I looked at the boy standing next to me, if boy was really the right word to use to describe him.
“I don’t think I can hold my breath for that long,” I said uncertainly. “How long does it take, anyway?”
“About five minutes. You’ll be okay. Honestly, it’s easy.” He looked at my sideways, smiling that too perfect smile.
“Five minutes! Are you mad? I’ll drown!” I was beginning to get worked up, the first telltale beads of sweat displaying my panic.
“I promise you it will be fine.” And for some strange reason, I just had to trust him. We walked out into the sea, hand in hand.
It was the summer before last, and I was on a family holiday. We were staying near a beach; most of our time was spent in the sea or sunbathing, and although it was only four days into our long week, all of us were very tanned. My parents wanted to go walking, but my sister and I objected. That was not a holiday - that was work. It was a long fight, but in the end we won.
Only on the second day did I notice the boy. He watched us all the time, never letting me out of his sight. I was even suspicious that he might be following us home.
“I think he fancies you,” giggled my sister, immaturely. She’s four years older than me, but does not act it.
“Don’t be stupid,” I would reply, every time she brought it up.
He was about my age, maybe older, but it was hard to tell. For a fourteen year old, he would be surprisingly muscular, and yet he had such a young face it was hard to believe he could be much older.
On the fourth day, he finally spoke to me.
“Liz?” he said cautiously.
“How do you know my name?” I exclaimed, seriously alarmed.
“I heard your sister call out after you. She is your sister, isn’t she?” I nodded, mutely. “She’s very pretty.”
“I know,” I groaned. Ella was the apple of everyone’s eye: stunningly beautiful, amazingly clever… there was no end to it.
“Not that you aren’t, of course,” the strange boy added quickly, wary of offending me.
“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered. I was always in Ella’s shadow, but I was used to it now. With my uneven eyes and braces, I couldn’t be pretty. It just wasn’t possible.
“In fact, there is a certain character about you, it’s hard to describe. One would almost say that you were not quite who you appear.” His voice was thoughtful, but his old-fashioned words made me laugh. At least, I pretended they did, to hide the fact that I was convinced he was some sort of mind reader.
“You talk like someone from the last century,” I spluttered, in a very unladylike manner.
“Is there something wrong with that?” he replied, offended.
“No, it’s just strange, for someone of your age.” I backpedalled quickly, not wanting to seem rude.
“Maybe … maybe I’m older than I appear. Did you think of that?” His white teeth flashed brilliantly in the sun.
“Anyway, going back to the original purpose of this conversation…”
“Right.” I sobered up quickly, remembering that I had never met this boy before - I didn’t even know his name.
“My name is Ben,” he began, but I interrupted almost immediately.
“Benjamin or Benedict?” I enquired. I liked to be precise.
“Neither. Just Ben. My name is Ben,” he continued, acting as though there had been no interruption. “I am fifteen years old … in body, but I am not at all who I appear.”
“Are you an alien?” I just had to ask. It was immature, but I had to.
“I don’t know. Are you?” His answer surprised me.
“Then, I suppose, neither am I.” There was a long silence. “Liz, how brave are you?” I gulped.
“Not very. Why?” I didn’t want him to know that I wouldn’t sleep without a nightlight yet, or that I freaked out at the sight of a spider.
“I want to show you where I live.” His voice was flat, expressionless, but I could sense the challenge it contained.
“And that’s scary … why?” I didn’t want to sound sarcastic, but that’s how it came out.
“I never said it was scary, I just said you had to be brave.” The meaning of his words eluded me.
“No. I’ll give you a few days to guess what I am.” He laughed, though that was the last thing I felt like doing at that moment. “How long are you here for?”
“Another six days. We’re staying ten days overall.” It was the longest holiday we’d had inmylifetime.
“Okay. On day seven, come to this beach.”
“We come here every day,” I pointed out, not liking the commanding tone he was employing.
“That’s true. Good. That will give you more opportunity to guess…” He broke off. I also didn’t like the way he was looking over my shoulder at something I couldn’t see. It unnerved me.
“Your sister doesn’t look very happy,” he observed. I spun round. Ella was glaring at me, motioning that I should come back.
“I’ve got to go,” I apologised. “Will you be here tomorrow?” Ben considered for a moment.
“Yes, I think I will. I’ll see you then … Liz.” He let my name fall from his lips with a slight hesitation - a hesitation that implied he was laughing inside at something that I couldn’t hear.