“Is it alive?”
“I can’t tell.”
“Looks like it’s breathing!”
“There’s just so much mud.”
Tommy peered over the crumbling stone wall at the two girls crouching over what appeared to be a mound of dirty leaves from where he stood. They had their backs to him and clearly hadn’t noticed him on their way up the hill. He liked that; knowing he could melt into the scenery when he needed to, float by unseen amongst the pale stone and grey, sandy grass. Tommy liked to prowl the castle ruins that overlooked the beach; this was his place. The locals didn’t usually bother with the ruins other than using the old path that ran alongside them and led down to the beach, there really wasn’t much to see here anymore. What was once a huge castle overlooking the sea was now a mouldering collection of a few low stone walls, long stringy grass and several unkempt plaques once erected to try and turn the place into some kind of tourist location. It was a peaceful location, quiet but for the sound of the restless sea below and the crickets singing in the long grass. This was where Tommy Stone could be found when he wasn’t at school, asleep or at the library.
Tommy knew the ruins better than his own home, teased out every secret nook and caressed each stone wall fondly over his years living in the village. With no desire for a friend, he found companionship here in his imagination living as the Lord of this castle. Some of the old plaques dotted in the long grass were so crusted with sea salt rust they were barely legible anymore, but Tommy knew each word as intimately as his own anatomy having spent most of last summer in the library looking through local history books and newspapers. He pieced together the lost history of the castle until he knew everything about it, including who lived here and when the castle finally crumbled into the sea. There was such a vivid picture in his mind of what the castle would look like standing here today, if only he was art-y he could paint it on canvas.
“We should go back and tell mum.”
Irritation at their presence here in his place quickly turned into cold rage; if the stupid girls went and told their parents what they’d found then soon the ruins would be crawling with people. Loud, buzzing, trampling people. Tommy felt hot and cold all the way to his fingertips, he could hear his own breathing tearing in and out of his lungs as his temper blazed.
“Can you hear that?”
Instantly, Tommy dropped down behind the wall and pressed his back against it, uncertain if he’d been quick enough or if he’d been seen. He didn’t recognise the girls that was for sure, which meant they were summer folk, hopefully only at the caravan site for the week.
“Can we go? This place is really freaking me out.”
The other girl made a low sound of disgust, “What about the dog? We can’t just leave it, what if it’s still alive?”
“What if it’s a wolf?”
“It’s a baby wolf and mummy wolf is out there watching us right now, let’s just go!”
“I think its bleeding underneath that dirt.”
“We have to tell mum!”
Tommy bared his teeth behind his wall, lips peeled back furiously, hands fisted in the long grass either side of him. Stupid girls. They should never have come up here, interfering, suffocating this special place.
“Hand me that stick, I want to poke it.”
“Let’s just go!” The young one whined.
“In a minute. Stick?”
There was a rustle as the older of the two girls started flicking the leaves and crusted mud and grit off the mound. Tommy found himself tapping the back of his head against the wall as he sat there, he imagined what the girl was revealing with her meddling stick, and just how much she was going to tell her stupid mum when she finally went running back down the hill to the campsite.
“Ugh, can you see that?”
“I think I’m going to be sick!”
“There’s the bone poking through there…”
Gagging. Footsteps. Suddenly the young one was just on the other side of Tommy’s wall puking her guts up. She only had to stand up straight and she would see him, crouched there with fistfuls of grass and wet, bloodied trainers.
“Someone did this…”
The young one wiped her lips on the back of her sleeve, Tommy was so close he could see the string of bile transfer from face to sleeve and rest there, like a wet bogey. She turned, back to the wall without seeing him. Instead of relief his rage only grew; he glared at her sheet of perfect hair, framed by the hazy blue sky behind. His fingers tightened on the grass, tearing roots loose from the earth.
“I want to go!” She whined.
Gritting his teeth Tommy stood up straight, unable to restrain himself any longer, and shouted, “What are you doing up here!”
Both girls flinched at the ragged sound of his voice, at the rage trembling in his eyes. The young one yelped and bounced back to her sister’s side, clearly preferring the mangled dog corpse to the angry young boy behind the wall.
“You scared us.” The older one said, hand over her heart. In her other hand she held a long, curved stick, the end of which was dark and wet looking from her prodding.
“Shouldn’t be up here.” Tommy barked.
“You’re up here.” The older girl challenged, eyes twinkling.
“I know the area,” he said, forcing himself to cool down. “I come up here all the time, you could hurt yourself if you’re not careful.”
The girl considered him for a long moment, he fancied he could feel the scrape of her gaze across his round gut and hanging chins. It made him even angrier.
“We found a dead dog.” She said at last, gesturing with the stick.
Without even looking Tommy grunted, “That’s Penny.”
Big girl’s brows shot up into her hairline, “You know this dog?”
“Stupid dog.” He murmured, ignoring the dark mess at big girl’s feet.
“We better tell the owner then.” Big girl said, taking charge and being bossy. “Do you know who she belonged to?”
“Mr Norris.” He wet his lips; his gaze finally flickered to the dog very briefly then back again. “You gonna leave now?”
“Yes!” Squeaked the young one.
Big girl stilled her sister with a firm hand on her shoulder, her expression suspicious now, “We’re going.” She said. “Are you going to tell Mr Norris what happened to his dog?”
Tommy’s lip curled, “I’ll tell him.” He lied. “Go on now. It’s not safe up here, remember.”
“Did you…” Big girl was being cautious now, cautious but still too nosey for her own good. “Did you see what happened to Penny?”
“I seen Penny using the ruins like a toilet.” He snarled. His big beefy hands fell on top of the crumbling wall before him and gripped it tight, rage pounded through him with every slick thump of his heart, throbbing in his temples and tightening his fists. Stupid dog. Stupid girls.
“I bet lots of dogs come up here on their walks.” Big girl said.
“What do you suppose happened to Penny then?” Big girl asked.
Little girl was looking at her sister with big, round, pleading eyes. Little girl had more sense.
Tommy grimaced, “Looks like someone stomped on her.”
Big girl scraped him with another of those nasty, stripping looks and it took all of Tommy’s willpower to stay on this side of the wall, shielding his messy trainers and keeping his fists firmly to himself.
“Time to go.” He breathed.
“Come on.” Big girl yanked on her sister’s arm and nudged her back to the weedy gravel path that meandered uphill from the beach.
“Don’t you come back up here.” Tommy warned, stone turning to chalk dust beneath his pinching fingers. “Don’t you interfere again. This is my castle.”
He watched them go, breathing heavy and pulse racing. He glanced briefly over at the muddy dog corpse, almost itching for another stomping. He would have to do a better job of burying it this time. Or simply roll it off the side of the cliff.
Tommy’s nostrils twitched, not only had the stupid girl unearthed the mess she had unearthed the stink as well. Even in death the stupid dog was fouling up the ruins, dirty horrible thing.
When the girls were finally off down the beach path and out of sight, he let out a long shuddering breath of relief. Alone again. Peace. He tore up some of the grass and covered up the wet puddle of vomit on the other side of his wall then turned his attention to the disturbed mound of leaves.
“I’ll cover it over again.” He murmured to himself, nodding.
A circling seagull decided that then would be the right moment to land on the cliffside, two feet from the mouldering corpse it pecked at the grass perhaps having seen a scrap of food or a worm. Tommy’s temper ruptured. He snatched a stone from the foot of the wall and pitched it at the bird, then another and another.
“Get out!” He roared. “Get out of my castle!”
© Emma Stead