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The Beast, Page 2

Ally Condie

  The chamber was full of oddities in display cases, trunks of ancient books, bizarre artifacts and random weapons, even a huge unidentifiable animal skeleton hanging from the rafters.

  Outside, thunder crashed as the rain picked up. Opal was glad they were snugly indoors, even if it was the strangest place in the entire world. As eerie as the houseboat might seem to others, it was their secret clubhouse. Their safe place.

  Tyler spread his arms. “Like, maybe we created some extras back when the Darkdeep went wild, but they didn’t all escape right away. Logan and I were both into Pokémon cards. Maybe it just took a while for this Charmeleon to get ejected from the vortex.”

  “Maybe this last one emerged as a Charmander,” Logan said, stroking his chin excitedly. “And it had to evolve from that earlier form. The creature could’ve been hiding on the island while it powered up.”

  “Exactly.” Tyler held out a fist. “You still have your cards?”

  Logan made a face. “No. Dude, we’re in seventh grade. That stuff’s for little kids.” But when he thought the others weren’t looking, Logan bumped Tyler’s fist.

  Nico shot a smirk at Opal. “Is this what everyone else was doing while we rode bikes?”

  She grinned. “Don’t you mean motorcycles? TIE Fighters? Talking dolphins from the Bermuda Triangle?”

  Nico grimaced. “Okay, okay. We were nerds, too.”

  They passed the pedestal with its large glass jar. Inside, a spindly-armed green blob drifted in luminescent fluid like a tiny alien corpse. They had no idea what the creature was, but Emma had started calling it Thing, and the name stuck.

  Opal paused, struck by something she couldn’t quite define. Had Thing changed since she’d last seen it?

  No. It looks the same. She sighed. More tricks inside her head.

  A few weeks ago Opal had gone temporarily insane and thought Thing had spoken directly into her mind. The words still gave her chills.

  Come, Opal.

  Come and see what I have for you.

  Opal scowled at the memory. She’d imagined the whole thing, of course. Lifeless green blobs didn’t communicate telepathically. Opal had always been like this—making up stories in her head, like when she and Nico would race around town as kids. She still did it now, writing down weird ideas in private notebooks she kept in a secret desk drawer. That’s all it had been—a scene from one of her fantasies that crept in while she was tired. That’s all.

  “You guys could trick-or-treat as Charmandles,” Emma said, her eyes lighting up. “I think I’m dressing as Rey, but I haven’t ruled out Captain Marvel.”

  “Charmanders,” Tyler corrected, then he gave her a level look. “Emma, we’re in seventh grade now. You know we’re not going trick-or-treating, right?”

  Emma’s eyes rounded. “We’re not?”

  “No way,” Logan said. “There are like five cool parties we could go to, plus Halloween’s on a Saturday this year, so we can stay out extra late.”

  Emma turned to Nico, who shrugged guiltily. “It does feel like we’re a little old for it.”

  “Let me make sure I’m hearing this right,” Emma said, pressing a fist to her forehead. “We’re not going to collect one-hundred-percent free candy this weekend. This is something we’re voluntarily choosing not to do?”

  “Correct,” Logan and Tyler said together.

  Emma spun to face Opal, eyes frantic.

  “I’ll go with you for a little while,” Opal offered. “If you want.”

  Emma covered her face, then trudged over to a chest in the far corner and lifted its lid. “Who wants a snack?” she grumbled, removing a box of Hostess CupCakes. “Gotta have some sugar this week. Since we’re too cool for Halloween now.”

  “Oh, don’t be like that,” Tyler said. “We’ll still have a great time.”

  Emma stomped her foot. “Free. Candy.”

  “We’ll talk about this later,” Nico said. “Right now, let’s see if we can find anything about random or time-lapsing figments in the Torchbearer records.” He intercepted a plastic-wrapped pastry hurtling toward his head. “Um, thanks, Emma.”

  “No one touches a page before wet-wiping their hands,” Tyler scolded. “Remember the rules.”

  Tyler was fascinated by the old books on the houseboat and spent most of his free moments poring through them, searching for anything about the Darkdeep, or his other obsession—the Beast, a legendary sea monster rumored to live in the treacherous waters of Still Cove.

  “My hands are clean, see?” Nico shoved a whole cupcake into his mouth.

  Tyler folded his arms. “Barbarian.”

  Opal was brushing wet dirt from her backpack when she paused. A weird feeling nudged her. A gentle tug at her … attention? Imagination? Thoughts? Her gaze shot to Thing, bobbing in its liquid enclosure. But the little green creature looked as lifeless as always.

  The odd vibe came again, nibbling at the edges of her consciousness. She tried not to shiver, but it was like an itch she couldn’t scratch. An impression was dancing around her brain, yet stayed frustratingly out of reach.

  Growing alarmed, Opal squeezed her eyelids shut. Counted ten breaths. The sensation faded. When she reopened her eyes, she was looking at the far wall, where a battered metal lunch box sat on a cobwebbed shelf next to a pile of dusty sketchbooks.

  Opal frowned. Then she surprised herself by getting up and walking over to it. Why was this random object jumping out at her now?

  The lunch box was the curve-topped kind she imagined grizzled old fishermen using—solid and durable, made of metal. She’d never paid any attention to it before. There were literally hundreds of amazing-looking things stored on the houseboat. This wasn’t one of them.

  “I found something interesting,” Tyler announced to the room. “There’s a line in this book about chain reactions!”

  Opal nodded encouragement, but found herself turning back to the shelf. Shrugging, she took the box down and opened its lid to discover a red-and-white checkerboard napkin. Her heart sank. Just a boring old lunch box after all. With maybe an ancient, moldy sandwich still wrapped inside. She wrinkled her nose, ready to snap the lid shut, but something stopped her.

  She picked up the worn napkin. Felt a weight at its center.

  Opal glanced over her shoulder at the others, then began to unfold the weathered cloth. Layer after layer loosened in her hands, until a tarnished bronze medal fell into her palm. It was the kind you pinned to a uniform—heavy, attached to a blue-and-white ribbon with a red stripe down its center, and topped by a solid metal bar. The front was a simple raised shape that reminded Opal of an airplane propeller.

  As Opal examined the medal, the strange feeling returned, but stronger than before. She was suddenly sure the decoration was important. That it was … something.

  “Never mind,” Tyler grunted, closing the volume with a thud that caused Opal to jump. “This doesn’t help. But FYI: us all going into the Darkdeep together wasn’t very smart.”

  Opal dropped the medal into her pocket. As she put the lunch box back on the shelf her fingers brushed the sketchbooks stacked beside it. They were a motley collection, with different sizes and bindings. One was bound in crinkled leather and seemed like the oldest of the bunch.

  Opal was a sucker for a cool notebook. She unzipped her backpack and stuck the leather one inside, where it joined the just-in-case gear she now carried everywhere—first-aid kit, flashlight, water bottle, granola bars, a Zippo lighter they’d found in the Torchbearers’ tunnel chamber, and a change of clothes. She wouldn’t be caught unprepared again.

  Shrugging the bag onto her shoulders, Opal heard a commotion behind her and turned.

  “Oh wow.” Nico had pulled the neck of his shirt over his nose. “Logan. Seriously, dude. Go outside next time.”

  “No way!” Logan wheezed a muffled laugh, shoving Nico good-naturedly as he covered his face. “Everyone knows whoever smelt it, dealt it. Don’t try to pin this one on me!”

sp; “Ughhhh,” Emma moaned, her face buried in her elbow. “I can taste it in my mouth. Boys are so freaking gross.”

  Gasping, Tyler fanned the air furiously. “Make it go away. Somebody make it go away!”

  The odor reached Opal and she gagged. “Ohmygosh.”

  The room smelled like the worst fart in history, combined with cow manure, and something else—something oily and earthy that instantly coated Opal’s skin and settled into her pores.

  “Outside!” Nico yelped. “The door! Go!”

  Everyone ran through the showroom’s velvet entry curtain into the foyer. Opal threw open the houseboat’s front door and they spilled out onto the porch, piling up like a car crash as the stench surrounded them. The driving rain had stopped momentarily, as if an accomplice to the nasal mayhem.

  “It’s worse out here!” Emma yelled. “Back back back!”

  Opal froze, staring at the pond. The water was the same limitless black as usual, except for a wide circle around the houseboat that had turned a gross reddish brown. Burnt sienna, she thought automatically. One of her crayons from when she was younger.

  The red-brown circle hissed as fat bubbles boiled up through its surface, turning the rings a putrid neon yellow, like a volcanic spring. For long seconds the water frothed, then the roiling stopped. The reek was so awful, Opal could barely keep her lunch down.

  Rotten eggs. Was that a sulfur odor? Opal thought so, but wasn’t sure.

  Whatever it was, the foul smell lingered even as the colors dissipated. Nico appeared at her elbow, eyes watering, still burying his nose under the neck of his shirt. He waved at the now-calm pond. “What was that?”

  Opal shook her head, anxiety crawling over her skin.

  The Darkdeep might be quiet, but there was something very wrong with the pond.

  And that feeling she’d had earlier. The tingle in the back of her skull.

  She’d felt it once before, when she’d thought a floating green blob had smiled and winked at her. Opal’s instincts screamed the same warning now as then.

  The sensation didn’t feel like it came from her.

  And it didn’t feel human.



  The snarling Beast soared skyward like an eagle.

  Nico watched the balloon float past with a frown.

  “Oh, forget it, he’s a goner,” Tyler said, as the sinuous black shape rode the wind, growing smaller and smaller down Main Street before passing over the waterfront and into the stiff ocean breeze. The shimmering Mylar caught a rare sunbeam on the chilly, overcast day before sailing out of sight.

  “That’s littering,” Opal muttered, shaking her head in annoyance. “Even if it won’t land for miles.”

  Nico agreed. They were sitting on a bench outside of Fish & Game, the sporting goods store Emma’s parents owned, hunched over hot apple ciders Mrs. Fairington had whipped up in the break room. School had just let out for the long weekend—Timbers kids had both Thursday and Friday off for fall break, leading up to the glorious Saturday Halloween.

  Nico was pumped. It was his favorite holiday, even more so than Christmas. He loved how downtown businesses went all out with their decorations—fake cobwebs, jack-o’-lanterns, black cats, witches, and skeletons. Store owners wore costumes and gave out free candy at the registers. If it were up to him, the fun would last all year.

  Except for this Beast hoopla. I could do without that.

  Opal was frowning at the crowded town square. “I don’t mind all this … stuff going on, but these vendors need to be more careful.”

  Nico silently agreed. This place has gone nuts. Again.

  Around them, Timbers bustled with activity, the kind of polite but quick-footed energy found in Pacific Northwest towns on blustery October afternoons. And it seemed like everywhere Nico looked, he saw Beast paraphernalia. After the disaster on the eve of the radish festival—an event locals had begun calling “Beast Night”—the town had suddenly caught creature fever.

  Beast mugs. Beast pins. Beasts carved out of wood or molded from plastic, in different shapes and colors. Not everyone agreed on what the mysterious sea monster looked like—there were Loch Ness versions, weird ET smiley ones, and some that seemed straight out of the Alien franchise—but Timbers shopkeepers were united on one point: there was money to be made, especially this close to Halloween.

  “Whoever blamed the Beast for destroying town square was a genius,” Emma said, blowing on her steaming drink. “Look at all these people.” She pointed to a line of tourists walking off the ferry, giddy to visit the scene of a real-life monster attack. At least, that’s what the charters were selling.

  “It’s a disgrace,” Nico said bitterly. “Why are so many people buying into this story?”

  Emma slugged him in the shoulder. “Because it’s fun, you goof. And Mayor Hayt denying the rumor every chance she gets only makes people believe it more.” Emma leaned close and lowered her voice. “Besides, it’s not like the rumors are that far off. Monsters did destroy the radish festival—just not the Beast. But now everyone gets to have some excitement.”

  “More than that.” Tyler nodded at a sign for The Beast’s Slathered Sundaes on the front door of the ice cream shop across the street. “People around here are cashing in. My dad’s got his hands full with all the boats in the harbor, and my mom’s hitting up tourists for donations to the Lighthouse Preservation Society.” He sighed happily. “The festival was supposed to give Timbers a shot in the arm. Well, it did, kinda. These Beast rumors are pure gold.”

  “It’s been really good for the store,” Emma said. “My parents are selling binoculars and rain gear like crazy, not to mention bear repellent. That stuff is going by the case.”

  Tyler’s head whipped to Emma. “Bear repellent? Because of a sea monster?”

  Emma laughed. “You can’t prove that it won’t work, right?”

  A knocking behind them caused everyone to twist around. One door down, Logan was standing in the window-display area of Buck’s Home Goods, smiling wide as he pressed a T-shirt to the glass.

  Nico suppressed a groan, pulling his jacket close against the biting gusts. “Jeez. Even Logan?”

  Logan stepped outside, grinning like a loon. “What do you think?” He lifted his prize up for the group to see: a black tank top with a goofy cartoon sea monster smiling in the center. Block letters above it read: TIMBERS: IT’S THE BEAST.

  “I love it!” Emma squealed, clapping her hands.

  Opal shrugged, while Nico covered his eyes.

  Logan wanted to be a businessman like his father, Sylvain Nantes—owner of Nantes Timber Company and a dozen other ventures in town—so he always kept an eye out for money-making opportunities. It seemed the lure of Beast-related cash had gotten to him, too.

  “That’s not what the Beast looks like,” Tyler noted primly. “I would know.”

  Logan’s expression soured. “It’s a cartoon, dingus. Plus, you wouldn’t know, anyway. That wasn’t the real Beast you fought, it was a figment.”

  “There is no real Beast,” Nico mumbled.

  At the same time Tyler shot back, “Oh, I wouldn’t, huh?” He glanced from face to face, a familiar glimmer building in his eyes. “Do I need to tell the story again?”

  Everyone groaned.

  “Why’d you set him off, Logan?” Opal whined. “He’ll never stop now.”

  Logan raised both palms, grimacing. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Tyler. We all know how—”

  “There I was,” Tyler thundered, swinging his arms wide. “Facing the dark sea horror of a thousand legends, Timbers’ infamous and deadly Beast. I had nothing in my hands but raw courage, and maybe a knife, yet my friends were in danger and needed my help. So. I. Stepped. Up.” He pounded a fist into his palm, ignoring the eye-rolls circulating the group. “I stared the hulking, razor-tooth monster—”

  “Figment,” Logan corrected.

  “—dead in the eye, and said, ‘Not this time, Beast! Today, you shall
not pass!’ ”

  “Someone kill me,” Nico moaned.

  Emma clapped her hands a second time. “Tell it again! Tell it again!”

  “Don’t encourage him!” Opal, Nico, and Logan blurted at once. Tyler was launching into a much more detailed version of his heroics when a commotion by the pier caught Nico’s attention. “Guys, look. Something’s up.”

  “Its fangs were dripping with poison,” Tyler continued, but broke off as the others stared down at the waterfront. “Well, fine then. What is it?”

  Opal squinted, shielding her eyes. “Some kind of … weird van is coming off the ferry. It’s headed this way.” The vehicle pulled out of the unloading area and began climbing up Main Street toward them. The dockside crowd turned as it passed by, a few people pointing and chattering excitedly.

  “What the heck?” Nico whispered.

  The van was painted a deep blue with jagged orange letters on its side. Several thick, stubby antennas jutted from the roof. As it pulled close, Emma gasped, and Nico could finally make out the words emblazoned on the vehicle’s sliding door.

  “Freakshow,” Nico read aloud, scratching the back of his neck. “What in the world is that?”

  Emma popped up from the bench and started bouncing up and down. “Ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh!”

  The others spun to look at her. Emma was staring wide-eyed at the vehicle, covering her mouth with both hands. “You guys!” she shrilled, dropping her arms to reveal an ear-to-ear grin. “That’s a famous online show! It’s the number one streaming-investigative-paranormal-news program on YouTube!”

  “Excuse me?” Nico asked.

  Emma ignored him. “Freakshow is the best.”

  “Freakshow?” Tyler made a face. “That title’s not very nice.”

  “They investigate weird and inexplicable things,” Emma explained, talking a mile-a-minute. “It’s super professional and scientific, plus they do these amazing reenactments. Like last year they proved that Bigfoot uses this laundromat in Spokane at least once a month. They had night vision footage and everything.”

  “Oh man, that show?” Tyler pursed his lips, shaking his head as he glanced at the others. “Emma made me watch a few eps last year. They don’t do real news, just shock stuff with fake special effects.”