Chapter 1: Here Be Creatures
ALL THE COUNSELLORS were monsters.
The familiar, smiling faces turned feral in the moonlight, their friendly smiles now sly grins. They licked thin, hungry lips with forked tongues. And showed sharp teeth when they smiled.
I looked for my sister, Pippa. Then I heard her screaming: “Help! Leith! They’ve got me!”
My heart leapt. I felt sick. My sister was
gone. I looked around. I felt like I was going to fall on the ground and barf. One by one, they were ripping their skins, peeling back their faces, revealing the horrors beneath.
I turned to face the darkness. My sister shrieked. I started to shake. And run.
“After him!” croaked one of the raw-faced monstrosities, dripping rotten flesh and green blood all over its clean white camp-issue T-shirt.
“Please bring him back,” cooed the cook, tearing off her scalp and popping her eyes out of her skull like bright blue marbles, revealing dark empty sockets. “Not much meat on the boy, but with his sister, they’ll make a nice stew!” She threw back her head and cackled, tearing away the rest of her papery flesh like ancient wallpaper.
“Pippa! I’m coming!” I ran away from the huge cauldron bubbling on the campfire and headed for the trees. The moon was high and thin; the further I ran, the denser the overgrowth got, the less I saw. “Pip? Over here!” I stopped.
Nothing. Just night sounds. Crickets. Small animals. Birds.
I drew a deep breath of relief. My thudding heartbeat steadied. Pippa! She must have gotten away.
I turned. And ran into my sister’s arms. Normally, I wouldn’t do anything so dorky, but these were what my dad would call special circumstances.
“Come with me,” she said, her voice flat and matter-of-fact. “I know the way.”
She led. I followed.
“But, Pip, you’re taking us back to camp.”
“Trust me, Bugsy. They’ve scattered. It’s the last place they’ll look.”
The campsite looked deserted. Only the big, bubbling cauldron remained to show that anyone had been there. Then Pippa reached into her pocket and raised something to her lips. A whistle. She blew like Gabriel on Judgement Day!
They came from everywhere. The monster-counsellors - slimy, skinless - oozing green goop and staring unblinkingly with cold, lidless eyes.
“Pippa - what have you done?”
“Pippa?” She laughed, her voice deep and coarse. She reached up under her chin. I backed away. I knew what was coming. With a sickening riiiiiip, she started to tear her face off.
“No!” I screamed. “What have you done with my sister?”
“See for yourself,” said the Pippa-thing, advancing and putting her hands around my neck. “Let’s take a peek in the cauldron ...”
Her hands closed around my throat. They were strong and bony. Squeezing. Crushing. Putting on the pressure till---
“Aaaeugh!” I screamed, pulling away from my sister’s shaking hands. “Get away!”
“Leith, wake up - it’s me, Pip.”
I pushed myself as far away as I could, and only stopped when I hit the bus window. The warmth of the glass felt good against my oily cheek. “We’re ... going to camp?” I said, my voice wobbly.
“Right. You fell asleep. Are you OK?” She touched my neck. I cringed. Her hand felt slimy, just like in the dream - must be that Nature’s Organics stuff she’s always rubbing into her perfect skin.
I looked at her doll-like face and couldn’t imagine any foul fiend hiding under something so beautiful. And then she smiled. I know it isn’t cool to talk about your sister this way, but Pippa has always been drop-dead adorable. Although she’s two years older - nearly fourteen - she’s always been like a gorgeous doll to me ... a playmate and a friend. And now she’s at the age where guys are starting to notice her, I can’t help feeling jealous and protective.
Our parents (the perky Paula and bald Barry) are bigtime marine biologists, and when the chance came up to join a special squad exploring the spectacular Grouper Islands for two weeks, quick as a wink, we got packed off to camp. But that’s OK. Pippa and I look out for each other. It’s always been that way.
So I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable when I noticed the grinning kid at the front of the bus turning around, staring at her. He’d been talking to the driver, Mr Jekyll, since he got on, shooting off his big yap, saying how great he is at everything, especially sports. He’s broad-shouldered and does look like some kind of athlete. Maybe Roger Federer. He has slicked-back hair and dark, flashing eyes. Eyes that kept fixing on my sister.
Pippa’s the beauty in our family, as you’ve probably guessed. She has thick, dark brown hair that curls away from her heart-shaped face, liquid eyes and a button nose. Her skin is clear and smooth, and she used to be a bit chunky around the middle, but these days she’s slim and fit, just the type of nice girl who’s going to attract the wrong kind of boy.
“... I was the best,” the bragging boy was telling the driver. “My mother used to stand at the finishing line and cheer ...”
In the looks stakes, I’m a disappointment ... at least after you’ve met the perfect Pip. Even compared to the beady-eyed loudmouth up the front, I’m not much. If you were being nice, you’d say I’m average - medium height, skinny, with mousy brown hair, and freckles over most of my long narrow face. Not a rock star. Mum says I’m cute. I think mothers have to sign something when their babies are born saying that they will always consider them “cute.”
“... three letters meaning stupid?” intoned a dull voice behind us. I turned and saw a tall, beak-nosed boy with hair so fine and fair I could see the pinkness of his scalp. He was hunched over a puzzle book.
“Three letters meaning stupid?” the girl across the aisle repeated. “Y-O-U!” She giggled at her own joke. She was short and thin, with glossy black hair, a wide smiling mouth, and below the hem of her white shorts, a strawberry-shaped birthmark on one knee. She laughed again as the beak-nosed boy playfully slapped her with the book. I thought, the way he did it, that he liked her.
That was everybody - just the five of us, plus driver. Still, it was mid-summer and the school holidays were entering their third week. Camp Damble would be teeming with kids. Kids who’d been there since day one, gotten the best bunks, already made loads of friends, and wouldn’t see the need to mix with newbies like us.
I stared out the window at the flat, dry landscape. We’d been travelling for hours and looked to be in the middle of nowhere. Where were we? How much farther?
As if to answer, Mr Jekyll stomped on the brakes. With a hiss, the doors opened. He swung around. “Aw right, you lot! Everybody out!”
Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. Not even the bragging boy.
The driver turned his back on us. Still, no one spoke, no one moved.
Was this some kind of joke - part of an initiation?
I heard a metallic click-clack as Mr Jekyll turned to face us, a shotgun in his hands. “Well ... gonna make me say it twice?”
Frozen, we stared at each other, nobody daring to speak. Jekyll pushed the loaded barrel into the boastful boy’s belly. He gulped. And started down the steps. He wasn’t bragging now.
As if by unspoken agreement, we followed. One by one. Single file. In silence. Jekyll came last. He kept the shotgun trained on us as he unlatched the luggage compartment. He started to throw our bags into the dirt.
“Hey!” Crossword Boy started forward. Jekyll swung around.
The dark-eyed braggart stepped in - right between the two of them. He might be annoying, but I thought that was incredibly brave. “Be cool, man,” he said evenly, clenching Crossword’s shoulder. “It’s a joke. That’s all this is. Right, Mr Jekyll?”
Jekyll’s expression didn’t change. He was like a machine.
“You’re not really planning to leave us ... here?”
Jekyll smiled, his bland oval face taking on a predatory look. With one leathery hand, he continued tossing out our belongings. He was tall with broad shoulders, and even without the gun, he would have been too threatening to tackle.
“You’re not going to ... right?” the show-off persisted. “Leave us here, I mean. You can’t.”
Jekyll stopped what he was doing and gave his full attention to the boy. “Says who, sonny?”
“If you do ... who’ll take care of us?”
Again, Jekyll smiled. “Out there - they’ll take care of you ... the creatures.”
“The ... creatures?” This was Birthmark Girl.
“Sure,” said Jekyll. “Here there be creatures. And the creatures’ll take care of you real nice. So nice, no one’ll even know you was ever here to begin with.”
“What about our stuff?” challenged the Crossword Kid. “Will ‘the creatures’ eat that too? Better put it back if you don’t want people to get ’spicious. To get ’spicious and work out it was you---”
Jekyll lifted the barrel and pointed it straight at the boy’s chest. “Well, maybe you got a point there, pardner. If I’m gonna wind up doin’ the time, might just as well do the crime, now, mightn’t I?” His finger found the trigger. “I’ll leave your bodies for the creatures. That’s what we normally do, anyways. But you five I’ll pop m’self. Any last requests, pardner?” He peeled off his WELCOME TO CAMP DAMBLE T-shirt and dropped it in the dirt. “Don’t wanna go gettin’ blood on that. Dr Grieg might not like it.”
Crossword looked like a four-letter word meaning terror.
Then Braggart spoke up. “Yeah, Mr Jekyll, I got a request for you - how ’bout packin’ my ham-fist in your bread-basket?” And, pushing the gun barrel up in the air, he hit him!
What happened next was a blur, but soon Jekyll and the little windbag were rolling in the dust like enemies in a spaghetti western. All they needed was the weird background music, which wouldn’t have seemed weird at all. The boy, having the advantage of speed, laid into his opponent, fighting for grim death. Jekyll, though not that muscular, seemed strong as an android.
Birthmark Girl grabbed a heavy-looking suitcase and hurled it at Jekyll. She missed.
Then the two sparring nutjobs had the gun between them. They struggled, the young lion and the wily warhorse; the barrel was pointed at the boy ... then the man - then it was impossible to tell who, as---
---it went off!
The boy crumpled, his knees buckling beneath him as he slid face-first onto the ground.
Jekyll turned away, reaching for his shirt, which he slipped on before turning to face us. He hadn’t even broken a sweat. His expression was blank, his eyes glassy. “Aw righty - who’s next?” He laughed mechanically.
Pippa ran to the motionless boy. Birthmark half-heartedly threw another case at Jekyll. Again, she missed. Crossword looked nervously at Jekyll, then hid behind me. I stood there looking like a freckle-faced nerd.
“What’s the matter with young people? Don’t any of you have a sense of humour?” Jekyll let fly with a volley of laughter.
“Sense of humour?” spat Pippa, tears in her eyes. “Can’t you see what you’ve done?”
“Sure,” said Jekyll. “I winded him with m’fist. The shot was a blank. In a minute or two, he’ll be good as new.” He reached down and effortlessly hauled the boy to his feet.
Leaning up against the side of the bus, the kid wheezed and coughed. He spat. Right on Pippa’s shoe.
“Urgh!” Reaching in her pocket for a Kleenex, she walked slowly back to my side. I was glad she had not looked at the little blowhard the way he was looking at her.
“All aboard!” called Mr Jekyll brightly as he started to throw our bags back into the hold.
I looked at Pippa. “Must be some sort of first-day joke.”
She nodded, but didn’t look convinced.
Still, what other explanation could there be?
The rest of the trip passed mostly in silence, but since the ice had been broken so dramatically, we introduced ourselves.
The crossword fanatic was Ray. He seemed ashamed of having acted like such a coward, and went straight back to his book of puzzles after giving us the briefest possible introduction. I wondered if he normally would have played his games and things on his mobile phone. Not that it mattered; phones, laptops, technology of any kind – it was all banned at camp. One of Dr Grieg’s little rules. One of the reasons our parents had liked the sound of this particular camp – no sitting inside all day; we’d be forced to go out and “commune with nature” if only out of boredom.
Birthmark’s name was Jane, and she and Pippa struck up quite a conversation about Hollywood’s latest “bad boy” hunk, while the show-off said in a quiet voice: “I’m Benson Chicken. Everyone calls me Broody.”
I nearly laughed. But his manner was so suddenly subdued, I couldn’t. He seemed thoughtful, preoccupied, the exact opposite of how he’d been before our unscheduled stop.
With Jane and Pippa prattling away about Ryan and Brick and whoever, and Ray with his nose stuck in a book, that left me with no one to talk to but Broody. I tried several conversation-starters, but nothing got him going.
Not until we veered onto a narrow dirt road and a whistling Mr Jekyll turned his head to announce in a clear voice: “Look, kids, here we are!”
Then I heard Broody mutter: “It wasn’t a blank. I shot him. Right in the gut.”