Exclusive Look: The Monster Within

Everyday Heroes

The waters rushed by, setting their log raft rocking gently as they drifted downriver. The sunlight sparkled on every little wave, tiny silver fish flitted underneath, and everything was bright and warm and alive. The three boys were laughing among themselves, rocking the raft as it went, safe in the knowledge that it could never be tipped. There were few things in the world so lovely as a day out on the river, and a school-sanctioned trip where they got to avoid regular classes to bob down the Rhine was an even more spectacular treat.

It was rare to get such a day, rarer still for it to coincide with the school’s outward-bound program. Everyone was in good spirits. Even Peter, who so often seemed angry and pouty in his little corner of the classroom, had brightened up at the opportunity to go rafting down the Rhine. The change that had overcome the boy was spectacular, his back had un-hunched and the scowl that had dominated his features since he’d first come to school four years prior had finally faded. For the first time, he looked like an actual boy instead of a shrunken, boy-sized man with all a man’s problems swirling around inside.

Of course when one side of the see-saw went up, the other went down. Peter had unquestionably brightened as he joined in the boyish antics aboard the raft, but his uncharacteristic enthusiasm only made the less exuberant demeanour of the third boy stand out more sharply.

“Stop! Stop rocking the boat!” He cried from where he sat cross-legged and clinging to the wood beneath him. His reaction seemed a little overblown, given that they were barely managing to make the raft tilt an inch by jumping on it or rushing from one end to the other. Peter just laughed and redoubled his efforts.

“Stop it! I cannot swim!”

That statement was so ridiculous that it brought both of the other boys to a complete stop. “You cannot swim?” Peter asked.

“You have lived all your life on the Rhine, and you never learned how to swim? How is that possible?” The other boy asked, half-mockingly.

“I just never learned, okay?! If I fall in I could drown, so don’t rock the boat. Please.”

Peter took in the boy’s moment of vulnerability and giggled, jumping up and down again on the far end of the raft. He turned his head to his new playmate and discovered a frown on his face instead of another display of mischievous joy. The other boy was not going to bully a classmate, even if it was ridiculous that the boy had not learned to swim.

Obviously shamed by their other companion’s more mature behaviour, Peter shuffled over and dropped to his haunches beside the frightened boy. “I am sorry that you cannot swim. I think that if you just try you will very much enjoy it.”

The embarrassed boy looked even more put out by Peter’s kindness than by anything else. Here was Peter, reject and pariah, offering him sympathy. He shoved at Peter when the boy tried to put an arm around his shoulders.

Peter stumbled and fell hard. But the pouting boy didn’t even look around to see what he’d wrought. For a moment, the other boy, standing watch over the two of them, thought that there was going to be a fight, that Peter was going to come back angry, but there was nothing but sympathy on his face when he righted himself and made his way back over to the boy who couldn’t swim.

“It is alright, nobody can swim in the beginning, and we all learn in our own time.”

“Shut up.” The non-swimmer grumbled.

But Peter lumbered on. “And soon you will be having the best of times swimming in the river on pretty summer days like today. The water is cool, and the sun is warm, and the little fishes will be your friends.”

The boy tried to shove Peter again, but this time he was prepared and too quick, jumping out of reach.

“See for yourself what a lovely time it is to swim!” Peter proclaimed before lifting up his leg and kicking the boy in the back of the head.

It was so unexpected that neither the boy being kicked or the boy observing could have foreseen it. One moment the boy was sitting there sulking on the raft, and the next he was gone, under the water. Into the river. Into the water that he did not know how to swim through to reach the surface.

Peter started laughing aloud at his silly prank, using one of the oars to hold the whole boat in place and staring down into the silvery waters where the drowning boy’s frantic flailing was still visible as a cloud of shimmering bubbles beneath the surface.

“What did you do?!” The other boy cried out in horror, then he dashed past the laughing Peter to dive into the water. There was no hesitation, no fear for his own life, he had spent all his days swimming in the Rhine at every opportunity, and there was no danger to him.

If Peter had pushed him into the water, it would have been the playful prank that he was laughing about instead of attempted murder.

It was a fight beneath the surface of the water to get to the other boy, not because the rushing river was trying to pry them apart, though it was, but because in his panic, the other boy was flailing so wildly that it was impossible to get close. Even when he did manage to get past the punching hands and cycling feet, the boy was still jerking and wrestling with him, still trying to escape the water’s lethal embrace even though it was obvious that he had no clue how to do so.

The boy who could swim had caught a fist to the jaw and a knee to the gut by the time he managed to take hold of his classmate’s collar and start dragging him to the surface. It had knocked all the air from his lungs.

It didn’t matter, there was air for the taking just above them. He wasn’t this useless lump who had lived his whole life on a river and never learned to swim, he was a strong swimmer, and he could swim almost the whole breadth of the river without taking a breath on a normal day – this was just the same. All he had to do was kick his legs, and buoyancy would do all the work for them, carrying them back to sweet fresh air. It was easier than drowning, easier than anything. All he had to do was keep on kicking.

The sun filtered down through the water, almost blindingly bright, turning from gold to silver on the shimmering waves. All he needed to do was make it to the light and everything would be alright. What did it matter if his lungs felt like they were burning? What did it matter if every muscle in his body was beginning to ache? What did it matter if his sodden clothes were slowing his movements and doing everything that they could to drag him down? This was easy for him. He had done it a million times. All he had to do was keep on kicking.

Then the eclipse began.

Before, the whole roof of the underwater world had been bright and shining in the summer sun, but inch by inch it now fell into shadow. A great sweeping advance, inexorable as the setting sun, but so much more personal. Light was not being stolen from the world, but only from the drowning.

The boy raced up as swiftly as he could, still kicking with all his might, angling himself for the sliver of light between the shadow and the stone, but he was too late. When he tried to burst through the surface, he slammed directly into the wooden beams of the raft.

His nose crumpled under the impact, blood filled the water in an ever-expanding cloud, shrouding even more from his sight. The boy who could not swim had stopped struggling in his grasp, he had become dead weight, unmoving, unaware.

The smart thing to do under such dire circumstances would have been to let him go, to let him sink, to save himself, but nine-year-old boys caught up in their dreams of heroism rarely consider the smart thing to do in the moment. With the stubborn determination of youth, he clung tightly to the dead weight that was his companion and he tried once again to resurface, to push the raft up and out of the water long enough to draw breath. Just a tiny bubble of precious air between surface and wood was all he needed to stay alive just a little longer, to stop the burning in his chest, to bring the strength back to his suddenly exhausted legs.

He pushed up against it, mashing his broken nose against the wood, pressing up as hard as he could and getting nothing at all.

There would be no salvation from above, only what he made for himself. Rolling onto his back, putting his unconscious classmate on top of his chest, he began to swim for the far edge of the raft. What was only a few steps across on the surface was now an impossible distance to cross. Beyond the edge of the raft, he could see the sun shining, beams of bright sunlight cut down into the water. Sweet survival, just out of reach.

He swam and he swam with all of his might, with everything that he had left in him, kicking furiously. But like a nightmare, no matter how far he went or how fast he swam, there didn’t seem to be any end to the barrier above him. The last-minute puff of air escaped from his nostrils and desperation took over. It was as though his lungs were trying to pull all the rest of him in. He needed to breathe. He needed air. If he let nature follow its course, he’d breathe in water. He’d die. He couldn’t let that happen. He couldn’t let his mouth open, he couldn’t let his empty, aching lungs draw water that would surely kill him.

Still, he swam, until all the strength that he had left in his body began to give out. He did not even notice that he had lost his grip on his classmate until he glanced down and saw the boy floating off, sinking to the pebbles of the riverbed, dead and still.

It looked so peaceful, so painless.

There was nothing he could do now – he didn’t have the strength to dive down all over again. All he could do was keep on pushing, keep on swimming until he reached that light just out of reach. As his eyes swept back up from the riverbed to the surface, he caught sight of the rocky wall on the far side of the river. Glowing in the sunlight. A gulf between the raft and the wall that he had been swimming away from.

It hadn’t been a nightmare, the raft had been drifting across the river above them. Peter had probably been trying to steer it away so that they could resurface. Unaware that they were trapped below.

In desperation, he rose one last time to the underside of the wooden raft and struck at it with his fists, over and over again for as long as his strength would last. Peter would hear and understand that he was trapped beneath. Peter would move the raft and pull him up, and together they’d mourn the loss of their classmate, but they’d do it in the sweet open air.

Peter must have heard him. He must have. There was no way that the thumping on the bottom of the raft could have been mistaken for anything else. Peter would move the raft, and air would be right there waiting.

Oh God. His chest felt like it was in a vice. The burning was spreading out through his body. The pain of his broken nose had been all but forgotten, but as he continued to slam his helpless fists against the underside of the raft repeatedly, new jolts of agonizing pain shot up his arms.

As the strength slowly ebbed from his body, he forced himself to sink back down, resisting panic, resisting the urge to surge toward the surface in another doomed attempt to break through the impenetrable barrier of the raft above. If he sank down, he’d be able to see where Peter had made space for him to escape.

The raft did not move.

He had never known it would be like this. He would never have come near the water if he knew what drowning felt like. There was no gentle sink into sleep. His heart hammered faster, and everywhere the blood still reached was screaming. Every inch of his body dying from the lack of air, crying out for more, all his instincts begging him to submit, to open his mouth, to draw a breath.

All he had to do was breathe in, and all this suffering would be over. His body knew that. It knew that he was stopping it from getting what it needed to survive, and it was punishing him, hot lead in his veins, pins jabbing at his fingertips, vision narrowing down to a tunnel until all he could see was the dark underside of the raft above him. All he had to do was submit to his fundamental nature, to let his brain stem take control.

Would it be so bad? Would it be worse than this? To feel the cool refreshing water of the Rhine rush inside him, fill up his lungs, soothe the awful burning? Could anything be worse than this?

He gave in.

What else was there to do? Go on ignoring his body forever? Go on suffering forever? His will, like his physical strength, had been fading since he slipped beneath the water all that time ago. It was time to give up. He opened his mouth and drew down a deep breath of river.

It was cold water, it should have made the burning stop, why was it so much worse now? Why was it burning more? He tried to undo it, tried to cough the water back up, but with each splutter and snort more seeped in. It burned coming up, it burned going down. The pain before had been awful, but at least it had been solid, consistent, his body dying around him. But so much worse was the water inside him, it was like a living thing, shifting and crawling, searing all it touched before pressing into some hidden nook or cranny inside him that he didn’t even know he had – and it hurt, God it hurt so badly. Why wouldn’t it stop? The other boy, the one who couldn’t swim, had died so fast, sunk away without a care in the world. Why couldn’t he just die?

And then, of course, just when his panic and pain couldn’t get any worse, he finally did. The darkness that had been pressing in all about the periphery of his vision finally swallowed him. His own weight dragged him down to the bottom of the river. Up on the surface, Peter casually pushed off from the side once more, and let the current carry him off down the river.

There would be teachers waiting for him around the curve when the current brought him around. All the other students in their class would be there, too. He went down onto his haunches and splashed water from the river around his eyes. That would be believable enough. Nobody would be looking at him, after all. They’d be looking for the boys who were not there. And he would be able to tell them just where those boys had gone. The tragic tale of one boy’s heroism in trying to save a boy who couldn’t swim from drowning after he fell overboard. Such a tragedy that he himself was not a strong enough swimmer to help.

What kind of an idiot went out onto the open water when they couldn’t swim? It was asking for trouble. Asking for death. When you threw yourself in front of a train, did the train get blamed for your dying? Peter felt no guilt about the affair, only a mild sense of concern that his story might have a hole in it somewhere that he could not see.

He shouldn’t have worried at all. Nobody would ever have suspected a nine-year-old boy of murdering two of his classmates in cold blood. Especially when there wasn’t even the first inkling of a motive.

This was not some fantastical story where the villains did evil just because they felt like it. A little boy wouldn’t kill other children for no reason, and there had never been any ill blood between Peter and any of the other kids. There was no logical reason at all behind his actions. He didn’t benefit from them being dead, there was no reward. All he had was his story, the same story that he’d have to tell again and again with tears clinging to his cheeks about the awful loss that he’d witnessed and the heroism of one of his classmates, whose courage had tragically outstripped his abilities.

He would be debriefed by the police, by his teachers, by his parents, repeating the same tale of tragedy again and again. A random awful thing that had happened that nobody could have prevented or foreseen. He was paraded out in front of the school at assemblies to recount the dreadful event and warn children off playing foolishly in the river. He did everything that was asked of him so that there could be no suspicion whatsoever as to his involvement.

No normal boy could have found any benefit in the situation at all. The extra attention was almost exclusively negative. No motive had presented itself, nor would it ever. Because there was no reason for Peter to have killed them.

And if there had been nobody to see it, and there was no reason for it to happen, why would anyone suspect a thing?

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