Trigger warning: Abuse, violence
I sigh into my warm burger bun, pitying them from my dark island surrounded by empty chairs, hurried footsteps and averted eyes. I’m not like them and they’re not like me. Their grey school uniforms aren’t worn and frayed at the edges with loose threads holding the seams together in half-hearted apology. I imagine that it was swollen, veiny muscles that ripped my clothing before shrinking back down to emulate those of a normal teenage boy.
The teachers are also not like me and never were. Not even Mr. Gardner, my form tutor, who enjoys giving us philosophical quotes and asking questions that seem to lead you in perplexing circles. This morning, his blackboard bore the quote “I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” - C. G. Jung. I didn’t like the way his gaze rested on mine a little longer than on my classmates, though no one else seemed to notice.
The pupils and teachers alike are eyeing the football star from lower sixth in pristine white designer trainers with his sculpted arm around his glossy, manicured girlfriend. I bet they’re wondering what television programs they watch, which celebrities they follow and whose diet they’re on. Desperate to find out which work-out regime they recommend, if they’re having sex yet and how often. Privacy is a dusty, shattered relic gathering shadows about itself in the basement.
These people allow technology to control and categorize them so that individuality itself has become an archaic concept. Something as unnatural as the lustrous rainbow fingernails hewn into pointed daggers favoured by so many of these girls. They enjoy being part of the crowd, but not me. I don't need them; I will not be controlled.
“You look like shit, Murphy.” I don’t need to look up to know Ed is grinning at me, his braces winking in the fluorescent canteen light.
I shrug. He sits down so heavily he makes the entire table jump. How he remains oblivious to the changes I have undergone is beyond understanding. Does he not notice the void of people around me? Maybe he’s just a little thick.
“Get this,” he says, leaning forwards and lowering his voice, “Mr. Pierce caught Jake Manson and Abigail Hartley doing it in the toilets outside Geography.”
I put my fork down and stare. “Doing it?”
He nods vigorously, “Yep! Sam saw Mr. Pierce dragging Jake out by his hair with his pants around his ankles! Bare arse hanging out for everyone to see. They’ve both been sent to see the headmaster!”
I can’t help but smile as Ed’s infectious positivity batters my morbid aura. Sam was Ed’s best friend, pencil-thin and a full head taller than most people in the school. They were nicknamed Little’n’Large, though it was unclear which was which since it depended on whether you were talking about height or weight. Sam asked enough questions in class to gain approval from a seasoned news reporter, or so Mr. Gardner said. I’m still not sure if that was a compliment or not. Either way, if Sam said he saw it, it must be true.
An amused silence settles over us as we imagine what doing it must be like and what, exactly, was involved. I thought you had to be completely naked… but maybe I’m wrong about that.
“You coming to the park after school?” he asks. He’s already devoured his burger and started on the chips as if Mr. Stone, the P.E. teacher, were standing behind him with a stopwatch.
“Of course,” I say, “I might head there now, actually. I’ve had enough of today.” My chests squeezes and my stomach boils, but I don’t let it show.
“Are you sure? Won’t you get in trouble?” Clearly, he’s a better friend than I thought.
“It’ll be fine,” I lie. “Things are different now.”
Ed nods slowly and licks his fat fingers. “Alright. If you say so.”
Hidden around the side of the corner shop, I clench and unclench my fists, breathing deeply, slowing my heartrate. Cool. Calm. That’s who I am.
The door swings inwards and bells tinkle as I walk directly to the counter, holding the shopkeeper’s steady dark gaze.
“One pack of Marlborough Lights, please,” I say. I unpeel a ten-pound-note from my wallet and place in on the countertop, silently pleased that my fingers do not tremble. There is a momentary hesitation as he studies me, his bushy black eyebrows twitch and sweat threatens to erupt on my forehead. Whatever his reasons, he chooses to take my money.
“Cheers,” I say casually, already undoing the clear plastic film around the top of the packet.
Outside, I light a cigarette and inhale, feeling the somewhat sick somewhat thrilling feeling spread throughout my chest. Tingling at the rush, I cross the road and cut through the narrow high-fenced pathway that leads to the park.
It is early afternoon, when kids are at school and so, the park is quiet. It is mine. Except for the small group of miscreants hanging around the edges of the car park. Pathetically, they have skipped school and probably think themselves really cool to have done so.
I spy the infamous couple, Jake and Abigail in the group – I wonder vaguely if their parents know they’re here - as well as her best friends, Rebecca and Tara. The three girls are like dolls; smooth skin, glossy hair and fragile features. The sort of girls that need protecting; that I should protect.
There are two more boys, older and tough-looking who I don’t think go to our school. One of them is bothering Rebecca, constantly attempting to slide his hands up her school skirts as she pushes them away, giggling. She’s afraid of him. I can tell.
Surprised, the group look up to see me standing there, cigarette in hand, stance wide like a cowboy.
The boy next to Rebecca straightens up, “Who the hell are you?” he says. He is older, I realise. Tall and thick around the torso with black shaggy hair which he tosses to one side. He eyes me with the easy confidence of an alley cat spotting an injured mouse. He is everything I am not.
“Leave her alone,” I say. I take a long drag on my cigarette to hide my near-panic and let the smoke out slowly, letting it curl around my hardened face. At least, I try to, but the smoke stings my eyes, forcing me to blow out the rest and turn away to squeeze them shut. How on earth did other people manage this?
A chuckle comes from the group and the older boy snorts, “And, uh, what are you going to do about it? Gnaw on my ankles? Blow smoke in my face?”
“Leave it, Steve,” I hear Rebecca say, “He’s just a kid.”
For some reason, her comment makes me angrier than anything else. A cloud casts shadow over the empty playground swings, the flimsy wooden benches and the car park’s grim asphalt… and I welcome the rage. It boils within, skittering towards my extremities and warming my core. If I can just get angry enough, I’ll show them who they’re messing with. If I can just find a way to harness that primal ferocity. I’ll show them – ALL of them - that I’m not just a kid. The way the hero always does at the pivotal moment in the story when the baddies realise they’ve made a serious mistake… but I’m no hero and this is no story.
“Go on, pipsqueak,” Steve says, a lizard-like tongue darting out between his words, “Fuck off.”
They were long, the hours that I waited under the willow trees of the duck pond, smoking my cigarettes, telling myself that I wasn’t hiding. Imagining all the things I would do to Steve and anyone else who got in my way. All the witty comebacks, all the ninja moves combined with expertly-timed winks towards the admiring girls.
Once school kicked out, I met Ed and Sam by the playground. By then, I had talked myself back up from my deep, dark well of shame. They didn’t notice because news was gushing forth from both of them like from a broken tap. Apparently, it had been a very interesting afternoon.
“And then,” Ed says, “A condom was found—”
“A used condom,” Sam says.
“And Abigail and Jake got suspended—”
“Really?” Ed turns to Sam. “Who told you that?”
“Can’t say, I promised. And it was a maybe.”
Ed suddenly produces a packet of salt and vinegar crisps from his bag and starts crunching his way through them whilst Sam scans the park like a meerkat.
“Abigail and Jake were here earlier,” I say.
“No way,” Sam says, his head snapping back towards me, “What were they doing?”
“Just hanging out.”
“Ed mumbles something, then coughs and swallows, “Did you… you know… talk to them?”
“A little. They’re cool, you know.”
“They let you hang out with them?” Sam asks, he doesn’t even try to keep the suspicion from his voice.
“Of course,” I say, “But, there was this other guy with them who was a right arsehole. I didn’t want to hang out with him… so I left.”
“What was he doing?” Sam asks.
“He was just being a dick… so I told him to fuck off,” I say, laughing at the memory, “He didn’t like that! You should have seen his face!”
Sam and Ed laugh along with me, but not before exchanging a quick look, which they think I don’t notice. It strikes me in this moment, that they are a lot younger than me. Not in years, but I… understand the way the world works better than them. Things like friendship and love aren’t what they think. Maybe they’ll catch up one day, but for now, they’re holding me back, keeping me soft. I can’t allow that anymore; I need to be hard, to be strong.
“I should get going,” I say.
“Alright,” Ed says, “Are you still coming to mine on Saturday? We’re going to—”
“Can’t,” I say, a little harsher than intended, but it’s already too late, “I’m sorry, but… I’ve got stuff to do, you know.”
They nod fake understanding. They probably think that I’m the one being a dick - but one day they’ll get it. Hopefully.
Without looking back, I head home.
I say "home" because that is the expected word to use. To me, it is simply where I currently sleep and keep my belongings. I live in a small terraced house on a neglected estate. Mine is the one with the brick wall partially knocked down into a pile of rubble. I creep up the stone steps and hold my breath as I slowly twist the doorknob. Once inside, I shrug off my trainers and hang up my coat in pure stealth mode. The television thunders in the living room to my right and the kitchen, directly in front of me, is empty. In spite of myself, I say a prayer to the God I know doesn’t hear me.
I place my foot on the left-hand edge of the first stair step – where I know it won’t creak – and glide upwards. Two steps. Three. I dare not breathe. It rarely goes this well. Four. Five. Suddenly, the light from the kitchen is snuffed out as my father fills the doorway.
"Where the hell have you been?” he says, “I got a call from your Head of Year today you sneaky piece of shit." A beefy hand grabs me by the neck and hauls me into the living room. I don't fight him. I know better than that. He pushes me to my knees in front of the television and barks directly into my ear.
"Turning up late.” A fist smacks into my chest. I was expecting it, but the initial pain is always a shock.
“Skipping lessons.” I stifle a yelp as the next blow causes me to bite my tongue and blood fills my mouth. The metallic taste is familiar to me, the sharpness of each blow a mundane event. I just hope that I remain conscious this time. Then I might be able to crawl up to my bedroom and read a little of my comic book before passing out for the night. I'm reading an old Spider-Man Saga from the 90s called Maximum Carnage; it's really quite good.
“Not showing for detention.” Each statement is punctuated by more beatings until finally he lets go. I fall to the floor in a crumpled mess, watching the miserable carousel of my life.
The pounding dulls, but I don't get up. Not yet. I rest for a moment with my cheek pressed against the bloodied carpet. I open my eyes and blink until my vision clears.
My mother sits a few feet away on the sofa, her gaze ostentatiously glued to her iPhone and not me. Her finger is shaking, flicking upwards, scrolling through the debris of society.
I can’t hate her. Not the woman who kisses me goodnight and still makes my sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Not the woman who hides my favourite chocolate bars in my room and says nothing about the cigarettes she must have found. Not the woman who I hear begging and pleading through the paper-thin walls in the small hours of the night; more often for my peace than anything else. Not her.
The phone distracts. It’s her barrier and I know that’s all it is, or do I?
Fervently, her lips move as she reads the rolling text. She wants to know which celebrity has been arrested, won an award or come out as gay. She wants to be told what dress to buy, what perfume to wear and what television program to watch. She wants to feel important, connected and relevant. She wants them to love her.
I want to destroy it all.