He’s not like all the others, he’s different. That’s what my mother told me. But she said that about the others too.
The day I met him he walked into the kitchen as I ate my breakfast, his boots heavy on the vinyl floor. He filled up the doorway, blotted out the sun.
“Connor, this is Shane,” she said.
I looked up at him, saw the shaved head and tattoos circling his neck in a dark ring, like something strangling him.
He came into the kitchen and put his hand toward me, like I was a man instead of only twelve. I could see the muscles standing up in his arms.
"Hi, Connor," he said. They all pretend to be nice at first.
I didn’t take his hand.
After a long second, he dropped his arm back down by his side. He was looking at my face, as if he was wondering what had happened. If he asked, I’d tell him all I got was a fat lip but I broke Liam Jacobs' nose. I’d tell him Liam Jacobs was in hospital, nearly dead.
"You like motorbikes, Connor?" he asked.
I knew he had a motorbike. I heard it outside when he picked her up, the loud rumble coming up the street, the clatter of mum’s shoes as she rushed for the door. I would ignore her on those nights, because I didn’t know how to make it stop, the motorbike about to crash into our lives.
"Nah, they're stupid," I said. I looked up at him, so tall my mother was hardly up to his shoulder. "So's the people that ride them.”
He looked over at mum, and she shrugged and smiled and then he smiled back at her. As if they were having some joke. I hoped he would crash his motorbike and die.
The day he walked into our kitchen it was like he crossed some line which had kept him out, and then it was gone entirely. Instead of picking mum up and taking her out he started coming in. He ate dinner with us in the evening, and in the morning I would hear him leaving before I got up.
After dinner he and mum would sit on the couch to watch TV. He’d ask me what I wanted to watch and I’d always tell him, nothing, and go to my room. He tried to be nice all the time, but I knew he would mess it up soon.
I started trying to force it to happen sooner, the crash.
Like this; one night mum had laid the dinner plates out on the table, a serving of Chicken casserole on each one. When she went through to the lounge to tell him dinner was ready, I grabbed the salt and poured it over his food and then mixed it in.
I watched him as we ate. He put the fork in his mouth and then he frowned. His lips twisted up. The tattoos on his neck moved when he swallowed.
He looked at me. He knew, and I felt a thrill of fear. Now he would stop pretending. Now we would see him. But didn’t do anything except scoop up another forkful of food.
"Do you like chicken?” I asked him.
One of the other ones hit me once. My mother threw herself at him, slapping at his chest. No, no way, no, she shouted over and over. Shouting and walking toward him until he backed all the way out the door. I never saw him again.
The memory of it shone bright, my mother standing up and fighting for me. I didn’t know why she never did for herself.
"It's my favourite," he said. He smiled at me. There was no salt on my own chicken but I couldn’t eat it. His smile sent a shiver up my back like no raised fist ever had.
He saw me not eating and he asked me, "You need more salt, Connor?"
Fear crawled down deep inside me. The way he looked at me as if he knew me.
I came in from school and he was in the kitchen, taking up all the room. I stepped around him to get to the fridge.
“What happened to you?” he asked.
“Fell over,” I said, not looking at him.
I turned around with the carton of milk in my hand and he was in front of me.
“Is he bigger than you?” he asked me.
“He’s no one,” I said, wiping my mouth on my sleeve.
I was fast, but Liam was the year above me in school and he was faster. He’d caught me from behind and yanked my collar so hard the buttons popped as I fell. I tried to punch him but it just bounced against his shoulder.
“Here,” Shane said. He ran a paper napkin under the cold tap and held it toward me.
“I’m alright,” I said.
“Your arm,” he said. He took my arm and held the paper towel to my elbow. Every inch of me jumped away from his touch. I yanked my arm back, and the towel came away stained watery red.
“He go to your school?” he asked me.
I hated how he was looking at me. Like he felt sorry for me. When he was a kid, he would have been the bully.
“What do you care?” I asked.
He took his cigarette pack off the windowsill and shook one out. He put the cigarette in his mouth but didn’t light it. I stole his lighter every time I could and hid it, so he always had to search for it when he was here. I hoped he saw a bad omen in it. Bad luck. Never coming back.
“You want me to go talk to him?”
For a second, I could see it. Him walking up to Liam and Liam just about wetting his pants, because Shane looked like a guy who just escaped out of prison or something. Him picking Liam up by his throat and saying “don’t ever touch...” and I shook my head to make the thought stop.
“I can take him,” I said.
“I know you can,” he said. He slapped his pockets for a lighter, looked around on the bench. I pulled one of his lighters out of my pocket and held it toward him.
His hands didn’t even clench up. He shook his head, laughed, then turned and headed for the door. He was just like all the others; he was only hiding it better.
Walking out of school the next day, I heard his motorbike before I saw it. He was parked up outside, sun glinting off the shining side of the Harley. Heads turning toward him as the kids walked out of school.
I walked over to him and he held a helmet out toward me.
Everyone was watching so I didn’t hesitate. Pulled it on as if it was something I did all the time.
I didn’t look around to see if Liam was there, but I hoped he was. Just for that moment, I wouldn’t have minded if everyone thought he was my uncle, or maybe even my dad, come to find me after all.
I swung my leg over to straddle the bike behind him. It jerked away from the kerb and I grabbed the back of his shirt, holding fistfuls of fabric and trying not to touch any part of him. The bike leaned toward the road as he curved around a corner, and I gave up the flimsy shirt to wrap my arms around his waist.
He pulled into a driveway and the house was nice, nicer than ours. For one it was a real house, not like the flat me and mum lived in.
Inside the house was tidy but not like ours. There was hardly any furniture, and when he opened the fridge there was just cans of coke and a packet of steak. You could tell he didn’t have a girlfriend or a kid living with him.
He pulled out two cokes and passed me one. On the fridge was a photo of a baby, stuck on with a magnet. The baby had dark hair and was smiling and looked like every other baby.
"Who's that?" I asked him.
"My son," he said, looking at the photo.
I didn’t know he had a son, and my heart knocked in my chest. I was standing in the house of a stranger. It was the thing you were never supposed to do. To go for the ride.
"Does he live here?"
He shook his head. My dad never stayed long enough to have a photo of me. My dad could have walked right by me in the street and not even known it was me, his son.
"Where is he?"
"He died of cot death. You know what that means?”
The vinyl on his floor was clean, diamond patterned. I stared at it and wished I was getting chased down by the street by Liam Jacobs instead of standing there with him. I nodded a little without looking up.
“It was six years ago now,” he said. “He’d be at school.”
“Where’s his mum?” I asked.
For a minute he stayed quiet, running his thumb around the condensation on the coke can.
“When we lost him, it drove us apart,” he said after a while. “She took on extra shifts at work. I went to the bar.”
He smiled a little at the last part but he looked sad. The sadness was like a wave rolling off him. They say they’ll change but they never do.
“You hit her?” I asked and his head snapped up as if it was him who’d been hit. That sorry way of looking at me again.
“Never hit her,” he said. “Just drank too much. She left and I kept drinking. One night I drove my car into a lamp post. Woke up in hospital and knew I had to quit.”
He looked at the photo of his son again. A baby like no other.
“You go to jail?” I asked him.
“Nothing like that,” he said. “Just lost my license.”
“That why you ride a motorbike?”
He laughed. “Come on.”
He put his hand on the back of my neck and turned me toward the door. His grip was warm and firm. He could have wrapped his hand all the way around and choked me dead if he wanted to, but I wasn’t scared.
We stepped down off the deck then he turned toward me, held his hands up with the palms facing me.
"Show me how you punch," he said.
He made it sound like a test. I balled up my right fist and threw it into his hand as hard as I could. I felt my arm snap all the way back to my shoulder but he didn’t move an inch.
"You just hurt yourself more than you hurt me," he said.
"Like I got any chance of hurting you.”
He stepped forward and took my hand and folded it back into a fist again.
"Like this," he said, pressing my thumb down outside my fingers. He put his hands on my shoulders and turned me so I was side on to him. Lifted up my left hand and placed it near my ear. I felt like he was shaping me into something else, something he saw inside. I wanted to see what he found.
I let him move me and when he stood back again and instructed me I did exactly what he said. Every part of my body moved with my fist.
"That’s better," he said. “Now do it again.”
I imagined it wasn’t him but Liam Jacobs standing there and swung, felt my fist sink into his palm.
“You got a good punch there,” he said. Warmth stirred in me, but then I remembered the one who slapped me across the mouth, the one who pushed my mother against the kitchen wall and gripped her arms so hard he left bruises.
I couldn’t tell him I didn’t really want to hurt anyone, not even Liam Jacobs, so I shrugged and said, “Nothing.”
He sat on the edge of the deck and lit up a cigarette. “Come here,” he said.
I sat next to him, scuffed my shoes along the patchy grass and watched the dust stir up.
“Connor?” he said. I thought he was going to ask if me and mum wanted to move in with him. Or he was going to tell me, since it’s not like anyone would give me a choice.
“What?” I asked, still sweeping tracks with my shoes. I would tell him, okay so long as you don’t start drinking. I’d tell him, okay but you are not allowed to make her cry. Fear of him was churning up in me again.
“You like motorbikes any better now?”
I looked at him. He dragged on his cigarette, stared across the lawn. None of the others ever asked what I thought about anything.
“They’re okay,” I said. The fear had melted away and still there was something left, turning inside me. Something different.