“I’m calling the police,” Harry’s mum said on the afternoon he’d accepted chocolate from Homeless Jeff.
Even for Harry’s mother, it seemed overzealous. Harry had never even heard of mums calling the police on their kids. What was the big deal about a couple of pieces of chocolate? It’s not like he’d stolen them.
“Let’s not overreact,” said Harry’s dad, assuming his role of crisis de-escalator, mediator, fence-sitter.
“Overreact?” Harry’s mum replied, incensed. “He’s a f–,” she hushed her voice to a volume, Harry supposed, he wasn’t intended to hear. “He’s a predator, James.”
“Oh, come on, Gloria,” Harry’s dad said. “You don’t honestly believe those stories, do you?”
Harry knew it was serious when his parents referred to each other by their first names but at least by ‘predator’ he knew his mum wasn’t calling the police on him. It was Homeless Jeff she was cross about.
“Are you really willing to take that chance?” Harry’s mum said. The whites of her eyes, Harry noticed, were the particular shade of pink that indicated fury. “He’s always given me the creeps,” his mum continued. “And stories like that don’t just start out of nowhere,”—Harry’s mum had the phone cradled in her neck and was tracing a finger around the noticeboard looking for the number of the local police—“Now he’s giving Harry chocolate?”
Harry watched his dad expertly squeeze the part of his mum’s shoulder that seemed to liquefy her skeleton. He eased the phone from her grasp.
“I’ll have a chat to Jeff,” he said and brought her into his chest. He replaced the phone’s receiver and wrapped both arms around her. He gave Harry the we’ll talk later look and Harry went to his room.
“You have to understand, mate,” said Harry’s dad as they sat on Harry’s space-themed bed. “You can’t take food from strangers.”
“But Jeff’s not a stranger,” Harry insisted, still unsure what the big deal was.
“Just because you know someone’s name, doesn’t mean they can’t be a stranger.”
Harry’s ten-year-old brain attempted to process this nuanced understanding of what had, up until this point, been a black and white issue. He offered the response he employed at other moments of incomprehension when he didn’t want to think anymore: “Okay, Dad.”
Harry contemplated what he inferred to be a valuable lesson, the point of which was beyond his mental grasp. He thought perhaps if his dad understood how unsatisfying the whole thing had been, he’d see it really was just a big overreaction.
“It wasn’t even good,’ Harry explained. “It was fruit ‘n’ nut.”
Harry’s dad stifled a smirk then said, “That’s not the point, mate.”
He rose from the bed, ruffled Harry’s hair and told him to get ready for dinner.
Later, as the clinks and clanks of the evening washup kept him from sleep, Harry could make out the occasional word in the muffled discussion about his apparently serious misjudgement. His mum’s voice had always carried down the stairs.
“…predator…” There was that word again.
“…paedophile…” That one he didn’t recognise.
“…that bloody car…” Now that was a phrase he’d heard a million times.
Harry’s dad drove him to the bus stop the next morning. Harry only got a lift when it was raining, or if they needed to have a chat. Today was sunny.
Both of them stared at the rusted shell of Jeff’s car in the vacant lot as they drove past. Yesterday, it had looked harmless to Harry. Almost friendly with its bug-eyed headlights and open bonnet. The long, dried grass around its base gave it the look of a yawning lion. Now, the way his dad glared at it—wary, distrustful—it had taken on a sinister air.
“Why is Mum afraid of Homeless Jeff?”
Harry’s dad frowned at the use of Jeff’s unofficial full name. “She’s not afraid of Jeff exactly,” he lied. “She’s just concerned that you or some other kid might, you know,”—Harry knew when his dad was scrambling for answers. He was only ten, but he was no dummy—“She’s worried you might get…sick.”
“If he’s giving out food, you don’t know where it’s been.”
“It was in a wrapper.”
“Did you see Jeff’s hands?” Harry’s dad asked. “Were they clean?”
Harry shook his head. They weren’t clean at all. They’d looked like his grandma’s hands after she’d been weeding her vegetable garden. Only, Grandma always smelled like baking and soil. He didn’t know what Jeff smelled like, but it wasn’t good.
“No,” Harry admitted. “But his knife was pretty clean,” he added brightly.
Harry’s dad hit the brakes. “Knife?”
“It—it’s just a little one. Like a Swiss Army knife.”
“Jesus,” said Harry’s dad, massaging his forehead.
“Dad, are you really going to talk to Home—to Jeff?” Harry said.
“If I can find him,” replied his dad, looking around.
“He’s never here in the morning. He’s only at his car after school.”
“Hmm,” Harry’s dad murmured. “I might pick you up from the bus stop today then.”
On the bus, Harry sat and listened to the older boys. They were loud and they swore a lot. He assumed they were also very funny. He didn’t get their jokes, but the other boys laughed like they were going crazy or something, so they must have been funny. Harry sat and hoped today wasn’t a day they’d speak to him. They were only two or three years older, but they made Harry feel like a little kid.
“Hey, Harry!” said the biggest kid that everyone called Grub. Even the teachers called him Grub.
“Yeah?” said Harry, trying to match Grub’s deep voice.
“Why’d your dad drop you off today? You wet the bed or somethin’?”
The kids erupted with laughter. Harry felt his face burning and a dull pain spread out from his bladder. Harry had, regrettably, peed his pants on the bus during the first week of school and was cursed to endure reminders for all eternity.
“No,” Harry replied as defiantly as he could. “He wants to talk to Homeless Jeff.”
That shut them up. Harry felt an unexpected swelling of pride for his dad, the brave man who would seek out Homeless Jeff and actually confront him. The big kids like Grub had talked a big game—that they were going to ‘mess him up’ or worse—but of course, like most bullies, they were all talk and no action.
“No shit?” said Grub. “What about?”
“He gave me chocolate yesterday.”
“No shit,” Grub said again. He stood in the swaying aisle of the bus. Harry thought he looked like the captain of a pirate ship on the high seas. “That fucken paedo.”
Harry guessed that was an abbreviation of the paedophile word he’d heard his mum say the night before. And though he didn’t know its meaning, it didn’t sound like something you wanted to be accused of.
“Yep,” Harry said, feeling as always that agreeing with Grub was the shortest route to safety.
“He touch you, or what?” Grub demanded.
Harry thought about the moment Homeless Jeff had called him over to his car, beckoning with his grotty finger and a toothless smile. Harry remembered the sound of the glass bottles clinking underfoot as he waded through the long grass, knowing—feeling—he wasn’t supposed to be there. He’d seen the purple wrapping of the chocolate he wasn’t allowed to have before dinner. It was the same brand his grandma gave to him when his parents weren’t looking. The only difference was Grandma used her nail to open the foil, not a knife.
When Harry had accepted the chocolate, even though he’d been disappointed it was fruit and nut, Jeff had taken his hand. Harry had felt its roughness, its animalistic uncleanness, so deeply that he could see the germs jumping from Jeff’s festering jumper onto his school uniform.
“Yeah,” Harry confirmed. “He touched my hand.”
“Fucken paedo,” Grub said again. “I knew it.”
He took his seat with the other big boys. Harry looked at the pirate hoard at the back of the bus as they plotted and schemed. He had the feeling the whole world had changed; that in the same way the delicious chocolate had been tainted by the sultanas, life as he’d known it was now filled with bits he didn’t want to deal with.
That afternoon, Harry’s dad was waiting at the bus stop. They walked the hundred metres to the lot where Homeless Jeff’s car sat but Jeff was mercifully nowhere in sight. Harry could tell his dad was as relieved as he was.
“Do we have to wait for him?” Harry asked.
“No, mate. Let’s go home.”
“What about Mum?”
“I’ll tell her I spoke to him.”
“You’re going to lie to Mum?”
“No, I will talk to Jeff. I just can’t today. We’ve got to get you home.”
Harry walked in silence as the sick feeling in his guts stewed and sloshed from side to side like the great ocean swell Pirate Grub so fearlessly sailed.
Even if you know someone’s name, they can still be a stranger.
You’re going to lie to Mum?
Nothing made sense anymore. Harry just wanted to go back to the way it was before he’d taken the stupid chocolate.
On the bus, the boys were seated. No one was laughing. No one was being picked on. Grub sat with his arms crossed, silent. Harry thought he looked like an angry grownup.
There was an empty seat next to him. There was never an empty seat next to Grub.
Then Grub spoke. “Sit.”
Harry walked further down the bus than he’d ever been. The air was thicker there, pungent with the discordant smells of various deodorants fighting for supremacy and wet sports gear.
He sat next to Grub and felt the radiant heat, his sheer mass, sucking the energy from him. He felt himself physically shrinking in Grub’s presence but, somehow, as though he was on hallowed ground. Sitting at the right hand of Pirate Grub the Terrible, he held favour with some type of mighty ruler. Harry looked down the aisle to his usual seat among the little kids and he inflated again. He’d been accepted into Grub’s gang.
“We’ve made a plan,” said Grub. “We’re going to mess up that paedo.”
Harry didn’t know what to say, so he just said, “Okay.”
“Me and the guys have got a plan and you’re going to help us.”
Harry just nodded. He thought if he opened his mouth to speak, he’d projectile vomit all the way to the back of the bus driver’s head.
“Me and Skinny will bring the gear, you just meet us there.”
“Where?” Harry said.
“His car,” replied Grub. His eyes darkened as his brow came down. “10 o’clock tonight. At that fucken paedo’s car.”
Harry was so exhausted, he took himself off to bed at 7 o’clock.
“Everything alright, mate?” his dad asked.
“Yep,” said Harry, offering no explanation. He knew if he spoke actual sentences the plan would escape his mouth and with it his dad’s lie, sinking them both.
It felt strange to be in bed so early. It was still light outside; practically afternoon. His animal print curtains did little to darken his room and the silhouettes of African wildlife looked small and insignificant as the magnitude of Grub’s plan churned Harry’s insides. Harry felt embarrassed at the rocket and planets on his doona, the spaceman on his pillow. He imagined Grub bursting in with the other pirates and dying of laughter.
And he was tired. He was so tired he wanted to sleep for a week. He looked at his dog clock. Its arm was pointing at 7, its tail at 3.
7:15. There was no way he’d make it to 10 o’clock.
His dad had shown him how to set the alarm for 6:30 in the morning so he’d know when it was okay to leave his room. He adjusted the dial and set the alarm for 9:30 pm. He put the clock under his pillow so no one else would hear it. He closed his eyes and hoped he’d set it wrong, wishing he’d wake up the morning and that he’d have missed everything.
What felt like seconds later, a dog yapped beneath Harry’s head.
His room was dark and the African animals on his curtains had disappeared into the night.
The house was silent but for the hum of the dishwasher. Harry contemplated closing his eyes again and pretending his alarm hadn’t worked. But the idea of adding being a pussy to his already mortifying title of being the kid who peed his pants on the bus was unthinkable.
He pulled on the darkest hoodie he owned and slipped out the back door.
Down the sideway, he pushed his BMX out into the street and pedalled toward the meeting spot without looking back. He knew if he did, he would see his mum peering out from her bedroom window.
When Harry arrived at the vacant lot, five boys were there despite it being only 9:45. Harry hadn’t picked them for being punctual.
There was a street light above them but it hadn’t worked for as long as Harry could remember and the only light was from the flickering lamp across the street. The boys appeared and disappeared. Each time it went out, Harry hoped when the light came back on they’d all be gone; figments of his imagination. But each time the light came back to life, there they all stood. Silent, menacing, all in matching black hoodies obscuring their faces in shadow.
“Harry,” said the tallest figure with a nod.
“Grub,” Harry replied. He thought he sounded a lot more confident than he felt and for that he was grateful.
Grub dropped a backpack in the grass and squatted down to reveal its contents.
The boys gathered around, leaving space for Harry to join but he was fused to his bike.
Grub nodded to the gap in the circle and Harry dismounted, hoping he wouldn’t throw up in Grub’s bag.
“Choose your weapons,” said Grub. He used a torch to illuminate the bag’s contents.
Harry’s panic eased as he saw the weapons were only cans of spray paint. One by one, the other boys selected their colour with reverence and stood before their leader until each had a can and the bag was empty. Harry wondered if he’d forgotten to bring a can of spray paint and prepared to receive his punishment.
Grub said, “You’re on lookout while we paint.”
The boys darted into the darkness of the vacant lot. Glass bottles tinked and clinked as the boys scurried to adorn the fences with whatever colourful invective Grub and his miscreants had composed.
Harry looked up and down the empty street. He glanced over his shoulder at the hissing of spray cans, the backs of the boys intermittently illuminated then hidden. Arms raised as high as they could reach, then squatting into the grass, they sprayed letters as tall as their frames would allow.
The scrunch of turning tyres down the street alerted Harry and he called out, “Car!”
He ran through the grass, rolled his ankle on a concealed brick, and ducked into the shadow of Jeff’s car. He winced against the pain and tried not to cry.
The lot brightened as the car drove by before settling back into darkness. In those seconds of comparative daylight, Harry saw the walls and fences slashed with pink, yellow and green letters. All were adorned with the same word: PEDDO!
“Good job,” said Grub and slapped Harry on the shoulder.
Harry knew he should not have had this feeling, but he felt more proud of himself than when his dad had taken him for ice cream after he got an A for math.
“Now for the fun part,” Grub said as the other boys joined them at the car.
Grub took a box of matches from his pocket and handed it to Harry.
“Know how to make a hotbox?” he said.
Harry shook his head.
“It’s easy,” Grub said, taking a match. “You light one, then you put it in the box. Then all the other matches catch fire at the same time and woof. Up she goes.”
“Then what?” asked Harry, though he knew the answer.
“Then you put right here,” Grub said, pointing under the car. “There’s probably a bit of gas left in the tank so it should go up real good.”
“What about Jeff?” Harry said. “Isn’t this where he lives?”
“Fuck that paedo,” Grub hissed. “Do it or I’ll tell everyone you let Jeff suck you off.”
Harry didn’t need that.
On the third attempt, the match burst to life. It cast its light against the boys’ faces, turning them into terrifying yellow spectres that threatened to devour Harry if he didn’t follow through with the plan.
Harry put the lit match back in the box and placed it under the car.
A moment later, the matchbox flared a brilliant white. The grass caught and the boys stood back from the intensifying blaze. The oily undercarriage excited the flames, wrapping their tongues around the rusted chassis. The heating metal ticked and groaned.
From the street, the boys watched, transfixed by the ravenous beast they’d freed until someone in an apartment above turned on a light. Then another. A dog barked.
The neighbourhood was stirring.
“Let’s go,” said Grub. He ran, Skinny and the hooded pirates close behind.
Harry remained. He watched the grass mane transform into a curtain of fire, devouring Jeff’s car. Then out of the inferno, as if spat from the lion’s mouth, the foil of a chocolate wrapper swooped in the heat before settling at Harry’s feet.
As a distant siren wailed, he smoothed the foil into a mirror. Staring back was Harry’s black, faceless form; his grin concealed in shadow.
Harry the Pirate had sunk his first ship.