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Fiction Friendship Coming of Age

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Mum always asked about Woody because he was a family friend. She didn't know about the footballs pelted at him from ten yards, that his gym shorts were pulled down during PE. Stanley would empty the contents of his side bag and stamp on them: conkers, dried leaves and some bark. Everyone would howl at him.


I didn't stop a thing, and by day three of his disappearance, I knew it was my fault.


Woody's blonde bowl cut and pointy ears made him look like an elf who'd pranced off a tree. All the other kids stared down at phones or iPads whilst he studied clouds, pointing at them with a stick. He looked like a painter, using sweeping movements that conjured a vision only for him. He'd smile following a particularly vivacious flick, then settle back down on the floor between a pile of conkers and a pair of binoculars.


Stanley and 'the posse' were playing football. Woody balanced himself high in a tree with his side bag and a cap.


“Woody?" I said.



“What you up to, Woody?”


“I’m checking on the nest, the sparrows nest. An egg fell and I’m worried the wind has ruined the nest's structure.”


His eyes lit up, he pulled some newspaper from his bag and twisted into a boat shape and placed it somewhere in the branch. He swung off the tree and looked up at me for a fleeting second.


“All sorted,” he said, then turned, looking at the sky. "Even birds need help sometimes."


“Woody, don’t you think playing some football or basketball with the others my be a good idea…?”


But he bounced off and away, picked an empty bottle, then fetched a plastic bag from a low hanging branch. Staring up to the sky, imagining his own world in the fluffy vapour high above.


***


“Are you sure?" said mum.


I dropped my school bag on the counter. My mum was watching a news interview - a smarmy male host admonished a young female oil protestor. He called her a hippy and told her to get a job. It smelled of tomato sauce and basil.


“Yes, I’m sure, mum. He’s fine.”


Mum dried her hands, threw the tea towel on the counter. Her face turned blotchy.


“Why can’t he? Doesn’t he understand that fitting in requires some work,” she shook her head and whispered, “This will never stop. He doesn’t even seem to care! I worry for Janet, you know. She’s not exactly all there herself. She’s a good friend, William.”


“Look, mum... He’s not, I dunno, he’s not the same. What’s he supposed to do? Put on a scrum cap and get flattened by the year nines? He likes nature. Everyone else is, I dunno, not as interested.”


"Because they're normal..."


Like Stanley setting record on his phone before slapping another student in the back of the head. Then sharing the video to everyone in school. That's normal.


"He's a good kid. Leave him be. Not like he's smoking pot, or anything. He's doing his own thing," I said.


She laughed, the one that came out of her nose, “he acts like he’s on worse…”


“Mum, not everyone's the same.”


“William, his mother, she doesn’t understand this. If this was you? I’d be apoplectic. Do you understand? She’s in her own world and he’s at school, completely alone, doing what? Getting footballs kicked at him and pushed around? Someone needs to do something, for crying out loud.”


“OK, enough, mum.”


I took my bag off the counter. As I pushed my bedroom door open I heard the tinkling sound of ice landing in a tumbler.


***


Stanley and ‘the posse’ picked on others and Woody was nowhere in sight. I was glad to be tripping up other kids instead of Woody. He took to the far corners of the school’s grounds. It was spring, so he'd be exploring the trees beyond the tennis courts, analysing nooks, nests, and new beginnings. Stanley approached me with a crooked smile.


“Where’s little Woody, eh?”


“No idea, mate.”


“What’s that little freak doing today, then.”


“I don’t know where he is.”


“Reckon he’s by the courts,” he turned to walk, “think it’s time we stuck him up a tree for good.”


“Hey, Stan, check this out.”


I lit a lighter then sprayed an aerosol can. He laughed and slapped his knee, then took it out of my hand. He torched the side of a beech tree. For thirty minutes we lit leaves and grass and the smoke made me feel sick. We left a circular black patch on the lawn. The bell rang and we walked to our class.


In the hallway, Woody's eyes now looked beyond me, as if I wasn’t there.


***


It was a Wednesday, and so sports day, but the teacher was sick, so we had a temp whose voice cracked when she said hello. Stanley threw a cricket ball at her and she left us to it. The games became survival based and girls ran for the changing rooms. Woody sat, cross-legged, staring up to the sky.


“Oi, you,” said Stanley.


Woody didn’t look round.


“Little green fingered freak. Hey!”


Woody was singing a song to himself, a made up tune with the words bumblebee and scenery. Stanley kicked a ball that hit Woody in the side. He rose and his little legs pumped for cover in the forest behind the tennis courts. Stanley started, but I held him back.


“Oi, let's play some footy?”


His scrunched, black eyes pinned me.


“You poof. Why you protect that little brat?”


I shook my head then kicked the ball in Woody's direction.


“Well, come on then,” I shouted, “let’s get this weirdo.”


Stanley smiled and as my muscles pumped blood through my body, a vice clamped around my heart. Woody entered the forest. Under the canopy it smelled of earthy moss, a dim light shimmered through the leaves above us.


"Were are you!" said Stanley.


Some twigs snapped ahead.


***


“Hey, little freak. Little poofter. Woody no mates. Hey!”


Stanley growled and prowled the earthy floors. He picked up a log and threw it, spinning into the canopy and hitting another branch. Leaves shook above us, a drop of water fell on my head.


“Where are you? Ha, ha, HA!”


Rustling in the shrubs.


The pitter patter of rain fell above, and the air was thick with moisture. I kicked clumps of leaves to warn Woody. Stanley’s narrowed eyes focused on something and he darted through some trees and towards the ravine at the top of the hill. There was noises up ahead and then the sound of something braking,


then cracking


and then a thump.


“Stanley?”


His eyes were big now. He looked towards the edge of the ravine and stared down. He decided to run back to the school grounds. I creeped towards the edge, my breath was shallow; there was nothing. A rock had fallen off the edge, with shaken earth dropping down the side. Back at the fields Woody wasn’t there, he must've gone home.


***


Day 1


“William. Will! Janet says Woody hasn’t been home, did you see him at school?”


“Mum, he is not my friend. I do not see him, ever! OK? Now please, stop asking me about fucking Woody, that little freak.”


“Will? William! Do not speak to me like-”


(Sound of slamming door, a huff by the mother then the sound of pouring gin.)


***


Day 2


At school, Stan was the same. As if nothing happened, stealing lunch money and pulling kids' ties. I gave him looks, I tugged his sleeve - he didn't acknowledge me. My finger shook as I sparked the lighter for another cigarette. I was finally alone with Stanley one recess.


“Stan, we need to do something, no?”


He lit his cigarette then lifted his head. His brows knotted.


“Something, about what? What are you saying, here?”


“… you know, with Woody, we have to talk. We have to do it, now!”


He gripped my collar, twisted the fabric tight around my neck. My voice shook and his fingers dug into my windpipe. I gasped for air and felt my face turn red.


“I would stop speaking, Willy.”


He didn’t let go for a time, then dropped me and walked away. Posters went up – Woody, Male, Fourteen Years Old – with a picture of him holding a caterpillar.


Every spare second, I was in the woods.


***


Day 3


Saturday. In the woods all day. The mother was in tears. I told her I felt for her. She turned, her eyes misty blue and vacant.


“Did you see him the day he got lost?”


I shook my head and headed home. I cried until I slept. I wok at eleven at night with a dry throat and thumping thoughts. At the woods, I followed the route where we chased him.


“Woody!”


“I’m sorry, Woody, it was dumb. I didn’t mean to scare you!”


I kicked leaves and sticks. At the edge of the ravine there were only shrubs, rocks and a thin stream of water that looked like a tear running down a cheek. I groaned, pulled at my hair and dropped to my haunches. I slammed the ground with an open palm and felt tears of fear in my eyes. A scuttling noise to my left, a shimmy that caught some leaves then knocked a rock down a hollow space.


“Woody! I’m sorry!”


“I was wrong, I will never side with that idiot, psychopath again. I will help you pick conkers in the autumn and mend nests and save hedgehogs, I promise!”


It turned cold and the breath of a wind crept down my collar. I threw a rock in frustration and began to cry again. Instead of going home, I went to the police station.


“The boy, Woody. It was my fault. I chased him out of class at school.”


The police officer was bald and had kind eyes, but didn’t smile. He shook his head, radioed someone, before taking me back out the forest. I told him about the ravine and the noise and he gripped me by the sleeve.


“He’s in the drain, you idiot. He’s in the fucking drain!”


More radio voices. A winch. Woody, all skin and bones and gaping mouth, covered in sludge and mired in dirt. Our eyes locked and it was the look of someone who didn't see me.


He survived by eating caterpillars and the sucking moisture from the earth. They said he was hours from death. I threw up on the spot, shivering under the canopy leaves and jagged moonlight, as he sat in the ambulance and on a drip.


***


I took the blame and mum stopped speaking to me. Woody didn't go to school. I picked up bottles and plastic Tesco bags stuck in branches. Stanley kicked balls at me and took videos. Everyone laughed.


After a few days of this I returned home and my mum had a solemn face on that reached for a smile for the first time. The TV was on, and the same girl I saw all those weeks ago was now leading a large group of protestors in front of parliament in Westminster. She held a sign that said Stop Oil Now. Mum handed me a glass of squash but said, “not for you. You have a guest outside.”


Through the dining room and out of the double doors Woody was lying on the grass, smiling and holding a stick. He drew something in the clouds. I set his glass next to him and lied down. I poked out a shape with sweeping movements. Woody smiled with anticipation.


“An owl, don’t you think?” I said


He leaned onto his elbow and took a long sip of squash. He looked thin and pale, but his eyes were bright.


“Yes, that’s what I saw as well. An owl.”

April 25, 2022 09:59

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2 comments

F.O. Morier
06:08 May 05, 2022

I just read your bio- join the club. I have the same problem 😊

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F.O. Morier
06:05 May 05, 2022

Ohhhh…. What a precious story! I love it!

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