side so she was embraced by their warmth, their purrs rough and slow, falling into an easy, soporific music that soothed and healed, and, in time, brought sleep.
They watched her for a while after the tears had stopped, listening to the slow exhausted rhythms of her breathing, then the black and white cat said, “We should tell the Watch.”
“I don’t think so,” Chester replied. “You know they’ll only want to clean her, and look at her – she’s harmless.”
“Yeah, but if she keeps on noticing things, something’s going to notice her, and that could end in all sorts of bad ways.”
“I know, I know.” Chester looked down at her thoughtfully. “But – d’you think she even could be cleaned? She’s so bright. And to be this old and still be like this – I’ve never seen it.”
“Maybe she can’t be. But if something happens, and the Watch gets wind of it -”
“You were following orders, Mitch. I won’t let you take the fall for it.”
Mitch snorted. “Yeah, that’s totally what I’m worried about. I just mean it could become a problem. For her.”
“I know.” Chester didn’t say any more, and after a while Mitch stretched out next to the girl and dozed, his ears twitching with the noises of the house, ready to move if there was a step outside the door. The ginger tom watched the girl for a long time before he slept, and thought about the strange intersections of magic and humanity, and wondered how long she’d stay a secret, and how well she could hide herself, and what would come next.
This is a little backstory from the BBN (Big Bad Novel) – if you enjoyed it, head back to the Big Bad Novel Stories page and you’ll find a few more. I’d love to hear your comments, and of course I’ll be very happy for you to join me on social media and/or for you to share the story far and wide!