When Cory arrived at Huxley, Loralie was pleased.
There was nothing special about him. A square chin, blonde hair, teeth straightened to perfection. He’d shown up at Marren’s tiny hostel with the swagger of a rich boy enthused with the idea of adventure. Loralie knew the look, could see it in the way his eyes raked over the shabby foyer when she handed him his room key. He was looking forward to the ache of a lumpy mattress, the novelty of a washbasin stained with mould. And when he had bored of the discomfort, he would leave for somewhere with beachside cafes and blue waves, rather than the sullen grey that permeated the Huxley sea.
It was with this in mind that Loralie held his gaze and smiled.
The town of Huxley, its people were proud to say, was one of the few tourist destinations popular for its lack of hospitality. The beach was a mass of seaweed and rocks strewn across gritty sand. Its days were made sluggish and oppressive through heat, the nights sharpened by frigid ocean winds. Huxley was a town of extremities. That, for its visitors, was the point.
It was the legend of the town that distinguished it from ordinary unpleasantness to something meaningfully hostile. A rocky shore, turbulent winds, and the babbling accounts of survivors had culminated into an image that only strengthened with time. A monster in the sea, fierce, tentacled, and hungry. Huxley’s dangerous coastlines and malevolent atmosphere confirmed the legend to be, if not true, at the very least enjoyable to those who enjoyed such things.
Loralie didn’t mind the summer heat, but she’d never been fond of the tourists. They were a bit too loud, a bit too excitable, and she hadn’t needed to get to know one for many years.
But Cory was promising. He’d returned her smiles. She’d liked the way his eyes had lit up when he first noticed her attention. A gap year kid, probably, eager for something to boast about when he returned home. When he’d invited her to Huxley’s inn, it was less of a surprise than an expectation.
They’d sat at the bench in the corner of the bar and watched the older men lob darts at a cardboard target. He kept refilling her glass of wine, glancing up and away like he wanted her to notice. Loralie twisted her hair and smiled and waited for him to like her.
‘You’d know about the monster, then?’ He asked. He kept flipping his fringe out of his eyes with little twitches that she supposed he thought were endearing.
‘We’ve got another hunter, do we?’ She sipped at her glass, watching him. His face reddened, but he looked pleased.
‘Kinda,’ he said. ‘I mostly just want to see it.’
‘A spectator, then’ she said. She stabbed at the fish on her plate, and twisted up bits of meat on her fork. ‘We get a lot of those too.’
Cory hesitated. His face shifted to relief when Loralie looked up, eyes sparkling.
‘Do you think you’re going to see it? Be the one to find the big scary squid off Huxley’s coast?’
‘Maybe,’ he said. He blushed, grinning as though he’d revealed something far more intimate and felt stupid for it. ‘I’d like to try, at least.’
Loralie took the wine bottle and tipped the remaining liquid into Cory’s glass. She grinned back, raising her glass for a toast.
Behind them, the wind rattled hard against the wooden panels of the wall. Rain drummed a steady beat against the grime-streaked windows, and the men cheered drunkenly as another dart tore through the cardboard bullseye.
Marren’s hostel wasn’t the best the town had to offer, but it was the most popular for anyone who wanted to be embroiled in the Huxley mythos. The main building sat beneath a larger cliff that stooped over the ocean, where the winds were most fierce and the waters most dangerous. Marren let Loralie lodge for free, because the bodies - when there were bodies - washed up behind her room and Marren didn’t want her customers scared into leaving early. It was one thing to be able to say ‘someone had died behind my motel’, she’d told Loralie, quite another to find their corpse.
Loralie didn’t mind. She worked in reception most days. Marren liked her because she was pretty, but not gentle. Her eyes were too hard, her smile too sharp. Customers were left both unsettled, and certain that they’d found the right place.
She made more of an effort for Cory. She’d assumed he would be making friends with the other clients - those who came alone usually tried to group up with others, once they realised they had no chance at making friends with the locals. Numbers had been low that summer, but there was an older couple that liked to sit by the beach, and a small crew of serious-looking thirty-somethings who drove out on a speedboat each day with binoculars and some kind of harpoon.
But Cory didn’t spend much time around the cliffside at all. Each morning he left for the town’s centre, and he came back in the evenings with books about Huxley’s history, complete with newspaper clippings and eyewitness accounts, page after glossy page speculating about what kind of creature the monster could be. Loralie feigned interest in his books each time he came to check in, and, blushing hard, he invited her to dinner twice more before it tentatively merged into something of a Friday night routine.
One Friday was stormier than usual, and the bar emptied enough that they managed to get the darts board for themselves. Cory had come straight from the library and there was blue pen on his face that Loralie didn’t want to point out.
‘There’s not actually much out there on the monster itself’ He told her. He took a step back and aimed the dart. ‘No proper descriptions. It either has tentacles or pincers. Or a giant mouth, like a whale. Or a shark.’
‘And you still believe it’s real?’ Loralie asked. She was sitting on a stool, watching as the dart missed its target and skittered across the floor.
‘It has to be,’ he said. ‘The rates of drownings at this beach is too high. The cliffside is dangerous, sure, but the people who go out hunting aren’t amateurs. There’s something else going on.’ He aimed at the board again.
They never spoke about much besides Cory’s search, but Loralie didn’t mind. She liked it when his face became animated and flushed, guessing about the legend she’d grown up with. Huxley residents didn’t know how to get excited about things like this. In turn, he’d gotten more confident talking about his interests around her, and they spent their nights together in a comfortable kind of companionship.
‘What do you think it is?’ She asked.
‘I’m not sure,’ he said, ‘but I think it’s nocturnal, because no one has ever found anything during the day, and all the deaths happen after dark.’ He lobbed the dart again and missed, then sighed and bent to retrieve it. ‘What do you think it is?’
Loralie smiled her sharp smile. ‘I don’t think it matters,’ she said. ‘I think you spend all this time studying because you don’t want to go out there and search.’
Cory scoffed. ‘I’m not scared,’ he said. ‘But I came here to find it, not to die by going in blind.’
He lay the darts on Loralie’s table, and looked at her contemplatively.
‘And you’d have more insight than most,’ he said, ‘because you live here and you’ve seen people come and fail to find it. And you’ve seen what happens to them when they do.’
Loralie shrugged. ‘Mostly they go home,’ she said. The crew of thirty-somethings had left, disappointed, the previous day. Marren was getting annoyed at the lack of customers. Burton, who ran Huxley’s inn, was getting worried too. She could see him scowling at Cory from the end of the bar.
‘Or they don’t,’ he said. ‘You would’ve seen plenty of disappearances in your lifetime. You’re what, early twenties? Twenty five?’
Loralie abandoned her smile. ‘I lose track,’ she said, ‘of all the silly boys who think they know everything there is to know about me and my town.’
Cory, to her surprise, grinned suddenly. ‘You all do this,’ he said. ‘Ask too many questions and you’re all cold. This entire town is as frigid as the ocean.’
Loralie dropped the darts into a bowl on the table. ‘You can’t crack the mystery of the monster, so you want to figure out Huxley instead?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘I just want to know what you think. You make fun of tourists not being able to deal with Huxley, but you don’t seem to like it that much either.’
‘I don’t have to like it,’ she said. ‘I live here.’
She hopped off her stool, tossed a bill onto the bar and unlocked the door. The wind shot through and slammed it open, but she forced it back behind her and braced herself against a spray of sand. Beyond the blurriness of the rain, she could see lights from the huts that made up the hostel. The cliff hung over them like a promise.
Cory, Loralie decided, was not as pleasant as she’d thought. He liked her, but not enough to go onto the water when she suggested it. He was serious about the monster, not simply looking for some fun way to kill time and spend his parent’s money. Huxley was an inhospitable town, but it’d been over a month and he still hadn’t left.
Tourism itself dropped even further for the school term, and Loralie was feeling the pressure. Marren was snappier than usual, her beady eyes glaring like it was Loralie’s fault. Loralie skipped the next Friday night dinner without saying anything, but went to the one after because she was bored and irritable, and felt like picking a fight.
Cory was there by himself, reading over his notes. He looked up, pleased, when she joined him.
‘I’m renting a boat soon,’ he said, by way of introduction. ‘There’s not much left to research.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Finally.’
Cory just grinned, and Loralie tried not to let it bother her. The problem with Cory was that he never reacted the way he was supposed to. He didn’t snap back when she was brittle, like a local would, but he didn’t fawn over her like the others had. They’d grown to know each other too well. It wasn’t something she’d had to deal with before.
She pushed her feelings to the side and toyed with her fish.
‘What will you do if you find it?’
‘Photos,’ he said, like he’d expected the question. ‘I’m pretty good at photography. I dunno if anyone will believe me, but I want to write a column about this, maybe help get your town some of that publicity it secretly wants.’
He grinned again and Loralie felt her insides shrivel up. She stabbed the fish’s eye and watched it burst around the end of her fork.
‘What about you?’ he asked, ‘you ever think about the future? Or are you gonna stay in a town you don’t like for the rest of your life?’
‘Who says I don’t like it?’ Loralie snapped.
He raised his hands in mock defence, and she scowled. It grated at her nerves, the way she couldn’t seem to convince him of anything anymore. And that he didn’t bother pretending that she could.
‘I’ve never left before,’ she said, ‘and I can’t anyway. Marren needs me.’
‘That’s no excuse. You should come back home with me, do your own travelling.’
Loralie glanced up from her plate. Cory flipped his fringe back, face turning pink like it used to when they’d first met.
‘If you want,’ he said quickly, ‘or whatever.’
She paused, watching his pink face darken to red. ‘I can’t leave,’ she said. ‘I need to help out at the hostel. It’s fragile enough as it is.’
Cory nodded without looking at her. ‘You should stay,’ he said, ‘if that’s what makes you happy. Not for any other reason.’
They avoided the topic for the rest of the dinner, but Cory’s face never lost its flush. When they walked back to the hostel together, Loralie was grateful for the crash of the ocean because it gave them an excuse not to speak.
The next Friday they met on the beach.
Cory dragged his rented boat out across the sand. It was small and faded, but looked sturdy. Loralie didn’t offer to help. Her hands were numb.
‘I won’t go out far,’ he said, noticing her expression. She felt a flash of anger, and plastered on the same pointy smile she’d given to him when he’d first arrived. But her heart felt too cold, and the smile slid off her face a moment later.
The sky was darkening rapidly, but the wind was, for once, still over the murky water. Cory had tied his camera around his neck so that it rested against his collarbone. He climbed into the little boat, balancing precariously as it wobbled. He waved once, grinning madly, before shoving an oar into the sand to boost himself forward.
From where she stood, Loralie could see cracks running through the rocky cliff-face. It was like an enormous tombstone, a hideous marker for all the lives that had been sucked into the depths because of a story. The lifeblood of the town.
Huxley was like that. Stuck in its own little bubble, feeding off of the legacy of drowned tourists. If the drownings stopped, the town would collapse. Loralie wondered if anyone outside the bubble would even notice. She wondered if it would matter if they did.
She was struck, then, as she’d never been with any of the others, by a sudden urge to call Cory back. To forget about the drownings and the legends and Huxley. They could go get dinner, or play darts, and perhaps he would invite her home again…
But her voice froze up somewhere deep inside her chest, and the boat continued steadily on toward the distant cliff.
And when the shadows loomed, she looked away.
Alison likes monsters and small towns.