Alaric Swift had never known his parents and had been living in foster families all his life. He’d never got on with any of them, but that was especially true when one wanted to eat him.
He was twelve years old by the time this happened and had already been in seven families. Each time it had not ended well. His last one had wanted him gone after just four days when they found him next to a hole in the garden, deep enough for three men to be able to stand on each other’s shoulders and still not reach the top. And inside that hole, was their three-year-old child. Alaric insisted he hadn’t done it. The problem was, he wasn’t sure if that was true.
He was sitting on the grass, soaking up the warm rays of sunshine as he perused his favourite book. Then, he felt something tugging at his cheek. He raised his hand to slap it away, before freezing as he saw the adorable, giggling face of the family’s toddler. He lowered his arm, unable to bring himself to slap the child. Go away, he thought to himself. As those words crossed his mind, the ground opened up beneath the toddler and she was gone. It was as if the grass had answered him. He put his hands to his ears as the sharp sound of the toddler wailing pierced the air around him. He looked down into the hole, exhaling deeply as he saw the child had only a grazed arm. Then, his heart started to race again.
‘WHAT ON EARTH HAVE YOU DONE NOW?’ a voice shrieked. He turned to see his foster mother stomping down the garden, her sharp face scarlet with fury.
‘N-nothing, I swear,’ Alaric pleaded.
‘So, that hole just got there by itself, did it? And Aimee just happens to have fallen in?’ His mother’s lips were so stiff they looked like they could never be moulded into a smile again.
Alaric opened his mouth and shut it again several times like a fish, but no sound escaped. He could think of nothing to say. He didn’t even know what had happened himself.
‘I’m going to have to phone your social worker about this,’ his foster-mother said very seriously before she turned on her heel and darted away.
The rest was history. A few visits from social services later, Alaric’s social worker, Mr Solomon was pulling into the parking space outside his new house. The man was Alaric’s opposite. He was so short, it seemed a miracle his feet even reached the pedals, his beer belly resting on his thighs. Alaric, however, was so tall and lean that the front of the dashboard was uncomfortably digging into his knees. Their hair rounded off the contrast: Alaric’s was thick, dark and even when he got out of bed, somehow perfect, while Mr Solomon’s silver hair always looked unbrushed, his beard taking a similar appearance.
The new house was neither big nor small and was only unique because of its lack of character. The exterior was made of dull grey concrete, the front door unpainted, the windows plain, square and so dusty, Alaric, to his horror, couldn’t see inside. A man and a woman came rushing out of the building, and Alaric hadn’t even had the chance to get out of the car when they started vigorously shaking his hand.
‘I’m John,’ said the man, ‘this is my wife, Sue.’
Alaric, unnerved by his parents’ enthusiasm and unsure what to say examined the two adults stood in front of him. There was no word to describe the pair of them other than normal. It was the lack of distinctness in the faces, the absence of any marks, bar the few wrinkles around the eyes; the average length of the brown hair, the fact they were both average height. Everything about their appearances was so forgettable, yet just like the house, it was what made them so distinct.
‘Do come in,’ John invited, ‘no, no, Alaric, I’ll take those in,’ he added as Alaric reached for his suitcase from the boot of the car.
Alaric’s stomach lurched as he and Mr Solomon followed them into the house, a feeling that became even stronger when he saw the interior. There were no light bulbs in the hallway. Instead, it was lit up by candles, fixed to the walls, creating a spooky atmosphere. Alaric’s hairs stood on end as they were led into the kitchen. This room was somehow creepier than the hallway. The walls were bare, not even plastered, the shelves just as empty, some of them clinging onto the walls by a single screw.
‘I’ll make a pot of tea,’ said Sue, ‘anything to eat for either of you two? Cake, biscuits?’
‘Sure,’ Alaric said absent-mindedly. He was already starting to dread his time in this home. It was a warm summer’s day, yet this house was giving him the shivers. For once, he hoped he wouldn’t get on with these new parents so he could leave this house.
‘Of course, go and take a seat in the lounge,’ Sue invited, indicating straight ahead out of the door, ‘John and I will bring the tea in a moment.’
The lounge was even darker than the hallway. While there was a bulb switched on in the room, the light it emitted was hardly noticeable. The curtains were shut, the tweed sofas torn in several places, thick dust gathering on them like they hadn’t been used in years.
‘So, what do you think?’ Mr Solomon asked Alaric enthusiastically.
Alaric did not respond verbally but stared at Mr Solomon, scowling. What did he think? What a ridiculous question! The house was hardly habitable, if at all.
‘Look, I know they’re a bit different to a normal family, but that’s what I thought you’d need,’ the social worker explained.
‘The kitchen looks like a shed,’ Alaric said through gritted teeth.
‘Well, give them a chance,’ Mr Solomon said, ‘you’ve only just met them.’
John came shuffling into the room, followed by his wife. Each of them was carrying a plastic, tacky-looking tray, Sue’s with mugs on it, John’s with a plate of digestive biscuits and a Madeira cake. Sue passed Alaric and Mr Solomon each a cup of tea. Alaric couldn’t help but wince as he looked down at the grey liquid before him. The cake John handed him was no more appealing. It was as dry as cardboard, and its flavour was lacking as much. The nature of the conversation wasn’t making Alaric any more keen on living in this house either. John and Sue seemed to hate everything Alaric loved: basketball, books, even pizza. It appeared that all they were interested in was their piano, something Alaric knew, for sure, he didn’t care about. After dinner (a bowl of watery soup), Mr Solomon left, and Alaric went to bed feeling particularly pessimistic about the time ahead. The bedroom was stuffy, and there was an unpleasant, musty smell in the air like mould. The mattress was almost as firm as the carpet and Alaric got little sleep, his back stiff, aching intensely as he woke.
‘Good morning, Alaric,’ Sue said as he entered the downstairs kitchen, ‘did you sleep well? Do you need me to make you a cup of tea?’ The cupboard door creaked as she opened it to reach a mug and some teabags. Alaric couldn’t help but stare and shudder as the door hung on a single hinge.
‘It’s fine, I’ll make it,’ he offered, remembering how bad the tea she’d made the previous day had been.
‘No, no,’ Sue chuckled, ‘honestly, I don’t mind.’ She proceeded to pour water from the rusty kettle onto the teabag, the liquid inside the cup much lighter than black tea should be.
‘No, please, I insist,’ said Alaric. He snatched the kettle from his foster mother and continued to pour the tea, his eyes bulging as he felt the stone cold mug. ‘Sue, did you boil the kettle?’ he asked.
‘Oh no, how silly of me,’ she laughed, ‘you see I haven’t had a lot of sleep, I was up admiring the moon last night. The cycle’s nearly there you know, full moon on Monday.’
‘Oh really?’ Alaric asked, trying to sound interested.
‘Yes, it’ll be a special day for you. First day at your new school and the full moon. We like that day, John and I,’ Sue started to explain, ‘absolutely stunning, the moon.’
‘Yeah, it is.’ Alaric started to boil the kettle, longing for this conversation to end.
‘I thought we’d go to the shops today, we need some food,’ Sue said.
Alaric nodded. ‘Where’s that then?’ he asked, unsure what to say.
‘Not too far, I reckon a wolf could run it in…five minutes,’ John’s voice said from behind Alaric.
‘How long would that take us?’ Alaric asked hesitantly, trying to hide his uneasiness. Who on earth measured distance in the time it’d take a wolf to cover it?
‘Five minutes in the car,’ Sue said, ‘honestly John, what is your obsession with wolves?’ Her expression had become glaring, as though her husband has said something he shouldn’t have.
‘I like dogs, get over it,’ said John firmly, ‘at least that’s a talking point with people, better than someone droning on about the moon.’
‘Let’s speak outside,’ Sue said in a way that would only countenance one response, and her husband followed her into the hallway, gently shutting the door behind him.
‘What are you doing?’ Alaric heard his foster mother snarl, ‘the boy will think we’re werewolves or something if you keep talking like that.’
‘Better than going on about the moon. Let’s be real, who cares?’ John retorted, ‘besides, the boy’s been kicked out of a lot of families. Might make his life more interesting if he thinks we’re werewolves.’
‘Better than him knowing what we really are,’ Sue responded. Alaric’s stomach started to cramp, his face becoming void of colour. He felt like running, but the only way out of this room was the window, which led straight into an unkempt, wholly enclosed garden.
‘Keep your voice down,’ John hissed.
Alaric’s heart jumped to his throat as he saw the kitchen door swing open. Sue and John were standing on the other side, smiling warmly. ‘If you get changed, we’ll go in half an hour,’ Sue said.
The stairs creaked ominously as Alaric climbed them. He exhaled deeply as he reached his room, jumping to his phone upon seeing he had a message. He knew it would be from Mr Solomon. No one else ever texted him. He had no other family, no friends.
Everything ok? It read.
Something weird is up with them, Alaric typed in reply, I heard them talking about werewolves, they said they were something worse than that.
Mr Solomon’s response was immediate. Alaric’s eyes remained glued to his phone as he saw his social worker was typing.
They’re a slightly unusual couple. They do sword swallowing for a living, that’ll be what they meant. Have a good day.
Alaric’s head became hot as rage coursed through his body. Why could Mr Solomon never just leave him with an ordinary family? So far, he’d had a couple who made him sleep in the same room as their five-foot long lizard, a man who made a living through ballroom dancing with no partner and now this. Alaric’s phone buzzed on his bed.
Let me know if you need anything else. I’ll come and visit soon.
‘Whatever,’ Alaric groaned. He locked his phone and started towards the shower. After washing himself with its freezing cold water and pulling on a purple t-shirt and jeans, he was sitting in the back of his foster parents’ black Peugeot. Alaric’s throat started to itch as he entered a coughing fit. The dust on the seats was so thick that it was impossible to see what colour they were and the windows didn’t look like they’d ever been cleaned.
‘What do you like to eat, Alaric?’ John asked, ‘black pudding okay with you?’
‘Never tried it,’ Alaric said truthfully, though he was already at the point where they could have served him cat litter, and he wouldn’t have cared.
‘You know what it’s made of?’ John said.
‘Pigs’ blood,’ Alaric answered instantly, recalling a piece of home economics work he’d done at his last school.
‘One of our favourite dishes,’ Sue chimed in, ‘strange isn’t it? How different, how much better it tastes than our own blood?’
‘I guess if we taste our own blood, it means we’re hurt, so we’re not meant to like it,’ Alaric said, trying to sound as natural as possible. He shuffled uncomfortably in his seat. Of all the things he’d have like to have been talking about, he couldn’t say the taste of blood was especially high on the list.
‘Perhaps,’ Sue said, ‘did Mr Solomon ever tell you about what we do for a living?’
‘Yeah, he did,’ Alaric said.
‘It’s quite good fun,’ John said, his tone upbeat, ‘I’m sure we could teach you to swallow a sword if you wanted?’
‘I-I’m good…thank you,’ Alaric said. A lump formed in his throat at the thought of doing so. He was struggling to even swallow his own saliva now.
‘It’d impress all of your friends at your new school,’ Sue said.
‘I’d really rather not,’ Alaric said awkwardly, conscious he might come across as rude.
‘You sure?’ John asked, ‘what are your talents then?’
‘Reading?’ John exclaimed, ‘that’s not going to get you many friends at school, is it?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous John,’ Sue snapped, ‘You’ll make him nervous. People would rather be friends with someone like him than a freak like you who’s always talking about wolves.’
‘Better than a sword swallower obsessed with the moon,’ John grumbled.
Sue remained silent as John parked the car outside the supermarket. As soon as the three of them were out the car, Alaric noticed that people everywhere were staring at them, some even pointing and whispering to each other. Alaric instinctively checked himself for anything he’d been called out for at school; his shirt was ironed, his jeans were on the right way, his shoes tied. He wiped his face, licked around his lips in case he had anything on his face that was drawing such attention.
‘It’s not you, Alaric,’ Sue said reassuringly, ‘it’s us. We’re something of local celebrities; with what we do for a living, that’s sort of inevitable. Just try to ignore them.’
John’s tone was shaking, making Alaric feel even worse than he already was. He couldn’t help but feel his foster mother was lying to him, but he decided not to mention it. He was used to being stared at and pointed at. At school, he’d always been the weird one. The long, lanky boy who enjoyed reading, who seldom spoke. This wasn’t because of his shyness, just that he had always been too preoccupied with difficulties at home to care much about what people thought of him at school. Besides, he was almost always going to change school soon because his foster parents would no longer want him.
‘Let’s go over to the butcher’s counter,’ Sue said.
They did so and there, they bought their meals for the next few days. Alaric just hoped he would like black pudding because that seemed to be all that was on the menu. Lunch that day was black pudding hot dogs, dinner was black pudding burgers and breakfast the next day was a black pudding sandwich. When he was finally asked what sausages he’d want for supper the next day, he suggested pork and garlic, expecting he’d want a change from black pudding, at which John and Sue both expressed immense disgust and went ahead and bought even more.
This constant monotony of John and Sue’s life caused the next couple of days to drag on for Alaric. With very little to do, he became increasingly bored, and no matter how much Sue and John tried to vary the form in which they served black pudding, it didn’t get any more exciting. By the time Sunday night came, he was, for once, glad he’d be starting school the next day. Even if he struggled to make friends and the food was likely to be bland, at least it would make a change from his foster parents’ house.
As he wandered from the bathroom to his bed that night, he noticed a sliver of light coming from John and Sue’s room. The door was ajar, and he could hear them communicating, whispering urgently.
‘Why not do it tonight?’ John said.
‘Because the full moon is tomorrow, we’ll be at our strongest then,’ Sue answered firmly.
‘We’re not werewolves, we don’t need it to transform. Every murder in the area happened at the full moon, and guess who has an obsession with the moon? Not seem suspicious to you? Everyone was staring in the store. Even Alaric noticed.’
‘I take your point, but on this occasion, we need the moon on our side. The boy is a prince, he’s bound to have some fight in him. There cannot be an heir to the throne or our cause is a failure.’
Alaric shuffled his feet towards his bedroom, as quickly as he could without being heard. He climbed into his bed and felt around for his phone. His body froze at the noise it made as he typed in the passcode to unlock it. His thoughts were scattered, his mind frantic. He knew something was going on with his parents. Everything about them was so odd. He could call the police, but no that’d get him heard. Besides, they wouldn’t believe it if a boy of twelve told them his foster parents were planning to murder a member of the royal family. He could try Mr Solomon. But he didn’t seem any more likely to believe him based on what had happened when he’d told him about the werewolf conversation he overheard. But he had to try, it was his only hope.
Mr Solomon, please, I think they’re plotting to kill Prince George, he wrote. Sent.
I heard them talking, they said they had to wait until tomorrow because they’d be strongest then and he’s a prince, he’ll have a fight in him. Sent.
Alaric’s body became paralysed once more as his phone beeped. There was no noise from around the house. He breathed a sigh of relief and unlocked his mobile.
Ok, act natural tomorrow morning. Go to school, and I’ll come round in the evening to mow the lawn, check everything’s ok, read Mr Solomon’s reply.
Alaric’s heart was still pounding. He was not concerned by the abnormality of what Mr Solomon was planning on doing. It was not unusual for the social worker to have done such a bizarre thing. He had always been an eccentric man when it came to looking after gardens and seemed to particularly enjoy maintaining other people’s. Wherever Alaric had gone, he had been visited by Mr Solomon every week, and he would always start weeding the garden or mowing the lawn, free of charge. Besides, he was far more worried about the fact his parents were about to assassinate the heir to the throne. And even worse, what on earth did they mean by transform?
Can’t you tell the police? Alaric asked in his next message, thinking it best not to mention anything about his parents transforming.
No. This doesn’t concern the police.
Alaric scoffed. What on earth was he on about? Who did it concern if not the police? However, he knew trying to persuade Mr Solomon he was wrong was futile, so he put his phone down and lay flat on his back and shut his eyes. He didn’t sleep all night; his mind was too full of thoughts. What if his foster parents knew he knew? Would they kill him as well? Would the police blame him? By the time morning came, he wasn’t even tired. His mind was too riddled with thoughts as he showered and returned to his bedroom to dress. Then, he realised.
He didn’t know how but his phone was gone. He frantically searched his room for it, under his bed, behind all the furniture, but it was nowhere to be found. He changed into the uniform of his new school, a dark blazer and red tie before tiptoeing downstairs for breakfast.
‘Morning, Alaric,’ John and Sue said as one.
‘Morning,’ Alaric replied, ‘have either of you seen my phone by any chance?’
‘You mean this?’ John asked as he pulled Alaric’s phone from the pocket of his black dressing gown.
‘Yes,’ Alaric replied, a feeling like a belt being pulled too tight coming into his stomach.
‘You know it’s rude to eavesdrop?’ John said coldly.
‘W-what do you mean?’ Alaric asked innocently, his hairs erecting themselves.
‘We have an excellent sense of smell, you know?’ John said, ‘Sue thought she smelt you outside our bedroom door last night. She sent me to go and check. You really need a passcode on your phone that’s not your date of birth.’
‘I-I don’t know what you mean,’ Alaric lied, his fingers twitching in front of his mouth.
‘Yes you do,’ John said, ‘you know we’re plotting to kill the prince.’
His heart racing, Alaric started towards the kitchen door. ‘I’ll keep it a secret,’ he said desperately, ‘I promise.’
‘Shan’t be necessary,’ Sue’s voice said from behind Alaric. The latter furrowed his brow and turned on the spot.
How she’d got there, Alaric had no idea. He gave a start as he saw it, his heart skipping a beat. She was crouched on the top shelf on the wall, John in the same position on the opposite side of the room.
‘H-how did you get up there?’ Alaric asked, eyeing the backdoor.
‘Like this,’ John replied. Then, if Alaric had blinked, he would have missed it. John had vanished and where he had been, was a bat the size of an eagle. His heart pounding, Alaric sprinted towards the front door, grinding to a halt just inches from it. He extended his arm towards the handle. But then Sue appeared out of nothingness between him and the exit. She leered, open-mouthed. Out of her gums, sprouted two new teeth. They were pointed, as sharp as knives and had a pinkish tinge to them. The lump in Alaric’s throat grew even more as he saw it was the result of blood stains.
‘I think we’ll have an early dinner,’ John said.
‘W-what do you mean?’ Alaric stammered, though he dreaded to think he already knew the answer.
‘Alaric Swift,’ John said softly, a slight smile surfacing on his face. Slowly, he opened his mouth as though about to yawn, but he did not shut it. Just as had happened with Sue, two sharp, pinkish teeth sprouted out of his gums like a nib out of a pen being clicked. ‘The Miracle Prince, I’m sure you will taste so delicious. We’ve never eaten such royalty before.’
‘Miracle Prince?’ Alaric questioned, ‘I’m not a prince, I’m just a boy, an orphan, I’m no heir to the throne, I swear.’ His voice became shouty as he desperately tried to convince them of his innocence.
But he got no response. Sue cackled as the two of them shuffled towards Alaric, their forked tongues licking their lips.