The creature circled below Cade like a shark around a sinking ship. It leaped for him, its jaws snapping just below the narrow ledge he stood on. He shuffled back, pressing his shoulders into the cold stone of the canyon wall. There was an eight-foot drop to the ground, and the bare earth had been churned to a thick sludge by the pacing of the monster beneath him. It knuckled the ground with sinewy arms, growling like a dog fighting over a bone. The beast was already caked thickly in mud, and the rusty brown leather of its skin blended well with the rock formations Cade had woken among just a few hours ago. A slavering mouth gaped, the long needlepoints of its teeth glistening with saliva. But it was its eyes that scared him the most: twin spheres of obsidian that bulged from its sockets. The opposite wall of the canyon was perhaps a stone’s throw away from him, stretching up into the sky and casting the ravine Cade occupied in shadow. He was perched on a rock shelf, just above a narrow corridor of earth that formed the canyon bottom. The gully continued to his left and right, stretching in both directions to form a rough passage that curved out of sight, though he doubted he’d manage to run far before the creature tore him to shreds. As he watched, the monster began to claw at the rock face, perhaps hoping it would crumble and send Cade plummeting down. Maybe if he remained still, it would give up and move on, in search of easier prey. He ignored it, trying to figure out how he had ended up in this sorry mess. The last thing Cade remembered was lying in bed at his new ‘school for troubled youths’, staring out of the locked windows at the moonlit sky.
His thoughts had been tinged with misery at the time. The stash of stolen laptops his trust-fund roommate had hidden beneath his bed. The arrest, the police interrogation. His court-appointed lawyer, who could barely remember his name. His mother, crying, and the confusion and shame in his father’s eyes. The ultimatum the judge had given him. One year of ‘alternative’ school, or Cade would be sent to juvie. His parents had agreed, though it devastated them to know his chances of going to college would be ruined. That was six months ago now. Six more to go.
And then he wasn’t in the dorm any more. It had been too immediate for him to be dreaming. One moment he was looking at the moon, and the next he was standing on a ledge in the depths of a rocky canyon. Before he could give this surreal turn of events more thought, the creature had appeared, slinking out from behind the boulders in the narrow bottom of the chasm. He was pressed against a rock wall covered in a fine red powder, but there was little purchase for climbing. It was smooth like marble, with the orange glow of what he assumed was the setting sun visible in the swathe of sky forty feet above him. And it worried Cade that the sun was setting. He had never tried to sleep standing up before, and the ledge was too thin for him to lie down. But if he sat and dangled his feet over the edge, he would be within reach of the monster below. This situation didn’t seem to have a happy ending.
It also didn’t help that a jagged rock was pressed uncomfortably into his spine. Just his luck; the rock wall was smooth everywhere but the space he had to lean against. He decided that if these were to be his last moments, they might as well be comfortable. The ledge extended a few feet across, so he shuffled to his left. He winced as his movement agitated the creature, its low growling turning to yelps of excitement as it jumped at him. Its thick black nails scrabbled at the rock, trying to find a toehold so it could reach the thin ledge. Each time Cade looked below, he felt gorge rise in his throat. He was trying to think clearly, despite the frantic pulse of his heart in his temples. It was all he could do to stop himself from hyperventilating. Cade took a deep breath and turned his head to the side.
The protrusion was a black stone embedded in the wall, tapered to a rough point. It seemed out of place, a drop of sable in the sea of rust. He slid his right hand up and took hold of it, if only to help anchor him to his perch. But the edges were so sharp that if he gripped it any harder it would likely slice into his palm. The stone wiggled slightly as he pulled, and the tiniest hint of hope entered Cade’s mind, though he wasn’t sure what he would do with it yet. It only took him a few minutes to lever it from its root in the wall. It was almost relaxing to fixate his mind on such a simple task. When the rock came loose, a fine shower of dust settled on the creature’s head, leaving it sneezing and coughing. The rock seemed to be made from volcanic glass, shaped like a teardrop. The thicker end was caked in dust, allowing Cade a firm grip at the base.
The tapered end was smooth with a chipped, rough-hewn edge. Stranger and stranger. It looked for all the world like a Stone-Age axe. Cade banged the rock against the wall, trying to make a dent, a handhold. More dust rained down on the monster, who pawed at its eyes, snorting. Cade smiled and continued, the crack of stone against stone echoing from wall to wall. The shower of dust became an avalanche of debris. Cade laughed aloud, scraping his arms up and down as if he were making a snow angel, the gritty dust sticking to the sweat of his back. Soon the marbled walls were bare and smooth, revealing a surface of light brown stone beneath. His entertainment was short-lived.
Beneath, the creature rubbed itself back and forth in the mud and was soon rid of the irritant. A long, forked tongue slipped out of its mouth and licked at its eyes like a lizard, clearing away the film of dirt. It was a disgusting monster, looking for all the world as if a mad scientist had spliced the skeletal structure of an ape onto the body of a primordial deep-sea fish. Where this abomination had come from, Cade couldn’t even begin to guess. But that didn’t matter at the moment. All he wanted was to get away from it. His fun with the powder over, Cade considered throwing the rock at the creature. Perhaps the blow would send the beast scurrying away and he could make a break down the corridor in the opposite direction. It was then that he noticed the pile of dust that had gathered on the ledge around his feet. And the shadows of a new idea formed in his mind.
But even as the plan formed, he cast it from his thoughts. It was a stupid idea; the monster would tear him to pieces. An hour later, his legs began to cramp up. He tried standing on one leg at a time, but that just made it worse for the other. Crouching had helped, but it had forced him to lean precariously over the empty space, leaving him off-balance, much to the excitement of the creature below. It was sitting and staring like a starved hunting dog, only stirring when Cade moved himself. He was exhausted, thirsty and terrified, knowing eventually he would have to jump off and meet his fate. There was no rescue party coming, that seemed obvious. But if he was going to die, it would be on his own terms. He was going to give this monstrosity the most difficult meal of its life.
Cade placed his foot behind the dust piled on the ledge, terror throbbing through his body with each pounding beat of his heart. He had no choice. No other options. ‘I hope you choke on me!’ he yelled. The creature looked up, startled by his voice. He kicked the dust, sending a spray of red into its eyes. Before he could even see what effect it had, he jumped. He landed awkwardly, jarring his ankle on the ground, shooting pains flaring up his leg. So much for his hope of outrunning the beast. It had covered its face with its clawed hands, and Cade swung his rock, letting out a garbled scream of fear and revulsion.
His blow glanced off the monster’s head, poorly aimed and with little weight behind it. Still, the creature rolled away from him, yowling in pain. For a moment Cade stared at the rock, surprised at his own daring. Fear pulsed through him, the reality of life and death hitting home for what felt like the very first time. Even as he prepared to run, the beast sprang, slamming headfirst into the wall next to him. Cade tumbled onto his back. The creature was still blinded by the dust, grasping for him as it hissed its displeasure. He scrambled away, slipping and sliding in the mud, horror choking him. The monster heard the slap of his boots and lunged again, this time landing just beside him. Cade bellowed and flailed the rock, his vision filled with needle teeth.
The sharp tip of the stone sliced deep into its foot, pinning it to the ground before the beast wrenched itself free with a squeal of pain. Its tongue darted over its face, and Cade readied himself, even as the inky black eyes fixed upon him once more. The creature took a tentative step forwards, then yowled as it put pressure on its injured foot. Slowly, ever so slowly, Cade backed away from it. When the creature turned its tongue to the bloody wound, he ran. Ran through the agony of a twisted ankle, fuelled by the adrenaline pumping through him in wave after wave of fear. On and on, down the gully, high walls looming on either side. It was only when he stumbled and fell that he stopped, waiting for the monster to give chase at any moment. Cade shuddered, inhaling with deep sobbing breaths. Finally, when he had calmed, he was able to think once more.
The beast seemed to have given up on him, for now at least. So he limped on, gripping his hand-axe as if it was his lifeline. Perhaps it was. TWO Six months earlier Cade shuffled down the line of boys in the cafeteria, careful not to meet anyone’s eye. He could feel them watching him, their gazes sweeping up and down, seeking weakness. What they would see was a skinny, light-skinned Indian kid, though they wouldn’t know his father was white. Not short, but not tall either, with amber eyes and wavy hair, cut in a tight back and sides cut. A military cut, one that he hoped would make him look as tough as all the other ‘troubled youths’ at the school with him. Lucky for him, there were no glasses or smattering of acne to give away the inner nerd hiding just beneath the surface. He tried to convince himself he looked no more vulnerable than the other teens he’d seen at intake that day.
Yet try as he might, he could not keep the cafeteria tray from shaking in his hands. His blue uniform itched. It was the ‘therapeutic boarding school’ uniform, though it felt more like a prisoner’s to him. Looking at the high walls outside, he couldn’t see much difference. ‘What you want?’ Cade looked up at the snaggle-toothed kid in front of him, a hairnet on his head, ladle in hand. Cade pointed at the mashed potatoes, peas and what he assumed was meat loaf, and the kid dutifully slapped them onto his tray. The cafeteria reminded him of the gymnasium at his old school, but there were no basketball hoops on the walls here. Only straight-backed drill sergeant-like counsellors, their eyes scanning the tables. Cade quickly realised he should have been planning where he was going to sit. Most of the tables were full, and the air filled with the loud banter of kids who knew each other well.
How could he sit down in the midst of all that? There were no empty tables, but he spotted a kid he recognised from the intake. A gangly, pockmarked guy who had cried silently through it all, as the red-faced counsellors shouted at them to face the wall and shuffle sideways towards their rooms. The kid was sitting alone on one end of his table, while a trio of others ignored him on the other. Cade realised he had taken too long to find a seat. He didn’t want to look intimidated, even if he was. Adrenaline coursing through him, he walked the gauntlet of tables, his ears filled with the shouts, laughs and belches of the guys on either side. It felt like an eternity before he reached the other newcomer, who startled as Cade dropped his tray opposite him. Cade nodded, then turned to his food. He soon realised yet another mistake. He’d left his cutlery behind.
‘Damn,’ Cade muttered under his breath. He had to go back. He went to stand, but suddenly a plastic spoon clattered onto his tray. Cade looked up. ‘Cade,’ he said. ‘Jim.’ The kid gave him a tentative smile. Cade felt himself relax, and he dug into his mashed potato with the spoon. It was watery and unseasoned, not to mention that Cade wasn’t hungry. He ate regardless.
An awkward silence filled the space between he and Jim. ‘Why’d your parents put you here?’ Cade blurted, the words spilling from his mouth before he could stop them. Was that rude? It was too late now. Jim looked up, surprised. ‘I … a lot of things,’ he began. He paused, looking shamefacedly at his tray. ‘But the last one did it. I threw a party,’ he finally said. ‘Our place got wrecked. My parents didn’t like that.
’ Cade gulped. ‘Sorry,’ he muttered. He racked his brain, trying to think of something else to say. Instead, he filled his mouth with another spoonful of bland mush. ‘Well, hello there.’ Cade felt a hand clasp his shoulder, and his heart sank. Here we go. ‘Making friends already?’ Cade looked up, taking in the new arrival. He had a shaved head, with cool blue eyes and a pout to his full lips. Cade’s heart sank even further as he took in a bruise on the boy’s cheek, and scabs on his knuckles.
This kid had been fighting. Cade had never been in a fight in his life. Fear seized Cade’s throat, even as he searched for an appropriate answer. Any words he said would come out in a croak, so he remained silent. ‘Nothing to say?’ the boy said, taking a seat beside Jim as another kid plonked his tray down beside Cade. Cade turned, and felt his heart thundering in his chest. The other kid was heavyset, with small piggish eyes and the beginnings of patchy stubble on his ruddy cheeks. It was only then that Cade realised that the first guy was talking to Jim, not him. This made him feel a bit better, but the relief dissipated in an instant as the ruddy kid beside him cleared his throat, then licked his spoon purposefully, making sure Cade was watching. Cade felt his stomach twist as the boy reached over and dug it into Cade’s meat loaf.
‘You were just making introductions, right?’ the newcomer said, shifting unnecessarily close to Jim. ‘You’re Jim, he’s Cade. Aren’t you going to ask our names?’ ‘Wh-what’s your name?’ Jim stuttered. ‘I’m Finch, and this here is Gobbler,’ the first guy replied. ‘We call him that on account of his appetite.’ Gobbler stuck his spoon into Cade’s mashed potatoes demonstratively, before slopping it into his mouth. He chewed loudly before going in for more. ‘You’re new, and we didn’t want you starting off on the wrong foot,’ Finch said, putting a conspiratorial arm around Jim. He had pitched his voice to a stage whisper so that Cade could hear. ‘This guy, he’s not right for you.
Apu here can sell you a pack of cigarettes at his convenience store, but he’s not your friend. Get what I’m saying?’ He tightened his grip around Jim’s shoulders, and the boy stared down at his plate, avoiding Cade’s eyes. Cade felt the anger rise in him, like hot bile. Apu … from the Simpsons. He had been dismissed by this boy like some caricature, to be ignored. Avoided. But the fear that had kept him silent before remained, and all he could do was grit his teeth. ‘You should sit with us,’ Finch said, placing a hand on the back of Jim’s neck. ‘Like, now.’ He could see the wheels turning in Jim’s head, calculating the risk of turning Finch down.
Then he gave a nod, his shoulders hunched. Finch looked up at Cade, his lip curling with disdain. ‘Go find somewhere else to exist.’ Cade stood, but when he went to pick up his tray, Gobbler slammed a palm down on top of it. ‘Leave it,’ Finch snapped. Cade felt the blood rush to his cheeks. Fear and anger twisted in his stomach like a coiled snake. His last school hadn’t been like this. Oh, he’d experienced racism before. The disapproving stares when his mother and father went out together.
The ‘random’ selections at airport security. But nothing like this. For the briefest moment he wanted to stand up for himself. Wasn’t that what people said you should do with bullies? But this was a new school. He wasn’t that guy. Finch placed his clenched fists on the table, then looked up at Cade with an anger in his eyes that Cade could hardly believe was possible. ‘I think he wants to say something, Finch,’ Gobbler mumbled through a mouthful. But Cade didn’t. Instead, he hurried away, even as shame at his cowardice sent blood rushing to his cheeks.