Secret of the Scarred Schoolboys

Submitted into Contest #130 in response to: Create a title with our Title Generator, then write a story inspired by it.... view prompt


Crime Friendship High School

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

Tom smoothed Erin’s fringe back from her forehead. Even at five years old she still had marshmallow cheeks and milky skin dusted with cinnamon freckles. 

“What about pirates? Will the magic wall stop pirates?” Her eyes grew wide at the thought.

“Yes, my darling. It stops pirates, and robbers and all sorts of bad guys.” It was past her bedtime, but the latest news report of a missing nine year old had sent her low threshold  anxiety over the edge. 

“Will it stop someone trying to steal me?” Her voice quaked and her pulse throbbed at her throat.

“Yes, it stops all sorts of bad guys.” He reached for the elephant lamp on her bedside. “Now, it’s time for sl-”.

“But how, daddy? How does it work?” She got him before he could flick the tail switch to off. He sighed, part exasperated, part amused. 

“We’ve been through this. One more time before sleep, ok?” He held up his index finger, his expression hardened. She nodded with wide, solemn eyes.

“Ok, it’s a bit like…” Despite the brimming toy box, he couldn’t lay his gaze on one that suited his analogy. “It’s a bit like your cubby house, you know the one you have to crawl through a tunnel to get to. A like an igloo. Imagine if that was invisible and wherever you went, you were always under the igloo. But instead of just fabric walls, the walls were like a magic super strong metal that bad people couldn’t get through. So even if they wanted to, they just couldn’t break the wall down.”

Erin nodded, her lost gaze somewhere on the ceiling above his head. “And you’re sure?”

“One hundred percent. It saved me.”

“And does everyone have one?”

Her question punched him low. “Not everyone.” Tom cleared his throat. “But we are very lucky to have it. And so is Uncle Avi and Levi and Laila, and Uncle Joe and Milly.” 

When she didn’t have any more questions, he reached again for the lamp. He heard her mouth open. “Sleep time, Erin,” he said with more sternness than he meant. Her mouth and eyes closed. When he kissed her forehead, he paused to breathe in her still baby fresh skin.

In their bedroom, Maree cradled her ripe belly and propped a book in her other hand. Tom crawled into bed, his eyes closed before the covers touched his chin.

“She shouldn’t have seen that news report,” Maree said.

“It’s ok. We have the wall,” Tom murmured through sleepy lips.

“The nightmares have started again.” Maree put the bookmark in her book and looked down at him.

“Got some work to do on the wall then.” The kind of exhaustion that comes from a lifetime of bad dreams overtook him.

* * *

The smell, just like a lit match, reached Tom before the sound did. The boom of the gun eventually shattered his eardrums, but he still didn’t understand what was happening. Leo had a gun. Leo was shooting a gun. Leo had walked into Advanced Math and started shooting a gun. At the front of the class, Molly exploded into a shower of scarlett. Jed slumped to one side, spilling out of his desk. Mrs Howlett ran toward Leo but was blown backward like a stunt rope had yanked her back. She didn’t get back up again. Eli tried to run. He realised what was happening much quicker than Tom. Always the quickest in class too. But this time, being the quickest wasn’t the best. Leo’s bullet clipped the side of his head, and right before he collapsed, tiny fragments of brain and skull sprayed across Tom and Avi. Joe breathed, “Holy fuck.” Tom swallowed and looked at Avi, but his face was frozen, spotted with matter like he was covered in puss filled measles. “Get under your desk,” Tom hissed at Avi, and ducked his head behind the flimsy wood shield. Behind him, Joe followed suit. “Avi!” Avi blinked twice and slipped down. Mabel screamed, thick and gurgly, like she was screaming through syrup. Next to her, Raj yelled something that was cut short. Then they could only see each other. Tom, Avi and Joe with desks as shields, their eyes squeezed shut, then shoulders quivering. A thunking sound into the wall behind, papers rustling in the rush of air. Shouts, screams and scuffles came from the front of the room. Grunts, Leo yelling, more voices, all unrecognisable. Someone said, “It’s okay now. It’s okay. It’s okay.” Mr Wilson, but his voice sounded older. Tom opened his eyes, Avi and Joe hadn’t moved. Mr Wilson appeared over him. “It’s over.”

* * *

The tattoo gun buzzed like an angry hornet. Tom, Avi and Joe were drunk but still in control. This was Tom’s idea, but at ten pm on a Saturday night and with the tattoo parlour waiting room busier than the bar they’d just left, the thought hadn’t just struck him. Avi paled at the sight of the needle. Joe lounged like he did this everyday. Out of the three of them, he’d been the least phased by what happened. For the last five years, their counsellor spoke of survivor guilt, but it hadn’t occurred to any of them to be anything but thankful Leo didn’t shoot them that day. Still, they had watched their classmates die and would forever carry that scar on their soul.

“You guys got an idea of what you want?” A small woman with black hair and bored eyes held out a plastic loose leaf folder.

Tom stepped forward. “Yeah, but I’d need to draw it.”

“Sure. I’ll get paper.”

Tom turned back to Joe and Avi. “We need this.”

“I’m not sure about this, Tom,” Avi said, his foot tremoured against the chair leg.

“Don’t be such a pussy,” Joe said, his voice a lazy drawl.

“We need this,” Tom said. “Maybe not now, but for one day in the future, when things… change.”

“Things won’t change. We didn’t get shot. Hallelujah, praise the lord! Let’s get drunk.” Avi threw his hands up, but his bravado didn’t hide the worry. 

“Here.” The small woman shoved a notepad in front of Tom. He sketched quickly, the image of the brick wall stencilled into his mind.

“Okay, and where?” She asked.

Tom pointed to the soft white flesh inside his bicep.

“Easy. Who’s first?” 

* * *

Things didn’t change until they started having kids of their own. Something about seeing the gift of life. It was only then that their dreams started to shift, sleep became more elusive and the guilt wove itself like a thick fog into the depths of their bellies. Why them? Who were they to survive when others didn’t? 

Tom, Joe and Avi still met each month, although there was less booze involved now. It was safer that way, and involved less needles. Now it was more like a walk in the park, or a jog followed by a coffee. Something healthy, and positive, something their therapist would call “functional.” As healthy as it was, they were all slipping. The inked skin on the insides of the biceps had yet to droop, but the invisible wall they’d built around themselves was failing. 

Questions crept into their conversations now: Have you ever thought what would have happened if we hadn’t skipped gym and got to Math later? What if Mabel hadn’t screamed? Would Leo have still shot her? What if Mrs Howlett had done nothing? Would Leo have shot Tom, Joe and Avi first? What if they’d told someone about the comic books?

Leo had shown Joe first. Then Tom and Avi. Leo’s eyes had been shiny when he’d watched them read it, like something was alight inside him. “It’s cool, but kinda creepy,” Tom had said, flicking through the hand drawn pages on the school notebook. “But it’s just a comic, right?” Leo had laughed but said nothing. 

Dr Burns called it hindsight bias. It’s always 20/20. But we could never have predicted what Leo would do. We couldn't have stopped him. No, it was better to think of the wall. It was invisible and it was what saved us. We had the wall. We would always have the wall. 

* * *

Mate, can you take Milly for a few hours? Tom replied straight away to Joe’s text, Sure.

When he arrived, Erin shot out the front door to greet Milly, who clutched a tired and worn plush rabbit to her chest. Tom followed, stifling a yawn. Another bad night. Still, he smiled warmly at Joe. But Joe wouldn’t get out of the car. 

“Everything ok?” Tom leaned into the open passenger window.

“Yeah, yep. All good.” Joe’s eyes darted from Tom, to behind him and back to the road. The car idled. Joe wasn’t coming in for a chat. Inside the car had a malty astringent smell. Scotch. Tom didn’t want to take his forearms from the window. Something was wrong.

“Where you headed?”

“Ahh, nowhere. Just need some space.”

“Maree will take care of the girls, mind if I join?” Tom opened the door and slipped into the car before Joe could object.

“I’d rather be alone.”

“I know.”

The car idled for a long time before Joe turned the key and the engine released a relieved sputter and died.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Joe eventually said and folded forward to rest his head on the steering wheel.

Milly and Erin came out the front door, glanced once at the car and collected toys from the yard. Tom waved and tried a reassuring smile. Maree watched from the porch, arms crossed over her swollen middle.

“We’re separating,” Joe said, his voice crumbling. “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. I just… I want it to stop.” He bumped his head on the steering wheel, the thud created a tiny reverberation through the car, like distant thunder from an approaching storm.

“It wasn’t your fault, it wasn’t any of our faults. There was noth-”

“I know!” Joe’s rage exploded in spit balls and sudden movement. “Fuck Tom, I know this shit. I’ve heard it, I’ve said it, but it’s not working anymore. We saw the comic books, we could have done something, we could have done more. We didn’t even try.” Tears streaked his cheeks and pooled in his stubble.

“We didn’t because we couldn’t. How were we supposed to know?”

“He was our friend. He was… different. You knew that, we all knew it. We should have said something.”

“Like what? Our friend drew a weird comic about shooting everyone in his Math class. Everyone except us? No-one would have done anything,” Tom said.

“You don’t know that,” Joe said, his anger draining.

“I know it seems obvious in hindsight. But it could have just been a silly comic.”

“It wasn’t.”

“Maybe.” Tom saw his friend’s wall crumbling, the invisible bricks were decayed, weathered by too many years of guilt. It wasn’t going to last unless Tom did something. “The wall protected us. It protects our families. Believe in it and you will survive this too. Let the wall protect you from this.”

“There is no fucking wall, Tom. It’s just a figment of your imagination,” Joe sounded lost. 

“It’s real if you want it to be,” Tom said. “Anything is.”

The only sound was Joe’s sniffles and the tick of the cooling engine. Milly and Erin silently played with imaginary tea cups and Maree rested her back on the top step.

“Believe it for your kid. Don’t leave her without a dad.” 

Joe watched the girls then too. Milly waved at her dad, he forced a smile and wiped his face with the back of his hand.

“I still have it, you know,” Joe eventually said.

“Really? You said you got rid of it?” 

“I know. But I couldn’t.”

“Don’t tell Avi. He’ll freak out.”

Joe smiled then, a reluctant snort of laughter ejected from his lips like a cassette tape. 

“I won’t,” Tom said. “Do you want me to do it?”

“Yeah, probably.” Joe pulled a dog eared orange notebook from the footwell of the back seat. It’s cover was age faded and felt flimsy when Tom held it. Leo’s name was on the front in his hurried scrawl. Tom didn’t need to open it to know what was inside, but he did anyway. The front page was a crude pencil drawing of a boy holding a machine gun, a Rambo headband around his forehead wearing a cut off black t-shirt. The drawing had Leo’s mop of curly hair and round glasses. Scattered around him were bodies, decorated only with red pencil. In the top corner, more in the background, was a wall. Three stick figures were drawn behind it. The title was in horror movie text across the top: The Wall.

January 25, 2022 10:30

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Amanda Lieser
19:26 Feb 08, 2022

Hi Catherine, Wow! You tackled such a powerful topic in an absolutely beautiful way. I also read your bio and thought that you might be bringing something deep to the story since you are a mother. I really loved this powerful description because it unfolded the story like a flower. One thing I might add is that the jumpy from the scene with the MC’s daughter to the incident at school was abrupt. While this may have been purposeful, it felt a bit much for me personally. Overall, I look forward to your next piece!


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Kimberly Close
14:52 Feb 04, 2022

I thought this was a little difficult to read- not because of your writing, that's fantastic and descriptive! Well done there! You really help us feel what the characters are feeling. What if something similar happened to any of us. What would we have done? Better yet, would we have done anything or would we also have brushed it off? We might think we know the answer but it doesn't mean it's correct. Gives you a lot to think about, great job!!


Catherine Craig
22:40 Feb 04, 2022

Thanks so much for your comment, Kimberly! And congrats on making the shortlist.


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Alice Richardson
06:34 Jan 30, 2022

Interesting subject, thoughtfully written.


Catherine Craig
22:41 Feb 04, 2022

Thanks Alice!


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