"Do you have it ?" asked Peter.
Wordlessly, Mikey took the shiny card from his pocket, turning it over in his hand, glancing for one last time at the garish picture on the front, and the brief summary on the back. African ground beetle, it said. One of the largest living insects, this creature can be up to four inches long, and feeds on carrion and decaying vegetable matter. Underneath was the logo of the tea company, and the series name, Insects of the World. Mikey had nearly the whole of the Insects series collected, and all of the Dangerous Animals except for the Great White Shark. He'd had that, too, but Dave Laurie had won it from him at a game of conkers.
"It won't really . . ." he began.
"Course it will," hissed Peter. He looked at the younger, thinner boy with the hollow eyes "like a little ghost" his mother had taken to saying. But Mikey was all right really, a bit soft, easy to tease, but all right. He felt a bit guilty, because he knew that Mikey's card collection was really important to him. Then again, it might work. That would be - ace!.
"Come here," he ordered, solemnly. Mikey joined him, beside the Grating.
Its iron bars were as black and enigmatic as ever, the one-inch gaps between them windows into an indecipherable and threatening darkness. Set into the pavement in the alley outside the corner shop, grown ups walked over it daily without a single downward glance, their feet polishing the black iron to a dark glow.
"It's bottomless," said Peter. Mikey looked doubtful.
"Then how can they get out again, after ?" he asked.
Peter looked annoyed.
"I don't know," he scowled. "It must just be part of the magic. But it definitely goes down to the sewers, into the catacombs underneath," his face lit with goulish relish, "miles an' miles, where all the crawly things and zombies are."
Mikey shivered, looking into the blackness behind the iron bars, as if some fetid breeze out of those lightless depths had touched him. He almost didn't believe Peter's stories, but he wasn't quite sure. There were strange things in the world. People could disappear, like his dad, or change, the way his mum had done since Steve had come to live with them. There were monsters on the telly, and superheroes, and strange animals, so maybe there were zombies, down in the slimy blackness under London. And maybe it was true, what Peter said: that if you put one of the cards down through the grating, it would come alive.
"Do we just put it down ?" he asked, uncertainly.
"Yeah," said Peter. "Just drop it down, through the bars there."
The card flickered as it fell until the blackness swallowed it up.
They waited expectantly, crouched over the grating, staring down into the depths.
Time stretched, an endless five minutes of slowly withering hopes.
"See, I told you it was rubbish," said Mikey. "I lost one of my cards over you, Peter Addison." His face screwed up, as if he might cry, but he didn't. Mikey had been a bit of a crybaby, but since Steve had moved in with Mikey's mum he had stopped. Peter's dad had remarked that it seemed to be doing young Mikey good, having a man around, but his mum had snorted and said that Mikey's mum was no better nor she ought to be, moving her bit of rough in like that, motorbike an' all.
"It might still happen," said Peter the optimist. "Maybe it won't come out till midnight. I mean, it stands to reason if the magic's got to build it up out of an ol' card it must take a bit of time and effort. It'll come out at midnight. I bet that's it !"
"You never said that before," said Mikey, still full of righteous indignation. "You just made that up."
"No, it's part of the magic. Magic only happens at midnight. Everyone knows that," added Peter scornfully.
"If it was magic, why aren't there magic words to say, like a spell or something ?" asked Mikey.
"Because it's not us doing the magic, it's what's down there," returned Peter.
"Like on Death Warriors, where they sacrificed the girls to the Pit Monster so the rain would come ?"
"Yeah. Your card is like the sacrifice."
"But it can't be, 'cos it's gonna come alive," pointed out the smaller boy.
"Then, then . . ." Peter cast about for an idea in an imagination well-stocked with the tropes of popular fiction, "then it must need blood." His eyes sparkled at this idea. "Thassit ! Come on !! " And jumping up, he ran across the street to his own house, followed a little more slowly by Mikey, who was limping. He threw open the tall side-gate, and ran along the side of the old Victorian semi to the foot of the fire escape, before hurtling thunderously up those steps and bursting into the kitchen.
"Wipe your feet, Peter," said his mother, without looking up from the magazine in which she was contemplating 20 Easy Ways with Chicken. "And don't make so much noise."
"Sorry, mum," muttered Peter, waving a foot vaguely in the direction of the doormat, and began an assault on the kitchen drawer.
His mother looked up at the rattle of cutlery.
"Oi," she said. "Leave that drawer alone. Those knives are sharp."
"Oh, Mummm . . . "
"Don't you 'Oh Mum' me, young man or . . . Oh, hallo, Mikey, I didn't see you there." She looked over the top of her glasses at the skinny, hollow-eyed little boy. Looking a bit peaky, she thought to herself. Poor little mite. I bet she doesn't feed him proper.
"How would you boys like some lemonade and sandwiches, then," she asked.
Mikey opened his mouth, but Peter was there before him.
"We can't," he said. "We've got to go as soon as I've got something from my room." He disappeared in a thunder of feet, as his mother shook her head.
"Can't walk anywhere, that boy. Good job Mr Parsons downstairs is deaf, the way he clumps about like a herd of elephants . . . Walk, Peter !" she added, as her son burst back into the kitchen.
"Bye, Mum," said Peter, with a sunny smile. "Come on, Mikey."
They made their way back to the grating. With a triumphant flourish, Peter produced a penknife from his pocket.
"Now," he said. "You have to cut your finger and let a drop of blood fall into the grating, as a sacrifice to the Zombie God."
"Why me ?" asked Mikey, plaintively. After all, it had been his card.
"No, both of us, silly. That's the only way the magic will work."
"You first, then," said Mikey shrewdly.
Peter looked uncertain for a moment, then with great bravado drew the edge of the knife across the ball of his index finger in a tentative fashion.
"Ahh," he gasped.
"Is it bleeding ?" asked Mikey in horrified fascination. Peter examined his finger closely.
"No," he said at last. "Wow, I must have tough skin."
"You pulled your finger away," said Mikey. "Here, give it to me." He took the knife. It was almost blunt, but Peter had scraped the end on a stone to get a better shape, leaving a sharp point, like a dagger. Mikey closed his eyes for a moment, then with an abrupt move stuck the point deep into the fleshy part of his thumb.
Blood welled bright and beautiful as jewels.
"Cor, you really did it," whispered Peter. "Put it down the grating, quick, before it dries."
Mikey turned his hand, and three drops of blood fell into the darkness.
"Here, you'd better take this," said Peter, giving him an only slightly grubby hankie to wrap his hand.
"I'm going in," he said wearily.
"What about waiting ?"
"You said," Mikey returned, "that it wouldn't happen until midnight."
"Yeah, but how will we know ?"
"Anyway, Mr Rowe will be opening up for the afternoon soon. We'll get trod on if we stay here in front of the shop."
"We'll have to sneak out tonight," said Peter, never one to leave a train of thought until he had worried it to death.
"We can't. My mum locks up when she goes to bed, and I bet yours does too."
"Well . . . we could sneak out at ten o'clock. That's nearly midnight. It'll be dark. Magic always happens in the dark."
"Magic as well. Come on - will you do it ? It'll be ace."
Mikey was quiet for a moment. There was something a bit odd about Mikey's silences these days, as if he went away deep inside himself and there was no-one really there. Presently he nodded.
"All right," he whispered. "I'll meet you at ten o'clock."
Then he limped away, into his house, without even a 'bye'. Peter stared after him, puzzled. Mikey wasn't so much fun these days. Sometimes it was almost as if they weren't friends. Shrugging, he turned and walked slowly back to his house. It was fish fingers for tea tonight, so he might get chips with them if he was lucky. Cheering considerably at this thought, he accelerated into his normal gear and ran indoors.
As Mikey closed the front door behind him his mother met him in the hall, a pale, thin woman whose large, slightly bulging, light-blue eyes seemed to be constantly darting hither and thither in a panic, never able to rest. She hugged him, a brief, absent spasm.
"What have you done to your hand ?" she asked, seeing the handkerchief.
"I cut it," the boy replied.
"Oh, oh, quick, come and wash it, I'll . . . where's the TCP - no, wait, the bathroom . . ."
"Don't fuss, Mum, it's stopped bleeding, honest, it's just a little cut."
"Oh, but it could go bad, septic . . ."
"Ah shut up you dozy cow," said a third voice, and the other two were instantly silent. Steve stood in the doorway of the living room in his rancid jeans and vest, looking irrritated.
"Less' have a look," he said. The boy remained still, silent, sullen, and the woman grasped his hand and held it out to the man, a nervous smile on her face.
"See, love, it's all blood. We're just going to wash it."
"What that little cut ? That's nothing. He can take care of that himself, can't you Mikey? He done it himself, so he should sort it out himself, shouldn't he ? Shouldn't you, Mikey ?" he added more sternly. "Bloody answer me when I talk to you, boy."
"Yes," hissed Mikey through clenched teeth, and shaking his hand from his mother's he ran upstairs to the bathroom and banged the door shut behind him. As he ran the tap he heard the voices drifting up from below . . .
". . . needs a bloody good hiding that kid, showing off the way he does."
"Oh please love, give it time, he's a sensitive boy. I'm sure he loves you really, but it takes him time to adjust . . ."
I don't, he thought. I don't love you. I hate you, and I wish you were dead. Mum and me did OK on our own without you. I wish the monsters would come and eat you, and I'd hear you screaming and I'd laugh and laugh . . .
The evening dragged on endlessly. At nine o'clock, Steve announced that he was going down the boozer to meet a few mates. Mikey saw his mother go pale. It was a bad sign. When he came back drunk his temper was even shorter than usual.
"And you should be in bed," he'd added, turning to Mikey. "Don't let me catch you up when I get back. I'll look in on you, when I get back."
"Oh, that's good of you, love," said his mother quickly, as Mikey turned a white, hollow-eyed face on the man before running off, out of the room and up to his bedroom. He felt that the hate and fear and weakness inside him might explode. He couldn't bear that again, the breath that smelt of stale beer, and the man's weight, and the fumbling hands and that thing he had to . . . Suddenly he thought he was going to be sick, but he bit down the nausea. Instead, he took one of his pencils and a his drawing pad and began drawing a new monster, a Steve-eating monster. It was a bit like a dragon, that breathed out a poisonous fire, but it had huge claws to catch even a big grown man, all with sharp spikes that would really cut him and hurt him, and great teeth like a T Rex, and a huge fleshy sting that paralysed it's victims and made them dissolve from the inside out, very slowly. And it was huge, huger than a dinosaur, and proof against guns and bombs and lasers and everything. He pressed the pencil with ferocious intensity into the paper as he drew its dark, huge eyes . . .
The lead broke.
He looked at his monster for a minute, then very carefully tore off the sheet of paper, folded it and put it into his pocket. He looked at his clock. 9:50, the glowing numerals informed him. 9:51. He put on his jacket, then went to the door of his bedroom and looked out. His mother had the televison on, he could hear it from here. Good. He began to descend the stairs, carefully missing the two that creaked, and slipped into the kitchen. He took the torch from its place of honour by the gas meter, and something from the draining board, then very slowly and carefully drew back the bolt and opened the back door, keeping the handle turned because it squeaked when you let it go. He closed it equally carefully behind him and found himself in the darkness. Breath shuddered so in his throat that it felt sore with the effort of controlling it.
As soon as he had got his breath back, he made his way down to the back of the garden, where the back gate led into the alley with the dustbins. As he opened the gate there was a loud creak, and he froze for a moment, but no lights or voices came. He slipped into the alley, switching on his torch, and scurried down to the end, and round the corner, into the side street that led to his own.
Peter was standing in the shadow of the far alley, near the grating.
"This is ace," he hissed, delighted.
Mikey giggled, and for a moment it was just like the old days. Then that distance came into his face again.
"Well," he said, "aren't we supposed to be watching the grating ?"
The two squatted down, at opposite sides of the black bars.
"This isn't going to work," said Mikey after five minutes. "I told you it was a stupid idea."
"Shh," said Peter excitedly, "I think I can see something."
"Look . . ." a note of wonder entered Peter's voice. Between the bars a large black beetle squirmed out and began a business-like trot across the pavement. It was true it didn't look very much like the illustration on the tea card, but it was definitely a beetle.
"It's a bit small . . . " began Mikey, doubtfully, but a dark glow of excitement lit his face and warmed him inside. It WAS true, after all. There was magic in the world.
"I 'spect it takes time to build a really big one," said Peter. "Or maybe you need more blood for the sacrifice."
"Yeah," agreed Mikey, dreamily. He pulled the kitchen knife that he had stolen from the draining board out of his pocket, and watched the glow of the street lamp on its blade.
"What - what's that for ?" asked Peter, nervously.
"A sacrifice," said Mikey. He took the tightly folded square of paper that he held in his other hand and dropped it down between the bars, a pale, moth-like glimmer that vanished almost at once into blackness.
"What are you doing ?" he asked.
"Yeah, Mikey, what are you doing ?" said a new voice. Both boys spun around, and there in the alleyway was Steve.
A terrible, stony, defiant courage filled Mikey's face.
"I'm making a monster to kill you," he said.
"You stupid kid," said Steve. "You're coming home now with me." His voice was very soft, he didn't sound angry, but somehow Peter thought it was the most frightening thing he'd ever heard.
"Don't," he began, and trailed off, so that "hurt him" was almost inaudible. He began to back away under Steve's mocking eyes.
"Yeah, you go home Peter, like a good little boy, and I won't tell your old man what you've been up to. But Mikey here won't be playing with you for a while, 'cos Mikey's gonna get a good beltin' before we make up and kiss it all better. That's right, isn't it Mikey ? You know you've been a naughty boy, and naughty boys get what's coming to them." His eyes bored with that same knowing smile into the boy who stood, still, frozen, as the man advanced on him. But as he drew level with the grating, Mikey flourished the knife, and Steve drew back in alarm.
Now it was Mikey's turn to smile, if the rictus on his face could be called a smile and not a snarl. The knife flashed in the lamplight, and then down with a convulsive sawing across his own wrist. He dropped the knife with a little whimper, and bent, clutching at a hand that dripped pulsing gouts of dark blood that fell to coat the bars of the grating and dribble into the hungry blackness that it guarded. Who would have thought that there would be so much blood in him ? It ought to make a smashing monster . . .
Well, old Steve was right about once thing, thought the man with scarred wrists bleakly as he ran a trainer-shod foot across the iron of the old grating. I was a stupid kid. Fancy believing all that old nonsense. It was probably only a couple of feet deep - in fact, he thought he could see the glint of paper and other litter down there. He tossed away his cigarette end like a little meteor in the dark, and settled his leather jacket around his shoulders, his shadow momentarily flaring up, distorted and huge-clawed on the wall as he stepped away from the streetlight and into the shadows. Soon now, he thought.
And monsters - God, where did kids get all that ? He'd had no idea, until first Steve, and then the years in care, had taught him more about monsters than his eight-year-old self would have thought it possible to bear. A curl of smoke, as from a dragon's nostril, rose from the butt that he had thrown down the grating.
He took out the sharp, sharp knife, like a long bright tooth, and reached down to unzip himself. He heard the sound of feet, small feet, a little hesitant at passing this gloomy alley in the dark. His sting throbbed with urgency between his legs as he stepped out in front of the boy and placed a silencing hand around his mouth.
"You're out very late, little boy," he said softly. "That's very naughty, and naughty boys get what's coming to them. "
At last the magic had worked. The monster was finally here.
Created with Sseyo Koan X Platinum for the AWE 64 soundcard. All intellectual rights in these compositions remain the property of Paul Blake.