by Matthew J. Richardson
black filter coffee (bitter and with a few gritty bits at the bottom)
Tunnels are the worst. If the sand is too dry, you can’t get any shape. Too wet, and the whole thing collapses into a gloopy mess. In the hour-and-a-half Cara has been playing at the beach, she has got the perfect mixture of sand and seawater. This is just as well, because a sandcastle isn’t really a sandcastle if it hasn’t got a secret tunnel. How else does the queen escape if she is besieged?
Aching eyes – too much squinting in the sunshine – bring Cara out of her make-believe. It takes the girl a few micro-seconds to remember where she is and how she got there – beach, road trip on her one-day-a-fortnight with Dad. Cara considers hopping over the rockpools to where her father is sitting in his deckchair just out of sight. It’s been a while since she has checked in and she could do with some of his bottle caps for castle windows. The lunch that Mum had packed would be nice too. Then again, Dad prefers to be left alone when he’s taking the edge off with a few beers. It barely even crosses Cara’s mind that to get back to the beach proper she’d have to go past The Cave.
Cara had been searching for crabs in the rockpools when she had become aware of the gap in the grey rock behind her, dank and silent. The opening was narrow and crooked and not at all like caves in fairy tales. Nor did it look as though it had ever been touched by the waves crashing in the distance. Something that Cara’s mum once told her was shale lay on the floor of the gloomy cavern, piled far into the gap as though desperate to get away from the ocean. Crackle-dry, black seaweed threaded through the stones. One glance into the cave was enough. It smelled like bad things and her voice sounded flat and small when she shouted into it. Cara still felt the empty cave behind her so she had moved further around the beach to build her sandcastle.
The keep is good, the towers tall enough, but the fortress is not yet safe. It is time to excavate a moat. Sand juice pools at the bottom of the channel no matter how quickly she scrapes. Still, this isn’t Cara’s first sandcastle, and before long there is a moat complete with a drawbridge for the queen’s carriage.
Cara should probably shout to her father to reassure him she is okay, but instead she squeals because the sea is now near enough to flood her moat with REAL WATER. A connecting channel is dug with two fingers. Cara lays her head close to the ground and looks towards where the waves are scurrying up the beach. Three or four go by before a nice big foamy one manages the journey in full. Scummy sand-water slowly trickles up the channel and makes its way into the moat. It is working!
She goes to yell for her dad again, this time for him to come and see. Then she remembers that Dad is around the headland and that he probably built hundreds of better sandcastles when he was a kid. No matter – this castle is Cara’s. Another rush of foamy water and the moat is really starting to fill up, so much so that the sides of the fort start to crumble and collapse. She pats the damp sand back into place.
The bottom of Cara’s bathing suit is wet before the girl realises she is in trouble. Water is slipping across the smooth sand like a monster’s hand slips up from underneath a bed. Where gentle waves had fizzed in the distance, unseen currents now swirl around Cara’s waist. Most alarming of all is when the water picks her up and drags her a few centimetres towards the long, empty horizon.
Things are getting bad. Nothing looks the same to Cara as she stands in the now knee-deep water. She knows that it is time to shout for her father but when her voice leaves her chest it feels as though it is from shrunken lungs, the type that Miss Rutherford had told them were found in Canopic jars in Ancient Egypt in the Valley of the Kings. Cara looks around the headland, hoping to see her father’s veiny eyes in his red face and to hear him ask her what the hell she is playing at. Dad isn’t there, though. There is just the sea pressing and probing the rock as though looking for a way to climb.
There is no such route. Cara can see that as she splooshes against the drag. The stone is too smooth to climb and even if it were not, Cara’s fingers are too jittersome to pull her up. There is only The Cave. The waves are rolling now and the girl has to claw herself into the gap. In the moments before rock replaces sky, Cara thinks she sees water pluming somewhere behind the cave, surging and foaming its way to freedom.