Becca took a deep breath, cupped her hands around her mouth and screamed as loudly as she could, “Help!”
Her cry echoed around the inside of the well, but she doubted that it could be heard even just a dozen yards from the well’s mouth, around twenty feet above her.
She craned her neck back as far as she could and looked up, tottering slightly, pain shooting upwards from her ankle. The early evening sky was a bright disc at the end of a black vertical tunnel. Above her, she could see what remained of the metal grating, dangling at the top of the well.
She shouted again and her balance wavered. She instinctively reached out, steadying herself against the well wall, muddy water sloshing around her knees as she almost stumbled.
Beside her, Matt groaned. His breathing was an unnatural wet rasping sound. She knelt to face him, the cold water rising to her waist.
She tried as hard as she could to see how badly he was hurt, but her eyes hadn’t adjusted to the dark. Everything was reduced to being a series of vague shapes.
She shook him, carefully. “Matt!”
Matt’s head lolled against his shoulder and he let out a low, throaty moan. Trying to discover where he was hurt, Becca’s hands fumbled quickly over Matt’s body beneath the water. Her hands found metal; she caught her breath and her heart missed a beat. Part of the grille that had once covered the well’s mouth was protruding from Matt’s midriff. She felt around his body and was horrified to find that the metal had gone completely through him and was jutting out of his back.
Her own injuries seemed trivial. Although her right forearm hurt badly and the top of her head was throbbing like hell, she thought that they were probably just scuffed. Her side ached sharply where she had fallen onto the metal grating. Her knees, left shin and ankle also hurt, causing her to wince and falter as she stood again, looking upwards. Her shin was probably scraped; her ankle possibly sprained.
Becca yelled again and again, with a voice so loud and desperate it was as though she was trying to reach the whole world. No one was listening and she knew it. On a planet of over six billion people – and possibly just a few hundred yards from the nearest of them – Becca and Matt might as well have been on the moon. No one could hear. No one knew they were there.
Becca worked to fight back her growing panic. She inhaled deeply, trying but failing to bring her runaway breathing under control – before repeatedly slapping the well wall, half gasping, half sobbing in rhythm to her increasingly desperate smacks, “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!”
Somewhere above, a bird cawed.
“Fifty feet at least. Probably more.”
Becca shifted her weight, her bottom uncomfortable on the uneven stonework. What had survived of the old well wall varied in height between two or three stones – fewer in places – though the tens of stones that were strewn, half-hidden, around the overgrown grass suggested that it had once been at least half a dozen rows higher. She leaned her upper body tentatively over the edge – careful to keep a grip on the stones and balance her weight with her hips. She peered into the dark, straining her eyes. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t quite see the bottom: the inside wall of the well gradually became a dark, empty space about fifteen feet below her. The ancient, half-broken and somewhat battered metal grating that capped the well’s mouth didn’t seem to offer much in the way of protection. Deeply unnerved, she drew back and shook her head.
“No way,” she said, “It’s never fifty feet. Maybe not even thirty.”
Matt smiled – a knowing, superior smile – and dropped the stone that he had been holding at arm’s length. It fell neatly between the gnarled, rusty bars and instantly disappeared into the dark. Becca counted, in her head. Somewhere between “one” and “two” she heard a distant plop!
“See,” he said, “easily fifty feet.”
Becca shook her head, convinced that he was teasing her. “Nowhere near. I still think it’s way less than thirty feet. And you can’t prove it either way.” Despite herself, she couldn’t suppress the spoilt, childish tone in her voice. At fourteen (almost fifteen, as Becca would correct people when they mentioned her age), she considered herself to be more of a woman than a child – and self-consciously chided herself when her behaviour betrayed her youth. Especially when it was to Matt.
Becca eased herself down off the stones and sat beside her schoolbag on the warm, dry grass, her lower back resting against the ruined wall of the well. Matt dropped his backpack to the ground and sat next to her, his hip lightly in contact with hers. She considered shifting her weight towards him, ever so slightly, to make the contact more definite – but she didn’t want him to know that she either appreciated or encouraged his tentative overture.
He can wait, she thought. She glanced at her watch – it was almost four-thirty. She was pretty sure that Mum and Jim would have left by now. But she wanted to be certain, so she and Matt had come to the well to pass an hour or so. (Becca knew that if she’d been at home to wave goodbye to her mother, she’d feel too weird to close the door and, well, do it with Matt – especially since it would be her first time. It’d be as if her Mum was still there. They’d have the house to themselves for the whole weekend. She’d been putting Matt off for weeks; he could wait another hour.)
Matt took his cigarettes and lighter from his backpack and lit one without offering one to her. Smoking wasn’t the only thing Matt did that Becca didn’t like, but it was probably the worst. He drew deeply on the cigarette and exhaled. Becca pulled her knees up against her body and tried not to let her disapproval show.
It’s not that Becca didn’t want to smoke – after all, plenty of other kids did, though few of her closest friends – it’s just that she wanted her lungs to stay just the way they were, thank you very much. Becca didn’t excel at much, but she easily led the school swimming team – which somehow made up for the Cs and Bs she otherwise struggled to get. Petite, with a light build that seemed made for cutting through water, she could, by quite a margin, swim further and faster than anyone in the school – including old Stubbs, the sports teacher. Despite her size, she was strong and could be very determined – able to keep pushing herself when her body was aching to stop. She amazed people by swimming under water for minutes at a time, looking serene on the outside – but on the inside forcing herself on. (Her record was just under four minutes, which had taken a lot of practice.) Being the school’s best swimmer made her Becca the fish: not exactly great, but better and cooler than being Bony Becca or stick-insect, which is what she’d been called until year five.
“I don’t like this place,” she said, shivering slightly despite the warm breeze. “It’s creepy.”
Matt looked into her eyes. “You only think it’s creepy because you’ve been told it’s creepy.” He took another long pull on the cigarette. “I like it.”
The breeze blew Becca’s fine dark hair across her face and she absently brushed it away. “Why?”
He smiled. “No one comes here. Where else do we get to be properly alone?”
Becca felt herself flush and hoped it didn’t show. “Someone might come.”
Matt sighed and put his arm around her, pulling her close.
“It’s OK,” he said, “you know no one comes here.”
He tilted his head and their hair gently touched, though their heads barely connected. Becca wanted to kiss him but really wished he hadn’t lit the cigarette. Yet, to her, the moment still felt almost electric.
Matt didn’t quite feel the same way. Sure, he was turned on to an extent he couldn’t believe – and having to work very hard not to screw things up. After all, he’d invested a lot of time in Becca. For starters, he’d lied – he wasn’t a virgin. What’s more, the one girl he’d had sex with, Natalie White, had been drunk at the time and didn’t exactly qualify as willing. The (very brief) sex hadn’t been great – but Becca was just about to give it all up, non-stop for a whole weekend, and all he’d had to do was be nice to her and tell a few small lies. Of course, being nice was easier now that he lived over forty miles from his mates (something about which his father was very pleased). No, he didn’t want to push things and end up blowing his chances with Becca, although he did have a packet of condoms in his pocket just in case she wanted to start early; he knew he did.
Just turned sixteen, Matt was a boy at a turning point in his life – “difficult” was how he’d been described by his English teacher, who was being both diplomatic and charitable. If he worked at it, Matt could probably change, but the decisions he made almost always pointed in the same direction: bad. For instance, he had considered that having sex with a clearly underage Becca might be wrong (wrong enough to keep his desires to himself: even if he did score with Becca he doubted that he’d brag about it). Becca might be almost fifteen, but her build was that of someone almost two years younger. But he easily dismissed these feelings – if no one knew about it, then what’s the problem? He also knew that he would be pissing on his own doorstep, as the saying went. If things went bad, his life could become very unpleasant. So, he thought, things won’t have to go bad. Matt guessed that he could keep Becca warm for months, maybe until he left home – which he planned to do as soon as he could. He doubted she’d ever tell anyone, just because of what her friends and mother would think of her.
Becca didn’t know anything about Natalie White, but she was aware that Matt used to have some pretty unpleasant friends and had a reputation for solving problems with his fists. But Becca believed that was the old Matt; that he’d changed once he and his Dad had moved in with her and Mum. When her Mum and Jim had first been dating, Matt had been pretty cool towards her, but he seemed to have warmed once they all lived under one roof. Matt had been interested in her; attentive even. And so, talking had turned to friendship; friendship to flirting; flirting to kissing; kissing to petting. Becca didn’t know if it was the real thing, but it did seem like a good thing – and she absolutely enjoyed her first experience of male attention. No one else had noticed their relationship develop – after all, they were almost brother and sister.
Matt knew damn well it wasn’t the real thing, but he too thought it was a good thing; in his mind, compensation for having to move to a shitty backwater town. Becca and her mother, Sarah, were, in his book, just a bit too nice. Matt, being far from stupid, knew it was pointless to hold back the inevitable. His Dad and Sarah were going to get married and that was that.
But when he saw Becca swim for the first time, he decided that his new family unit might have some bonuses. That body: not model-nice, she was even skinny perhaps – but very graceful, lithe and firm. If he played nice with her, he thought he could get her to play nice with him. Very nice. And it hadn’t taken that long – just a few months of being sweet and patient. The problem was, Matt wasn’t patient by nature: he was generally quick to anger and slow to cool down. Every day of the last few months he’d felt himself tighten just that little bit more and had to work progressively harder to present a calm exterior. Every time they kissed, or when Becca let him slip his hand inside her blouse, he’d edged closer to losing control. He felt like he’d really earned the coming weekend.
Matt glanced at Becca and smiled. He tried his best to push down the desire inside him – and drew long and hard on the cigarette, sucking almost two centimetres of it out of existence with a single inhalation.
Becca felt uncomfortably warm and acutely aware of herself; the breeze gently stroked her arms and legs, raising goose bumps. She seemed to feel the fibres of her clothes as they brushed against her skin and, where the grass swayed against her thighs, she felt exposed. She pulled her knees a little tighter to her chest and self-consciously wrapped her skirt underneath her. She realised – too late – that although this made her feel less vulnerable, it actually exposed more of her thighs. Somewhere close, a bird cawed: a loud, harsh cry that made her start.
She glanced around, to the ruined cottage, just thirty or forty yards from the well. The cottage had never been large: just a handful of rooms in a single-storey building, now half-hidden in an overgrown jumble of thorny brambles and dense bushes, themselves blending into the edge of woods. In some places, the gaps in the ruined walls came almost to the ground. Through a vaguely oblong hole in one wall – all that remained of a window – she could see that the inside of the cottage was as overgrown as the outside.
The bird cawed again, and she saw it, perched on what remained of the cottage’s chimney. Large and black, perhaps almost two foot from head to tail, it was a crow, raven or rook – she didn’t know the difference between them, if indeed there was a difference. The bird regarded her, its head cocked to one side, eyes occasionally blinking. She shivered, unexpectedly chilled.
Matt followed her gaze. “It’s just a bird,” he said – more mocking than comforting.
“It’s creepy and you know it,” she said, defending her reaction. “This place – it’s like something from a crap horror film. A ruined cottage in the woods. Two kids, alone.” She laughed, nervously. The cottage couldn’t be more typecast if it tried. Still, its reputation, though it may be based on clichés, had persisted for years – a local myth. Matt, being new to the area, neither respected nor believed the stories that surrounded the place – but Becca was fighting against the sheer weight of tales that passed between local children, handed down from one generation to the next in the school playground. It didn’t help that these stories were later confirmed in local history lessons – at least to some degree.
Matt squeezed her hand and stood up. He picked a rock about the size of an apple up from the ground – and threw it hard at the bird. His aim was good, striking the crumbling wall within just a few feet of the bird. Amid an explosion of rock shards and dust, the bird briefly fluttered its wings, cawed again, but otherwise didn’t flinch.
“Bold bastard,” muttered Matt. He threw another rock, this time landing closer. Again, the bird didn’t move. It cawed loudly, either ignorant of them or teasing them. Matt stooped for another rock – but when he stood, rock in hand, the bird opened its not inconsiderable wings and took flight. It disappeared into the trees at the edge of the wood. Matt threw the rock anyway. With a brief rustle of leaves, it too vanished into the trees, followed by a distant thud as it hit the ground.
Matt sat back down next to Becca, took a last draw on the cigarette and stubbed it out against the wall before tossing the smoking butt into the well. He sensed that the moment of warmth was passing and his best strategy might be to get Becca home. He asked, “How much longer?” Becca looked again at her watch. “Mum should have called or texted by now,” she said. “Maybe Jim got held up at work.” She wasn’t anywhere near ready to start calling Jim Dad. Not that she had any affection for her own father, come to that.
Matt put his arm back around Becca’s slim shoulders and gently pulled her close; she didn’t resist. Their heads turned to meet and they kissed – a kiss that was tainted by the taste of tobacco, but a warm close kiss nonetheless.
Becca jumped involuntarily as her mobile phone chimed with the arrival of a text message. Matt leaned away slightly and allowed his arm to drop to Becca’s waist. Although startled, Becca was relieved that her Mum had sent a text instead of calling: it would be far easier to lie when replying. She pulled her phone from her schoolbag and read the text: JUST ARRIVED. LONG DRIVE SET OFF EARLY. POSH PLACE, LOOKS GOOD. HOPE YOU ARE BOTH OK. WILL CALL LATER. LOVE MUM XXX.
Becca sighed, and said to Matt, “We could’ve gone straight home. They set off ages ago.” She hit the reply key. JUST LEAVING BASKETBALL. MATT WAITED SO I DIDN’T HAVE TO WALK HOME ON MY OWN. HOME SOON. NO NEED 2 CALL LATER. GOING 2 WATCH FILM. GOT LOTS OF HOMEWORK 4 WKEND. HAVE A GREAT TIME – YOU DON’T HAVE TO KEEP CALLING OR TXTING JUST HAVE FUN XXX BECKS.
The lie was so easy – and her mother would never know. After all, she did occasionally stay for basketball, but tonight wasn’t a basketball night. She pressed send and stood up, putting her phone into her bag and her bag over her shoulder. Matt did the same. He was almost a head taller than her, so when they kissed she had to go tippy toed – making her feel more like a child than ever, yet somehow more feminine at the same time.
“Let’s go home,” she said.
And they almost did, but Matt playfully pulled her close for another kiss, smiling. She smiled back and kissed him, neck stretching. The weekend was going to be so good. She hopped lightly onto the well wall, to give her the same height advantage that Matt normally had over her – but the loose stones shifted under her weight. Unbalanced by the weight of her schoolbag, she toppled backwards, shrieking, instinctively twisting and extending her right arm to take the impact. She hit the metal grating hard, her forearm first; her body instantly afterwards, kicking the breath from her. The top of her head banged against the inside of the well’s far wall.
The grating, rotten and old, offered little resistance against Becca’s weight, slight though she was. It buckled under the impact, almost folding itself in two. The grating had been held in place by six metal wall-ties, bolted to the grating and cemented (securely, long ago) into the wall. As Becca struggled to get herself upright, three of the ties ripped away from the wall and the grating fell open like a hatch. She tumbled, following the arc of the grating as it swung downwards, her hands frantically trying to grasp something, anything. As the grating twisted down, another tie came free.
In a manoeuvre she could neither have rehearsed nor repeated, she grabbed hold of the grating with her right hand just as her body crashed forwards into the inside of the wall – the impact jolting her backwards and almost forcing her to let go. Wrenched hard, her right hand screamed in pain.
Somehow she managed to not only hang on, but after two attempts (hampered by her loosely swinging schoolbag) she got a firm hold of the grating with both hands.
She hung there for less than a second before one of the three remaining wall-ties gave way, jolting her downwards by almost a foot. Knowing with absolute certainty that she would fall, she screamed, a desperate terror-filled yell, “Matt!”
The whole thing had happened so quickly that Matt hadn’t been able to take it in. Becca had fallen backwards, rolling and crashing into the grating in one blurry second. He wasn’t standing idly by – there had barely been time to blink, let alone to help her.
He knelt quickly at the edge of the well and leaned over, straining to reach her. She was too far away, by just a few inches, even before the grating had jolted downwards. He reached around himself, took off his shoulder bag and dangled it down, wrapping the strap tightly around his wrist so he wouldn’t lose hold. “Grab this,” he shouted.
Becca grabbed the bag with one hand, not wanting to let go of the grating.
It was not one of the remaining, ancient wall-ties that failed, but the grating itself. Ancient, corroded and stressed, the grating unfolded where it had just been creased – and all but one of the metal latticework strips snapped apart. Becca felt herself jolted again, and the last jolt was enough to split what remained of the metal in two. Half of the grating fell into the well and Becca fell with it. She let go of the grating but somehow managed to hold on to the bag. Matt, who had been on one knee and leaning over as far as he could, was at the edge of his balance. He was yanked downwards into the well.
As Becca, who mostly paid attention at school, would have remembered from science (and Matt, who mostly didn’t pay attention, and so would not), any two objects which fall at the same time will land at the same time. In this case, the broken half of the grating had slightly slowed its descent by bouncing against the stone walls of the well. Becca landed feet first, splashing into the cold dirty water. Her feet hit years of sediment, a deep cushion of mud. A lightning bolt of pain shot up from her left ankle as she hit the hard stone beneath the mud. She twisted and rolled, falling backwards and sideways against the well wall, her head briefly going under the water. She came to rest on her backside, almost up to her neck in water, spluttering. The grating had already crashed loudly at her side, twisted and broken, rolling slightly, sharp metal pointing upwards.
Matt, who was falling more or less headfirst, arrived a second later. He landed directly on the grating, his body doubling over it as it impaled his abdomen.
In the darkness, Becca couldn’t see what had happened, but the sound of Matt’s scream being cut short as he hit the grating was deeply chilling. The impact was a sickening mixture of crunching bone and squelching flesh.
Metal scraped against brick as Matt’s weight took him backwards into something close to a sitting position, bringing the grating – from which he couldn’t now be separated – with him. He came to rest with his back against the wall.
Sarah Ann Richards lay on her side, naked, on the untidy sheets that were strewn across the four-poster bed. She was holding her phone, scrolling through her daughter’s text message. “Do you think I should call her?”
Jim Bradshaw snuggled up behind her and kissed her neck, his arm encircling her stomach. “Call her tomorrow,” he said. “She’s fine. Let her enjoy some time without us.”
Sarah hesitated. As much as she wanted to call Becca, she knew that Jim was right. After all, they’d only seen her this morning. She also knew that this weekend was supposed to be about her and Jim, not the kids – Jim had even left his golf clubs at home, as he’d promised. She switched her phone to silent, put it on the bedside table and turned to face him. “How long before dinner?”
He kissed her and pulled her closer. “Plenty of time.”
A bigger extract
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