Alaric Swift had never known his parents and had been living in foster families all his life. He’d never got on with any of them, but that was especially true when one wanted to eat him.
He was thirteen years old by the time this happened and had never stayed anywhere long. He was a pleasant and well-behaved child, but had for all his life, been extremely unfortunate. He would often be the cause of a disaster so terrible, his foster parents wouldn’t want him anymore. Of course, he’d never done it deliberately: he hadn’t meant to set the whole house on fire when he blew out his birthday candles. And he was just as surprised as his next set of parents, when they came home one day to find their kitten had developed into a fully-grown lion, exactly as he had joked about happening at the zoo. The trouble was, he couldn’t help but feel he’d had a part to play in all these things. For no miraculous accident seemed to happen without Alaric imagining it first. He’d lasted less than a week at his latest family, when a hole appeared in the garden out of nowhere, swallowing up their toddler who’d been irritating him all morning.
Then, within days, he was sitting in the front of his social worker, Mr Solomon’s car, on the way to the house where we start our story. Mr Solomon was a strange man and whenever they were together, Alaric couldn’t help but notice how the two of them were each other’s opposites. Alaric was so tall and lean that the front of the dashboard was uncomfortably digging into his knees, his thick dark hair somehow always perfect. Yet, Mr Solomon looked exactly like a garden gnome. From his white hair and beard to his clothes—the green, belted jacket, the scarlet trousers and wellington boots, even the red cone-shaped hat he always wore—he’d have looked as though he’d been picked off the shelf in a garden centre if he hadn’t been just about tall enough for his feet to reach the pedals. Even their expressions as they wound down the seemingly endless country were contrasting. Mr Solomon’s gleaming smile annoyed Alaric intensely, like he took pleasure out of his misery.
‘So, tell me,’ Mr Solomon squeaked, speaking for the first time in the half an hour they’d been driving, ‘what exactly happened with you in the garden? I want to hear your version of events.’
Alaric rolled his eyes. Mr Solomon asked this question after every incident and it never made any difference what Alaric said. He was just made to relive the bad memory. ‘I don’t know,’ he said tersely.
‘But the hole that appeared…was it a perfect circle?’ Mr Solomon said. Alaric scoffed with no intention of answering. Why did it matter? ‘And how deep was it?’ Mr Solomon pressed when Alaric said nothing, ‘and the child, Amy…what had she been doing?’
Alaric stared determinedly out the window, watching the grazing cows and sheep fly past.
‘Well?’ Mr Solomon demanded, as authoritatively as he could with his squeaky voice, ‘I need answers.’
‘Look, I don’t know,’ Alaric said hotly, ‘I never do. I’d been reading in the garden and wherever I went, she followed me and kept poking me, trying to grab my book. I just wanted her to go away and then, there was a hole. I did nothing, I swear.’
Mr Solomon sighed like a man who’d finally got into bed after a long day. ‘Simply marvellous,’ he beamed.
Alaric carried on looking fixedly out the window. He couldn’t bear to look at Mr Solomon. The houses were getting denser now, Alaric sensing they were nearly there.
‘You know, I have a good feeling about this family,’ Mr Solomon said, ‘I think you’ll like them.’ Alaric was determined to look at anything other than Mr Solomon. This was something he’d said before dropping him off at every single family he’d ever stayed with, and never had things got any better. The car slowed as they pulled up into a cul-de-sac, parking in the driveway of the first and most unusual house of the lot.
It was the dereliction that made it so unique, the concrete exterior and the unpainted door the least of Alaric’s worries. The windows were so dusty that he, to his horror, couldn’t see inside.
‘Put on a smile, Alaric,’ Mr Solomon said annoyingly brightly, ‘want to make a good first impression, don’t we?’
Alaric tightened his face, unwilling to do anything Mr Solomon said. However good an impression he made, he knew this would end the same way as always: in disaster. Though, based on what he’d seen so far, he thought he probably wouldn’t mind this time. Even from the car, he could hear the house’s front door creak open, and a man and a woman came rushing out of the building towards them. Alaric hadn’t even had the chance to get out of the vehicle when they started vigorously shaking his hand.
‘I’m John,’ said the man, ‘this is my wife, Sue.’
Alaric, unnerved by his new parents’ enthusiasm and unsure what to say, examined the two adults standing in front of him. There was no word to describe the pair of them, other than normal. It was the lack of distinctness in the faces, the absence of any marks, bar the few wrinkles around the eyes; the average length of the brown hair, the fact they were both average height. Everything about their appearances was so forgettable, yet it was what made them so distinctive.
‘Do come in,’ John invited, ‘no, no, Alaric, I’ll take those in,’ he added as Alaric reached for his suitcase from the boot of the car.
Alaric’s stomach lurched as he and Mr Solomon followed them into the house, his nervousness becoming even stronger when they got inside. There were no light bulbs in the hallway. Instead, candles fixed to the walls lit the space, creating a spooky atmosphere. Alaric’s hairs stood on end as they were led into the kitchen. This room was somehow creepier than the hallway. The walls were bare, not even plastered, the shelves just as empty, some of them clinging onto the walls by a single screw.
‘I’ll make a pot of tea,’ said Sue, ‘anything to eat for either of you two? Cake, biscuits?’
‘Sure,’ Alaric said absent-mindedly. He was already starting to dread his time in this home. It was a warm summer’s day, but it was giving him the shivers. He thought it would be a miracle if he could last a week here.
‘Of course, go and take a seat in the lounge,’ Sue said, indicating out of the door, ‘John and I will bring the tea in a moment.’
The lounge was even darker than the hallway. While there was a bulb switched on in the room, the light it emitted was hardly noticeable. The curtains were shut, the tweed sofas torn in several places, thick dust gathering on them like they hadn’t been used in years.
‘So, what do you think?’ Mr Solomon said enthusiastically in his remarkably squeaky voice.
Alaric did not respond verbally but stared at Mr Solomon, scowling. What did he think? What a ridiculous question! He was questioning whether the house was even habitable.
‘Look, I know they’re a bit different to a normal family, but that’s what I thought you’d need,’ Mr Solomon said.
‘The kitchen looks like a shed,’ Alaric said through gritted teeth. Mr Solomon was the only person in the world who seemed to care about him, but at times like this, he questioned whether he really did.
‘Well, give them a chance,’ Mr Solomon said, ‘you’ve only just met them.’
The conversation halted at the sound of feet shuffling along the floor. John entered the room, his wife following. Each of them was carrying a plastic, tacky-looking tray, Sue’s with mugs on it, John’s with a plate of digestive biscuits and a Madeira cake. Sue passed Alaric and Mr Solomon each a cup of tea. Alaric couldn’t help but wince as he looked down at the grey liquid before him.
The cake John handed him was no more appealing. It was as dry as cardboard, and its flavour was lacking as much. The nature of the conversation wasn’t making Alaric any keener on living in this house either. John and Sue seemed to hate everything Alaric loved: basketball, books, even pizza. It appeared that all they were interested in was their piano, something Alaric knew, for sure, he didn’t care about.
After dinner (a bowl of watery soup), Mr Solomon left, and Alaric went to bed feeling particularly pessimistic about the time ahead. The bedroom was stuffy, and there was an unpleasant, musty smell in the air like mould. The mattress was almost as firm as the carpet and Alaric didn’t even get enough sleep to dream. He always enjoyed his dreams, as he could control them himself, creating his own stories. But not that night and he woke with his back stiff, aching intensely.
‘Good morning, Alaric,’ Sue said as he entered the downstairs kitchen, ‘did you sleep well? Would you like me to make you a cup of tea?’ The cupboard door creaked as she opened it to reach a mug and some tea bags. Alaric couldn’t help but stare and shudder as the door hung on a single hinge.
‘It’s fine, I’ll make it,’ he said, remembering how bad the tea she’d made the previous day had been.
‘No, no,’ Sue chuckled, ‘honestly, I don’t mind.’ She proceeded to pour water from the rusty kettle onto the teabag, the liquid inside the cup much lighter than black tea should be. Alaric winced as he felt the stone-cold mug she passed him.
‘Urrmm…Sue, did you boil the kettle?’ he said, nervous about causing offence.
‘Oh no, how silly of me,’ she laughed, ‘you see I haven’t had a lot of sleep; I was up admiring the moon last night. The cycle’s nearly there you know, full moon on Monday.’
‘Oh really?’ Alaric asked, trying to sound interested.
‘Yes, it’ll be a special day for you. First day at your new school and the full moon. We like that day, John and I,’ Sue said, ‘absolutely stunning, the moon.’
‘Yeah, it is.’ Alaric started to boil the kettle, longing for this conversation to end.
‘I thought we’d go to the shops today. We need some food,’ Sue said.
Alaric nodded. ‘Where’s that then?’ he asked, unsure what to say. He was perfectly used to awkward small talk with new families by now but never about the moon.
‘Not too far, I reckon a wolf could run it in…five minutes,’ John’s voice said from behind Alaric.
‘How long would that take us?’ Alaric said hesitantly, trying to hide his uneasiness. Who on earth measured distance in the time it’d take a wolf to cover it?
‘Five minutes in the car,’ Sue huffed. ‘Honestly, John, what is your obsession with wolves?’ Her expression had become glaring, as though her husband had said something he shouldn’t have.
‘I like dogs, get over it,’ said John firmly. ‘At least that’s a talking point with people, better than someone droning on about the moon.’
‘Let’s speak outside,’ Sue said in a way that would only countenance one response, and her husband followed her into the hallway, gently shutting the door behind him.
‘What are you doing?’ Alaric heard his foster mother snarl, ‘the boy will think we’re werewolves or something if you keep talking like that.’
‘Better than going on about the moon. Let’s be real, who cares?’ John retorted. ‘Besides, the boy’s been kicked out of a lot of families. Might make his life more interesting if he thinks we’re werewolves.’
‘Better than him knowing what we really are, I guess,’ Sue said.
Alaric’s stomach started to cramp, his face becoming void of colour. He felt like running, but the only way out of this room was the window, which led straight into an unkempt, wholly enclosed garden.
Alaric’s heart jumped to his throat as he saw the kitchen door swing open. John and Sue were standing on the other side, smiling warmly. ‘If you get changed, we’ll go in half an hour,’ Sue said.
The stairs creaked ominously as Alaric climbed them. He sighed with relief as he reached his room, jumping to his phone upon seeing he had a message. He knew it would be from Mr Solomon. No one else ever texted him. He had no other family, never been anywhere long enough to make any real friends.
Everything ok? it read.
Something weird is up with them, Alaric typed in reply. I heard them talking about werewolves, they said they were something worse than that.
Mr Solomon’s response was immediate. Alaric’s eyes remained glued to his phone as he saw his social worker was typing.
They’re a slightly unusual couple. They do sword swallowing for a living, that’ll be what they meant. Have a good day.
Alaric’s head became hot as rage coursed through his body. He sucked his cheeks in as the phone buzzed on his bed.
Let me know if you need anything else. I’ll come and visit soon.
‘Whatever,’ Alaric groaned. He locked his phone and started towards the shower. After washing himself with its freezing cold water and pulling on a purple T-shirt and jeans, he was sitting in the back of his foster parents’ black Peugeot. Alaric’s throat started to itch as he entered a coughing fit. The dust on the seats was even thicker than on the settees, and it was impossible to see what colour they were.
‘What do you like to eat, Alaric?’ John said, ‘black pudding okay with you?’
‘Never tried it,’ Alaric said truthfully, though he was already at the point where they could have served him cat litter and he wouldn’t have cared.
‘You know what it’s made of?’ John said.
‘Pigs’ blood,’ Alaric said instantly, recalling a piece of home economics work he’d done at his last school.
‘One of our favourite dishes,’ Sue chimed in, ‘strange, isn’t it? How different, how much better it tastes than our own blood?’
‘I guess if we taste our own blood, it means we’re hurt, so we’re not meant to like it,’ Alaric said, trying to sound as natural as possible. He shuffled uncomfortably in his seat. Of all the things he’d have liked to have been talking about with his new family, he couldn’t say the taste of blood was especially high on the list.
‘Perhaps,’ Sue said, ‘did Mr Solomon ever tell you about what we do for a living?’
‘Yeah, he did,’ Alaric said.
‘It’s quite good fun,’ John said, his tone upbeat, ‘I’m sure we could teach you to swallow a sword if you wanted?’
‘I-I’m good…thank you,’ Alaric said. He was struggling to even swallow his own saliva now.
‘It’d impress all of your friends at your new school,’ Sue said.
‘Maybe, but I think there are other ways that are more my thing,’ Alaric said awkwardly, conscious he might come across as rude.
‘You sure?’ John asked. ‘What are your hobbies then?’
‘Reading?’ John exclaimed, ‘that’s not going to get you many friends at school, is it?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, John!’ Sue snapped. ‘You’ll make him nervous. People would rather be friends with someone like him than a freak like you who’s always talking about wolves.’
‘Better talk about that than the moon,’ John grumbled.
Sue remained silent as John parked the car outside the supermarket. As soon as the three of them were out of the car, Alaric noticed that people everywhere were staring at them, some even pointing and whispering to each other. Alaric instinctively checked himself for anything he’d been called out for at school; his shirt was ironed, his shoes tied. He wiped his face, licking around his lips in case he had anything on his face that was drawing such attention.
‘It’s not you, Alaric,’ Sue said reassuringly, ‘it’s us. We’re something of local celebrities; with what we do for a living, that’s sort of inevitable. Just try to ignore them.’
Her voice was shaking, making Alaric feel even worse than he already was. He couldn’t help but feel his foster mother was lying to him, but he decided not to mention it. He was used to being stared at and pointed at. At school, he’d always been the weird one. The long, lanky boy who enjoyed reading, who seldom spoke. It was never easy being the new kid. He’d always arrive at new schools where friendship circles had already formed and like with his families, never stayed anywhere long enough.
‘Let’s go over to the butcher’s counter,’ Sue said.
They did so and there, they bought their meals for the next few days. Alaric just hoped he would like black pudding because that seemed to be all that was on the menu. Lunch that day was black pudding hot dogs, dinner was black pudding burgers and breakfast the next day was a black pudding sandwich. When he was finally asked what sausages he’d want for supper the next day, he suggested pork and garlic, expecting he’d want a change, at which John and Sue both expressed immense disgust and went ahead and bought even more black pudding.
This constant monotony of John and Sue’s life caused the next couple of days to drag on for Alaric. With very little to do, he became increasingly bored, and no matter how much Sue and John tried to vary the form in which they served black pudding, it didn’t get any more exciting. By the time Sunday night came, he was, for once, glad he’d be starting school the next day. Even if he struggled to make friends and the food was likely to be bland, at least it would make a change from his foster parents’ house.
As he wandered from the bathroom to his bed that night, he noticed a sliver of light coming from John and Sue’s room. The door was ajar, and he could hear them communicating, whispering urgently.
‘Why not do it tonight?’ John said.
‘Because the full moon is tomorrow, we’ll be at our strongest then,’ Sue said firmly.
‘We’re not werewolves. We don’t need it to transform. Every murder in the area happened at the full moon, and guess who has an obsession with the moon? Not seem suspicious to you? Everyone was staring in the store on Friday. Even Alaric noticed.’
‘I take your point, but on this occasion, we need the moon on our side. The boy is a prince, he’s bound to have some fight in him. As long as the throne has an heir, our cause is a failure.’
Alaric shuffled his feet towards his bedroom, as quickly as he could without being heard. He climbed into his bed and felt around for his phone. His body froze at the noise it made as he typed in the passcode to unlock it. His thoughts were scattered, his mind frantic.
He’d known all weekend something was going on with John and Sue. Everything about them was so odd. He could call the police… no that’d get him heard. Besides, they wouldn’t believe it if a boy of thirteen told them his foster parents were planning to murder a member of the royal family. He could try Mr Solomon. But he didn’t seem any more likely to believe him based on what had happened when he’d told him about the werewolf conversation he overheard. But he had to try, it was his only hope.
Mr Solomon, please, I think they’re plotting to kill Prince George, he wrote. Sent.
I heard them talking, they said they had to wait until tomorrow because they’d be strongest then and he’s a prince, he’ll have a fight in him. Sent.
Alaric’s body became paralysed once more as his phone beeped. There was no noise from around the house. He regained his composure and unlocked his mobile.
Ok, act natural tomorrow morning. Go to school, and I’ll come round in the evening, check everything’s ok, read Mr Solomon’s reply.
Alaric’s heart was still pounding. Tomorrow evening could be too late. And even worse, what on earth did they mean by transform?
Can’t you tell the police? Alaric asked in his next message, thinking it best not to mention anything about his parents transforming.
No. This doesn’t concern them.
Alaric scoffed. What on earth was he on about? Who did it concern if not the police? However, he knew trying to persuade Mr Solomon he was wrong was futile, so he put his phone down and lay flat on his back and shut his eyes. He didn’t sleep all night; his mind was too full of thoughts. What if his foster parents knew he knew? Would they kill him as well? Would the police blame him? By the time morning came, he wasn’t even tired. His mind was too riddled with thoughts as he showered and returned to his bedroom to dress. Then, he realised.
He didn’t know how, but his phone was gone. He frantically searched his room for it, under his bed, behind all the furniture, but it was nowhere to be found. He changed into his new school uniform, not even noticing his trousers were on back-to-front, before tiptoeing downstairs for breakfast.
‘Morning, Alaric,’ John and Sue said as one.
‘Morning,’ Alaric said, ‘have either of you seen my phone by any chance?’ He feared he already knew the answer.
‘You mean this?’ John said as he pulled Alaric’s phone from the pocket of his black dressing gown.
‘Yes,’ Alaric said, an invisible belt tightening around his stomach.
‘You know it’s rude to eavesdrop?’ John said coldly.
‘W-what do you mean?’ Alaric asked innocently, his hairs standing on end all over his body.
‘We have an excellent sense of smell, you know?’ John said, ‘Sue thought she smelt you outside our bedroom door last night. She sent me to go and check. You really need a passcode on your phone that’s not your date of birth.’
‘I-I don’t know what you mean,’ Alaric lied, his fingers twitching in front of his mouth.
‘Yes, you do,’ John said, ‘you know we’re plotting to kill the prince.’
His heart racing, Alaric started towards the kitchen door. ‘I’ll keep it a secret,’ he said desperately, ‘I promise.’
‘Shan’t be necessary,’ Sue’s voice said from behind Alaric. The latter furrowed his brow and turned on the spot.
How she’d got there, Alaric had no idea. He gave a start as he saw it, his heart skipping a beat. She was crouched on the top shelf on the wall, John squatting beside her.
‘H-how did you get up there?’ Alaric plucked up the energy to say, eyeing the door.
‘Like this,’ John said. Then, if Alaric had blinked, he would have missed it. John had vanished and where he had been, was a bat the size of an eagle. His heart pounding, Alaric sprinted towards the front door, grinding to a halt just inches from it. He extended his arm towards the handle. But then Sue appeared out of nothingness between him and the exit. She leered, open-mouthed. Out of her gums, sprouted two new teeth. They were pointed, as sharp as knives and had a pinkish tinge to them. The lump in Alaric’s throat grew even more as he saw it was the result of bloodstains.
‘I think we’ll have an early dinner,’ John said.
‘W-what do you mean?’ Alaric stammered, though he dreaded to think he already knew the answer.
‘Alaric Swift,’ John said softly, a slight smile surfacing on his face. Slowly, he opened his mouth as though about to yawn, but he did not shut it. Just as had happened with Sue, two sharp, pinkish teeth sprouted out of his gums like a nib out of a pen being clicked. ‘The Miracle Prince, I’m sure you will taste so delicious. We’ve never eaten such royalty before.’
‘Miracle Prince?’ Alaric said, ‘I’m not a prince, I’m just a boy, I’m no prince, I swear.’ His voice became shouty as he desperately tried to convince them of his innocence.
But he got no response. Sue cackled as the two of them shuffled towards Alaric, their now forked tongues licking their lips.