This story is by Magnus Coney and won an Honorable Mention in our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Magnus Coney is a student and teacher living in Cambridge, UK, with his wife and baby daughter. As this is the first story he has ever finished, he has no blog or website to send you to, but hopes you will keep an eye out for him nonetheless!
This bruise-eyed boy hauling a box, heavy as the world. Straining under snickering rain and cratered sky. Stop. Old man breath. Feels like the thousandth time he’s walked this route, the first time he’s felt this way. Adrenalin like rumbles of thunder all through him.
The morning winds rush down the hill behind Tim, catching the sound of wood on concrete, so it reaches along the concrete path under the line of birch trees, the path brings it through the gates into the playground, where it reaches the ears of waiting chattering children, who turn and see Tim, see the weight of the box, see the scribbled warnings Privet, Danjrus, Dont touch, and come circling in towards him. They all clamour to see what’s inside. They plead. They cajole. They bribe with offers of friendship and parties. Their words tinkle and crash around him like shattered glass. Theo says “Show me.” In this little corner of the universe, nobody says no to Theo McKenzie. But Tim does, and time stops for a moment.
“I’ll punch your other eye black.”
“You can’t open it. We need scissors. We need a grown-up to give us scissors. Just wait.”
Theo reaches out anyway, but a growl inside snaps him frozen. Mouth open wide in surprise, but before he can put this unexpectedness into words the old brass bell is rung and it’s time to go inside.
Sky blue and bright the morning after the storm, he found it cowering in the hollow of a fallen oak, dapple-burnished with light coming through the reaching roots, jaw swinging to a mouthful of earthworms. Time and heart frozen stopped, then gets to moving again when he offers chocolate, as a distraction, he thinks. Sidles closer as it’s crunched down, courage seeping through the cracks in his fear. Seconds and minutes and calm quiet words and he’s touching hide like medieval leather armour. They stay so until dark.
A great breath hauled in. Stoop-backed across the threshold, the box’s relentless scraping at his heels. Here we go. No help offered. Who would? No matter. This is all him. Puff-cheeked into the classroom, he’s finally there and Mr Henderson sees him and says, “Stop blocking the door.”
Inside after outside is a sunburst of colour. Bright yellow walls covered in their work, their rules, and motivational quotes none of them really understands. A space at the front where they gather cross-legged on coarse green carpet. Mr Henderson, all curls and teeth, gets a chair. Rumours that his fingers linger on young backs a little too often. Just a little too long. Hardly noticeable. But enough to set tongues wagging.
“Good morning Fergus.”
“Good morning Mr Henderson.”
“Good morning Annabel.”
“Good morning Mr Henderson, I love you.”
“Less of that nonsense, please. Good morning Theo.”
“Morning Mr Henderson, I still can’t find my Chelsea hat.”
“If I didn’t find it yesterday, I’m not going to find it today. Ask your father for a new one.”
“Yes, you’ve told me that more than once.”
And on it goes.
Tim sits quietly among the hubbub. He is the kind of boy who reads books rather than comics, always does his homework and stays out of the sun, so it does not surprise us when Mr Henderson asks for volunteers and all the children shout his name and he shakes his head shyly and looks at the floor.
Every evening he visits the fallen oak, on roundabout routes to roust out spies, those who wouldn’t understand his discovery. They sit in the hollow silently eating — biscuits, beetles — and he feels like he’s turning crazy. One day, he loses his way after a turn too many among the ferns and moss. He walks and thinks and worries and just when it’s getting dangerous-dark it snuffles and huffs through the undergrowth toward him and leads him back to the fallen oak.
Some children are clearly struggling with the concept. So far there’s been a set of grandmother’s dentures and an unusually shaped potato. Now David is doggedly trying to wring some interest from his object. Mr Henderson slaps his thighs and stands.
“Goodness me, David. A rock-shaped, rock-coloured, rock-sized rock. You’ve certainly put the cat among the pigeons.”
“It’s not a cat.”
Mr Henderson appears to be in some pain. “I’m not sure any of you have quite understood the point. Perhaps Tim can rescue us with his mystery box?”
Stillness quiet scores through the seam of furious anticipation. Outside the window the first sunshine of the morning cuts through a break in the clouds. Quickly through the classroom swoops the wonder of babes as the box turns open. Opens to his new self, too. Spine getting longer, straighter, stronger. Eyes steely. Almost a smile. Suffused to the soul with inchoate pride.
See it now, hulking and haunted. Time shudder-stops as it glares. Hands on faces. Hearts in throats. Memories exploding in young minds like fireworks.
“Well, now this is more like it. What is it, Tim?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you call it?”
“I should have known you’d bring something to do with nature. Do your parents know?”
“They said I could have a pet.”
“I imagine they meant a goldfish or a stick insect. Perhaps a gerbil. Can she do any tricks?”
“A bit,” says Tim. “Monty, open.”
Pocket full of dead mouse now empty, dangling from his hand like a grotesque yo-yo. Gasp all of them for the sight, shifts up an octave when he drops it in the expectant maw. Then follows the mouse with his own head. In the classroom there is pandemonium.
“Golly. What else can you tell us?” Mr Henderson, the keeper of cool.
“She’s very good at smelling.”
“Scholarly language please, Tim.”
“She’s excellent at smelling.”
“Try to use smell as a noun.”
“. . . she’s a good smeller.”
“Try this. She’s got a good sense of smell. No, she’s got a superb sense of smell.”
“She’s got a superb sense of smell.”
“What does superb mean?”
They explore the woods together. He shows it the rocks where the trout hide in the stream. He shows it rabbit holes and mole hills to dig up. Beehives to raid, fallen chestnuts and acorns. As it grows larger, fresh roe deer dung to track. It watches everything. It learns.
Tim leads it around the class. Squirms of excitement as one by one they reach out. Some on the nose. Some on the flanks. Some on the head.
Mr Henderson sports a keen eye for a teachable moment. Critical thinking’s flavour of the month in the more liberal education circles, so he asks what they think it is, with supporting evidence. It looks like everything and nothing, and they fling out suggestions like seeds in a field. A dragon. A triceratops. A Bigfoot. There is some mention of a griffon.
One evening he doesn’t come. It sits quietly in its hollow and waits. Evenings roll on, still no sign, still it sits. After a week and he’s there again, and it grunts softly, nuzzles his neck. He’s quiet, and doesn’t sit. Thinking hard, then steps forward, holding something in his hand. “Here,” he says, “smell this. This is the bad boy. I want him to stop.” And there in the hollow of the fallen oak under the twilight and birdsong he raises the bright blue hat to its snout.
Theo’s next. He marches up, cocky to reclaim his throne, stretches and ruffles it on the head like an old man to a small child. It sniffs his head, narrows its eyes, leans over and swallows him whole. Straightens and shakes him down its gullet, lights blinking in the soles of his brand new HoverKicks.
“Oh, my,” says Mr Henderson.
Brimful of boy now, swaying in a daze. Quick sharp baby breaths and it keels over with a slap to the floor like a wet sack of flour, flickering trainers still twitching between teeth.
“Should we try to pull him out?” asks Mr Henderson.
“I don’t think so. Her teeth point backwards. It’s quicker this way.”
The other children think that this is maybe the greatest thing they’ve ever seen. Mr Henderson thinks he might use this next week as an example for his stranger danger assembly. Always line your clouds with silver.
A few weeks later, when the fuss has died down, Tim returns to the tree. A small hole, about three feet wide, hidden at the stump. He crouches down and whistles. What comes out is smaller, but it’s just a baby. Four more shuffle about in the darkness behind it. The bloodline continued.
“They took your mummy. I’m sorry. But it’s alright, you’re big enough,” says Tim, clutching a delicate pink bonnet, a gift from aunt Sally just after the birth. He hates that, after just a few months, she’s already their parents’ favourite.