River Hag by Pelaam
General Release Date: 30th August 2022
Word Count: 32,322
Book Length: SHORT NOVEL
ANGELS AND DEMONS
Keegan has an abusive stepfather, Frank, and is bullied at college. He dodges bullies, led by Owen, by hiding close to the river. He tells his friend about the attacks and his narrow escape. The next day in college, pondweed is found in Owen’s locker, and he blames Keegan. The pondweed is sent to John Bull, and on examination is found to have a paranormal resonance, so he sends Emery, Alex and Kadin to investigate.
When Owen is found drowned in a bathtub, secured with pondweed, the team believe they’re dealing with a grindylow—a river hag. They need to establish whether the creature is acting for its own ends or at someone’s direction. Circumstances point to Keegan, but the team can’t find the connection and feel time is running out.
The next victim is Keegan’s stepfather, and with Keegan missing, Kadin decides to try to communicate with his spirit. He learns that the grindylow is protecting Keegan, but the team know that its nature means that Bo, now Keegan’s lover, will be the next victim.
But first, they need to find Keegan.
Reader advisory: This book portrays the deaths of two secondary characters.
From his bedroom doorway, Keegan winced as he listened to his mother and stepfather argue. He hoped it didn’t end as so many of them had before, with his mother sporting a new bruise and claiming she’d walked into a door, tripped and fallen or inadvertently punched herself when changing the duvet.
The rows had increased in frequency and intensity over the last couple of years. He wants me out of the house, but I didn’t get the qualifications I needed to go to uni. I spent too much time babysitting. At least with my brother Jonnie now being at school, he doesn’t have to see or hear this.
“He needs a fucking job, not this stupid college thing.” Frank’s voice boomed up the stairs, and Keegan cringed closer to the doorframe.
Getting into college had been his one saving hope. That by studying there, he’d upgrade his qualifications enough to secure a place in university. But the college was no haven. The class bully had found Keegan to be a suitable victim, and his life there was being made a misery. And that homophobic prick of a principal has done nothing to stop it.
“He’s been bullied.” Keegan’s mother’s voice was starting to waiver, and Keegan clenched his hands into fists.
“Then he needs to be a man and deal with it, not run and hide behind you. Pathetic little pansy. You’ve made him soft.”
That was the last straw. Keegan ran down the stairs and into the living room.
“Don’t you dare diss my mother.” Anger sizzled through Keegan’s veins, even though Frank had several inches and almost a hundred pounds on him.
“Well, maybe if you were as quick to defend yourself, you wouldn’t get bullied.” Frank stuck his meaty fists onto his hips. “She says you’re taking a mental health day. Well, fuck that. Either you go to that college like you’re meant to or you drop out and find somewhere else to live. I’m not having a freeloader living here. I work, she works and either you study and move out or quit and move out. I don’t care which.”
“It’s too late to go in now, and the college allows students to take odd days off, so there’s no issue with today. I’ll be back there tomorrow, and as soon as I can, I’ll be out of here.”
“Keegan, no.” His mother looked devastated, and he hurried to clasp her hands, leaning in to whisper in her ear.
“And as soon as I have somewhere settled, you and Jonnie are coming to live with me. Don’t think his fists will stop at you. You have to think of Jonnie.”
“Why don’t you go out for a nice walk by the river?” Ellie smiled at him, even if her lips trembled. “There are fixings for sandwiches in the fridge and a couple of cans of soda. Maybe some friends will join you after class.”
“Too fucking soft.” Frank scowled as he pushed his way past Keegan and his mother, and Keegan let out a silent sigh of relief.
“Go. Hurry.” Ellie jerked her head toward the kitchen and moved as if to shield him from Frank’s view.
It didn’t take Keegan long to make up a set of cheese and pickle sandwiches for himself and some tuna ones in a separate wrapper. Adding a packet of chips and a can of soda to each, he bundled them up securely
Keegan packed the two separate sets of food into a rucksack and went out through the kitchen door. The last thing he needed was to run into his stepfather again. Keegan didn’t have to think where he could go. He already had a favorite part of the river.
This wasn’t the part of the wall and river that tourists frequented. It was in a quiet and secluded area. There was a secondary trail worn where people had left the main pathway and which disappeared into a mix of undergrowth and trees that overhung the river.
After a few minutes of determined ducking and weaving, Keegan emerged at a comfortable place to sit, hidden from the walkers along the top of the wall and from the few equally dogged fishermen who lined the riverbank.
Several meters to his left was a thick overhang of trees, impossible to penetrate, but Keegan gave a whistle, which was answered a moment later.
“Hi, Ginny. How are you, today?” Keegan settled down and dug into his rucksack.
“Very well. I didn’t expect you.” The voice was soft and slightly accented, and Keegan sighed.
“Yeah, well. I should be in college, but I took the day off. There’s a class bully who has decided I’m fair game, and I just couldn’t handle it today. Here… I made you up a snack pack.” Keegan tossed the well-packed tuna sandwiches, chips and drink over the impenetrable foliage.
The rustling noise confirmed that Ginny had it, and he chuckled softly at the rapid crunching noises.
“You really like chips. You can have mine, too. The sandwiches will be enough for me.”
“Chips are good.” There was a suitable pause before the crunching resumed.
“You know, we’ve talked for a long time. It’s nice to have a friend I can chat with. I wish you didn’t keep your distance, though.” Keegan peered into the bushes, but it was impossible for him to see through to the other side. “I wish you didn’t have to live this way.”
“I’m not like you.” Ginny finally whispered. “I don’t want you to not talk to me anymore.”
“Why would I do that? Because you’re homeless and live rough? That doesn’t bother me.”
“Tell me about this bully.” Ginny spoke the word as if it were unfamiliar, and Keegan took a bite from his sandwich while he considered her request.
“Usual story… He’s big and brash, has a couple of sycophants who hang off his every cruel word and mean joke. Look… You have your secret about living here, and I have mine. I’m gay. I like boys. I always have. There was never a time when I wanted a girlfriend. Do you still want to be my friend?”
“Yes. Boy, girl, all the same. No difference.”
“I’m glad to hear you say so. There are a lot of people who wouldn’t agree with that sentiment at all. Well, anyway, Owen found out I was gay. He has left stuff in my locker, on my desk and would have probably given me a beating on one occasion if one of the other students hadn’t noticed something going on and come over to investigate.”
“Hurt you?” Ginny’s voice grew sharper, and Keegan shivered as a cool breeze disturbed the normal sheltered aspect of his hiding place.
“Don’t worry. He didn’t.” Not yet anyway. Keegan had no illusions that while Owen remained at the college, there would inevitably be a confrontation. But I need this course to get to uni. Better to go as a mature student than to never go at all.
“He shouldn’t hurt you.” Ginny stated firmly.
“No, he shouldn’t, and neither should anyone else, but haters gotta hate. Maybe someday they’ll see that the color of your skin, or who you love, doesn’t make you any more or less human. We’re all equal. All the same.”
“Same.” Ginny echoed the word, then fell silent. “Someone’s coming.”
Almost as soon as Ginny had spoken, Keegan heard indistinct voices. No one comes down here. Unless you know about it, there’s no way to see any of this from up on the wall. Then Keegan’s blood ran cold.
“You sure this is where he comes?” Owen’s voice boomed out, filled with anger and irritation. “There’s nothing here. Nowhere he could go.”
“This is where I was told he came.”
Keegan recognized the second voice as one of Owen’s hangers-on and groaned softly.
“Ginny, it’s Owen, the bully I told you about. He’s looking for me.”
“For you?” Ginny whispered. “Stay still. Say nothing.”
“I can’t risk it.” Keegan tugged on his beanie, tucking his distinctive auburn waves inside it. “I don’t want him coming down here. I don’t want him to find out about you and that this is where you live. It would never be the same again or safe for you.”
“You’re willing to protect me?” Ginny’s voice sounded so much like a lost child’s that Keegan’s heart ached for her.
“Yes, I would. Now you stay here.”
“No. You stay.” Ginny’s sharp hiss surprised Keegan, but it did the trick. Halfway to his feet, Keegan dropped back onto his ass with a muted grunt.
“What are you doing?” he asked, but there was only the rustle of foliage as Ginny moved. “Ginny!” Keegan whispered a little louder then fell silent at the approaching crunch of booted feet on resilient foliage.
“He’s not gonna walk along this. It’s too difficult for a fag like him.” Owen‘s increasingly irritated voice was gut-churningly close, and Keegan held his breath, turning his face to hide it.
“Maybe he walks along the bank, then.” Another voice. “There may be a niche down there. After all, the fishermen go there.”
“He probably tries to pick them up.” Owen’s callous sneer jabbed into Keegan’s heart.
Better he thinks that than tries to come this way. There’s no escape if he finds me. And no one would know my body was here except Ginny. Who’d believe her over Owen and his gang? Even if she dared to report it to the police.
Keegan’s increasingly dark thoughts were disrupted by another shout from Owen. He held his breath, hoping that his choice of drab colors for clothing worked their usual magic and let him go unnoticed.
“What’s that? I thought I saw something…in the water.”
“I can only see weeds. The river’s really dingy down here. Can’t imagine anyone fishing in this.” A third voice responded to Owen. “It’s slippery. Watch out!”
Even as they called out, there was a splash, followed by Owen’s loud cursing.
“Don’t fucking stand there gawping. Get me out. Fucking weeds are everywhere. I’m fucking soaked. My trainers will be ruined, and they cost a packet. Dad’ll be furious.”
“You can come back to my place.” The second voice offered. “Dry off there. We’ll come up with some excuse for what happened.”
“Yeah.” The third voice added. “A good reason why you’d be near to water.”
The voices grew fainter, and Keegan began to breathe easier. Then Ginny’s voice startled him, coming from the right rather than the usual left.
“They’ve gone now. It’s safe for you to finish eating.”
“Thanks, Ginny. I need a minute or two to calm down. I thought he had me, then.” Keegan opened his soda and took a couple of deep swallows, before setting it down again. “Thank goodness Owen slipped into the river.” Keegan could help but giggle. “Serves him right.”
“Eat.” Ginny insisted, and Keegan drew out his sandwiches and ate them, realizing just how hungry he was once he’d started.
“Sorry. I haven’t been much company today, thanks to Owen’s unwanted visit. It’ll be better next time.” Keegan stood and brushed off the breadcrumbs decorating his gray hoodie. “I don’t think Owen will come back here after his dip in the river.”
“He won’t be back.” Ginny sounded so assured that Keegan smiled.
“You saw him fall in, didn’t you?” he chuckled. “Wish I could have seen it, too. But I needed to make sure he didn’t spot me or find out about our little sanctuary.”
“Sanctuary?” Ginny asked and Keegan nodded, unsure of whether she could see him or not.
“Somewhere I can come and feel safe, be myself now you know I’m gay. Well, I’d better go. I have homework to do, and I want to read up on a few things to be ready for my class tomorrow.”
Keegan dodged his way through the foliage and was just in time to see Ginny duck behind one of the thicker trees beside the riverbank. Fuck, that sludgy-green blanket she has looks disgusting. Maybe I can bring her a new one—even some of my old T-shirts.
“I’ll see you soon, Ginny.” Keegan waved toward the tree as he made his way up to the wall.”
“Soon.” Ginny called after him, but when he glanced back, there was no sign of her—just the foliage, the river and the weeds that floated in its center.
About the Author
Enter for the chance to win a $50.00 First for Romance Gift Card! Competition hosted by Totally Entwined Group.