Simon P. Clark is a British writer living and working in the U.S. After graduating, he lived in Japan for three years, before moving to New Jersey for more adventures. His debut children's novel Eren will be published Autumn 2014 by Constable & Robinson's Much-In-Little Imprint. You can find Simon on his blog or on Twitter, and follow his progress on Goodreads and a website for debut children's authors in 2014.
(Simon has been doing a particularly sterling job at tweeting and facebooking links to the other stories in the series - see if you can show him some love in return!)
The crab was dead. There was nothing else to say.
‘S’dead,’ said Sam. He sniffed.
‘That crab,’ he added, flicking his head. ‘Dead.’
Lucy glared at him. ‘Really?’ she said. ‘No way.’
Sam shrugged. ‘Just saying’.
It was lying on the concrete floor, a shock of pink and orange. It was upside down and dry and wrong. One claw was broken off and lying a few inches from where it should have been.
‘Where’d it even come from?’ said Lucy. ‘Do we have crabs round here?’
‘There was one on the news,’ said Sam. ‘A bunch. All acting weird. Jumping out of water and dancing and … stuff.’
‘Maybe this one went mad too,’ said Sam.
A door opened down the hall. They turned. An old lady stared at them, misty eyes, a faded dressing gown hanging from thin shoulders. The light was bad. The walls were grey – council estate chic, Lucy’s dad always said with an odd, empty laugh. It was never very funny.
‘That’s old Barmy Madge,’ whispered Sam. He moved forward, in front of the crab. Lucy gave him a look. He pulled a face.
‘I dunno,’ he whispered. Somewhere down the hall, in one of the flats, music was playing – jazz, something with a trumpet and drums.
‘You!’ screeched Madge. She peered down the hallway. Her hand never left the door frame. ‘You! Have you seen him? Have you? Where is he? Please!’
‘What?’ said Lucy. ‘What?’
‘Please! Where is he? Who took him?’
‘What’s that?’ said Sam
Madge leaned out further, never letting her hands leave the door.
‘Twelve!’ she said. ‘Twelve! So long, so long. My Pappy, and his, and his. A hundred years. A thousand! You’ve no concept. Older than time. Older than stars. Protect them all, keep them all safe. All twelve! Twelve!’
‘Barmy,’ snickered Sam. He nudged Lucy. ‘Eh?’
‘Shut up,’ she said. Then, ‘Have you lost something?’
‘Ram!’ said Madge, her voice high. ‘Bull! Twins, crab and lion! Girl, weights, stinger! Spike and goat! Water and fish!’
‘Nuts,’ said Sam.
‘Ram, bull, twins, crab!’ said Madge, her face shining. She stared at them, breathing heavily.
‘Did you say crab?’ asked Lucy. She stepped aside. The crab was grey underneath, she saw, and it was rough – rougher than sand.
Madge’s eyes went wide and she froze, for just a second. She opened her mouth, staring, but all that came out was a hollow, rasping noise. She raised one hand to her heart, then her throat, and then to her eyes. Her shoulders trembled. A noise, something terrible and old, guttural and empty and mad, echoed in the hallway. Something dripped onto the floor. Madge was sobbing, and then she beat one fist against the door, and she cried out, again and again, ‘No! No! No!’
‘Screw this,’ said Sam. ‘She’s mental.’
‘It wasn’t us!’ said Lucy. ‘We just found him. We just found him!’
Madge’s head shot up and she whipped one arm up, a single finger pointing at the children.
‘How?’ she screeched. ‘Lifetimes have passed! And always, we guard. And now, lost! How? Why?’
She fell to her knees. ‘Twelve!’ she sobbed. ‘Oh, Pappy! Oh, my children. What have you done? What will happen now?’
Sam was backing away, shaking his head, a thin smile on his face, ‘Nope,’ he said. ‘Too far.’
‘Sam,’ said Lucy. ‘Don’t.’
‘Come on,’ he said, rolling his eyes.
Madge’s frail voice made them both look back.
‘It’s the end of the world,’ she said. ‘It is. That’s what this means. The crab is lost. It’s the end of the world. Just watch. Just you watch. The sun won’t rise tomorrow. This is it. Today is the end of the world.’
She lowered her voice, muttering. ‘Armies went past, kings and lords and older, older, and now children, two children? No, no.’
She stood up, brushing her skirt, and she dabbed at her eyes. She took a deep breath and looked at the children. She smiled, her face wrinkled and shining with tears.
‘I am … relieved,’ she said. She laughed. ‘I am! I’m so tired. Do you know? Do you know what it’s like to guard the world for a thousand years? For a million? For all of them? And the pressure! Ten generations! Twenty! And now me.’
She shook her head.
‘Um,’ said Lucy.
‘Do you know how hard it is to care for a bull and a ram and the stinger and the fish? And the girl! She acts so mighty, on her high horse, up in the stars, but she’s a tart if you ask me.’
She nodded firmly, just once, and rubbed her nose.
She looked at the children again as if she’d forgotten they were there.
‘Maybe you didn’t steal him,’ she said. ‘Maybe you did not kill him in all his power. Maybe it was him, and he was tired too, and wanted to end it all. Maybe.’
‘Do you want me to call a doctor?’ asked Lucy, remembering her grandmother, and how it had been towards the end.
‘Call who you like,’ said old, mad Madge. ‘Today, the world will end. The things that sustained it are broken. You should live while you can.’
She pulled her dressing gown tighter again, and wiped one sleeve across her face.
‘I’ll prepare the others,’ she said. ‘We’ll all need to move on.’
And she shut the door, cutting off the light from the flat, and throwing the hallway into gloom again. The crab’s legs shone but did not move. Lucy looked at Sam.
‘Mad,’ he said, but his voice shook a little. ‘Really. We’re going to be fine.’
‘Oh,’ said Lucy. ‘Good.’
They both looked down at the crab.
‘Aren’t we?’ asked Sam.
Lucy looked at him, and down again. The sounds of the world drifted up from outside.