Dean was the tough guy of Werner beach. The bro, the alpha dog. The guy who was out there in the middle of winter, in a storm, when the waves were big enough to block out the sky. He practically lived out there when school was out, and when class was in he’d often skip it if the surf was good.
So when he saw the rock pool for the first time, he didn’t see a rock pool at all. He saw the next adrenaline fix, the next competition. The other two tough guys of Werner beach – his friends Ron and Andy – were with him, and he knew they didn’t have the guts to go as far as he did.
‘Check it out,’ he said, pointing. They’d been walking across the rocky point to the next stretch of sand to see if the waves were better around the cove. It was a tricky business, navigating razor sharp rocks, slippery seaweed and deceptively deep pools, while strong waves pushed and pulled at your ankles.
‘So what? It’s a rock pool,’ Ron said. He’d been swimming all day but was so anxious to get back into the water he was shifting on his feet.
‘Nah, mate, not just a rock pool. It’s who can go the deepest.’
They peered over the side. The day was overcast, and it was impossible to see below a meter. Dean had grown up here, though, and he knew the nature of such pools: they twisted and turned and joined networks, but they didn’t end.
‘It’s probably not even that deep,’ Andy said, salt matted hair blowing in his face as he squinted into the water. The pool was about the size of a billiard table, and unnaturally circular. The sides were brittle rock and coral, the kind that would cut you if you so much as brushed it.
‘Go touch the bottom then,’ Dean challenged. ‘Bring up a handful of sand and I’ll give you five bucks.’ He didn’t know for sure it was deep, but he sensed it, the same way he could glance at the surf from the beach and sense where the rips were. When you went out to sea, beyond the waves, you could feel the depth under you. There wasn’t anything to say the sandy bottom was more than five or ten meters down – but you knew it wasn’t: it was hundreds of kilometres below your kicking feet.
‘If it’ll shut you up,’ Andy said, and with hardly a breath he dove into the middle of the rock pool and kicked, his pale feet vanishing into the dark, straight down. He and Ron waited for ten, twenty seconds.
Ron raised his eyebrows. ‘Shit. What if he doesn’t come up?’
‘Where’s he gonna go? Even Andy isn’t dumb enough to take a tunnel or something. He’ll either hit the bottom or chicken out. Bet I know which one, too.’
Dean counted another twenty seconds, and was about to say something when Andy rose to the surface and pulled himself over the side, gasping for breath.
‘Bloody hell. It was deep, alright. I went down far as I could go. Shit, my ears are killing me.’
‘You’re supposed to equalise, idiot,’ Ron said, folding his arms.
‘Yeah, well. It was way deeper than I thought. How long was I gone?’
‘Almost a minute,’ Dean said. ‘Did you see anything?’
‘Total blackness, man. Scary as. When I started back up I couldn’t even see the surface properly. It was just a blur of light way up there.’ He grinned, wiping sandy hair out of his face. ‘It was a rush, though.’
‘Alright,’ Dean said, nodding. ‘It’s on. Time to see who the real man is.’
Ron was next, and Dean timed it on his dive watch. One full minute. When he came back up, half senseless with oxygen deprivation, the first words out of his mouth were: ‘Did I beat Andy?’ And then, ‘It goes forever.’
Ever the cocky bastard, he was scoffing at Dean before he was even in the water. ‘You won’t beat a minute, mate, don’t worry. The pressure gets you, for one thing, squeezes your skull. Plus you get disoriented in the dark, don’t even know which way is up. Check this,’ he turned to show Dean the side of his arm, which was badly grazed. ‘Couldn’t even stay in the middle.’
Dean patiently unbound his watch and handed it to Ron. ‘Yeah, but then again, you guys are sissies, aren’t ya?’
Andy laughed. ‘Yeah, alright, buddy. Show us, then. Come on.’
Instead of replying, Dean winked and then turned away from the rock pool. He pried around until he found what he was looking for: a hefty rock lying at the base of the cliffs. It was the size of a basketball and weighed maybe twenty kilos. Perfect. He started back to the pool, cradling it to his chest. Ron shook his head as he approached. ‘Don’t do it, Dean. You’ll run out of breath.’
‘This is how real men do it,’ Dean said. He took a long, deep breath and then entered the pool in a long, smooth stride, not wanting to hesitate. He heard Andy mutter two words a second before he went under, equal parts scorn and respect: ‘Fucking crazy, dude.’
Dean sunk through ice cold pitch blackness for twenty seconds, clutching the rock, and as the light from above rose further and further out of sight, it occurred to him that maybe Andy had a point.
He gripped it for longer than he should have. It was impossible that this pool was so deep. Thirty seconds of such a quick descent should have put him at least thirty meters under, but he didn’t feel like he was anywhere near the bottom. He floated in darkness, and now that the rock was gone and he was no longer moving, he had no way to tell which way was up.
Panic arrived with the first stirrings of discomfort in his lungs – but then he fixed on something, a tiny speck of light as remote as a star. Surely the surface wasn’t that way – he was looking between his kicking feet. Had he turned himself upside down in those few seconds?
No time to think. Ten more seconds at this depth and he wouldn’t have the air to make it back. As it was, his lungs seized and black flecks jumped across his vision as he propelled himself upward, his strokes more urgent and less controlled as he drew nearer. He was going to make it, and best of all he was certain they’d never break his record. No human being was ever going to reach the bottom of that shaft, anyway.
He pulled himself over the side with arms so weak he had to roll onto his back to catch his breath before standing. He stared up at the grey clouded sky and sucked in salty air for a minute or so, a wide smile on his lips. No one said a word.
‘Man, that was deep,’ he said. ‘I bet I smashed you, Ron. How long was it?’ He held out his hand for one of them to help him up, but no one took it.
He sat up. The rock shelf was empty save a lone oncoming wave. He managed to stand before it hit, and scanned the beach for the other two. Nothing and no one. The whole beach was deserted, in fact, which was strange in itself – there’d been at least ten surfers out on the breakers when they’d arrived.
‘OY! STOP BEING ASSHOLES!’ Dean shouted. They had to be hiding. It was either that or they’d headed home as soon as he went under, which made no sense at all unless they were playing a stupid trick. God damn them – Ron still had his watch!
He walked around the cove, but they weren’t on the next beach, and nor was anyone else, so he gave up and went back to Werner, where he found his towel and possessions missing as well. So it was a prank, then: make him walk home in the cold and wet. Record, what record? he could imagine Andy saying with a furrowed brow. I don’t remember any rock pool, do you, Ron? They were jealous he beat them. Fine, whatever, he’d go straight home and they could laugh about it later. Screw them.
How they’d made ten surfers disappear, he didn’t know.
Something was wrong.
From the stars in the midday sky to the empty streets to the black clouds which had been grey an hour ago, everything was off kilter, false. This feeling struck him about ten minutes from his house, and it was strong enough that he stopped in the street and looked around, disoriented. An old man and his granddaughter walked hand in hand along the quiet road, and Dean watched them, trying to work out why they made him uneasy. They were just people, weren’t they?
Forget it. Go home and eat and play some Call of Duty and sleep, and Andy and Ron can go to hell.
But he couldn’t enter his house – not through the front door. He went around the back and tiptoed in through the laundry, craning his neck around corners as though he expected someone to be waiting with a hammer and a grin. The only sound was that of a ticking clock, so it came as a surprise when he entered the kitchen and found his family. His father smiled as he entered. He was stirring an enormous pot on the stove while his mother set the table, at the head of which Gina slouched and flicked through a magazine.
Dean smiled back, but a crawling sensation worked its way along his back. His Dad never smiled. Mr. Holmes, as Dean’s friends called him, was an imposing and ever professional man, the type who wore a suit to every social event and always kept rigid posture and perfect manners, even with his children. Now, Dean observed his casual stance and the loopy expression. Was he high or what?
‘Hi, Dean, just in time for dinner,’ His mother said. ‘Where’ve you been all day?’ She was just as off putting as his father. She never cared where he’d been, and her voice tended to be flat and full of dry humour, not this sprightly chime. And Gina, who usually flooded him with a million words from the moment he entered a room, barely raised an eyebrow at him before looking back at her magazine. ‘Hey.’
‘Just at the beach,’ Dean said, taking a seat beside his sister. The smell of the cooking wafted over to him from the stove and made him want to gag. Once Ron’s mother had made him a stew of slow cooked lamb, but the meat was bad quality and past fresh, and the bones gave off the smell of rot. This wasn’t dissimilar.
‘The beach?’ his mother said, continuing to set the table. Her smile wobbled. ‘Why would you go to the beach? There isn’t anyone there. I notice you didn’t bring anyone back for dinner, either, unlike your sister.’
The comment was so bizarre that Dean couldn’t bring himself to reply. Why had he been at the beach? It was his second home. And what did she mean Gina brought someone for dinner? There wasn’t anyone here but the four of them. He just shrugged and said nothing. Gina looked up from her magazine long enough to stick her tongue out at him, but he hardly noticed, because he’d just seen the cutlery his mother had set in front of him.
Technically, it was a knife and fork, but not like any he’d used before. The knife had a blade eight inches long with a serrated edge, and the fork had only two long tines. He wasn’t certain, but they looked an awful lot like real silver, too. He opened his mouth to say something and then shut it again. Don’t do it or they’ll know.
Gina sniffed, and her eyes were on him again, but he didn’t meet them. Instead, he watched his mother go into the kitchen to check on whatever his father had in the crockpot. She whispered something in his ear and he smiled widely, chuckled and shook his head. Dean’s father never chuckled. He laughed, but only when a man he respected told a joke, and then in a false, hearty voice – never with genuine mirth. His mother leaned on his shoulder and looked into the pot, her left hand sliding down her husband’s lower back and settling on his ass.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Gina said. There was no trace of the giggling teenager he knew in her expression or voice: instead he saw a cold, cynical girl with steady confidence beyond her years. A stranger.
‘Just had a… weird day, that’s all.’
‘Didn’t get anyone? That’s unusual for you. Were you really at the beach?’
Get anyone? What is she talking about? ‘Yeah. Why, where were you? Who did you bring?’ If he kept the questions on her, maybe she’d stop probing. She seemed suspicious.
She sighed and rested her head in her hand, flipped a page. ‘Don’t even talk to me. Got run out of like three places, almost bloody lost my head. Ended up snatching a baby from up the road, just got lucky. Won’t be enough though, so you better get it together tomorrow. Less people every day.’
She flipped another page and something caught his eye on the glossy paper. It didn’t seem right, so he shifted in his chair to get a closer look. Maybe there’d be a clue there as to what the hell was going…
Meat. Saws and screaming people, blood. An image of a crying naked child having its throat slit by a laughing mother. A long article along one page with the title PREY A DAY: HOW TO ENSURE YOU LAND FRESH ADULTS ON A REGULAR BASIS. Beside it was an image of a smiling family holding the disembowelled corpse of a bulky man.
Dean looked back to his bowl and then over at his parents. His father was spooning hot stew into bowls which his mother lifted and brought over to him and Gina, who was once again staring at him with that intense look.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ She said again.
‘Gina, stop pestering Dean – he’s clearly had a bad day.’ She set the bowls in front of them and went back to the kitchen.
‘Why do you keep asking me that?’ he said, trying to sound annoyed, trying not to think of the things he’d seen, and the internal voice that screamed at him to get the hell out of there before something happened.
‘Why do you smell so scared, then?’ she said. Her nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply, leaning in towards him, and then she settled back in her chair with a smug grin. ‘You’re pissing yourself!’ She said. ‘Mum, Dean’s losing it! He’s as scared as a legless bunny!’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Gina. What would Dean have to be scared about?’ But as she and his father sat down at the table she sniffed the air and cocked her head, considering it.
Time to go, man, time to go…
Dean scraped his chair back, pointing his long knife at his sister. ‘You’re mental. I’m not scared, okay. Something happened out there and I don’t want to talk about it.’ It was the first thing that came to him, but he saw doubt in her eyes and found hope. Maybe he could pretend to be mad and storm out with the knife. He could be back at the beach before the realised something was wrong.
His father had brought the pot to the middle of the table when he came over so that anyone could help themselves to seconds whenever they wanted. Now that he was standing, Dean couldn’t help but see what was inside, and when he did, the panic that had been simmering inside rose up and consumed him.
Ended up snatching a baby from up the road… Pale hairless flesh bobbed to the surface of a still simmering broth of potatoes onions and tomato, a thick brown sauce. A pudgy hand. At that moment, all three of them stared at him, his father’s mouth falling open in surprise and his mother gasping, a hand flying to her mouth. It was as though they could all see his terror as clearly as if it were a physical thing.
At that moment, the front door opened and Dean himself stepped in, someone’s severed torso and upper body hefted over one shoulder. ‘Sorry,’ he called out, turning to shut the front door behind him. His shirt was covered in blood. ‘Helped Andy and Ron out with this one, so we had to split him three ways. Tried to fight, but we took him down with rocks in the…’
He saw Dean and froze at the threshold. The body dropped to the floor with a sick thlomp! Leaking dark blood onto the floorboards.
Had Dean waited a moment longer, the spell would have broken and they’d have had him. As it was, his father managed to curl an arm around him as he pushed past, only letting go when Dean sunk the knife into his neck and pushed him away. The kitchen erupted in screams and clattering pots but Dean was out of there, through the back door and out into the street well ahead of them.
Cold evening air whipped his face as he ran, tears of panic streaming across his face and bare feet slapping asphalt. He didn’t see anyone at first, but when Gina started down the road after him and let out her piercing shriek, people began appearing from the shadows. They stared at him from alleyways and over fences, confused, curious. One man almost got him, an enormous slab who came around the side of a wall and lunged for him, baggy shirt brushing Dean as he leapt aside.
When his feet landed on the blessed soft sand, he chanced a look back. The Other Dean was in front of all the rest, sprinting over the road toward him, his eyes wide and bright: he was as shocked to see another version of himself as Dean was. Behind him, several others emerged from the short houses that lined the beach, necks craning, fingers pointing. He was the Other in this place, there was no doubt about that. And he didn’t want to find out what happened to outsiders here.
The rocks, sharp enough to draw blood even when you stepped lightly, tore his feet apart as he ran across them. He cried out but didn’t dare slow down. His other was gaining quickly now, letting out a whoop of exhilaration that Dean recognized as his own, the triumphant shout he would let loose as a wave took him the first burst of speed propelled him through the spray. From this other mouth it had a different meaning.
He was at the pool. He might have missed it in his panic if the last rays of the setting sun hadn’t glanced off its surface and made it shine for an instant, one dark patch out of many. He turned, gasping as a row of barnacles turned his soles to mincemeat. A large rock lay nearby – the shape and size of the one he’d dropped, in fact – and he stooped to pick it up, aware of his Other’s footsteps drawing up behind him.
He turned at the side of the pool, and the Other came to a stop a few meters away, eyeing the rock. The others were only just climbing the shelf far behind him. For the next couple of minutes, they were alone. Dean wanted to throw himself into the pool now, but he couldn’t. For one thing he was out of breath, his own chest burning with each inhalation (the Other hadn’t so much as broken a sweat), and for another, he dreaded that the pool was a one way trip. No going back.
‘What are you?’ he said.
The Other didn’t approach, knowing he’d have plenty of help soon. Instead, he stood back with his arms folded, glaring at Dean. ‘What are you?’
‘I’m human. I live on earth. What’s this place?’
‘Hewmin? Urth?’ The other spat at his feet, which were covered in a thick layer of callous, not bleeding at all. When they met eyes, it was very clear to both who was predator and who was prey. The Other smiled, showing white teeth that tapered to points. ‘Where can we get more of you, then?’
Perhaps it was the adrenaline coursing through his system and the knowledge that he was most likely about to die a horrible death, or perhaps it was this image of himself, an arrogant, musclebound, bastard looking down on him, but either way Dean felt a surge of anger and gave the Other a mean grin of his own.
‘Trust me, you don’t want more of me,’ he said. ‘But if you do, you’ll have to go all the way down to hell.’
The others were too close now – he could hear their feet, see their slobbering mouths as they pelted over slippery rock toward him. Before the Other could reply he let himself fall sideways, the rock pulling him as he curled around it and hugged it like a baby, eyes clenched tight and the only sound that of his heart slamming in his chest, burning the oxygen in his body like so much firewood.
When everything was pitch dark and he felt that he was no longer falling but floating, he looked down between his legs and saw a faint light, the pale grey of an overcast sky. Please, please let it be home.
Dean let go of the rock and swam toward the surface.
When he reached for the side of the pool two strong sets of arms grabbed him and hauled him up onto the rocks, coughing and spluttering.
‘Jesus, man, we thought you were dead. How long was that?’
‘Four minutes easy.’ Ron’s voice.
‘Four minutes, man. Are you alright?’
Dean turned over and vomited some seawater, got up onto shaky hands and knees and crawled away from the hole. He kept going until he got to the dry flat rocks and he settled there with his back to the cliff, watching the hole. The other two stood in front of him, exchanging worried glances, and the sun shone into his eyes between two clouds.
‘So… did you make it to the bottom?’ Andy said.
‘Nah. I just went down and down, but it was black all the way. Nothing, no bottom or anything.’
‘Wow, what happened to your feet man?’
‘Shit.’ Dean pulled his feet in and winced at the sight of them. It looked like he’d stuck them in a blender. Now that relief replaced terror, they were starting to sting a hell of a lot. ‘I don’t know. I was kicking really hard on the way up, must have hit the rocks. Can you guys help me back?’
‘Yeah, sure, man,’ Ron said.
‘Hey, you totally win, dude. Ice creams on me, yeah?’ Andy slapped him on the back but Dean couldn’t manage more than a faint smile. ‘Just in a bit, though,’ he said. ‘I want to chill out for a while.’
For a long time the three of them sat and trash talked, Dean barely saying a word, and watched the sunset. Beautiful as it was, Dean didn’t so much as look up at it while they were there. Instead he kept his eyes on the rock pool, watching wave after wave wash into it until the tide came in and obscured it completely. Occasionally the light tricked him and he thought he saw a shadow moving just below the surface, but nothing emerged and he shook himself out of it.
When the sun was gone and the air took on a fresh chill, Andy and Ron locked their arms into his and pulled him to his feet. He gritted his teeth against the pain of sea salt in his wounds, but didn’t say anything.
They shivered and licked ice cream and laughed and joked, but the other two went easy on him, sensing he’d been in much more trouble than he admitted. Their own relief was palpable and he realised they must have been on the point of running for help. Just before they parted ways, Andy put his hands on Dean’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes. ‘Hey, man, are you sure you’re alright?’
Dean nodded. ‘Yeah, yeah I’m good. Just shaken up a bit. Let’s hit the surf tomorrow again, yeah?’
Andy gave him his goofy grin and nodded. ‘You know it, baby. Alright, catchya later dude. Chill out, okay?’
On the walk back home, Dean found himself eyeing everything with suspicion, watching the cars and people closely. But he saw nothing, and when he returned home he was met with stern parents and an overly talkative Gina and an overwhelming sense of gratefulness.
He’d made it out alive. For now, that was all he wanted to think about.
They were the Alpha Dogs of Werner beach. They were heroes in their world, and Dean, the first to cross the bridge between the worlds, was the greatest hero of them all. Future generations would erect a statue in his glory. At first, the three boys were the only ones who had the lung capacity to make the journey, but as time went on and food grew more scarce, other hunters came to match them.
Word spread, and before long Werner grew into a prosperous border town, a place to stay before you ventured into the new world. Old and young alike who’d never seen it for themselves spoke in hushed whispers of great cities filled with prey. They could be dangerous in numbers, sure, but a skilled hunter could feed himself and his family for as far into the future as they could see.