The beach was cold that year: the kelp like crushed newspaper underfoot. Gin was dressed as an astronaut, in a silver crinoline jumpsuit with odd buttons sewn haphazardly down its front. Under his ice cream bucket helmet, he made sounds with his mouth: motors and engines and gushing galactic winds. Every so often his oversized gumboots would stick to the slick foreshore and he would nearly fall over, only steadying himself at the last moment with a strange bird-like movement of his arms. Mostly, though, he was used to the conditions, and sent through crackly radio messages about gravity and atmosphere. He was conquering this new world.
Gin enjoyed the constant reinvention of the beach, the way the tides created a nascent planet for him twice a day: the small joys of unmapped terrain and fresh alien souvenirs. Every new world needed a hero. This morning he was Captain Marvel, but this would soon have to change. Beyond him, further up towards the scrub of the headland, his older sister skulked like a winter shadow, holding a pair of thongs in her right hand as if they were a weapon. She was weaving in and out of the sea-strewn timber that monsters sometimes dragged up and made homes out of. The day before, Gin had even found one. He had forgotten to tell Audrey.
“Audrey,” he shouted, with his hands in a dramatic cup around his mouth, “there’s a monster up there!”
Audrey didn’t respond, but the wind caught up her skirt and it billowed out in front of her, as though if she had jumped, it would have carried her along and down the beach. This thought both excited and bothered Gin.
“Audrey,” he shouted again. “Audrey!”
Audrey made a sound with her mouth that, had Gin been able to hear it, would have reminded him of a heavy book hitting a wooden floor. She kicked her bare feet deep into the sand, welcoming the jamming pain as it wedged up under her toenails. It was soft grey squeaky sand: the worst kind. It always appeared in winter, when the beach turned cold and constantly felt slightly damp, like clothes that wouldn’t dry. Things were always worse in winter. The sky turned to stainless steel; the waves slowed to an unnatural pulse, catching and missing each other in the wrong places, colliding spitefully. Even up on the headland, where the air always blew freshly, there was now just lonely silence. Winter had come suddenly, stalking unsuspecting summer spaces, sewing them up impalpably and ruthlessly. Thoughts bunched up, movements tied themselves together; everything was wrong.
“Guess what Audrey, guess what?” Gin approached like a beached fish struggling to find water, flapping to keep the gumboots on his feet.
Audrey crossed her arms so the long ends of her jumper stuck out where her hands should have been. “What is it?” she said.
“This is where the monster is. Did I tell you I saw one? Yesterday?”
“In the—um, castwood. I saw one.”
“You mean driftwood.”
“Yeah. I saw a monster there.”
The wind made a whistling sound as it went through the holes in Gin’s plastic helmet. Audrey imagined it went through his head as well.
“What did the monster look like?” she asked.
“Big. Like a person, but big.”
Audrey started walking again. “Looks like it’s gone now. Probably sleeping under the sand.”
Gin followed his sister, nodding sagely at her comment, adding it to his impressive compendium of monster knowledge.
“That’s what the squeaking is,” Audrey continued, “under the sand—that’s your feet touching their skin.”
“Are they asleep?”
“Yes. That’s why you have to walk softly.”
Gin did an unwittingly amusing impression of himself, slow motion, carefully measuring each heavy-booted step against an imagined lesser gravity. “Is this right?” he asked.
Audrey gave him her most serious look. “Perfect,” she replied.