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Alex and The Gruff (a tale of horror) Copyright© Cian Sean McGee CSM Publishing Santo André, São Paulo, Brazil 2013 Second Edition

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means including photocopying, recording, scanning or digital information storage and retrieval without permission from the author.

ISBN-13: 978-1484052983 ISBN-10: 1484052986

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Cover Design: C. Sean McGee Interior layout: C. Sean McGee Author Foto: Carla raiter


politeness is the discipline of abuse......

Alex and The Gruff a tale of horror

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c.seanmcgee


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“Infants never learn to soothe themselves to sleep. They learn, abandoned in seclusion, that no matter the volume of their despondence, no matter the force of their tears, when they are alone and frightened, no-one will ever come to their rescue. Infants do not soothe themselves. They merely surrender. And it is caged in their cribs where the infants learn, in the face of their demons, to remain silent and submitting.�


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for my demon


Chapter Zero

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Alex clung to the seat. He had his hands between his legs and his fingers bending over the curve with his nails scratching at the red plastic. He was hardly able to contain the excitement that he felt and hoped that no-one else could see. He sat watching the entrance to the classroom with the open door letting the afternoon light and cool breeze f lood in - and he dreamt of escape. He looked around at his classmates, all of them busy packing away their colored pencils and zipping up their bags. Some of them were laughing and some of them were pinching and punching each other on the arms, but all of them completely unaware as to the grand conspiracy in his thoughts. And so he looked around with acute awareness thinking everyone was looking at him. He looked to his left and he looked to his right and he tried to keep cool about everything, but it was all so very hard. Surely they knew. Surely they were onto him. Surely, at any moment, so would she. “He really is a delight,” said The Teacher. She was talking to one of the grown-ups, a mother of one of the boys. Alex looked at the boy. He didn’t know his name. He didn’t know anyone’s name. The boy’s hair was neatly combed and it wasn’t brown and it wasn’t blonde, it was a mix of the two and the boy had his hands in his pockets and he was standing by his mother’s leg, looking at a picture he had painted that was hanging on a wall beside them. Alex was looking past the boy, at a tiny space between him and his mother, where he could escape out the front door. There was enough space for him to squeeze through if he was


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fast and agile - like a cat. He would have to be quick, though. Outside the door, there was a set of concrete steps that led down to a concrete path and there was lush green grass on one side and on that grass was a sign and the sign read, ‘Children cannot play here’. And at the end of that path was a large gate and guarding that gate was a large man; a giant of a man with great catching hands like a fisherman’s net, a face like a shrunken balloon, eyes like two massive dirty plates and a grumbling voice like an airplane landing. And the giant’s name was Horace. And like all giants, he sat high on his throne and he looked down on everyone that wanted to come through the gates and he made all the grown-ups wait in a line and he let them in one by one and they were always so polite when they passed him and the children, they were always terrified. And who wouldn’t be? Giants ate children. “Well thank you so much,” said The Teacher, waving at the boy’s mother as she took her son under her wing and turned to walk down the steps. “Now,” thought Alex. The timing was perfect. They would never see him coming. The Teacher’s back was turned and the boy and his mother, well theirs were turned too and if he left now, if he ran while nobody was looking, he could catch a breeze in their wake and even use them to shield his escape. He could do it. He could get away. His heart was beating so fast as he rocked back and forth on his chair. Right now was the only time that he had, but right now was quickly slipping away. The Teacher turned away from the door and the children all followed with their begging and adoring eyes. Alex


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looked at them, all of them while they all looked to their teacher. His heart was beating so fast. “Wait” shouted the boy from down on the path. Alex turned back to the door. They all did. Thirty smiling faces stared smiling at the door. The Teacher slid her feet on the f loor and turned before they stopped, like a dancer. She always moved like a ballerina, swishing her feet this way and that and prancing and turning on the tips of her tippy toes. The girls all thought she was a princess, just like the dolls that they kept precious at the tops of their desks and the boys, well they didn’t really think of anything other than football and video games, but they didn’t hate her and she was kind of funny, but all girls were like that. The Teacher met the boy with her arms abreast and a terrific adoring smile upon her face and the boy rushed to her embrace and she wrapped him tight in her arms and she lifted his little feet off the f loor and he whispered ‘goodbye’ and she whispered ‘goodbye’ too and then all of the other children, they all watched with wishful smiles on their faces and they all mouthed the words ‘goodbye’, imagining that it was they, not the boy, in her embrace and their little mouths closed so that their lips gently touched and it looked as if they had all blown a silent kiss. Alex looked at the other children and he couldn’t name a single one. He didn’t know any of their names and if he had to talk about his day, he would speak of them as ‘that boy or that girl’, ‘at school’ or ‘on the bus’ and he couldn’t imagine himself making a friend of a single one. “I’m sorry,” said the boy’s mother. “He really wanted to come back and say goodbye.” “That’s fine,” said The Teacher, holding the boy in her arms as if she were her own. The boy looked at The Teacher and he must have spoken something that only she could understand because


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immediately, she looked surprised as if she had just remembered something terribly important. “That’s right,” she said. “I didn’t show you Timothy’s painting.” That was his name, Timothy. Alex didn’t hear it at all. The moment they started talking, his heart started beating wildly again and he started to look around the room, at where The Teacher was standing, where the boy and his mother were and how distracted they might be and then, back to the open door that led to the concrete steps that ran down past the lush green grass on which the children were not allowed to play and out to the giant gate guarded by Horace the Giant who, like most giants, probably only saw giant things, like big cars and from out of them, big people. Alex focused on the tiny gap and he was like a sprinter, crouching at the starting line with his heart pounding as he waited for the moment to run. And he rocked back and forth and his nails scratched at the red plastic below his seat and his toes curled, so that, like the sprinter, they were on their tips and they were ready to bound. “Wow, Timothy this is wonderful,” said the boy’s mother. The Boy, Timothy, looked at her. He knew she was overdoing it. Mothers always did. I guess it’s what they thought children wanted to hear. It was just a picture. It wasn’t very good. He knew that, but his mother, she either didn’t know art very well or she was just being polite. “Actually, this is Timothy’s picture here. It’s wonderful.” “Oh,” she said. “It’s very nice Timothy. Aren’t you a smart cookie?” She was being polite. The picture was terrible. “What is it? What did you paint” asked his mother. The Boy, Timothy, said nothing. He was nervous, shy


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or embarrassed. He looked to The Teacher and he held her hand. “He’s very shy,” the boy’s mother said. “I know’ said The Teacher. “Aren’t they all at his age?” Both grown-ups turned and smiled at the adoring children seated at their desks watching them adoringly. “The children had to paint whatever they wanted; whatever they thought expressed the words happy and safe.” “All the paintings look very similar,” said the boy’s mother. Both grown-ups looked along the wall at every hanging colored paper and though some were painted with more skill than others, they all looked so relative. ‘Is that mummy?” asked the boy’s mother to her son. The Boy, Timothy, was still silent, shy maybe. He looked to The Teacher, holding her right hand with his left and staring at her with helpless eyes, without a word and looking to her for some explanation and some definition. “It’s me,” said The Teacher, a little embarrassed. She looked to the boy and smiled and he smiled back. The boy’s mother looked at the pictures and they were all the same, each child standing next to a tall and slender princess with each child holding their princess’ hand and feeling safe and happy. And she looked at her son and he was doing just the same. “They really adore you,” said the boy’s mother. “They really do and I adore them too,” said The Teacher. Both of the grown-ups smiled and as the boy left The Teacher’s hands and went to his mother’s, Alex saw his opportunity. There was no time, he had to go. So he jumped up from his seat and swung his bag over his shoulder and he ran past The Teacher and he ran around the boy and he ran around his mother too. And he slipped


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through the legs of the grown-ups that were about to knock on the open door and he ran down the steps towards the concrete path. And the steps, they were so big that he had to dive onto each one and he was so sure that someone was going to stop him, someone was going to put their hand on his shoulder and say “hey what are you doing kid?’ and drag him back into class. And there were lots of grown-ups waiting by the giant gate and there were more now, being allowed past Horace the Giant and they were walking up the path and they all had massive smiles on their faces and none of them saw Alex, even though he was right there in front of them. They all walked past him as if she were a broom or a bucket, left unattended on the path. Alex dodged and he weaved and he made sure, in his escape, that he didn’t step on the lush green grass on which the children weren’t allowed to play and when he got to the gate, he stopped behind Horace the Giant. And he waited. And his heart beat so fast. And he took a breath. And he could see the shape of every second being born. And each second looked so old. And he wanted to run. But he couldn’t lift his feet. He knew he would be caught. The other children, they would have seen him run. They would have given him up by now. They couldn’t be trusted. He could hear a siren sounding in his mind and it could have been the because the school day had ended or it could have been The Teacher realizing he was gone and pressing a red button and he wouldn’t have long now, before Horace the Giant looked down and found him, ensnared him in his catching hands and carried him back to the classroom.


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“Where are you mum?” he thought to himself. Why wasn’t she here? Why did he have to do this alone? And his heart was thumping so loud. It was beating so fast. He saw a chance. He ran past Horace, through the gate and around the corner and past the rows of idling cars and he turned another corner again and he backed up against the wall and he dropped his bag to the f loor and raced to catch his breath as the cool air swept up his fringe letting a bead of sweat run into his eye. And no-one had noticed a thing. “Alex?” Alex turned. His mother was standing at the gate, about to step through when she caught sight of his bag on the ground. He himself could have been any child, curled over into a ball, his head tucked in-between his legs, blocking out the world entirely. “What are you doing here?” she said. It felt like he had fallen upon shelter in the midst of a storm. He looked up and saw his mother’s concerning face looking down on him, the one where her eyes narrowed and the skin on her forehead wrinkled like an old man and her eyebrows raised like a drawing bridge at first and then, when surprise begat concern, they squiggled and squirmed about like two wriggly worms and her mouth then closed and her lips almost smiled, but not a happy kind of smile. It retracted like a firing pin of a rif le and soon she would either yell at him or she would take him in her arms. She had the same look as that time that he accidentally swore. It was a while ago, but he could still feel the wraps she gave him around him bum when he thought of it. She had the same look now as she did that day, except then, her almost smile became a spanking hand. This time, though, his mother crouched so that she was


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looking into his salty eyes and she wrapped her forgiving arms around him and pulled him close to her chest. Alex cared for nothing more than this, to be wrapped in the blanket of his mother’s love and affection and he felt so infinitely small for a second and it felt good to feel that small and it felt so good to feel that incapable and it felt so good to feel so secure, under his mother’s protecting wing. “What are you doing outside? I’m supposed to pick you up from the door. Did the teacher let you out?” Alex said nothing. The two walked along the wall with Alex holding onto his mother’s left hand while sucking his thumb and hoping that when they reached the gate, Horace the Giant wouldn’t notice them. But when they were about to cross the road, it wasn’t Horace who called them back, it was The Teacher. “Mrs. Stein” she called out. She didn’t sound angry. She called out his mother’s name as if she had seen her in passing at a shopping mall and wanted to say hello and not because this boy had escaped from her class and made her look like a fool. “Please don’t turn,” Alex thought. But his mother couldn’t read his thoughts and so she turned and she walked back across the road towards the gate. Alex squeezed his mother’s hand so tight that she f linched and she gave him a look. And so he sucked on his thumb harder and harder hoping something would change in the next second, hoping his mother would just walk in the other direction or that he’d suck so hard that his thumb would pop right off and his mother would have to rush him to the emergency room to stick it back on and they’d never get to know what she wanted. “Hi, Mrs. Stein, is it?” “Yes. Call me Chrissie. You must be Alex’s teacher then.” “Yes, I am. My name is Ms.…….” Alex shut his ears.


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He saw their mouths moving and he saw them smiling and nodding their heads from side to side and every time The Teacher spoke, he could see her reach out her long skinny hand and just gently touch his mother’s elbow and they were probably becoming friends, but he couldn’t tell, so he unblocked his ears. “But why was Alex outside? I was told the children couldn’t leave without a parent or guardian to escort them. Did he run out?” asked Mother. She looked angry now, not at The Teacher or at the school, but at Alex because this made him look troubled and undisciplined, which ref lected on her morals and her parenting. And it made her look poor. The Teacher looked at Alex and rested her hand on the top of his head. It felt gentle, like a warm breeze and not at all like his mother’s that was squeezing his own so that it was bright white and crimson red. “It’s really difficult for kids at first to find their feet, but it doesn’t take them long, does it?” The Teacher said, brushing his hair with her soft hand. Alex looked up to her and she was looking down at him and she wore those adoring eyes and her soft hand slipped from the top of his head down onto the cusp of his shoulder. “Say you’re sorry Alex,” said his mother. He looked to The Teacher and she looked like a princess and she was smiling so gracefully at him and her smile said ‘don’t bother, you don’t need to’ and ‘I know that you care’ and Alex, he looked to his mother and he wanted so much for her to lift him up in her arms and to carry him away but instead, her hand tightened against his and she looked down at him scornfully and she looked as mad as his dog did, whenever he took its bone away. He tried to say something, but he couldn’t speak and if even he did, he knew she wouldn’t listen. Mums never listened. “Alex, say you’re sorry now or there’ll be big trouble


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mister.” His mother pushed him forwards so that his chest pressed against The Teacher’s knees. Alex shut his eyes and he started to cry, but it only made his mother’s voice more barking. “Don’t you cry. You will apologize to Ms. …” He shut his eyes and he closed his mouth and he blocked his ears. He held his breath and he imagined a vast stillness, a cool blanket of vacuity, swamping his thoughts and carrying him away, like a tiny fish, fractal in its vast ocean as it dangled from the palm of a child’s hand. And then everything went black in his mind. And he was himself, but he was without arms and he was without legs. And he was without hair that could be scrubbed or brushed in vigor and he was without ears that could be pulled and poked in bullish dinner demeanor. He was without direction, lost in a distant galaxy and looking for his sun, for a warmth and a center unto which he could belong, to be shielded by many Saturns and Jupiters, a place where he could be in splendorous turn. There would be no up and there would be no down; there would be no left and there would be no right. There would be nothing to belittle his fancy and nothing to auction off his fright. He tried to stay there, in the infinite void, but he couldn’t hold his breath for nearly as long as forever took. And so he opened his mouth and he gasped for air and then he unclogged his ears and he unfastened his eyes and before him was The Teacher, her face, just an inch away from his and her eyes, with the care and the worry and the servitude of love that he had wanted so much to see in his own mother’s and she looked at him longingly as she quelled his mother’s vexed rage. Alex noticed, now that she was close that he could count all of the freckles on the tip of her nose, that one of her eyes, the left one, it itched and it twitched and it looked like it was


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broken, like that rolling channel that just wouldn’t come into focus on his television. And though one eye was versed in consideration, the other looked maniacal and quite possible of anything. “You just missed your mum. I know what that’s like. I miss my mum too. She lives very far away and I don’t get to see her very much and I get sad too. And sometimes, when I’m really sad, I just want to run away and to be with her. I understand Alex, I do. I’m not mad. You just love your mum. That’s not a sin. But you know what? Your mum isn’t as far away as mine. She’s just around the corner” said The Teacher pointing to the block of f lats beside the school. “And you know, if you ever feel sad or scared or if you ever feel like you miss your mummy, you can tell me and I’ll call her right up and she can come down to the school. Any time at all. Isn’t that right?” she said, looking up to Alex’s mother. ‘Of course. Hunny. It’s ok. You know I’m close by and your dad. But you have to go to school. Your brother, your sisters, they all go and they don’t cry and they don’t run away. You want to be like your big brother, don’t you?” his mother asked. Alex thought about his big brother. “Of course,” he thought. “Don’t be stupid.” “I really am sorry. I promise this won’t happen again” said his mother, exalting her shame and remorse. The Teacher rested her soft hand again on Alex’s shoulder. “Please, it’s me who should be apologizing to you. The problem here is not Alex running out of the class, it’s why it happened and it’s my fault for not picking up on that. I should have given poor Alex more attention; he’s just so very quiet. I assumed he was fitting in fine” said The Teacher, smiling at Alex. “He’s just shy. He should be fine soon.” The Teacher was smiling and though she probably


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looked kind and princess like to everyone else, to Alex, her teeth were like barbed wire and her eyes were like two great wells that should he peer to close, he might fall right in and he might never see the light of day again. “Say you’re sorry Alex” demanded his mother. The Teacher smiled her barbed wire teeth. “Don’t be rude and say you’re sorry.” He knew the words. He said nothing. He felt like a tiny mouse, pushed into the breast of a hawk. “He’s sorry,” said his mother. The Teacher reached her hand to sweep aside the fringe that covered his eyes and Alex froze, wanting to push her hands away but unable to move a muscle. His mother looked down on him smiling and he wondered why she couldn’t see The Teacher’s razor like teeth and he wanted to shout, but he didn’t know what the words should be or what it sounded like, to say no. And so she swept the hair from his face and he stared at her one twitching eye. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” The Teacher said, kissing him softly on the cheek. “You’re so understanding, thank you so much,” said his mother, shaking the Teacher’s soft hand. “Come on, we’ll be late.” Alex walked up the path with his mother holding him around his forearm and more dragging him than walking with him. She was upset, but he couldn’t tell her why he had run away. He may not have even known himself. It just felt like something that he should have done and so he did it. And he could never say it that easily to his mother. So he cried. And she told him. “We’ll talk about this later.”


Chapter One

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It was barely a skip and a jump before they had rounded the corner to the block of f lats. The complex was large with seven four story buildings with each f loor housing seventeen small apartments and each apartment decorated with families and strangers from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. And they were all so colorful and so strange and so different than anyone that Alex had ever seen before. Next to his father, though, they didn’t at all seem as big, giant and menacing as they did when he was alone. Like everything; when his father was beside him, the whole world seemed fractional and hardly a threat. “Oh, I didn’t tell you. I found Alex outside the gates this afternoon.” Alex looked up at his father. He was chewing on a plastic wrapper with his teeth, trying to gnaw it off and his eyes looked so crazed and focused as he clenched and he pulled and he yanked and he gnawed, stretching it out so that it weakened and tore and he took a small bite of the chocolate before handing it to Alex to devour. “I thought you said they can’t leave unchaperoned?” his father said, speaking while chewing on thick caramel. “Well, the older kids can. Just Alex. He finishes earlier. The others are fine.” “So what happened then?” Alex bit off large chunks of the chocolate, more than he could chew and he sounded like a grazing cow as he slopped about the large chunk from one side of his mouth to the other and he watched his brother and his sisters up ahead, running around and chasing each other as they walked past the rows and rows of apartments and though normally he would have


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fought to be just like them, wanting to act out their games and to fit inside their shoes, this evening, he was more settled in his own, chewing on cheap chocolate and seeing the world so small and finite between his mother’s and father’s swinging hands. “His teacher said he was sad or scared or something and that she turned for a second to talk to one of the other mum’s and he when she turned back he was gone.” “Sad? Sad about what? Bloody new age teachers. Where’d he go?” His father had a chunk of chocolate stuck in his teeth and he was unhinging it with his tongue as he spoke and it sounded like the kind of conversations you have on a dentist’s chair. He didn’t sound angry though and so Alex worked a chunk of chocolate from between his own teeth with his tongue and he feigned the same focus and interest as his father. “He was around the corner.” “But how did he escape? Don’t they have a guard or something? And what is the teacher doing during all of this?” “Well, that’s what I said. I mean, I asked her, I said what the hell are we paying these high fees for? You’re supposed to be protecting our kids not letting them bloody run off down the street.” “And what did she say?” “She gave me this snooty look.” “So what do we do?” “Well, I told her how pissed off I was and that it was their fault. I made her apologize and I told her, if it happened again, we’d pull all of the kids out in a jiffy, no questions.” “What did she say?” “She was all nervous and apologetic. She knew she screwed up.” Up ahead, there was an old man sitting on a garden chair under the window of his apartment. He was wearing a


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long robe that was open and underneath he had on some tennis clothes. He was wearing some dirty f lip f lops and his toe nails were long and jagged and the ends were black and his toes were stained yellow, like the ends of a cigarette. The old man was drinking something from a brown bag and he was mumbling to himself as they got closer. He raised a pointing finger and shook it at Alex’s siblings as they jokingly past him; sniggering and biting their tongues as they fought to behave themselves. Then, as Alex passed the old man with his mother and father, he gripped his father’s hand, squeezing tight and as they past, he looked straight at the old man and he saw the old man looking straight back at him. His eyes spoke to Alex. They said, “I know where you hide at night.” He quickly turned away and looked at his own feet as his parents politely avoided eye contact and continued along the path towards the stairs at the far side. “I hate this place. I really do” said his mother. “It’s only for a month or two. Until I find something to buy. For now, it’s close to work and school for the kids and well… there’s nothing we can do so just suck it up and deal with it. I don’t wanna be here either but for the time being, we don’t have much choice, now do we?” he said. His father leant over and picked Alex up so that he sat high on his shoulders. Alex felt like The Lone Ranger, that up here, nobody could touch him; that his horse could trample anyone that even tried. “That’s dangerous. Put him down.” “Don’t be dramatic. You’re alright buddy?” It wasn’t really a question, but that was ok because Alex, he was more than alright. He was ecstatic. This was the greatest feeling on earth. He felt so tall, so big and like a grownup; bigger than his brother. And it was good as well when his father wasn’t unhappy. “See he’s fine,” said his father.


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“Whatever.” Alex turned his head smiling and he looked back along the corridor and he could see the old man with his chin rested against his chest and the bottle; still in the brown paper bag, slowly slipping from his sleeping hands as a light above him f lickered on and off. And every time it f lickered off, Alex could see; in the window above the old man, the ref lection of someone standing in the room; peering out through the blinds. Alex swung around. He shut his eyes. And he said, in a faint cry. “There’s no such thing as ghosts. There’s no such thing as ghosts.” And as he clung to his father, he believed that if there was such a thing and if he said it out loud enough then they could never get him, not as long as his father was near. He wouldn’t let that happen because he was stronger than strong and he was tougher than tough and he was braver than the scariest things that existed - even the ones that he said weren’t true. And if he needed, he could be meaner that all the meanest things put together. And he knew everything and he had been everywhere and if he had a question, you could bet that he knew the answer because there was nobody smarter than him, nobody in the whole wide world, in the galaxy even; maybe even the universe. So a stupid ghost wouldn’t stand a single chance, neither would the old man with the yellow toes nor the person peeking through the blinds, fogging up their stupid window. The cafeteria was full. It always was at this time. It always full, all the time, even when they weren’t serving food. But at this time, just after dinner had been served, it was almost impossible to find anywhere to sit and the echo of all the grown-ups laughing with one another and shouting at their kids in different languages, that, mixed with all the kids


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shouting at one another and then laughing back at their parents, it made Alex feel dizzy when he entered, the same kind of dizzy he used to feel when he entered the swimming pool and the sound of kids playing and shouting melded with the smell of chlorine and made his head feel light and tinny. The one thing that struck Alex was how foreign the foreign faces seemed. Everything about this place and the people inhabiting felt like some kind of a zoo. The people were of all types and Alex hadn’t really seen that before and they all wore these incredibly big smiles on their faces and their eyes were like buzzing stage lights and as he took his tray of food, he couldn’t help but feel everyone staring at him with fascinated and prostrating eyes. Alex hated when people stared at him. Even when they weren’t, it always felt like they were. And so he kept his eyes focused on the tray which was loaded with a big plate of mashed potatoes, peas and casserole and next to the plate was a cup of orange juice that was spilling over its side as his hands shook nervously and next to the cup was a little round plastic cup of jelly and next to it, a small set of plastic cutlery. And all of them together took up the whole tray. For his dad and his brother, it was nothing. Of course, they could carry all of this and the world on their shoulders. And for his sisters even, it was nothing. They held their trays without any bother at all, like they were carrying a small cushion or their favorite magazine. They were joking with each other about a boy who was sitting with his grandparents in the middle of the cafeteria. The boy had funny looking hair and funny looking teeth that stuck out from his mouth like a rabbit and his sisters sniggered while they held their trays and walked across the front of the cafeteria, laughing at the oddly looking boy whose grandparents were casting an indignant sneer back at them and that just made the girls turn to each other and snigger more and their orange juice didn’t spill, it didn’t even wobble


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or anything. It was like a still lake. No matter what they did, no matter how many stones they threw in, it always stayed still as if being taller was like being an anchor and made things not move as much. His brother passed him hurriedly and brushed his shoulder when he did, barging through the two girls as he rushed to get one of the last grouped seats by the far side of the hall. He was always so smart, just like his father. Older brothers were always like that. They had nearly all the answers. Not as many as a dad would have. But they knew all of the other stuff, all of the cool things; the things that dads forgot. Alex always looked at his brother like a student of imitation, learning and change. He always wanted to be whatever his brother was at every moment and growing up seemed so incredible watching it happen behind his brother’s back. It was like watching a tidal wave, from out at sea, always imagining how big it really was but never getting to see its true face. And Alex celebrated every one of his brother’s conquests as if they were his own. And his mother and his father, they celebrated them too and his older sisters; younger than his brother, they celebrated also, but they didn’t do it with as much applause as Alex. Alex loved his brother. He worshipped him. He hoped that when he grew up that he’d be exactly like him. He hoped he would look like him and grow to think and feel like him so that one day, he could speak like him and know stuff, like the way that he knew stuff. But it was hard in a way because every day his brother learned that little bit more and always seemed to be getting bigger and better and smarter and older and poor Alex just couldn’t keep up. Just when he had gained another day himself, his brother had gained another week and he was always being older than him and Alex felt, in the midst of his idolatry, sad in a way, that every celebration he lived had been lived three


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times before and nobody ever celebrated his conquests with the same wonder than they did for his brother or even his sisters and every time he looked at his brother, he wanted to be just like him; in age or in humor or in wit or in just knowing as many skateboard tricks as he did. When his brother got braces, he thought they were cool and he wanted braces too. When his brother did his homework, it looked so hard and so important and his mother and father were so proud when his brother got it done that he wanted homework too. But he never got homework, not in in his grade, even when he did ask the teachers. They always told him, “Maybe when you’re older.” And when his brother started playing sport, he wanted to play too but his brother was older and bigger, so in his sport he got to push and he got to tackle and it looked like so much fun but for Alex; at his age, they weren’t allowed to tackle or bump or push or nothing. They weren’t allowed to do anything fun because grown-ups were scared that they’d get hurt so they had to play safe because they were little and they were children. And then, when his brother started listening to rock n roll and heavy metal, he wanted to listen to it too so he’d sit outside his brother’s door and tap his head along to the music and he’d pretend that he knew what the singers were singing. He even copied his brother and asked his mum for a Hashem bag for school and she even got him one. He did just like his brother and wrote all the names of the bands that his brother liked on the bag in a thick black marker and it felt so dangerous and wrong when he did it. He felt really nervous at first though when his brother saw him with the bag but when he nodded, as if to say, “that’s cool”, Alex didn’t feel worried anymore, he felt cool like he mattered. And at his old school, he would walk around with his bag on his shoulder and feel so tough and cool and he would


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tell all the kids in his class, especially the ones he didn’t like, the names of the bands and he would draw their logos on pieces of paper like they were on the covers of the albums that he stared at and memorized every time his brother left his room. And when his brother got a crew cut, he wanted a crew cut too. And when his bother learned to surf, he wanted to learn too. And when his brother liked girls, he pretended to like them too. And when he did something wrong when he’d done something to make his brother was angry, he was always real sorry; sorrier than when his mother and father were angry, sorrier than that time he made his grandma cry. He loved his brother and he wanted to be just like him; a big brother. And every now and then, in the wake of his worship, he would feel that what he wanted was always six years ahead of him, that he would never be one himself. Never. Not unless his mother and father had another baby. Because you couldn’t overtake people, not like you could on a bicycle. You had to just sit behind them, watching them grow, wishing you were like them, wanting to do everything that they’re doing and not seeing anything that you’d already done. It wasn’t fair, always having to watch everyone else growing up and always seeing them as older and then having them always looking at you as being younger. Always wanting to be older was never much fun. Alex watched his brother weave through and around his sisters and walk with the tray in one hand. He was so smart. He looked really cool as well and Alex watched, not just him, but at all the other kids in the cafeteria who were watching his brother zip about and he watched his mother and father too as they looked at his brother with a proud smile as if it were something that they had taught him, something that made


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him different and better than all of the other kids. Alex watched and he wanted to be just like him; in the adoration of others. And his first step could not have been any worse. He lowered one hand and the tray teetered and tottered nervously on his tiny little hand and his orange juice, which had already spilled over the sides of the cup onto his mashed potato, wobbled like a staggering drunk. And it all played out so slow and so obvious that everyone knew to watch and as he lifted his foot and leaned forward to walk, he slipped on a wet piece of f loor and sent the tray toppling over itself through the air and smashing on the ground. And he fell to the ground too. And he hit his chin hard. And he hit his hand too. And it really hurt. And everyone started to laugh. And he stayed down on the ground, wishing he didn’t have to get up. Alex lay on the ground with bits of potato on his cheek and the spilled orange juice now pooling under his belly and between his fingers. His face and his hands stung from hitting the ground. But the real insult was in everyone laughing so loud. They were all so mean. His father rushed over with two trays in his hands and rested them on his bent knee and he kneeled down and helped Alex up with one hand. He brushed off the potato that was stuck to his chin and wiped away the orange juice on his arms, his neck and his hands with a rough napkin. Alex was in tears. He felt so stupid and hopeless. He wanted his daddy to pick him up, to lift him high on his shoulders again and tell him that everything would be ok. And he wanted him to turn around to all the laughing idiots and to shout at them and to growl like a big angry bear. He wanted


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his daddy to show his teeth and to scream, “Shut up.” But he didn’t. Instead, Alex wept and his father made huffing sounds as he wiped away the juice from his hands, his neck and his arms and he gave Alex the same look that he did that time when those people turned around and shushed him and his sisters when they were playing around in church. It was the same face his father wore when he couldn’t find his bank card when he was at the checkout trying to pay for his shopping and there were loads of people behind him, all waiting impatiently with their arms folded and looking at their watches every couple of seconds. His dad looked the same way now as he did those other times. And Alex felt stupid and to blame. And he felt stupid not because all the people saw and they were pointing and laughing. But because his brother saw and the people were probably laughing at him and maybe he felt stupid too. “But what about my food?” asked Alex, seated at the table with his family, all of them bowing their heads in obvious shun. His father looked at him sternly. “We can’t get anymore. You spilled yours. You’re gonna have to share mine” he said, infantile. Alex hated to disappoint his dad. He looked angry and kind of sad and a little bit silly. They all did. Everyone bowed their heads and ate in discretion. They all looked embarrassed. Even his brother.


Chapter Two

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It rained heavy that night and the howling wind blew so hard that the bedroom window rattled Alex awake. He lay on his fold out bed, trying to keep completely still and holding the covers over his face but creeping them down just enough so that his eyes could peep through and see if any ghosts or ghouls or goblins were scratching at the window frame. He needed to go to the bathroom, but he couldn’t move. He was too scared. Every time the wind howled, the window rattled and every time the window rattled, Alex f linched and every time Alex f linched, the rusted springs on his fold out bed screeched and squawked and every time they did, he pulled the covers back over his eyes and he shook and he shivered and he told himself, “there’s no such thing as ghosts.” But the rain it was relentless and all he wanted to do was to run away because robbers or monsters were probably coming up the stairs now and with the lashing rain and the howling wind, nobody would be able to hear their hooks and chains, dragging along on the ground behind them. And because of the thunder clapping so loud, nobody would be able to hear the monster’s grunting and nobody would be able to see the monsters salivating, because of the rain that would wash it all away and so Alex curled in a tight little ball on his creepy and creaky fold out bed and he wanted to scream and he wanted to yell, but he couldn’t find his voice. He looked to his right and his brother was sound asleep on his bed and he was snoring so loud. And then to his left, sharing the bigger bed were his two older sisters and they were sleeping head to foot and one was kicking the other and the other was nudging and kicking back and in the dark, Alex couldn’t tell who was who.


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But with all the nudging, they didn’t wake up. The wind whistled through the gaps in the window and Alex slowly lowered the covers over his eyes. He didn’t want to look. But he had to. He stared out the window, out into the black night and he saw the shadows swaying this way and that and it looked like a hole had opened up in the night; a swirling and ravaging black mass, and from it, stretched and stemmed the digits of devilry, long scratching finger nails that rode the howling wind and reached out from the back abyss and rasped at his bedroom window and he couldn’t look away, not for a second; should the devil itself use that time to have its way with him or his sleeping siblings. “I’m not scared of ghosts,” he said. But it was untrue. He was petrified. He thought; maybe if they believed him, if they heard his voice then maybe they would pester some other child whose fright had kept them awake. He tried to throw the words like a swinging fist but the warning in his voice, what amount there was dissipated in the cold night air before it had even left his tongue and what came out was more of a plea, a prayer or an apology than it was a threat. He could hear creaking from the front door. It was a small apartment. More like a box than an apartment. And Alex’s room was like the piece of stapled cardboard inside that box. And outside his door was a tiny living room with a dusty green bean bag on the f loor and in front of it, an old black and white television that hummed, even when it wasn’t plugged in. The door to the left was the other tiny room where his mother and father slept and beside it, the shower and the toilet. And in front of his room, just three or four steps from his creaking fold out bed was the front door and he could hear the cry it made as the handle turned slowly as if someone were holding their breath, standing against the


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splintering wood and ever so painfully, pulling down on the handle, inch by inch, stopping only to let the little cry vanish in the howling wind before pushing again, another inch and then another inch and Alex looked to the window and the devil was still scratching on the class and he looked at his brother and he was still snoring with his face buried in his pillow and he looked at his sisters and they were still nudging and kicking, but they wouldn’t wake up and Alex hadn’t the voice to shout so all he could do was watch and listen while the devil rasped at his rattling window and a monster or a ghoul or a robbing ghost, held its breath while it slowly and painfully pushed down on the handle of the front door and edged its way inside. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said, to the devil at his window and the robber at his door. He could see the handle turning even though the door was closed. And he thought he could hear the lock clicking and he pulled the covers over his eyes and he couldn’t say a word. He couldn’t cry out any louder than the night already was and if the night couldn’t wake his brother and his sisters, then how could his muted plight? “I’m not afraid of ghosts,” he said, finally admitting, though, that they were real. He threw his covers in the air towards the rattling window and he twisted the handle and ripped open the door and dived to the left and opened the other door and he ran towards the bed and he scampered up through the middle of the covers between his mother and father, like a small dog or a frightened child. And he didn’t want to wake them so he curled in a ball and he watched through the open door at the ghosts who couldn’t get him now because he was next to his daddy. Alex couldn’t feel the blankets being pulled over him. He was sound asleep in seconds and couldn’t feel the light kiss his mother gave him on the back of his head. He was


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curled under the blankets and rolled over so that he was facing his father, catching his warm and heavy breath against his own. Nothing on earth was as big as his father. Nothing. And now that the robbers and the devil couldn’t eat him, he felt safe. Safe enough to dream. And he dreamt that he was with his family and it was a sunny day, but he could see in the distance, there was a black cloud slowly rolling in, but they were at the mall so that didn’t matter anyway. His mother was trying on some pants and a few t-shirts and so were his sisters while his brother was busy talking to other boys by the entrance to the store, speaking loud and looking cool to the girls on the other side that were spying on the boys and giggling and blushing every time they were looked upon. Alex watched his brother wishing he could be with him, but he had his friend beside him, pestering him to sneak away. But Alex didn’t want to. He didn’t know who the boy was, but apparently he was his friend. Alex didn’t want to do little kid stuff. He wanted to lean against the wall at the front of the store like his brother and all the older boys. His father was holding a place in the queue, waiting for his mother and his sisters to finish trying on their clothes, to choose what they wanted and to join him so they could pay and then leave before they were charged the second hour for parking. He stood in the long queue watching the entrance to the changing room and he had impatience glaring from his eyes and he would go from staring at the change room entrance to staring at the shuff ling front of the queue to staring at his watch that Alex knew, was showing every second that had ticked away since the girls disappeared. His father was like that. He liked it when everything could hurry up and when it didn’t, he got mad.


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Alex looked back at the entrance to the store and his brother was gone. All of the cool kids were gone. There was no-one there except for an old man counting change in his trembling hands. His legs were bent inwards so he wouldn’t fall and his nose was running and it ran down his top lip and pooled off onto the f loor. But the old man, he seemed more concerned about having the right change. Alex turned again and he saw his whole family standing side by side with his mother holding a bunch of bags, his sisters pushing and prodding one another whilst pointing at boys and giggling, his brother talking to his father and then his father, listening. And on his father’s shoulders, he could see his friend and his father was holding his feet so that he wouldn’t fall off just like he used to do to him. And his friend was holding onto the tufts of his father’s hair, just like he used to do. As his family walked side by side down the corridor and towards the automatic doors, Alex noticed how the sun had been hidden behind a black cloud and he felt a little sad. He walked slower than his family and he watched as they didn’t. His head felt warm and he could feel his heartbeat in his fingertips as he purposelessly slowed and shallowed every step, waiting for his mother or his father to turn; expecting them to, hoping they would, crying when they didn’t. At the automatic doors, Alex stopped walking. The doors stayed open and they made a funny beeping sound that caught the attention of the old man still counting his loose change. It even caught the attention of the boy in the baggy shirt who was trying to steal some water balloons and thought the beeping was for him. But it didn’t catch his mother’s attention and it didn’t catch his father’s too. He stood there silent and sad but really expecting his mother and father to notice him gone and to turn and shout for him to catch up. They could be sad or they could be happy or they could even be angry, it didn’t matter. He just


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wanted them to notice that he wasn’t there. He wanted them to be worried. He wanted to them to call out for him. He just wanted to hear them shout and they were so far now that he couldn’t shout himself. And so Alex stood in stupid wonder as his father opened the car door and all the kids hopped in the back; his brother, his two sisters and from his father’s shoulders, his friend. And he watched as his mother loaded the shopping in the back; lots of new clothes for herself and the girls. And he watched as the front doors closed. And he watched as the brake lights turned on. And he watched as the car reversed. He started to panic but still, he couldn’t call out. He had no voice. And he watched still as the brake lights glowed red. And he thought, “They’ve finally noticed.” And then he realized they hadn’t. And he watched as the small car drove off through the car park. And he watched as it drove past the road in the distance and went through the traffic lights and took the left turn onto the freeway. And then he cried. The car was gone. His father was gone. Everyone was gone. He was all alone. He was by himself and everything seemed so big and scary again. And Alex cried. He started with a tiny sniff le and his eyes were glued to the parking lot, at the empty spot where the car had been. But what started as a sniff le, turned into bawling tears and desperate wailing as he looked into that empty space and thought, “they don’t love me.” Then, he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Where’s dad,” he thought. He froze. It felt like a cold chill creeping up on him. It wrapped itself around the cusp of his shoulder and pressed down hard. He wanted to scream, but he couldn’t. Instead, he stood completely still and he hoped, the thing, whatever it was, would


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leave him alone. And he looked at the empty car space and then he looked at the empty road and he looked at where the car had turned left and he thought and he trembled in his mind, “please mum, please dad, please.” The he felt another hand. Again on his shoulder. And it turned him around. And he was so scared that he could no longer cry. He just stared straight at his shoes and his legs, they were shaking like the old man counting change and they were turned in too so that he wouldn’t fall. He didn’t tell them to do that. They did it on their own. “Jesus Christ” shouted his father. Alex woke up in a pile of sweat and he was shivering. “What’s wrong? What happened?” asked his mother in sleep. “He pissed the bed,” said his father. Alex looked down and patted around where he lay. The bed was saturated. And it smelt like his pee and it was still warm. He looked at his mother, but she was asleep before she finished her question. He turned then and saw his father coming from the bathroom with a white towel. “Come on, move,” he said. His father cursed to himself but more so he cursed out loud as he lifted Alex and laid the white towel over the wet and stained mattress. Alex felt so small and stupid and he couldn’t tell him about the robbers or the devil, he wouldn’t believe him. He’d just tell him to not be stupid and just go to sleep. “Dad?” said Alex. His father moaned. “Dad” he whispered. “Just go to sleep,” his father said. Alex lay on the white towel. His underwear and his pajamas were cold now and the towel as well was damp. And he could hear his father masking a disgusted tisking sound and


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he turned away from him. Alex closed his eyes and tried to fall back asleep, but he couldn’t, not without his father’s heavy breath falling over his shut eyes and so he lay still and pretended and he shivered and he shook for the next hour or two until the sun rose and made all the monsters and the robbers and the devils and all their devilry go back into the shadows that grew out of trees.


Chapter Three

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“It’s those stupid movies of yours and those grotesque stories,” said his father. He was blaming it on the movie they watched the other night. It was a horror movie about a monster with a chainsaw who killed all of these teenagers at a party and then got killed at the end; chopped into a hundred pieces and dumped at the bottom of a lake. But in the last scene, its fingers twitched and its eyes opened and it wasn’t really dead. It was pretty scary yeah, but that didn’t give him nightmares like his father were suggesting and it wasn’t the reason that he wet the bed. “He’s not old enough to watch those movies,” said his mother. “I’d never watch them,” said one of his sisters. “Me neither,” said the other. His brother looked at him. He looked disappointed as if he had given Alex a chance to be like him, to be older, but he had gone and acted like a baby and now it was he who was getting in trouble for it. His brother gave him that look that said, ‘never again’. Alex looked at his brother and he wanted to tell him why he wet the bed. He wanted to tell him, but he couldn’t. He didn’t know how. He didn’t have the words. He didn’t have the courage. And he didn’t want to look stupid because these kinds of things only ever happened to him so instead, he just looked like a wounded pup, looking up from his sunken head with his apologetic eyes, not at his mother and not at his father; but at his brother, who probably wouldn’t let him watch another movie again. “And I don’t want him listening to any of that satanic music either. It’s not even music. It’s just noise,” his mother said.


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His brother looked like he was about to shout back. Alex studied him. He was drawing from whatever his brother was feeling. He watched and he glued himself to his brother’s eyes and he could see a hint of rebellion brewing. And he felt for the first time, some courage building of his own, some steam to fire his own voice. But his brother lowered his head to the table and chewed his toast without dissent. He raised his head every minute or so to look scornfully at Alex who, in the silence, understood what nobody had the courage to say. “It’s popcorn day today mum,” said one of his sisters. “Oh yeah. We need fifty cents for one bag” said the other. “Why am I only hearing about this now?” his mother asked. The two girls looked at each other and shook their shoulders. Alex’s brother picked at his toast, grain by grain. “I don’t wanna go. Can I stay home? I feel sick” said Alex. His father finished his coffee and left the table to find his tie and get ready for work while his mother looked at him sternly. “No. You have to go to school” she said. “But I don’t like it there,” he said. “That’s tough,” she said. “We all have to do things we don’t like.” His sisters sniggered behind their bread. He couldn’t hear them, but he could see it in their eyes. His brother was still upset and he said nothing, he just continued picking at his toast as if it were the last piece in existence, eating it grain by painful grain. Alex’s father was like a raging bull whenever he had to be somewhere and especially when he was getting ready for work. Their last house was really big so Alex never really saw or heard his father getting changed and cursing because the bloody belt wouldn’t go through the stupid fucking straps or


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because the back was always turned over the wrong way, and he couldn’t make it bloody right. And when his father got mad, his mother got mad. She would have a smile on her face, but you could see she was thinking or feeling the contrary. Everyone got really nervous when she wore that smile and they all kind of looked somewhere else, either at their plates, at a magazine or they just closed their eyes and tried to remember the sound of their father’s voice when he was happy and not so rushed. Alex used to think about the times he watched his brother riding on the back of the motorcycle with his father. For him, it was amazing. His brother used to be allowed to ride it every day after their father got home from work and his sisters were allowed too, but they were always too scared. His brother was really brave though and he sat on the back of the bike and held onto the little pegs at the back of the seat and he never looked like he was joking around or having any fun. He looked really serious like he was trying to solve a puzzle or act tough to some kid that maybe wanted to fight him. And he didn’t smile. He just squinted his eyes and he tensed his cheeks. Alex wasn’t that brave. He did feel brave, though, watching his brother as the motorcycle drove by. He got this wave of energy wash over him and he felt like he could do just the same. But then when his brother passed, so too did the feeling. But then when his brother passed by again, he’d get that feeling once more and he’d imagine himself doing brave things. He never imagined himself on the motorbike, but he did feel like he could do countless other things like riding his BMX up the big hill or even being able to ignore his father’s cursing and swearing as he knocked things over on purpose, acting like they had gotten in his way. Alex had no idea what his sisters would think about. It was hard to think like a girl, especially two, but they looked


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really still, like dead fishes, whenever their father was in a mood. It must have been hard to be the oldest son because when they were angry, dad’s always said things like “hurry up” and “you should have known better.” And no-one ever said that kind of stuff to Alex. They didn’t expect him to know anything. “Where’s my bloody wallet?” shouted Dad. “Where did you leave it?” asked Mum. Alex was sitting on the couch with his father’s wallet in his hands. It was so big that he couldn’t even close it. It just kept springing open and then little bits of paper would pop out. And he was so amazed f lipping through all of the papers and even though it must have been really hard to be an older brother, it must have been super important and difficult to be a grown-up because they had so much stuff with their names on it. Alex never had anything in his pockets. They were just spaces where he could keep his hands warm when he was made to stand outside the principal’s office. But his father had so much stuff and Alex had no idea what any of it was. He wanted to be grown up so much. One of the things he always wanted was to get mail. Grown-ups always got mail. It was a sign that you weren’t a kid anymore. People all around the world wrote to you and you’d always be so serious opening the letters and then putting them in that special place with all the others stuff on top of the microwave. But Alex never got letters. Sometimes though, on his birthday, he would get a card and it would be from his mum and she would write this special message on it and she would read it out to him, and his mother would show him all the people that signed the card like his father, his brother and his sisters and he always thought it was neat how they all wrote so proper, even his sisters, who were terrible at cursive writing. Alex took five dollars from the wallet. There was a lot of money folded in halves between a big chunk of papers. There


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were a couple of green notes, some yellow ones, a couple of red ones and this pink one he had in his hands. He crumpled the note up and shoved it in his pocket, the one that was almost always empty. He thought about taking more, to give to his brother so he could get some popcorn too, but he didn’t. “Dad,” he said, holding up the wallet. “Your thing is here.” His father rushed over and snatched the wallet from his hands and Alex was sure he’d know that he’d taken the money. He was waiting for him to open it and see that one of the notes was gone and then he’d be in a ton of trouble. He didn’t. “I’ll be back later. Have a good day everyone.” His father kissed everyone on the top of the head except for Alex’s brother. Instead, he brushed the top of his hair with his palm and nodded and his brother smiled and nodded back and Alex looked at his brother and he was smiling so much; not because anyone said anything funny but just because he was really happy. And his brother gave him a funny look, stranger than ‘ha ha’ and he got up and he ruff led Alex’s hair and he said, “Come on, get your stuff ready. You can walk with me today.” Alex smiled. He acted real cool like it didn’t matter. But it did.


Chapter Four

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When they left the apartment, side by side, Alex felt so special. He felt older and included. But with this feeling also came nerves and he wanted to ask his brother so many things. Most of all, he just wanted to know what it felt like to be older so that he knew if what he was feeling was right or not. By the stairs, at the end of the hall, there was an old lady who was walking with a silver cane and her legs were wobbling like jelly and she was trying to get down the stairs. She lived three apartments down and nobody really liked her because she was a busy body and she was always asking a million questions and her never really approved of any of the answers that anyone gave but still, she kept on asking, more and more inconvenient questions. Everyone hated getting stuck by the stairs. No matter what time of day it was, the old lady would always be there and she’d always insist on asking a trillion questions the whole time while struggling her way up or wobbling her way down the stairs and it would take her a lifetime just to do it. And any time anyone would try to help her, she’d hit them with her cane and shout that she wasn’t an invalid and she wasn’t dead yet and she could do it by herself if she wanted to. And then, when they’d try to walk away, she’d huff and she’d puff and shed purposefully wobble as if she were teetered to fall and she’d say it was typical of young people these days, leaving an old woman alone to trip and fall to her death. And whoever they were, they’d return, with guilt as their premise, on account of her being feeble and old and because karma, well she was a bitch, and she kicked around in the shadowy tail of old crippled women. So they’d always come back.


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And she’d ask them more questions. She was mean and confused. “A lack of respect,” is what she’d say, “is all that was these kids knew. Not enough discipline,” she’d say, say whilst parading the leathered cusps on the back of her hands from the countless educating wraps she’d received across her knuckles as young girl that, had society not gone to the liberal whores, she would gladly extend to the hands of every child she met, like a teacher, picking at the coat of bad grammar, teaching insolent little children good manners and polite demeanor. This morning they stood there, Alex and his brother while the old lady looked both of them up and down and she stared at Alex’s fretted expression like she was staring at a scuff on somebody’s shoe. Her face looked skeletal. Her skin was like dry desert sand. It cracked along her arm, up her neck and eroded dried blotchy crevices all over her face. She was like a human salt plain and when she spoke, the dry dusty earth spurted from hallowed caves of her sunken chest. Her long skinny fingers were like the scratching twigs that rasped his window. She reached her hand out to run her finger through Alex’s hair. He stood still, like any animal would, when such imperious death was approaching. Her skin stank. It smelt like leather shoes that had been run in, day after day by the same sweaty bare feet. And she’d tried to mask it, with some horrid perfume but its musky resonance only sought to rouse and anneal the scent of death that permeated from her dried saliferous pores. Alex had his hands pinned to his side. He tried to creep deep inside his own skin and, like a cat cowering in a corner, to find the farthest region of his own fretful body where he could pile his soul until this monster had passed or had its way. The old woman licked her finger along the line of hair that curled around his ear. She picked a curl of his hair around


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her scabbing finger and slowly ran it in circles, collecting the curl into a tight wind as if she were turning a crackling pig skin over a slow burning f lame. Alex looked from the corner of his eyes at his brother and he called out without moving lips and without straining eyes. He looked right into his brother’s passive and educated stare for him to raise his hand or to raise his voice, whatever it took to free him from this spider’s web. Alex could tell that his brother wanted to run as well. But he couldn’t. And if he could, Alex wondered if he would leave him behind. “And how is your mother?” she asked. When she spoke, it sounded like a kettle boiling. She whistled from between her teeth while her f licking tongue, it slithered past her sliding dentures, catching each time that she painted in salivation, the whole of her arid pallet, pushing her dentures around her mouth like a rickety chest in a marred and decrepit, dilapidated old shack. “Good,” said his brother. “And your father?” “Good.” “And your sisters.” “They’re good.” “Does your mother not work?” “No. Yes. No,” his brother said, confused by the question. “But she lets you walk around by yourselves?” “I’m old enough. I’m twelve.” “Don’t be smart,” shouted the old lady. “Excuse me?” It was their mother. She was leaving to get some milk from the cafeteria. She came over to where her sons were and put her hands on their shoulders. “I was just saying how delightful your boys are. All off to school by themselves. How brave you are.”


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“Well, I trust my boys.” “Well good on you. In my day, it was different. We wouldn’t walk out alone and we wouldn’t talk back to our elders” said the old lady, looking at Alex’s brother disapprovingly. “Is that true?” asked their mother. “Did you talk back?” His brother wanted to tell her that the old lady was a bag, an inconvenient and mean old bag who asked too many questions. So he turned away from the old lady and widened his eyes to his mother as if to say, ‘you know exactly what I’m not talking about’. “Apologize,” said their mother. Alex and his brother turned back to the old lady. “I’m sorry,” said Alex. “I’m sorry,” said his brother. The old lady looked at their mother. “I do apologize,” their mother said. “That’s fine. They are healthy lads, especially this one” the old lady said, leaning down to squeeze Alex’s cheeks. Alex grabbed his mother’s hand and squeezed tight and what his clenched hand was saying was, ‘mum, please help me, I’m scared. Make her go away, please’. But his mother did nothing, even though she hated the old lady and she herself wanted to pull her sons away. Something inside of her kept her still and stupid. And so the old lady grabbed at Alex’s cheeks and he turned his face away and when he did, she assumed that he must have obviously wanted to be grabbed somewhere else so she ran her hands through his hair and she pulled at his ears and she made cackling old lady sounds as she did and Alex squirmed, but he couldn’t break free because his mother, who had a grip on his hand, was the pillar unto which the spider cast her web. “You boys should be off or you’ll be late,” said their mother.


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“Oh I meant to ask you something,” said the old lady, capturing their mother. “It’s about your…” The two boys ran off down the stairs. They’d only been at this new school for a week or so but already Alex’s brother was popular. As they left the block of f lats, other kids getting off the buses were waving to him and when they passed, they gave him high fives. When they were nearing the school, they passed a group of older kids in black clothes and they were sitting on the ground, lined up against the wall. And it would have been impossible for anybody inside the school to see them and what they were doing. And the people driving by on the street, and the people walking their kids to school too, they were usually running late and so busy being rushed and angry that they didn’t notice that the older kids in black were being busy, up to no good. His brother saw them; out of the corner of his eye and he didn’t look to his right. He did what his father always did, keeping his eyes straight ahead and pretending not to notice the things that were obviously right there. But how could he not? They looked so cool. When they passed the group, Alex couldn’t help. He turned his head and smiled at one of the older kids who was rolling something in a piece of paper between his fingers. He didn’t know what it was, but he guessed it was probably something dangerous or something that only grown-ups did because he got the feeling that what they were doing was wrong. This happened to Alex a lot. He would get a feeling in his stomach and a feeling in his head too that something was wrong or not right, or different or something. It was really hard to explain because he didn’t have any words to describe it and he didn’t really know that the feeling he had was actually there, so not only did he not have the words to describe the feeling, he didn’t have the words to tell anyone that he


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had a feeling. It was just something he felt and did nothing about. The older kid licked the side of the thing in his hands and then he pressed it between his fingers and he looked at Alex who was looking back at him smiling, wanting to do whatever the hell it was that he was doing. The older kid put the thing behind his ear and he gave Alex a look and it wasn’t the kind of look that said ‘how you doin?’ and it wasn’t the kind of look that said ‘get lost’ either. It was a kind of a mix of the two. Alex could feel though that his brother was scared. It was funny how people could look like they didn’t care and they could speak like nothing really mattered, but you could tell, just from a feeling that you couldn’t explain, that they were worried or scared or angry or sad or even that they were about to yell at you about something, even when their mouths were closed. Alex got the feeling that his brother was scared and this kind of made him feel scared too, even though the older kids looked so cool. And he also got the feeling that he was gonna be in trouble, that his teacher or Horace or someone like that was going to be waiting at the gates and would tell his mother or whoever was with him. And he was right. As they reached the gate, Mother Superior, or as Alex knew her as, The Scary Witch, was there in her black dress and that weird hat that covered her whole head, but just let her grumpy face be seen. Across the way - down the road and other the other side of the street - there was a different kind of school with a different religion and all the ladies, they all wore these long dresses that covered their whole bodies and only their faces and sometimes only their eyes could be seen. They kind of looked like lady Batmans. People looked at them funny, though like they were lying or planning something or hiding something under their garments. But The Scary Witch; she


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looked just like them and no-one said bad things about her. And the other ladies, under their veils and dresses and hoods, their eyes looked really kind whereas The Scary Witch, hers always looked despised and despicable, like she was about to shout out some awful grievance and she never looked happy to see anyone, not even her own miserable ref lection. Yet every morning, there she was, with her whipping cane tied to her hip, her dangling beads curling in her strangling hands and her virtuous and chastising eyes, making a Judas of every child who feigned reservation as they slipped past her sight. “Good morning children,” said The Scary Witch. “James,” she said, nodding at Alex’s brother and pointing at his pants. “Your shirt. Disgraceful.” His brother looked down and his shirt was sticking out from his pants at the front. As he went to tuck it back in, The Scary Witch did it for him. She pulled his hand away and made that tisking sound that grown-ups always did when they were disappointed and she glared her angry and scary eyes at his, drawing her left hand around his belt while her right hand shoved and tucked and pressed the ends of his shirt down neatly and tightly into his pants. “I’m sorry Mother Superior,” his brother said. He didn’t look away, she didn’t let him. It was the kind of look that fathers gave you while they were smacking your bum. That look alone could hold you down and it wouldn’t let you run and it wouldn’t let you cry and it wouldn’t let you dissent your voice or kick your legs about in protest. “And you,” she said pointing at Alex. “Do you know what happens to children who don’t do what they’re told?” Alex was scared stiff. He didn’t know. The Scary Witch pushed her pointing finger into his chest and she prodded him over and over and Alex trembled.


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His bottom lip shuddered and if this was a silent movie it might have looked as if he were saying something, telling her just what happened to disobedient children. But he wasn’t. “The devil has a place for children like you; children who don’t do as grown-ups tell them. You’re a rude boy and god will make an example of you. Do you know what the devil does to little boys?” No, he didn’t. He had no idea. “The devil has his way with little boys. Little disobedient boys and god will see it, that the devil will have his way with you. Now if I catch you or if I hear about you escaping or plotting anything inside of my school, I will give you to the devil myself. Now get to class.” Alex was too scared to move, but his brother put his arm around his shoulder and brought him past Horace who was looking at Alex as if he were thinking about squashing him or eating him for lunch. “She’s a bitch. Don’t worry” his brother said. Alex couldn’t believe that he swore. They entered the school and Alex said goodbye but his brother didn’t hear and so he said nothing back, he just shouted out to his friends who were up the stairs fooling around near their classroom. Alex stood by the door to his class watching his brother running up the stairs and giving his friends special handshakes. He watched each time his brother did it and he tried to copy with his own hands. The other kids walking past thought he looked silly and looked at him strangely, but Alex didn’t notice, he was too focused on his brother and the things that he did. Alex wasn’t allowed up the stairs. Only the kids from years five to seven and the teachers were allowed up there. That alone made him want to be there, more than anything


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“Good morning Alex.” Alex shivered. Her words were like the wings of death, f lapping as a bird of prey stood silent and staunch, behind and above an unwitting mouse. He could feel her talons cutting through the thin air as she reached to pluck at his nervous shoulder. “Come on in. Class is about to start.” He turned and The Teacher was there and she was already leaning down to kiss him on the cheek and he got that feeling again, the one that rolled around in his stomach and made him run out the door yesterday and the one that made him punch that boy the other day and the one he felt but he had no words to say what it was or even, that it was there in the first place. Alex moved his head and The Teacher brushed her lips against his ear lobe. He knew it was wrong that he didn’t let her kiss him, but he didn’t like it. His mum kissed him every night before he went to sleep. He asked her to. Sometime she would forget and he would shout out to her and she would come running and kiss him on the forehead and then he would snuggle up under his blanket and fall asleep. Sometimes his aunty would kiss him and it would feel weird and yucky and he would always squirm and wriggle. But this was different. This felt wrong. Alex made his way to his seat at the back of the class and he watched sullenly while all the kids lined up one by one and hugged and kissed The Teacher and then The Teacher kissed all of them on the cheek and they all went to their desks and they all looked at Alex funny, like his clothes were on wrong or something or like he was laughing, when like everyone else, he should have been crying. Alex didn’t like it.


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He didn’t mind feeling stupid, it was easy to come back from that. But he didn’t like feeling different or strange. He didn’t want to feel different, but he didn’t want to be like them either. He wanted to be older, so they’d look at him the same way that he looked at his brother. He sat in his chair in the back of the room and he watched all the kids running in and smiling like they were all friends and all of them, they all gave Alex a special kind of look as if he weren’t their friend and would never be. The girl beside him was called Alison. He knew that because everything on her desk had a sticker with her name on it, from her pencil case to each pen and pencil. She even had a sticker on her chest with her name written on the wings of a purple and green butterf ly. Alison was strange, maybe stranger than Alex. None of the other kids played with her and they sometimes chewed up small bits of paper and f licked it at her and it’d get caught in her hair and she’d never tell The Teacher and she wouldn’t try to pull them out either. Once she came to school for an entire week with the same small bit of chewed paper stuck in her pony tail. Alex liked her, mainly because she was strange. He used to look at her all the time, the same way he’d stop and look at a dead pigeon by the side of the road or a hamster, running tirelessly in its wheel. He didn’t really care if anyone could see him or not or what they even thought, he’d just watch her and he’d get this shiver running up and down his spine and he just couldn’t look away. On his first day, he thought Alison was just like a normal girl and like any boy; he was more interested in what the other boys in class were doing and saying. Girl stuff wasn’t the least bit fun. It wasn’t until that afternoon that she did something really weird and then he noticed that everything she did was weird and then he couldn’t look at anything else. They had been drawing pictures of mountains with


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themselves on top. Alex hated art. He was no good and there was always one kid who drew cool looking cars and people that didn’t look like weather balloons. He would see their pictures and he would want to draw just like them and it made him feel angry and stupid that he couldn’t. The mountain was easy. It’s just a squiggle. You could make a mistake on a piece of paper and you could call it a mountain and then just say you drew it on purpose. That part was easy. But drawing a person, Alex hated trying to draw people. He knew what they looked like when he saw them, but he just couldn’t draw one for the life of him. Their hands were always too big and they had too many fingers and one leg would always look bigger than the other and their heads just looked stupid. Sometimes he would get angry when he was drawing because he knew other kids would say it was stupid or The Teacher would look at him funny, that smile that grown-ups gave when it was the least condescending thing thy could do without making the child cry. And so he would just mess it up on purpose so it would look insane and crazy and not talentless and stupid. This one day, Alex was drawing a square head on the man’s body that was falling off the mountain and then Alison sneezed. She hadn’t really said or done anything weird up until that point so Alex wasn’t really waiting for it when it happened, not like he did now. He was drawing, though, the speed lines beside the square headed man’s body as he raced to the ground when he heard an icky sniff ling and then what sounded like Alison crying and when she cried, the icky sniff ling sounded like a tiny plastic bag being blown with wet air and he looked beside him and he saw her with her eyes red and watery and she was holding back a terrific cry and she had her hands cupped over her mouth and he thought that she might have hit her teeth or her nose because that’s what it looked like. He didn’t say anything to her. He just kind of watched


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her as if it was a show or something. She took her hand slowly away and it was horrible. When she sneezed, all sorts of stuff had shot out of her nose and she was lucky her hands were there because they caught everything. Otherwise, it might have f lown across the room. That would have been funny. Alex stared at Alison as she stared at her hands and it looked like she had no idea what to do. She just cried quietly, looking at the mess in her palms which was still stuck to her nose and Alex just watched her, as if she were stuck to his. “Ok angels. I want you to think about your favorite thing in the whole world. The bestest thing in the world that you love to do. Maybe it’s playing with your dolls, brushing her hair, maybe it’s playing on your skateboard and doing cool tricks, maybe it’s walking your dogs or hanging out with your friends. It could be anything. Whatever you want it to be. Then when you’re done, I’ll call your name, one by one and you can bring your drawings to the front and show everyone and explain the picture and why it’s the bestest thing in the whole wide world. Ok?” said The Teacher. The children all nodded. “And who wants to come up the front?” she asked. The children all threw their hands into the air and they tried to restrain themselves, but it was impossible. The boys stretched their right hands as far as they could; up into the heavens and they gripped under their armpits with their left hands; so desperately and the girls, their hands exploded upwards with as much zest but theirs was with more restraint and tact and poise and each girl tried to look primmer and more proper. And they were probably about to burst out of their skin in wanton excitement, it’s just they didn’t show it, not like the boys. The Teacher selected two girls and two boys and they both jumped from their seats, but they were careful not to knock them over. They were allowed to be excited, The


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Teacher adored the idea of childish rapture, but they weren’t allowed to show it, at least that’s what it looked like. The girls each took a large wooden brush and attended to The Teacher’s long blonde hair, using their left hands to lift long strands and then run the brush over lightly, letting them fall gently through the air like the f lorets of a dandelion, until they touched her shoulders and then they would lift and brush them again. And they brushed from the top of her head down to the finely cut ends that sat just below her hips. Her hair was so long and shiny and for the girls, it was like having a life size doll that they could make more beautiful than it already was and they would have these snooty expressions as they went from looking at her hair to looking out over the class at all the other girls who wished that it was they at the celebration of her fancy. The two boys stood on either side of The Teacher, but they didn’t brush her hair because that was a girly thing to do and they would look silly doing something like that. Instead, they massaged her legs and The Teacher sat with them both slightly open so that the boys could rub the inside and the outside of her thighs from her knees to all the way up her skirt. The Teacher would read one of those magazines that mums always read, the gossip ones with all the famous people being caught doing provocative things. She looked like all those ladies who sat in beauty salons as she caught up on the latest gossip while lesser privileged people prettied their nails and made up their hair and massaged their feet, only this time, the privilege was in being a chosen girl to brush her hair or a boy, to massage up and down her legs. Alex didn’t know why, but when he saw the boys rubbing her legs, he felt sick. He felt like he had this elastic band around his stomach and it was wound really tight and it was connected to something really far away, something outside


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of the class, outside of the school, somewhere far and different. And it felt like the elastic was about to snap if he didn’t get up and run. He felt scared. He felt wrong. The other kids were ok with everything. It must have been him that was broken. This was just like all those times he watched his aunty and his uncles and grandparents and all his mother’s friends; all of them, pinching and poking at his sisters, pulling on their hair and putting their hands on their shoulders and seeing his sisters standing still with an uncomfortable and well-mannered smile on their faces and neither of them being able to run away. And he felt the same, knowing that just like all of those times, he was watching the kids do all of those things and it scared him and he knew that unless he ran away, he was probably next. Then Alison started her show and tell. She was so weird. It was awesome. Alison wasn’t very good at drawing either. She wasn’t really good at anything, not anything that they did in school anyway. Maybe she was good at things he didn’t know about, stuff they didn’t teach in school. But in class, though, she always did something else and one of those things was to practice her show and tell. You see, every Friday, the kids would bring in something from home and stand in front of the class and talk about it for one or two minutes. It could be a ball or a picture of a holiday that they went on. Once, one of the boys organized so his father brought in his new puppy, an Alaskan malamute, and they passed it round the class for everyone to pat while he stood at the front and talked about the time the puppy pooped on his sister’s pillow and it ate one of his mother’s cigarettes. The Teacher had to explain to all the kids after


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that what a cigarette was because most of the kids didn’t know. Alex did, though. It was what the cool older kids kept behind their ears. That day, the class thought up a name for the puppy. One of the girls wanted to call it Rose and a bunch of boys said it should be called Tyrannosaurus or Gun or Awesome; one of those. The class ended up deciding on the name Phillip. The boy’s dad said it sounded good and everyone agreed. Alex thought that maybe it was already called Phillip, before they brought the puppy into the class. All of the kids loved show-and-tell and everyone got a chance to bring something in and to talk about it. Alex never did because he had just moved and he didn’t really have much stuff. He had the clothes he moved with, but he had to give all of his toys away to his old neighbors and his mum threw most of his football magazines into the trash. He didn’t really like sport, but he still had loads of magazines. He collected them mainly because his father liked sport so much and his brother liked it too, mainly though because his father liked it. Boys were like that. Alison was different to the other kids. Like I said, she was weird. But not weird like stupid weird. She was interesting weird. When all the other kids were trying to act cool and interesting, she was just trying to act like them, when they were normal. That made her weirder. And when all the kids took their turn standing in front of the class and showing off their newest skipping rope or computer game when it came to picking from all the raised hands, Alison’s was never there to be chosen. For whatever reason, she never put her hand up. She would, though when the rest of the class was drawing and when the girls were combing The Teacher’s hair and when the boys were running their hands between her legs, practice quietly to herself, show and tell.


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She would take out quietly from a drawer below her desk, an envelope that maybe she had received weeks or months before. It was an envelope for a Dollarmite Account. It was a type of bank account for children to help them save their pocket money and it had these little cute monsters called Dollarmites that were always really hungry and they loved to be fed dollars and cents and when you gave them lots of money, like two or three dollars, they would have babies and there would be more Dollarmites and you had to feed them as well, like lice. Everyone had one of these accounts, even Alex. It wasn’t really that special. Every month he would be given a dollar or two by his father and he would take it to school - his old school - and they would put it in a Dollarmite envelope and give it to the bank person and she would feed the Dollarmites with it. Alex had maybe seven dollars in his Dollarmite account. Every month, though, he would receive an envelope in the post with a statement that usually mum helped him to read with all the money in his account and the number of Dollarmites he had and their different names. Everyone got the same letter so it wasn’t really that special. When he first opened his account, though, he received a really big envelope with a big sticker with his name on it. On the sticker, there was a big Dollarmite and for boys it was blue and for girls it was pink. Alison kept her envelope in the drawer under her table. And when everyone was drawing, she would take it out and practice doing her show and tell. Alex watched her now, pretending to be looking at his blank page but looking through the corners of his eyes and looking more with his ears to the sound of Alison speaking about her special letter. She never spoke in class; not to other kids and not to The Teacher. When they did roll call, she would quietly raise


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her hand but she would say nothing. So Alex had no idea what her voice was like but he knew, like the back of his hand, the sound of her whisper. And it sent a shiver up and down his spine as he listened to her. “Good morning,” she whispered. “This is my Dollarmite. She is blue and her name is Alison, like me.” Alison held up the large sticker. Her Dollarmite was blue, like his, not like any other girls. Alison smiled as she presented the Dollarmite around the class, slowly turning her body to the left and the right so, if she were standing in front of the class like she imagined, everyone could see. When Alison whispered, it sounded like someone calling a kitten and as Alex sat there, paralyzed in an elated shiver, his conscious mind was purring like a cat while he pretended not to notice and pretended not to care. Alison put the sticker down and then opened the envelope carefully. There wasn’t a single tear anywhere. It looked so neat. She put the sticker on the table facing up and then took out a letter with her name on it. She held the letter in front of her and she whispered some more. “This is the letter they sent me,” she whispered, like a light breeze, speaking to the afternoon sun. “It has my name on the top as well,” she whispered, before pointing to the large bold print writing of her name and then slowly turning her hands to the left and to the right as if, in her imagination, she were showing it to everyone in the class. Alison slowly went through the contents of the entire envelope and whispered something about each piece and then each piece had her name on it and she held each piece proudly and pointed out her name as she moved it to the left and to the right so that, in her imagination, all the kids would be able to see. Alex wondered what all the children looked like, in her imagination. Would they be shivering as she spoke like he did now? Would they have wide smiles and glistening eyes?


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Would wonder and surprise keep their mouths open, like it did on their birthdays? Would the girls look at her with f lattery or would they mock her with jealousy? Or would it be a mix of the two? And would the boys, for the first time, be interested in what a girl had to say? Would The Teacher gleam and would she write a note to her mother and tell her how amazed she was and how her daughter was so smart and so popular? And would they all cheer and stamp their feet and grin manically as she put her envelope away and said “thank you”? And would she blush? Or would she be cool? Or would she imagine that there were no children in the class, that every seat was empty? Maybe they had gone out to lunch or maybe they had gone home. Maybe something had happened and none of them could come to class. Maybe it was after school. Maybe it was a holiday. Would she imagine everyone gone, that they had all died in an accident? Or would the class be full? And would all the children look like her? And would they all have badges? And would they all be called Alison? And would she shout in a clear voice or would she whisper? Alex hoped she would whisper. “Ok, pencils down.” The children all dropped their pencils. Alex didn’t have a pencil in his hands, but he quickly picked one up and then dropped it, as if he had been stopped whilst working hard. Alison stopped whispering. She looked like she had been broken from a spell. She quickly slid the stickers and the pages with her name on it back into the envelope and she put the envelope back into the small white drawer under her desk. Alex wanted to applaud. At the front of the class, the girls were still brushing The Teacher’s hair and the two boys were still rubbing her


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thighs. Alex didn’t want to, but she made everyone look to the front. “Ok, who’s first?” The Teacher called out different kids and they all got up one by one and they held out their picture in front of the class and they explained what they drew and why it was special to them and after they showed it to the class, they turned to The Teacher who was sitting on a chair in front of the black board and she smiled and she gave each child a kiss on the cheek and then they went back to their seats. “Alex,” she said. He couldn’t hear. He was looking out through the door and he could see older children walking past. He wished he was in the corridor. His stomach was shouting at him and it was making him feel sick. It felt like it was telling him to run, but that was stupid. He wasn’t allowed to run. That would be rude and undisciplined. And children who did things like that probably went to hell. That’s what he heard in his mind anyway; the sound of his mother saying “no” then the sound of his father saying ‘no” then the sound of Mother Superior tisking and saying “no’ and then the sound of his teacher saying “do you want to talk about it?’ “Alex,” she said. “You’re next. Come up and show the class you’re beautiful art.” He looked at his page. It was completely blank. But there was nothing he could do. The door was closed. He wouldn’t be able to run, not like he did yesterday. Maybe he could, but The Teacher would catch him before he turned the handle. And if she didn’t, then the other kids would. He panicked. His heart was beating so fast again. He looked at Alison and she was staring at her own blank page. But she was lucky. The Teacher never asked her to stand in front of the class for anything. “Alex? Are you ok?” What could he do?


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He took the blank paper and walked with his head low, along the back of the room and then up the side of the class and all the kids looked up at him as he passed them and they were all curious about what was on his paper. The other drawings were all so cool and they were expecting the same thing from him. The Teacher was smiling. Alex tried not to look. He felt so nervous. He passed the door and he could feel the handle calling out to him. He could just run. He was so close now. Nobody would catch him. “Show your drawing to the class and explain what it means to you.” Alex held his breath and then held up the paper in front of his eyes. It was blank. The kids looked cheated. “This is what snow looks like,” he said. “I like snow.” He turned the picture to the left and to the right so all of the kids could see and they all wanted to look and they all looked so confused and before they could start mocking him and pointing and laughing, The Teacher cleared her throat and shushed them. “Can I see?” she asked. Her voice was like snow. It was soft. It was cold. Alex turned to The Teacher. He looked at her quickly and turned away. She frightened him. The other kids saw her as this gentle princess who f loated about the room and was kind and sang to them and told them stories. Alex though could see nothing but her left eye. It twitched uncontrollably like a broken light. Her other eye was normal. It looked like anyone else’s eye but her left eye, it scared him. All Alex wanted to do was run.


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He didn’t know why. It made him feel like he was doing something wrong. He felt naughty. “This is wonderful Alex. You have an incredible imagination. I can’t wait to tell your mother. She’ll be so proud of you.” Normally the children would lean in to collect their paper and receive their kiss on the cheek. Alex stepped back and took the paper from her hands. She was still smiling at him and she wasn’t upset that he didn’t let her kiss his cheek or maybe she was, but she didn’t show it. She just smiled as he walked uncomfortably back to his table at the back of the class. An alarm bell rang. “Ok kids, it’s time for music class. Everyone get your lyric books and lineup by the door.” The children all joked with one another as they set aside their pictures and then scoured through their drawer for their lyric books. Most of the kids’ drawers were pretty messy, the boys’ anyway. They all found their books quickly and then they pushed their drawers in and then pushed their chairs in behind their tables and then they lined up neatly in a single file at the front of the class, in front of the door. The Teacher stood by the door and she kissed every child on the cheek as they walked out of the room. Alex was somewhere near the back. His heart was pounding. He couldn’t find his lyric book. He didn’t want a kiss. What could he do?


Chapter Five

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The hallway was abuzz with class doors swinging open and kids running out and teachers behind them yelling for them to slow down. Alex was arguing with one of the boys in his class. The boy kept insisting that at a hundred degrees Celsius, things would freeze. They thought that a hundred was the limit and the boy thought that something would get so hot that eventually it froze. Alex thought it was a stupid thing to say and insisted that a hundred degrees was boiling though he couldn’t imagine anything ever getting that hot except for the sun. As he made his argument, Alex thought of outer space; and every time he said one hundred, his mind thought of the black emptiness of space and the seemingly infinite dark and part of him started to question his own logic. What if the other boy was right? As they argued, the older boys came down the stairs and Alex saw his brother walking with them. He caught his brother’s arm as he passed the class. The other boy didn’t know Alex had a brother so he thought he was crazy for trying to talk to one of the year sevens. “Is a hundred degrees boiling hot or freezing cold?” asked Alex. His brother looked so cool at school, different than he did at home. He probably shouldn’t have even been talking to Alex or even looking at him. It was an unspoken kind of rule. Everyone understood it. His brother looked at him, though. He gave him this mean kind of look. Alex knew he wasn’t going to shout or pin him down and punch him or anything. He wasn’t gonna make him look stupid in front of the other kids but still, he had


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that kind of look in his eye that maybe he just might, probably, when they got home. “Boiling. God, stupid question.” Alex turned and smiled at the boy. He felt invincible. He felt just as smart as his big brother and probably smarter than all the kids in his class. He knew the answer before he asked his brother. That made him just as smart as him. “I told you so,” said Alex, rubbing it in. The boy walked away with his friends. They all huddled together and they sniggered something about Alex being stupid because he was so smart, but Alex didn’t mind, he knew they were jealous because one of the year sevens spoke to him and not them. The rest of his class formed a single file and walked like tiny army people up the hallway towards the assembly area where they would have their music class. Before the end of the line moved, Alex looked back into the class and he saw The Teacher sitting on her chair under the blackboard and she was holding a small doll in her left hand. It was sitting upright and she was holding it so it didn’t fall over. With her right hand, The Teacher used a small brush that she borrowed from one of the girls in the class and she was brushing the dolls blonde hair while her eyes trained on an empty seat at the back of the class. Alex couldn’t look away. The line had already started moving and the first of the kids were already entering the assembly area and making their way onto the benches and fighting over who would sit where. The girls preferred the front and the boys preferred to joke around in the back. Alex watched her. He couldn’t do anything else. The Teacher gently stroked the doll’s hair and she stared out over the rows of empty seats and it looked like she was saying something or whispering something as if she were


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she were talking to a class that wasn’t there. Alex caught a shiver running up his spine. It wasn’t like the shiver he got listening to Alison. This one was different. With Alison, he felt like her ‘weird’ was special and definitely not dangerous. With the Teacher, though, he felt like her ‘weird’ was the kind of weird that mums and dads and police officers warned you about. The one you were supposed to keep away from. The last time he felt like this was after they moved, on their first night at the block of f lats. They watched this movie about all the deadly things in their area that could hurt you, like small spiders that crept into your socks and slept in your bed sheets and waited until you were asleep or when you were putting on your shoes in the morning before they bit their fangs into your leg or between your toes and there was probably nothing you could do because they were deadly and they would kill you in seconds. And the movie said that they were everywhere; under big rocks and metal grates, in the cracks between walls, under the stairs where it was dangerous for kids to play and behind locked doors and in empty rooms because grown-ups hadn’t chased them away. But most of the time; and the movie said this was true, they were hanging above your shower or they were hiding under your bed. And there was nothing you could really do except for keeping out of where you didn’t belong. But if they got you then they got you. And Alex felt as eerie and unsettled watching The Teacher brushing the doll’s hair as he did after watching that movie. He watched her sitting there, whispering and brushing and her one eye twitching and he thought of the spider at the end of the movie when they played the scary music, the one that was weaving its web and probably thinking about catching a f ly or maybe creeping into some child’s bed while they were asleep and biting them between their toes. “Excuse me young man,” shouted a voice from the end


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of the hallway. The voice travelled far and it was loud. The hallway was empty. All the kids had made their way to their classrooms and only Alex was somewhere that he shouldn’t have been. And at the end of the hall, The Music Teacher stood with her hands on her hips and she looked disappointed like his mother did, when he wouldn’t finish his dinner or when she sat down on the toilet seat and the lid was covered in pee. Alex looked back into the classroom. The Teacher was writing on the board. The doll was on the chair. The brush was on the f loor. “Hurry along Alex. We don’t have all day for your tarrying. You don’t want me to tell Mother Superior now do you?” She looked like she would tell, in a heartbeat. Music teachers were supposed to be gentle and kind. They were supposed to be like fairies trapped in big people’s bodies and they would dance and they would sing and they would never threaten to send you to the principal’s office. That was what normal teachers did. Normal teachers put you in detention, or they made you apologize to Mother Superior, or they went and told your mum and dad on you. In his old school, that was the way things were. Teachers were generally nice but when you did something they didn’t like, they could be really mean and they would get real angry for something that was just silly, something that you didn’t mean to do. They never looked angry or mean though when they spoke to your mum and dad. When it got to that, they just looked disappointed. And they always titled their heads. By themselves though, or at least, when it was just them and their kids, they would be all nice and fairy like until someone did something wrong and then they would be all scary


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and they would get bigger and their voice would get louder and there would be nowhere to run and nothing that anyone could do. And mums and dads, they didn’t really know, but fairies had sharp teeth. Nobody ever told them that. Kids just assumed they already knew. Why would they put them in their grasp if they didn’t? The Music Teacher was wearing a disappointed face, but it looked like she would start shouting for real at any moment and her threat was anything but idle. She had sent kids to Mother Superior for far less than dawdling. “Hurry up” she shouted. Alex ran up the hallway. “Don’t run” she shouted. Alex stopped. He started walking slowly. “Alex, hurry up.” What was it, walk or run? Alex moved into a brisk walk. He didn’t know why teachers always made running out to be so dangerous especially when there was nobody about. Grown-ups just liked to make you need to do something and then told you off when you did it. “Come on, hurry up’ she shouted, hitting Alex on the bum with her notebook as he shuff led past. Alex f linched as the rolled notebook smacked against this bum and he saw that all of the good seats had been taken. The whole class was pointing at him and sniggering to themselves as he stood there looking for somewhere to sit. “Over there on the end” directed The Music Teacher. Alex looked to the right. There was one seat available at the end of a middle row. It was with the girls and he would be sitting next to a girl called Stephanie. Stephanie had a nickname at school. The boys called her Stelephant, mainly because she was really fat and for lunch she always ate a lot of food, enough for an elephant


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maybe. She didn’t really smell that nice either. Her cheeks were always pinky red and she was always out of breath. Worse than that though was that she took up more than one space so whoever sat beside her was always having their legs squashing against her and her stubby arms, pushing into their bellies. The kids would all make elephant stamping sounds as she walked into a room. They would stomp their feet as she took each step and they would sing, “Boom, baddah boom baddah boom baddah” and Stelephant, I mean, Stephanie, she wouldn’t cry out loud, but you could see that she was really sad. She kind of scrunched it up in a ball and she squeezed it into a fist and she turned the sadness into anger and she would sit with her cheeks puffed and her hands clenched over her wobbly knees. It wasn’t her fault. It’s just the way it was. She was born big. And kids were cruel. Alex wasn’t really cruel. He didn’t sing along when the other kids made elephant sounds. He didn’t really do half the things the other boys did. Which is probably why he hadn’t made any friends; ever, in his whole life. “Ok children; open your song books to page fifteen. We’re going to sing Frère Jacques. Ok, ready? And on three. And a one and a two and a….” The class erupted in song as The Music Teacher sat behind her little keyboard with her back all prim and proper and straight and arched just right, like a person was supposed to sit, not at all like kids would. And everyone sang what they thought were the words because nobody really knew how to pronounce them properly because nobody spoke French but still, every week, they sang this song and it was just one of those silly things that mums and dads and other grown-ups could never explain; why you had to do some of the things


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you had to do when in the real world, no-one ever does them and most of the time, you don’t even know what you’re saying or what you’re doing or if you’re even doing it right. While the children sang, Alex stared up at a light on the ceiling. He stretched his hand up in front of his eye so that it stood between the light and his eye, and, as if he were a giant, picking the sun from the sky like a piece of ripe fruit, he squashed his fingers tight against his hand and he imagined himself grabbing the light and holding in his clasp. The Music Teacher was watching him and she wasn’t impressed. She was about to yell, but she wouldn’t now, not while they children were singing. Nothing should ever interrupt a song. Not a weak bladder or an unruly child. Alex drifted in his mind with the sound of the children pronouncing their own words. They were following along in their song books, but their minds and their mouths couldn’t make any of the sounds that the writer of the song would have wanted them to. And The Music Teacher was wincing through every bar but still she played and she maintained her poise and directed them from verse to bridge to chorus and to verse again and she dipped her head while she played, the same way that the reporters on the television news dipped their heads every time that they said something, as if they had a pain in their necks or they were trying to shoo off a f ly that was buzzing around them without using their hands. The song was bridging on a chorus but The Music Teacher was bridging on punition and each note sounded like it was being played with a poking stick instead of delicate fingers and she was trying to call Alex’s attention with her swollen stare crying out like her tyrannous voice but it was no use, Alex was staring at the top of the ceiling and it was so high and yet in his hands was trapped, the brightest sun. On the roof were round lights that hanged from long metal poles but they were still really high and Alex sat there


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in his seat, holding one of those lights in his hand and as he opened and closed his clasp, he squinted his eyes and he strained his face as if he were a giant custodian of the universe, trying to gently unwind the sun from its spot in the sky and put that bulb somewhere else, out in the galaxy, far from all the stupid kids and their stupid friends and far from all the stupid teachers and the spiders that hanged above your head while you were having a shower and waited until you were asleep before they crept out from under your bed and then bit you, between your itching toes. The piano stopped. The singing stopped. Alex was still holding that sun. “What in the name of Jesus are you doing?” Everyone turned to Alex and started laughing at him. “Shush” yelled The Music Teacher. Alex pulled his hand back away from the sun. He looked around and all the kids were staring at him and they all had stupid grins on their faces, even Stephanie who snorted as she tried to keep her laughter back. “Where is your song book?” asked The Music Teacher. Alex didn’t have one. All the kids had one. “I don’t have one,” he said. “What do you mean you don’t have one? Do I look like an oaf to you? All of the other children have their song books. Why is that just you were not given one? Are you more special than the other children? Are they less special than you?” she said. The kids all laughed. “Shut it” she shouted. Fairies had teeth and big voices. ‘So what are you going to do? Waste more of my time? Do you want me to send you to Mother Superior?” The kids all oohed.


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“My sister has my book. She has it in her bag” said Alex. “Well then,” said The Music Teacher, creating dramatic pause. “Go get it.” She had her arms folded tightly against her chest and she tapped her long fingers against her arm as if it were made of piano keys and Alex knew, by the way, her fingers tapped and at the height in which they extended, that she was really disappointed. Sometimes teachers did that. They wouldn’t yell like mums and dads did. They would do other things like tapping their fingers on their arms or twitching their noses or clearing their throats or counting backwards from five. Out in the hallway, Alex stood at the bottom of the stairs. He had never been on the upstairs of anything in his life. Once he rode a bus with his mother when he had to go to the dentist. She didn’t like public transport very much. She didn’t like the look of the types of people who used buses and trains during the day. “Why weren’t they at work?” she would say. That day, they rode a double decker. Alex was so happy. He couldn’t wait to drive in traffic higher than a giraffe’s head. He wanted to duck under his seat every time they went under a bridge or through a tunnel. But they sat at the front. On the bottom deck. Beside the conductor. Alex slowly drudged his way up the stairs, holding onto the railing with both hands outstretched, completely unsure of what he was actually doing. All he wanted to do was sit on the bench and unscrew the sun, but he had told a lie and now he had to follow through with it. He had no idea which class was which. They all looked so similar. The younger kids’ classrooms all had painted doors and there were big windows on each door so that even when you were sitting, you could see your mum and dad when they


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came to pick you up or the janitor when he interrupted the class sometimes to pick up the rubbish from the bins. Alex had to hop on his tippy toes at each classroom so he could peek through and see if his sister was there. At the first window, he stretched his face up and saw some fifth or sixth graders and they were all busy writing something down on paper at their desks. They must have been doing a test or something because they were so focused and nobody noticed that he was spying and they didn’t look up or put down their pencils or anything. Alex didn’t really do much writing in his class. They drew a lot and they listened to a lot of stories, but they didn’t write all that much. He looked around the class and he couldn’t see his sister anywhere. He tried to think then, what did his sister even look like? He forgot completely the color of her hair and whether it was long or short or whether it was straight or curly and if she wore glasses or if she didn’t. He couldn’t even remember her name. He just knew that he was somewhere that he shouldn’t be and he was waiting for a teacher to catch him at any moment and if they did, he couldn’t talk his way out of it. He moved on to the next window and again he stretched himself high onto his tippy toes and wrapped his fingers around the groove in the door where the glass met the wood. They were seventh graders, there was no doubt. They were joking about with some of them walking around the class and others sitting on their desks and they weren’t doing any writing. They weren’t doing much of anything really, just having fun from what he could see. Alex’s sister was in the fifth year so this definitely wasn’t her class. Still, he couldn’t look away. There was one kid talking to this girl and his chair was facing backwards and he was rocking back and forth and it looked like it was about to fall and Alex was sure that it was going to fall and it didn’t and he


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couldn’t believe it. Then he heard what sounded like a hungry lion running through the parking lot and shouting from underneath the classroom window. The older kids all cheered and ran to the window to see. Alex couldn’t see anything now except for the backs of all their heads. The kids were all jumping up and down and bashing their fists in the air and chanting and cooing and it sounded and looked like so much fun. And whatever they were looking at probably looked like a lot of fun but all Alex could see was the backs of their heads. “Rambo, Rambo, Rambo” the older kids cheered. That was their teacher’s name; Rambo. He got that nickname years ago and it kind of stuck. Now all the kids and even all the teachers knew him as Rambo. Except Mother Superior, she called him by his real name; Eugene or Mr. Lithmore. Rambo rode a motorcycle. Not just any motorcycle either, this was a big one like the bad guys and the cool guys rode in all the movies. It was different to Alex’s father. If Rambo’s motorbike shouted like a hungry lion then Alex’s father’s sputtered like an old domestic cat. Like one of those cats that’s been alive for so long that people don’t even count how old they are anymore, they just give it special food so it doesn’t die when the kids are home from school. Alex thought his father’s motorbike was really big and too big for him to ride, but that alone made him want to ride it even more. He thought it was really fast and so fast that probably he would fall off if he couldn’t hang on and his hands were probably too small to get a strong grip. And he thought it was so loud because every time his father drove past, he called out his brother’s name but his brother never once turned around. So if his father’s motorbike was massive then Rambo’s would be humungous, like comparing a house to a skyscraper. And the older kids were all chanting Rambo’s name and


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eventually the sound of the motorbike stopped and when it did, it sounded like a giant’s stomach grumbling. The older kids all stepped back from the window. Alex could just see through the gaps of their arms, what looked like someone climbing in the through the window. And it was. It was Rambo and he grunted and strained himself as he scaled a ladder on the side of the wall that was supposed to be used by the janitor and the fire wardens. Rambo climbed in and the kids all crowded around him and a bunch of them offered to help him with his bag while others stared back out the window at his motorbike parked below and one of the kids even asked to try on his jacket. Rambo wouldn’t let him, though. You could see he liked the attention. He smiled a lot. The other teachers didn’t smile. They all walked around with this look on their faces like someone had just stolen the last piece of cake and they didn’t get to have any. And even though grown-ups looked so miserable all the time like they’d forgotten how to have fun, for some reason, Alex still really wanted to be one. Seeing Rambo reminded him why. “What are you doing out of class?” Alex froze. It was Mother Superior. “You are not supposed to be on this f loor. Well boy?” she shouted. The sound of her voice was like a whip to his ears. ”What do you have to say for yourself, huh? Has the cat got your tongue?” Alex knew now why little mice never ran from cats, even the really old slow ones. They just stood there, frozen, hoping the cat would get bored and walk away. And if he could run he would, but there was nowhere for him to go. He could run today, but his mother and father would just put him back here tomorrow. So he said nothing and he froze, with his face


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pressed against the glass of the window. Mother Superior heaved from side to side as she walked down the hallway. She was a big lady, big and mean. She had her rosary beads in her hands and she was wrapping it around her two palms and she stretched her hands out and it pulled the chain tight and it looked as if she were preparing herself to tie and knot around Alex’s neck and to choke him to death. The door opened and Alex fell forwards onto his hands. The classroom erupted in laughter and Rambo was quick to settle them down. All it took was one gritty look and they all shut up. He helped Alex to his feet and brushed off the dust that was on his shirt. “Took your time,” he said. Alex looked at him confused. Rambo winked. “Do you know this boy?” asked Mother Superior. She sounded disappointed. As if the mouse belonged to somebody else. “This is Steven’s brother of course.” Alex looked at his brother. They were as surprised as one another. Mother Superior looked at Rambo with an unassailable stare. She didn’t like him very much. He was hired by Father Luke. She didn’t have any say in the matter and this bothered her. She hated his motorcycle, but she couldn’t ban him from bringing it into school. She hated his leather jacket but according to Father Luke, he had every right to protect himself from the cold in a modern fashion as he so chooses. And he so chose. “So Steven’s brother here is helping us with a project this morning, aren’t you?” Alex looked wide eyed. But he didn’t look around. “Well, Alan…” “Alex.”


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“As I said, Alex here will be answering some questions about having a bigger brother and what it means to him. Right Alex?” said Rambo, smiling at him. Alex looked at his brother. He had no idea that they were supposed to do an activity together. They’d mentioned nothing at home. There was no message in his notebook from his teacher and his brother didn’t say anything. He was so happy, but his grin made him look kind of funny and his brother shook his head and turned away embarrassed. “Yes, sir. Rambo sir.” “Excuse me?” Mother Superior sounded angry. “Rambo? You will call him Mr. Lithmore and nothing else.” The words were meant for Alex, but the meaning was meant for Rambo himself. She couldn’t get rid of him not as long as he was doing the least that he had to do and in truth, he was doing much more. The kids were learning and there had been no complaints outside of her own. But where she couldn’t discipline Rambo, she could direct her tirade to his disciples; to the children who worshipped him and to their parents who looked upon him with the same venerable glaze. “Anything else?” asked Rambo slyly. “I do have a class to teach.” There was nothing she could do and though she might have wanted to do more, she didn’t. “I’ll be speaking to your mother and father,” she said. Alex looked worried. None of the older kids were laughing anymore. They were all just looking to the front and now that Rambo was helping Alex up and protecting him from Mother Superior, the kids didn’t think he was so silly anymore. “So Alex,” he said calmly. He was so big. His jacket made a sound every time he


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moved and it had its own specific smell. He had never been close enough to one to know that they had a smell, but now he had and he did. “What can we do for you? Did you want to speak to Steven?” Alex looked over Rambo’s shoulder at his brother. All the other kids were looking at him like he was someone special. Everyone except his brother. He looked angry and embarrassed. And Alex felt stupid again. “I forgot my song book,” he said. “Right, well that’s no good.” Rambo looked around the class. “Steven, do you have your song book?” He shook his head. “Does anyone else have their song books?” The older kids all shrugged their shoulders. “We have music on Tuesday,” said one of the kids. “That’s not a problem,” said Rambo, leaning over to his desk and pulling out the bottom drawer. “I know there’s one here under this crap somewhere.” He said crap. He was so cool. “Here we go,” he said. Rambo pulled a song book from his drawer, still in its plastic wrapping. “Here you can borrow my one,” he said handing the book to Alex. “Really?” said Alex as if his father had just handed him the keys to the car. “Bring it back to me in one piece,” he said. “Or two, or three or ashes, bring it back to me in ashes. Seriously, though, I do not want to see this book ever again.” The older kids all laughed. Alex was too nervous to laugh.


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“Here take this,” he said handing a note to Alex. “If any of the nuns or teachers stop you, you just show em this. You’ll be fine.” On his way back the assembly area, Alex popped his head into one of the older boy’s bathrooms just to have a look. He hadn’t seen inside one before and it was kind of silly and all that but he really wanted to know if it was different. And it was. Everything was so big. They had these places that you could pee; against the wall and they were so high. They were almost as high as Alex’s chin and if he had to use something like that, it would probably be for brushing his teeth. The toilets downstairs didn’t have these. They just had the big grey one against the wall where everyone peed together and sometimes, especially on sports days or when there were a lot of boys at the same time, they competed by seeing who could pee the highest. This toilet had a big grey trough too and there were rusty stains all up the wall, near to where the string was hanging, the one to f lush the toilet. “Wow, they can pee so high,” he thought. Alex left the toilet and walked back down the stairs towards the music class. He felt so proud of himself. He had gotten to meet Rambo and Rambo even knew his name; well kind of. But he knew that he was his brother’s brother so he knew who he was and he almost got his name right and that’s something. It would have been better, though if his brother wasn’t so sore about the whole thing. He only liked to talk about this sort of stuff with him but if he was angry then who would he talk to? Who would he tell? “Just in time for the end of class. Where were you all this time? Gallivanting about?” yelled The Music Teacher. Her hands were folded and her fingers were playing her arm like a piano again. Alex walked past the kids and he didn’t feel so small anymore. He didn’t see them point and


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snigger and he didn’t hear them laugh. How could he? Little kid’s voices were so low that only little kids could hear them. They all stopped their laughing though when they saw that he didn’t care, that he had outgrown the size of their taunt. “Where did you get that music book? That’s a teacher copy. Where did you get that?” She tore the book from his hands and she was furious. “Rambo gave it to me.” The children’s mouthed dropped open. “You mean Mr. Lithmore. Show some respect. And do tell me why Mr. Lithmore gave you his teacher’s copy. This is a privileged book. It is private school property. Not for the likes of you” she said. She said it to Alex, but she meant everyone. “He gave me this, to give to you.” Alex handed The Music Teacher the note that Rambo had given him. Her eyes widened. They glared. Her mouth went really small. It looked like her head was about to implode. And Alex felt strong. “Very well then. Join the others” she said, handing him the song book. Before he could reach the benches, a whistle blew from down the corridor. “Everyone, single file. No pushing, no shoving. Back to class.” She shouted at the children and though her voice was angry and loud, she looked kind of sad. And in life, some people dealt with sadness by getting angry and shouting a lot just so people wouldn’t feel sorry for them when really, that’s what they wanted all along, for someone to feel sorry for them. And for someone to say, “Thank you, I appreciated your class.”


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Nobody ever did, though. They just shuff led off from here to there by the blow of a whistle and took for granted, every second in their hands. Alex watched The Music teacher as she carefully pulled her plastic cover over her electric piano. His sister took the same care when she played with her things. None of her toys had scratches on them and they were all still in their original boxes. Alex didn’t care about his things like that, but he did like watching other people care for theirs. The Music Teacher sighed like she couldn’t pretend anymore. Alex walked back down the hallway and joined the back of the line as the other kids marched back towards class. They lined up patiently at the door and entered one by one. The line moved at such an eroding pace. Alex didn’t feel brave anymore. He didn’t feel so tall. He wished he knew how to speak about how he felt in his stomach; to his classmates, to Rambo, to his mum or to his dad. He wished more that he had the courage to ask his brother because he trusted his word more than anyone else’s because he was young once too and the others, they were old, and probably they wouldn’t remember what it was like being a kid and the same way they stopped believing in ghosts, they wouldn’t remember this kind of feeling. The line edged forwards and again his body urged him to run. Sweat beaded on his forehead and trembled upon his brow. His courage was escaping him. “Help me, mum,” he thought. “Help me, dad.” The bead of sweat hit the ground and it vanished. It disappeared somewhere between the cracks in the grout. He didn’t lift his head. He couldn’t. He didn’t want to. He just wanted to cry. The Teacher put her arms around his shoulder, eased him into the classroom and she kissed him on his cheek. The bitch.


Chapter Six

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Alex met his brother out the front before his mother had even left the apartment to collect him. She usually left the apartment at around a quarter past three and his brother always left at three fifteen on the dot. It was a safe bet then, if he escaped around ten past, that he could run into his brother and none would be any the wiser. “I thought mum was supposed to pick you up,” he said. “Can I go with you?” Alex asked, hoping for dear life that he would say yes. His brother looked around. There were no other older kids to see him having to walk with his little brother so he shook his head silently and started walking. Alex grabbed his bag and skipped along after him. His mind raced with all the questions he wanted to ask. He felt like he had to ask something. It’s what his brother would want. And this urge he couldn’t stop, not for the life of him. He got the same feeling once when they stayed at a hotel on the beach and when he was on the balcony, he had this unspeakable urge to jump off. He knew it would kill him if he did and he knew the idea was stupid. He didn’t have to be grown-up to know that. But for some reason, he felt like he had to climb onto the railing and balance awkwardly and then accidentally fall backwards over the railings and kick and grasp desperately at thin air as he smashed through the roof of the party bus that was waiting below. The feeling he had now was like that. “Rambo is cool,” he said. His brother didn’t respond. “Stupid,” he thought. “Stupid thing to say.” “I guess he is.”


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Alex smiled. He didn’t expect that. “Listen, just don’t ever do that again ok? You’re alright and all, it’s just I don’t want people knowing you’re my kid brother ok?” “I’m sorry,” said Alex. He started to cry. “You don’t have to cry, god. Look, outside of school its fine. Just at school you can’t come to my class, you can’t talk to my teacher, you can’t talk to my friends and don’t ask me question either. Just act like we don’t know each other.” Alex wished he could undo the day. They walked back to the apartment and went their separate ways. Alex was stopped by his mother as he drank straight from the milk carton and his brother went straight into his room and listened to heavy metal on his ear phones. Alex wished he would use the speakers. His mum was making tea in the kitchen. She looked angry; like someone had just shouted at her and now she wanted to shout at someone else. “Did you run out again?” “No, I promise, I didn’t” “Don’t lie to me. I spoke to Mother Superior today. She called me concerned about your behavior. She said you’ve been skipping your classes, wandering around the halls. That and running out of the school. What the hell is going on? Why are you acting like this? You never did this before so why start now?” It’s funny that he felt the way he felt and nobody had taught him the words to say what it was. Nobody had talked about this kind of felling before so he didn’t know if it was right or wrong. Maybe this was what it felt like when you started becoming a bad kid. Maybe he was becoming a bad kid and there was nothing he could do. He felt sick. But it wasn’t from something that he ate.


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“Can I play in the rec room after dinner? Some of the kids, they were, we were gonna meet there and play chasey, but we wouldn’t play around any of the grown-ups. We won’t get into trouble, I promise.” He was never allowed to play in the rec room. It was only for the older kids because there were a lot of grownups who hanged out there playing pool, throwing darts and sometimes drinking beer and smoking cigars and playing cards. Alex wasn’t allowed to play there. He wanted to, but he wasn’t allowed. “Go to your room. You’re grounded” his mother said. Alex did as she said. He went to his room and sat on the edge of his bed. The springs squeaked every time that he moved to scratch his leg and it felt like there was something sharp poking through from underneath. It was probably a broken spring. Alex could hear the muff led sound of music blasting out of his brother’s earphones as he read his comic and banged his head lightly to the beat of the music. Alex did the same. His brother looked at him and shook his head. Alex didn’t mind, though. He couldn’t tell what the music was, but he nodded his head in the same way as his brother as if he knew every note. Looking out of the window, the tree outside hardly seemed as scary as it did at night. It was funny how things sometimes seemed bigger than they really were. His father must have come home because Alex could hear low yelling coming from the kitchen. He blocked his hands over his ears, but he tried not to be so obvious. His father didn’t shout all the time but when he did, it made Alex think about those little bugs that curled up into little black balls whenever they were scared. He wanted to curl up too, but his brother would think he was stupid, so instead he sat there pretending his parents weren’t shouting and that his


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mother wasn’t crying and he wished his brother would just take off those damn earphones and play it through the speakers. The door opened and his mother popped her face in. She was looking for something. She pretended not to notice Alex who was turned in her direction. He tried to read her expression, to see if everything was ok again. She looked stressed, though like she was holding back a sneeze. Her face was all scrunched up and she looked like she might scream or she might cry at any second. This made Alex want to cry. “Get ready for dinner,” she said. She was still looking for something, but she didn’t find it because she closed the door again without taking anything. Alex got out of his uniform and he nudged his brother to do the same, but he gave him an angry look so he let him keep on listening to his music while he tied his laces. Alex tried to think about when it was that he actually learned to tie his laces. He couldn’t remember. His mother said that his father had taught him. They did big and simple knots at first. His father did most of the work while Alex’s fingers rode his big hands like a Ferris wheel. She said he learned quickly though and that his father was really proud of him every time he tied the big loops and finished every knot by himself. Nobody ever watched him tie his laces anymore. And a whole bunch of other stuff too. That’s kind of the way life was. Something was really special the first time you did it and then after that, people got bored and went back to acting like it didn’t matter. Every time his brother did something new it was always really special. Everyone made a big deal out of it. And he was going to be going off to high school soon and that was huge. He acted like it didn’t matter all that much, but it did. Alex was really excited and he was scared too. It was like


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the land of the giants. And everyone kind of kept secret about the things that happened there but every kid knew about the stories, about the older boys and how they got the new kids when they were alone and they lifted them up by their feet and they dunked their heads into the toilets and then they f lushed it. Some kids even said that one boy had his face cut with a knife. They said that the older boys cut the sides of his mouth and then they punched him in the belly and it made his mouth stretch and rip open like a packet of potato chips. Everyone swore that their brother knew someone that knew the kid it happened to, but they never caught the older boys who did it. None of the grown-ups ever talked about it either, it was just a story that kids knew. As Alex tied one loop of his shoe, he thought about that. And then he thought about his father and how he never said happy birthday. And his birthday was coming up, in a week or two. He never really knew. He didn’t count days, not like his mother. “Here, this way is better.” His brother knelt in front of him and took the laces out of his hand. He didn’t make two loops like his father showed him. Instead, he tucked one lace through the other and then looped it with his finger and then pulled the other lace tight and then wrapped that lace around the loop to make another. And he tied two knots on the lace. His father only ever did one. “It won’t come undone this way. Neat yeah?” Alex was shivering with delight. He didn’t know what to say, but he felt like he should have a thousand things to say. If he had a tail, it would be wiggling and wriggling right now. His mother and father were silent. They never really argued out loud. His father would shout once or twice and his mother would shout back, but it was never any more than that. Then they would be really quiet and they wouldn’t look


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at one another and if they did have to speak to one other or ask each other a question, they would speak really quick and everything would be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know’ or ‘thank you’ and they never sounded thankful when they said it. They sounded more obliged than anything. It’s like when two kids have been told off, but they still have to share their toys. They don’t want to but the teachers or the mum and dads, they force them to, to teach them a lesson or something. And they act all kind and considerate and they say things like ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome’ but they don’t actually mean it. They’re just being polite. His mother and father were like that now. They were like two big kids who had had a fight but still had to work together and they had to pretend that everything was ok, because that was the polite and mannerly thing to do. It got really dark here in this city. After five, the sun disappeared and it wasn’t gradual. It was like it had somewhere more important to be and it just ran away to China or something. And even though the days were really hot, after five it was always really cold. But it wasn’t like that where he used to live. It used to take ages for the sun to go down. Sometimes he would be in bed and trying to get to sleep but the sky would still be bright and inviting him to play. It was like his old neighbor. She would come over for a cup of tea or just a quick chin wag with his mum and his mum didn’t really like her all that much, in fact, she didn’t like any of her neighbors but you had to be nice to your neighbors, even when you didn’t like them. This neighbor, though, her name was Eunice and she was really old and she always looked like she was in the middle of getting ready to go somewhere special because she always looked like she had just gotten out of the shower and was just popping in to say hello before she nipped off to the shops or


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to bingo or to church or something. Eunice was like the sun in his old house. It took her a really long time to go away. His mum would tire of her quickly, but she would offer more tea and nod and smile as if she were really interested in what Eunice had to say. Anyone could see though that she wasn’t. She was just being polite. Eunice never really had a story to tell, though. Not a complete one anyway. She would tell a bit of one thing that would lead to a bit of another and then she would say what she thought about it and she would ask his mum what she thought, but before she could answer, Eunice would be talking about someone else and she knew so many little things about everyone on the street, but she didn’t seem to know a whole lot so she made a lot of stuff up. Alex’s father said that she was lonely in her big house, that’s why she acted the way she did. He used this big word to describe her and said that she was crazy, but she was harmless and that his mother should put up with her because it would cause more problems if she didn’t. Like the sun, though, Eunice would never go away. When his mum had had enough, she would make subtle hints that it was time for her to go home. She would yawn a little, but not too much because it was rude to yawn in front of a guest, even when you didn’t like them. When that didn’t work, she would stand up and lean against her seat and Eunice would just tilt her head, but she wouldn’t budge. I guess she thought his mother had hemorrhoids or something and found it uncomfortable for her to sit for a long time so she tried not to make a fuss and pretended she didn’t notice and wasn’t put off. Eventually, though, his mother would casually backstep towards the front door, leaning against the frame to the living room until Eunice finally put down her cup and followed her out. But even then it was never easy because his mother


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always found herself on the wrong side of the door. Eunice just kept talking. And she probably knew she had overstayed her visit and she probably picked up on the fact that his mum was tired or bored or getting annoyed, or even worse, but she couldn’t stop. And she just kept talking about stupid stuff that didn’t matter because she didn’t want to go back to her big empty house and be all alone. And maybe the sun was like that. Maybe it didn’t want to go to China. Maybe it was the stars and the moon’s turn and they made the sun go away so they could get some sleep or so they could watch the evening news. And maybe the sun didn’t want to be alone either, so it just hanged there, just below the horizon and it didn’t go to bed, it just peeked behind the couch and it didn’t really care about the television or the conversation or even the tea. It just wanted to sit with everyone else. Here, though, the sun had somewhere better to be. It left in a hurry. And at night, the wind blew so strong and it whistled so loud and eerily and it made everything move so sneakily and creepily that it just seemed like all of the dark shadows were planning and plotting and waiting and baiting, to snatch and eat, scared little children. The cafeteria was full again. It always was. They had to wait for their father to get home before they could go and get their dinner. He got home late, though, after six and they started serving dinner at five. Then his father would always be in a mood because of something that happened at work or on his way home and there would always be a small fight and then his father would always read the international section of the newspaper before he told anyone to get ready for dinner. He liked to know all about stuff like that. Dads had to know about stuff like that. It was important. But by the time they got to the cafeteria, everyone had already been served and there were only the last bits of


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everything. There was always the last steak that had more fat and bone than anything else. It was probably on the top of the pile, but every person before them kept pushing it back and back and back until finally when it was Alex’s plate, it was the one that his father chose for him. Then there were the potatoes. They made a mash that used a lot of water. Normally people used milk, his mother used to anyway. It made the mash really creamy and delicious. Here, though, they used water and by the time Alex’s tray was ready to be served, it looked like the mean lady behind the counter had scooped a spoonful of dirty melted snow onto his orphaned steak. And the last of the peas were all squished and squashed and the glass of juice had all the crushed up black bits from all the seeds that were in the fruit that they didn’t pull out first or even bother to strain. Everyone watched them though as they got their food, mainly because of yesterday. They were all probably expecting and hoping that Alex would fall again. They acted shocked when he did and it looked like they cared and all but you could tell that they were happy that it happened because it gave them something to talk about and most of the time, that’s all that people had. Alex reached for his tray, but his father nudged him away with his hip. He felt like a stray dog. He could have explained what he was doing but he was obviously still mad, either with work or something that happened on the way home or maybe because he had to stand in front of all these people again and it made him feel angry, on account of being made to look like a fool the day before. It was Alex though who felt the fool. His father took two trays in his hands and nudged Alex back out of his way. Alex didn’t want to look. He knew everyone was staring at him. He didn’t have a tray. And everyone knew. He wanted to shout and to throw something. He wanted to take his tray, the one his father had set down for him


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at the table they always sat at. He wanted to take the food from that tray and he wanted to throw it in the faces of every man, woman and child. He wanted to shout and to spit at them and he wanted to take all the black bits of his juice and mash it into their hair. He wanted to shout at them like that gorilla shouted at him, that time that he teased it when he offered it his ice-cream and it came forward all happy and then he stuck his tongue out and licked the ice-cream and didn’t give the poor gorilla any. When he looked up, though, there was no-one looking at him. They were all focused on the food that they were shoveling into their mouths. And what he thought was laughter and sniggering was actually the sound of knives and forks scratching on dinner plates and teeth chewing and people swallowing tough pieces of steak. Nobody spoke at the table. They all just ate. His mother and father were still angry. The angrier they were, the less they said. His father though would show it by chewing his food like a tempered bull with his mouth open. Alex looked at his mum. She was chewing with her mouth closed, but she was scratching her knife against the plate whenever she tried to cut through the steak. That’s how she showed she was annoyed or angry. His father hated the sound of knives scratching on plates. It made him shout. So he chewed his meat louder and Alex’s mum hated that just as much because she couldn’t just look away. It sounded gross and it made her feel sick. So she scratched the plate louder. And that was how his parents fought. “Can I play chasey with my friends in the rec room after dinner?” asked Alex. His mother looked at him sternly and then at his father. Her mouth was full with a big chunk of steak and she couldn’t speak. Alex’s father didn’t even lift his head from his plate. He didn’t even wait to swallow the steak in his mouth. “Whatever. Don’t get into trouble” he said.


His mum scraped her knife across the plate, over and over.

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His father chewed louder. His sisters bickered, and then made up. His brother pretended not to look at a girl who was looking at him. Alex smiled. He got what he wanted. But nobody noticed. Nobody seemed to care.


Chapter Seven

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Alex rushed home to get changed. He wanted to wear one of his old t-shirts and a better pair of pants. The ones he wore to dinner were too formal and they made him look boring and kind of dorky. He had a pair in his drawers that were almost worn out on the knees. They were just like his brother’s although his were completely worn; a lot cooler. His knees popped out and they had long white threads that went down his legs. Alex’s mum though wouldn’t let him do it to his jeans. She said that if he did it, she would throw them in the bin straight away without thinking. And if she did that, he’d have to wear his church pants everywhere, and that would be embarrassing. Alex put on his jeans and then looked for something cool to wear with them. Most of his shirts were silly. They all had the names of cities or beaches on them. He got most of them from his aunty whenever she visited. She always brought a tshirt that had a beaches’ name on it and she would talk about that beach a lot as if she’d spent her whole life there. She hadn’t though. She just picked up the shirt at a gift shop while she was waiting for a bus. She would always get Alex a t-shirt and it would always be too big and his mum and his aunty would always just say, “Oh, he’ll grow into it” and then they’d make him say thank you and then try it on. Alex hated these stupid presents. And he hated having to say, thank you. Everyone else got something good, or at least something that fit. Alex was always dumped with the present that nobody wanted and it was never good and it never ever fitted and he could always grow into it. That’s what they always


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was. This present is no good for you now when it actually matters, but one day, when it means nothing when it’s not your birthday and the thought has expired, you’ll have grown into it. But it was the thought that counted. Alex peeped out the door. The others still hadn’t come back from dinner. They’d be home any minute though so he’d have to hurry. Mainly before his mother got home and they had time to remind him that he was grounded. If they’d made up and were talking again, they’d definitely be on the same side about not letting him play around the older kids. But also, he wanted to sneak on one of his brother’s shirts and he didn’t want him to know so he’d have to be quick or else he’d get caught. If his brother did catch him he would probably punch him into obliteration. He didn’t like to lend his stuff out; neither his ear phones nor his cool clothes. He opened his brother’s drawer and pulled a shirt out quick and he didn’t even give himself the time to see what it was or whether he was putting it on the right way. It wouldn’t matter what shirt it was though because all of them were awesome and he didn’t really know who any of the bands were but he watched his brother listening to them on his earphones every day and he had most of their names written on his hesham bag. Alex put one of his own shirts on top. It was a big red top. His arms looked like two strands of spaghetti inside it. He looked around the room for any coins that might have been lying around. There was still nobody home so he snuck into his parents’ room and opened up their drawers, but it was so hard to find anything. They were so full of letters and bills and lots of boring stuff. It’s like their room was only clean because they piled all of their mess into two tiny drawers and even if there was some loose change, nobody would ever be able to find it. He remembered to put the latch on the door and ran


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down the hallway excited. He felt like he was about to jump out of his skin. He hadn’t been inside the rec room before, not during the day and definitely not at night when there were a lot more people there. It was going to be so much fun. The parking lot was really dark. There were no lights at all. And Alex didn’t much like the dark. He always imagined there was so much out there than there actually was. And most of it was monsters and ghouls and the rest was devils and danger. There weren’t any cars at all. There was just a big black empty space. The wind though was loud and it was his only companion so he tried to pretend that it didn’t bother him. He had never really told anyone before, but he was really scared of the wind because it carried with it, the nefarious whispers of the night. He would always try to brave it though by telling the monsters that were sneaking behind him or waiting to jump out from behind a bin that he didn’t believe in them and that they weren’t real so they could just go home now because they couldn’t hurt him, not if he didn’t believe in them. And he was pretty sure that he didn’t. Lots of times when grown-ups were scared, they would get angry. They would yell at stuff to get away and tell it that they were brave and angry. But really they were scared, just like he was. His mother did it to cockroaches. His sisters too. His father once did it to a bunch of older kids that were smoking out the front of their old house. He yelled at them, but they just laughed at him. They didn’t go anywhere until his father called the police. But Alex couldn’t call the police. He didn’t know how. And would they even come out to help him cross the parking lot? Did they chase ghosts as well as robbers? Alex tried to do what he had seen his father and his mother do, which was to shout. He said things that he thought would make the


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monsters run away, but it didn’t work. Behind every bin and in the invisible part of every shadow, there was a monster waiting to jump out and pull him in. And if he couldn’t scare them away then he would have to outrun them. Alex crouched by the curb and he looked to his left and to his right. There were monsters everywhere. He couldn’t see them, but he knew they were, watching him. He took a breath. He ran. His heart was beating so fast and his lungs felt like they were on fire. Alex was never any good at sports or running at school, but that’s because the monsters were inside his class and not beside him, racing on the track. Out here in the dark, he ran as if he had been running every day of his life. His eyes were trained to the glowing entrance just a few more leaps and bounds away, but they were lingering to the danger that manifested all around him. He held his arms tight against his sides and he clenched his fists and he lifted his knees high into the air and he huffed and he puffed and he darted through the first parking lot and he ran down the corridor past the entrance to the opposite block of f lats. And he didn’t slow down. Above him, circling under the light of the moon, he could feel a watchful and hungering eye serving up his surprise. As it swooped down from the highest part of the sky, its talons gouged cavernous grooves in the air. His sight was on the entrance still long from his reach but in his mind, he could see the great beast with its wings abreast, its one twitching eye and its talons glimmering as the faint moonlight cut through its midnight descent. He ran, feeling the great winged beast just a breath away from clawing at his skin. And there, just ahead, in the bushes, something stirred. The leaves rustled and something that looked like a man, but with a dog’s head and a long


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jagged tail, slipped from within bushes into the current of darkness. Alex dived in the other direction. He lost his footing and slipped on a mossy edge, grazing his hands along the bitumen as his body crumpled into a heap. He stopped. He stopped running. He stopped breathing. He even stopped his heart beating. Everything was still. Everything was silent. He listened, in that silence, to the night, for the sound of shadows basking in secrecy. He shut his eyes. His mind was as dark and as empty as the night that surrounded him but in his mind, the vast emptiness was devoid of monsters. It was devoid of pestiferous surprise. But as he dreamt he was a lonely planet, lost in an expanding black nothingness, he felt a thousand tiny tingling tentacles touching at the tips of his hands and toes. And though he pretended that he was the size and shape of a planet, the ants that crawled neath his socks and scampered across his ticklish skin, reminded him that he was in fact just a boy, running from the wickedness of his imagination. Alex opened his eyes. Though he couldn’t see the creatures, he could feel them everywhere. There were hundreds of thousands of tiny, almost invisible, spiders that were scuttering along the ground from underneath the loose sand and some of them dangled from sheets and blankets of webs that peeled like a snake’s skin from the tops of the trees. Beside him, the man with a dog’s head and a spiny tail was on its belly with its picking fingers outstretched, toying with the loose threads of his shirt and he lay curled on the ground, slowing baring his feet to move once again. And he knew, the second that the he ran, the dog headed man would leap out from behind him and it would drag him back behind the bins, the place that was nested with insects and vermin


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and it would swallow him whole so that his screams would amount to nothing more than a faint thump, like the rumble in one’s belly. And if the dog headed man didn’t catch him then the winged beast would lift him up into the night and she would take him up into the trees, somewhere far from where humans would serve to look and she would make him her feast or she would make him her child. He could feel the spiders touching down on the fine hairs of his neck and his spine shivered as they crawled onto his skin and then crept underneath the folds of his shirt. “I don’t believe in monsters” he shouted. “You’re not real.” And Alex ran. And he ran and he ran and he ran. And he exploded through the door of the rec room and he tripped over a crate that was laying on the ground and he fell on his hands and it hurt a lot but he didn’t f linch and he didn’t yelp or cry or nothing because everyone had turned and they were all watching him so he just got up and he dusted off his hands and he dusted off his knees and he smiled, as if he’d actually meant it. The rec room was packed. There were so many people. And they were all so different. Some of them were grownups, like old grown-ups, someone’s mum and dad and then there were younger grown-ups, but still grown-ups. They had beards and lots of them had big bellies that hanged over their belts and they shouted more than they spoke and it wasn’t angry shouting like Alex’s dad did when the news was on, this was the kind of shouting you did when you saw your friend on the other side of an oval and you were yelling at him to stop so you could catch up and tell him about that thing you saw on TV last night. They were happy shouting. Alex was still standing in front of the doorway and older


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kids and grown-ups were saying ‘excuse me’ and ‘get out of the way’ as they pushed past him to get where they were going. He looked around the room in awe. It looked ginormous. Nothing at all was at his height. There were four pool tables to the right of him. On some tables, there were games with one on one and on others, they played two on two and on one table, there were two older grown-ups; the mum and dad types and they were playing a game called snooker. Alex didn’t know what the game was. He saw his dad watch the tournaments on television sometimes. It was really confusing. The rules weren’t as easy a pool. Alex liked pool. But nobody would ever play with him. To his left were the ping pong tables. There were six of these and there were players on every table and like the pool tables, there were lots of people who were waiting to have their turns. And it looked like nobody would ever get a turn because there were so many people waiting, but they didn’t seem bothered at all. In fact, they looked like they were having just as much fun waiting for their games as the people playing their game. This was probably because they weren’t winning and they weren’t losing. Because on every table, there was always one person or a team of people who were really upset and embarrassed but when they got embarrassed, they would get angry and when they got angry, they played worse. Usually on the teams, there was one person who made all the mistakes and that person was never as angry as the other person on their team. That other person would shout and curse and do things like pretending they were about to break the stick or draw a line with their index finger against their neck. Alex didn’t know what that meant, but it looked pretty serious. Down the back of the room were the cards tables and here was where all the really old grown-ups sat and most of them had long messy beards and they all drank apple juice, all of them as if it were a rule. And nobody was allowed to sit


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down at the table, nobody young anyway. And they considered young to be anybody who could sing out the alphabet without having to stop half way through to go to the toilet. There was lots of other stuff too. In the middle and around the sides, there were kids who were just hanging out and there were some couches and tables where kids sat and they read books and they read magazines and they read comics and they all joked a lot and it looked like so much fun. But you had to know them to be allowed to sit with them. Every place had its rule. It wasn’t written, but you could feel it. Alex stood gobsmacked. It was like walking into a fair and not knowing which ride to go on first. But he knew, even though he wasn’t saying it, that just like the fair, he was too small to go on any of the rides. But that wouldn’t stop him from trying to make a friend. He felt really nervous. He wanted to take off the stupid red shirt and to show the one he took from his brother. He would look cool then, or at least a bit cooler than he was now. But he was so nervous. He didn’t feel like he was ready to be cool. He wanted to be, like nothing else on earth but now that he was about to be, he was feeling really sick inside. And it was the same sort of sick he felt the night before he went on that cool excursion to the underwater park, the one where all the sharks and the sting rays and the different types of fishes all swim over you as you go round in circles on a f lat escalator. He felt that kind of sick. The kind you get when you just can’t wait to do something but thinking about doing it makes you want to barf. So he knew that these were those good nerves, the ones that keep you up all night but always result in something great happening; like Christmas was, before his mother and father told him Santa wasn’t real and they made him feel like a stupid idiot in front of his brother. “Out of the way kid.”


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Someone knocked him as they tried to get passed. They didn’t apologize or anything. They didn’t even look back to see if they had hurt him or anything. They just shouted and tripped a little bit and then kept on rushing to one of the tables and took a coin out from their pockets and put it in the line behind the others. Alex took a breath. He felt brave. He took the stupid red shirt off and scrunched it up in his hands. His blood boiled. His breath felt hot like it did when he was running. He felt his cheeks getting hot as well. He could feel his heart beating in many places; in his chest, of course, but also in his neck, on the sides of his faces and on either side of his head. He felt really embarrassed, but he tried not to show it. He knew he just had to wait a few seconds and then he would start to feel cool. But what did that feel like? Feeling cool. It felt like every eye was on him, noticing his shirt and he was waiting for a million voices to call him stupid and tell him to take it off and call him a faker and laugh at him and make him feel like they always did when he dressed the way his mum wanted him to. He was sure that someone would know that he wasn’t cool, just as he was sure that those monsters knew that he did believe in them and that he was scared of them and that he was just saying those things because he didn’t want them to eat him. “Cool shirt,” said a girl as she walked by. She had a black shirt on too. Alex blushed. It would have been better though if it was one of the older boys who had said it but still, it was pretty neat. He was doing it. He was cool. He was hanging with the older kids and they weren’t


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telling him to go away or nothing. He didn’t feel scared or stupid and none of them were about to stuff his head into a toilet. At least it didn’t seem like that anyway. Alex walked around the room and he kind of watched everyone doing their thing, like a curious little cat. He didn’t try to interact at all, he just walked from table to table and then from place to place and he just stood there, silent and staring at the groups of kids and grown-ups playing their games. There were a group of kids playing chasey and they were probably his brother’s age and his brother wasn’t with them, but he probably knew them and they ran past him and they were so fast and they dodged and they weaved and they squealed as they almost knocked him over as one of the boys nearly touched the t-shirts of the others making them ‘it’. And Alex wanted to join in. He wanted to take f light with them. One older boy ran past and shouted, “look out” and behind him was another boy; the boy who was ‘it’ and the ‘it’ boy barely caught up to him before the other boy dodged and ducked and jumped over some kids reading comics and he got away. Alex clenched his fists and he cheered. His smile was so wide. He was so happy that the boy got away. He wanted every boy to get away. It was so much fun. Alex went to one of the table tennis tables and he stood next to some older boys who were waiting to play. The game looked really difficult. They hit the ball so hard and so fast. It looked like it would really hurt if it hit you. Alex didn’t want to play, but he did want to watch; from a distance. “Out of the way squirt.” One of the boys pushed Alex back. He didn’t know what he did. He was just standing there watching. He stepped back, though. He didn’t want to make anyone upset. He had learned enough from his brother. He shouldn’t ask for


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anything. He had to wait for his brother to invite him; to play computer games, to listen to music, to kill spiders, whatever. Normally Alex would stare at his brother as he did all those things, hoping he would invite him. He rarely did, though. Alex learned to have fun then by watching his brother having fun. Just as interesting as watching the game of table tennis was watching how the older boys, who were waiting, kept slowly creeping forwards after each point, ready to jump and steal the paddles from the players’ hands. They were all eyeing their coins too. Each game cost twenty cents and the next person would have the first twenty cent piece on the table and then the next coin would belong to the person after and so on. They all watched the coins though as if they thought that if they blinked or looked away, someone might swap them and then get ahead in the line. But how would they know whose coin was whose? When one of the players hit the ball hard, it f lew really high and the other player had to jump up really high to hit it back, which he did. But when he landed, he knocked the table and everything shook. Everyone was watching the ball and how high the player jumped and nobody noticed the twenty cent coin fall on the ground. Nobody except Alex that is. He ran passed the line and jumped under the table and grabbed the coin and then one of the older boys grabbed him and he pushed him back against the wall and he put his hand around Alex’s throat and he squeezed so hard that Alex couldn’t breathe and Alex was so scared. He looked straight into the boy’s eyes and the boy, he was so angry and he shouted, “Where’s my fucking money? You stole it, I saw you.” And Alex wanted to tell the boy that he had seen the money drop and he just wanted to help him, to get the coin back for him so he didn’t lose his place in the line and he didn’t want to play the game anyway because it was too fast and he would probably get hit by the ball and he didn’t want


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that and he wanted to say something but the older boy’s hand was squeezing his throat and there were tears in his eyes and he couldn’t see the older boy clenching his fist about to punch him in the belly and he couldn’t see the grown-up who came out of nowhere and grabbed the older boy and shook him so that his hands let go. And Alex dropped to the ground and gasped while he rubbed at the red lines on his throat. And the grown-up, he shook the older boy some more and then he whispered something in his ear and then the older boy, he had tears in his eyes and he said “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it” and he ran out of the rec room and all the other older kids waiting in line, they all laughed at him as he ran away. “Hi,” said The Man. He was really tall. He was a grown-up. But he didn’t have a beard and he didn’t look like he swore a lot. And he wasn’t cool like some of the other kids. He didn’t wear cool clothes and he didn’t have a cool haircut, but he seemed ok and he was older and he was talking to Alex and he probably wanted to be his friend. He did save him after all and that’s the kind of thing that friends did. Alex was out of breath and curling on the f loor. He wanted to cry. The older boy hurt him and made him look dumb in front of all the other kids. He kept looking at the ground and he was expecting the grown-up, The Man, to find something better to do. Grown-ups did that, even the ones that meant well. “Don’t worry about him. He can’t hurt a f lea. He ran away before you beat him up.” The grown-up wasn’t going anywhere. Alex looked up. He was still standing there and he was still huge, like a giant. And he looked really kind; like a kind giant. “What’s your name?” Alex was shy. He wanted to make friends. But he didn’t want to say dumb things. He always ruined things by saying


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things. “Alex,” he said, throwing his hand forward and almost tripping over himself at the same time. The Man caught him as he fell. His hands were almost bigger than his head. They were definitely bigger than Alex’s. He could probably pick up a car or a whole bunch of people, in each hand. “That’s a cool shirt. Do you like that band?” Alex looked down at his shirt. It was all black and he didn’t see any words anywhere. He could just make out a picture of a snake or something. But it was hard to tell because it was black too. He had no idea what shirt he was wearing. He had no idea who they were and if they were a band or if they made the t-shirt. ‘Yeah” he said, hoping it sounded real. “That’s cool. I like them too. They’re my favorite.” Alex smiled. He was right. They were a band. So far so good. “What other stuff do you like?” asked The Man. It was so cool. Nobody had ever asked him about what he liked. His brother didn’t, his sisters didn’t, and his mother and father didn’t. If they did, they would know he hated getting shirts with stupid beaches on them. Alex thought about all the names of the bands he wrote on his heshem bag, all the ones he’d copied off his brother. His mind was blank, though. He couldn’t think of a single one. That was so typical. Just when it mattered, he couldn’t think of something to say but when there was nobody who’d listen, he always had heaps of things that he wanted to talk about. “I like lots of other bands. Like Metallic and stuff.” “Me too. That’s cool you know, that we like the same stuff. You’re different to everyone else.”


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“How?” The Man smiled. He kneeled down and put his hand on Alex’s shoulder. “You act older. Older than you are. More mature. You know what I mean?” Alex smiled. A manic kind of grin. He had no idea what he meant. “Do you play here a lot?” asked The Man. “No. I’m not allowed.” “Why not?” “Because the rec room is just for big kids and grownups and I’m too small.” “That’s silly. You’re big enough. I mean look, you made that other kid run away. He told me. He was scared of you. He thought you were gonna thump him. A little kid couldn’t do that now could he?” “I guess not.” “You’re not allowed to be here, but you’re here. Are you with your mum and dad?” The Man looked to his left and his right. He was looking to see if Alex’s mother and father were nearby. Then he could tell them how brave Alex was and that he was a big kid, at least that he acted like one and deserved to play in the rec room just like the others. “Mum and dad are at home.” “They’re at home? But I thought you weren’t allowed to play here? Are you with your brother or your sisters?” The Man looked around again. “No. My brother and my sisters are at home too. How did you know I had a brother and sisters?” “I guessed is all. What about friends? Which ones are your friends?” “I don’t have any friends.” “Really? Not one?”


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“Nope. Not one.” Alex felt embarrassed. Everyone had friends. Even the unpopular kids. They made friends with the other unpopular kids. Everyone had at least one friend, everyone except him. “Can I be your friend?” asked The Man. Alex’s eyes exploded. He looked shocked. “I’m sorry,” said The Man. “It’s just I have no friends either. And you had that cool shirt on and I thought you would be cool and you are... I mean you are cool and I don’t know. I thought maybe you would want to be my friend. I mean, you don’t have to. If you don’t want to, I get it. I mean, I’m older and probably dorky or something.” The Man looked kind of coy. He didn’t look dorky, though. He looked ace. “I can be your friend.” Even as he said it, he didn’t believe that he had said it. He had said many lies before, shouted about many nontruths to fend off his fears. He had shouted at this and he had shouted at that and he’d tried to believe himself, but he had hoped mainly that whatever he was shouting at believed him more than he did himself; that was the only thing that mattered when it came to lying. But this time it was different. He said the words, he even heard himself say them and they sounded like nothing he would have normally said. It didn’t even sound like his own voice. It was so happy. It sounded so real. The Man’s eyes lit up. He was so happy too. He smiled and he helped Alex up. “Do you want to play a game of pool?” He wanted to scream and shout “Yes, absolutely yes,” but that would sound young and stupid. “Sure,” he said, acting like it didn’t matter.


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But it did. Alex walked with The Man past all the other kids and he looked so tiny compared to his new friend, but he felt humongous as if he were more important than anyone else in the room. He had never felt like that before. This was what having a friend was all about. “Do you like football?” asked The Man. Alex loved all the questions. Usually, it would be him asking the questions, quizzing his brother, thinking it was what he wanted him to do. It felt incredible to have this attention. It felt incredible to be noticed. It felt incredible to matter. “My dad likes one team and my mum likes the other. My brother, he doesn’t really like football all that much. My sisters, they don’t like it. They like My Little Pony. They’re too old for it. Like that stuff is meant for little kids but they like it anyway. My sister, she has all of the dolls. I think it’s kind of silly. I don’t think they like football, though. They probably like the players, though, because they’re boys and girls when they get older, all they think about is boys.” “What about you?” “I like to watch it. I don’t have a favorite team. Not yet. There’s a lot of good ones. I have lots of favorites, though” “What do you like to think about?” “I think about being older a lot. I think about being my brother, doing the stuff that he does.” “How old is he?” “He’s heaps older than me. He’s year seven.” “Heaps older? What would that make me?” Alex felt funny like he said a wrong thing but didn’t know it. “How old are you? Are you old? Are you older than fifteen?” “I’m forty seven,” said The Man. “Yeah, but you’re cool. That’s the difference. You’re not


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old. I mean, not like ancient.” The Man smiled. He put his hand on Alex’s shoulder. Alex started to feel something funny. It was like the other day when the old lady kept wanting to pinch his cheeks and touch his hair and his mum kept pushing him towards her instead of keeping him safe. He felt like that. ‘So you’re here all alone. Did you run away? Did you escape?” “I tricked my mum and dad.” “Really?” said The Man impressed. “How?” “They were fighting. They always fight. I asked mum if I could go and she said no so I waited till dinner when they never say anything. That’s usually when they’re really mad. And I asked dad. He said yes but only cause mum said no.” “Wow. That’s really clever. Not even I would have thought of that. You see, you are grown-up. More than all these stupid heads” The Man said, pointing out all the older kids and the grown-ups, playing games around the room. He was so big and he was really old. But it was so cool how he spoke just like a kid, just like the older kids did. He was as old as his mother and father, but he didn’t at all act like them. “Let’s play a game.” The Man pushed to the front of the line and he tapped on a twenty cent piece that had been sitting in the queue for some time now. He was reminding everyone in the line that his game was next. The rules went that he was supposed to challenge the winner of the last game. That’s the way it went. The winner keeps playing until they lose or until everyone goes home and then they play the first game the next day, but they don’t have to pay. Only the challenger has to pay. The Man was the next challenger.


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“Ok, who’s next?” The same grown-up had won every game tonight. He was really good. “My friend and I are playing a game,” said The Man. The winner made a funny face. He scrunched his nose up and squinted his eyes. Then he f lared them and he looked around at the other players, all the ones lining up. I guess he expected everyone to think the way he thought. Rules are rules. The champ goes on. “No doubles. You want a friendly match, you come back when the tables are free. This is competitions. So, either you’re up or your fuck off and let the other people play.” He was really angry now. He was puffing himself up, sticking his chest out. “My best friend Alex and I will play one game. Then you can return to your silly tournament. One game, that’s all we want.” “Nah, rules are rules.” “I am not asking you. I am telling you politely. My friend and I will play our game and then you can all do whatever you want with your sticks and your balls but I will take my turn, which I have been waiting for all night and I will be playing my friend here, and not you.” The winner was real angry now and so were the other people. People were yelling at him to shut up and to get rid of the kid because kids didn’t belong here and he couldn’t even reach the table anyway and they were shouting all sort of bad things. Alex started to feel worried. The Man looked at him and smiled. “Don’t worry Alex. Be brave for me and I’ll be brave for you.” Alex smiled and he puffed out his own chest. The Man walked over to the winner and he leaned into his ear and he


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whispered something and it must have been something good because the winner, his eyes went really wide like he just saw a ghost and he apologized and he handed Alex the stick he was using, the one he always used. It was the winner’s stick. And everyone said it was lucky. “Do you know how to play?” “Not really,” said Alex. “It’s easy. I’ll teach you.” Alex smiled. “Do you want to break or me?” asked The Man. The older kids and the grown-ups waiting all shut up and they went back to talking about whatever they were talking about. Alex felt a thousand feet tall. The table must have been ten thousand feet because he still couldn’t see the top of it, even when he was on his tippy toes. But he felt like he had grown-up. He felt like he imagined he would always feel, like how his brother must feel, every day of his life. The Man made the break. He hit the balls so hard. It sounded like thunder clapping. Alex bet that the other grownups couldn’t hit the ball that strong. “Your turn Ally.” He gave him a nickname. Nobody had ever given him a nickname. Alex walked around the table, but he couldn’t see anything. The people watching knew this was stupid, but they didn’t say anything. Alex kept walking in circles. He could stretch the stick up to the table but what would that matter? He didn’t know where the white ball actually was. Just as he felt like someone was about to take the stick from him and declare him too small to play, he felt strong hands around his waist that lifted him up high in the air and it was so fast that he thought maybe it was a crane or something. But he turned, and he saw The Man smiling at him. “Go ahead, take your shot.” The Man was holding him firmly by the waist and he


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felt so safe and secure. He didn’t at all feel like he was about to fall or nothing. He aimed the stick. It was so big for him. He could barely balance it in his hands. He aimed it thought like his brother had once shown him, making a circle with his curled index finger and pushing the tip of the sick through the circle so the stick couldn’t fall out of his hand. Alex hit the white ball and it bounced off sideways and it hit one of the big balls and that ball hit one of the smalls and then a black ball and then that ball went into the pocket. “I did it, I sank a ball” Alex shouted. He was so ecstatic. He didn’t think he would even hit a ball, let alone sink one. “Did I get a point?” he asked. “Yep. You scored a goal.” The older kids and the grown-ups looked on strangely. Though none of them said a thing. “You get another shot,” said The Man. “Really?” “Yeah. The black ball is special. It means you get ten more shots in a row and if you sink any others, you get more shots too.” Alex felt alive. He had never really accomplished anything before. And if he had, nobody ever really celebrated it like he imagined they would. Nobody had made him feel this special. The Man lifted him up by his waist again and he held him tight against the table so that he wouldn’t fall. He leant in and whispered in Alex’s ear about which ball to aim for. He was cheating in a way and Alex kind of felt this, but it didn’t matter. It felt good to win. As he took his aim, he saw his sister coming from outside, walking briskly towards the table. She looked really angry and kind of scared. “What are you doing?” she said to Alex. She was looking at The Man, though. She had never


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seen him before. “Mum wants you. You have to come home. You’re not supposed to be here.” “Just one more minute. I’m playing a game.” Alex was waiting for The Man to defend him, to whisper something in her ear like he did all the other older kids. But he stayed there silent. He was holding Alex by the waist so he could make his shot, but he wasn’t looking at Alex’s sister. He was looking somewhere else. “I’ll tell dad on you.” “Shut up. Just go away. Tell them, see if I care.” Alex took a shot, but the ball ricocheted off the sides and hit nothing. His sister looked at him and her eyes looked funny. “Alex, please,” she said. “He’ll be up in a minute. Just let him play his game” said The Man. He gave Alex’s sister a look. Alex couldn’t see the type of look it was, but it was the type of look that made her run away, out of the rec room and back up to the apartment. The Man put Alex back onto the ground. “Hey. I gotta go. I’m gonna watch this cartoon. It’s my favorite one.” “What one?” asked Alex. “Ah… What’s it called?” “X-men?” asked Alex. “That’s it. God, I always forget the name. X-Men. I have the new movie. It’s gonna be ace. Do you like X-Men?” “Are you joshing? It’s my fave.” “Me too.” “Cool.” “Hey. Do you wanna watch the movie with me?” Alex felt that odd feeling again like he was supposed to run. “I don’t know. I have to go home. I shouldn’t be out


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really.” “You’re not gonna get in trouble. Don’t worry; I’ll speak to your dad. I know him. We work at the same place. It’ll be fine. Trust me.” There should have been someone here now. There should have been a leg for him to hide behind. There should have been somebody to say no. But there wasn’t. He had nowhere to hide. “I have popcorn and fizzy drink and lots of lollies and oh yeah, the best thing of all” The Man said before pausing. “What?” asked Alex, curious. “What is it? What’s the best thing?” “The Gruff,” said The Man. “The what? What’s a gruff?” “You don’t know The Gruff? It’s only like the best toy every created. And I have the only one ever made.” “Really?” “Yeah. Do you wanna see it? You can play with him if you like.” Alex knew he should go home. Someone should be telling him this, right now. He had that feeling. But he couldn’t name it. Every time he had felt it before he had been told to shut up and be polite, that the churning he felt inside and what he thought it meant was the contrary of what he was supposed to do. “Ok,” he said. He didn’t want to go. Truth is, he was hoping that his sister would have pulled him from that table and taken him home. He wished he were in his room right now feeling sad and stupid and being yelled at by his mother and being looked at disappointingly by his father. He wished he was sitting on his squeaky bed looking out at the tree that scratched against this window, trying like all the other monsters, to catch him every single night.


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The Man put his arm around Alex’s shoulder and walked him out of the rec room. The older kids and the grown-ups didn’t notice. Once the table was free, they took their spots and went back to playing their tournament. The winner took his stick and the next challenger took his position and everyone kept on their playing. Nobody even noticed them leaving. The parking lot was still completely black. Alex couldn’t see anything. The Man’s hands were so big. They were like a big net and Alex felt like a tiny fish that was caught and had nowhere to go. He didn’t want to be anyone’s lunch. The feeling in his stomach was swelling and it felt like it was about to explode. And it would. If he had the words to get it out. The Man took his hand off Alex’s shoulder and took his hand instead. He squeezed tight around Alex’s. His was so warm while Alex’s was cold and shaking. The Man squeezed the shake right out of it. “That’s my apartment right there,” he said, pointing to the darkness in front across the long dark parking lot where at the end, stood a two story block of f lats and a car, parked all alone at the very end. “The Gruff, he’s in my car. Do you wanna meet him? He wants to meet you. He really likes to make new friends. We’re friends aren’t we?” None of the apartments had their lights on. Everything was dark. “Did you see my boy?” shouted Alex’s mother. She sounded desperate. It wasn’t just her, though. His father and his brother and his two sisters, they were all there and they were running out of the rec room and his mother had his stupid red shirt in her hands and she was wiping away her tears as she ran and she screamed out his name.


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“Alex” she screamed. His father was silent. He was screaming inside, but his lips couldn’t move. The family turned the corner. “Alex” shouted his mother. “Where’s my son?” His father screamed. Everything was dark as they neared the block of f lats. All the lights were off. And the parking lot was empty.


Chapter Eight

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When Alex woke up he was feeling sick. His head was spinning really fast and he could feel his belly creeping up towards his mouth. He’d felt like this once before. Years ago, when they went to Adventure Land, Alex’s brother had dared everyone to go on one of the rides over and over to see who was the strongest. It was one of those rides that went round in circles and got faster every time. Alex only lasted about two times round before he was yelling over the sides for the man who let them on to put on the brakes and stop the ride. It’s funny how that day he knew how to say no. When he got off that ride, his head was spinning like it was now and he felt sick and then he got sick, all over the place; on the ground and in a bin and even on some lady’s shoe. She was busy telling someone how revolting it was that he was being sick in public and she didn’t notice him turning in her direction. Alex felt now, exactly like he did that day except it felt like he had gone round maybe a hundred or a thousand times, maybe even a billion. His brother went around seventy two times. The man who started and stopped the machine, he said it was some kind of a record that nobody had ever gone round that many times before. Alex was really proud of his brother that day, everyone was. His mother and father didn’t get it, though. They said it was stupid, going around so many times and then feeling sick. “Now you’re gonna be sick the rest of the day. That was stupid” his father said. His mother just shook her head. Mums and dads had obviously never been kids before or else they wouldn’t say something like that. If they had, they would have known that most kids gave up after thirty


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times round but seventy two... that was incredible. And they wouldn’t have used the word stupid. They would have said the word heroic or awesome or ace or something like that, but not stupid. Having no fright was having no fun and going around once and getting off was just that. Who cared if the rest of the day was ruined, he beat a record, and he was famous now. Apparently some kid from Spain had heard about the record and wanted to beat it. Everyone says he went round like two hundred times, maybe even more. He got real sick though when he got off. He had no balance or something. He was really dizzy and he tripped and fell into the lake. He wasn’t under the water for long. The man who started and stopped the machine, he went running in and pulled the boy out but he wasn’t breathing and that’s why they closed the park down. There was a lot of noise coming from wherever he was. He didn’t know where he was, that was the thing. His mind felt all blurry and rememberless. That probably wasn’t even a real word or nothing, but how do you describe feeling that what you feel isn’t real and the things you can’t remember, that they don’t feel real and not knowing if you were still under your covers at home or if you were locked in the boot of a car. And that didn’t feel real, thinking that it might be the latter and not knowing, how you got here. It’s only fair then when you find yourself drugged and bound in the boot of a car, that you be allowed to make up a word. Rememberless. Alex knew he was in the boot of a car. It was really dark and he couldn’t see a thing. He couldn’t see the hinges that opened and shut the latch. He couldn’t see the small keyhole that would have normally let a tiny bit of light in, mainly because somebody had blocked it up with wet tissue and black tape. He didn’t know that though because they had done it from the outside before they stuffed him in.


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But Alex knew he was in a car boot. He knew the feeling of the shifting wooden panel below his side. It was like the f loor was moving; that someone had forgotten to glue it to the earth. And if he rolled back and forth on his side, the f loor would kind of tilt from one side to the other. Not a lot, just enough so he could tell that he wasn’t on his springy bed, or any bed for that matter. And he wasn’t on the f loor of anything. He knew it was a car though for some other reason. It must have been a smell or a sound or something. But even though he was rememberless, all of a sudden, like a fright in a movie, he recalled a time that he played a game with his brother where he saw how long he could stay in the boot of his father’s car without crying or having to get out for air. That time, it felt like he was in there for hours or even days maybe. And he was really brave at the start cause his brother had the idea for the game and he even asked Alex if he wanted to go first. He never did stuff like that. Alex jumped at the opportunity. Actually he jumped into the opportunity. But it was really dark and he was sacred. Everything felt like it was tying itself around him. He imagined all sorts of spiders and insects and creepy crawly worms; the one’s that his father said would crawl into your ears and live near your brain unless you washed your ears before you went to bed. Those were just some of the things that Alex was sure lived inside the darkness and he hadn’t washed behind his ears that day and he wouldn’t be able to see them crawling through the darkness to slide into his ear. He also imagined the car catching on fire and then blowing up and he imagined a truck driving down the road really fast but the truck had no driver and it was out of control and there was nobody to hit the brakes and it was swerving to the left and to the right but it was driving right at him


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now and it was gonna smash into the car and then the car would explode and it would catch on fire and then he wouldn’t be able to breathe and then the worms and the spiders, they wouldn’t be able to breathe either and they would crawl inside his ears and his mouth so that they didn’t get burned and he wouldn’t be able to yell for anyone to open the latch because his mouth would be full of spiders and nobody would know that he was there. For Alex, it felt like he was in that boot for hours and days, a lifetime even. When you’re staring death in the face, everything feels like forever; the time it takes for death to appear, the time it takes for death to extend its hand, the time it takes for your heart to say no, the time it takes for your mouth to stay still and the time it takes for death’s hand to take yours and to walk you through a dark parking lot towards a rattling old car and to put something over your face and then, the time it takes for you to fall asleep and wake up sick and demented, in the boot of a car. His stomach felt really sick now and his mouth was really dry. He wanted a glass of water. If he was in his bed, he could just moan really loud for a minute or two. He wouldn’t have to say anything, he would just have to moan and hold his belly and maybe rock back and forth to feel a bit better until his mother arrived with a wet cloth to put on his forehead and a glass of water to make the sick go back down and her hand on his back, patting him and rubbing gently so that he would know that even though she might not have been able to stop him being sick, at least he wouldn’t have to go through this all alone. And it wasn’t nice, feeling this kind of sick. It was the type of sick that was different to bad food sick or eating too much candy sick. This was way worse. And he was feeling this kind of sick alone. He didn’t have his mother to put a cloth on his face and to tell him that everything would be ok and to rub and to pat his back so that he could fall asleep again.


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And he didn’t have the shadow of his brother and his heavy snoring just beside him that said that “no bad guys would ever be able to do anything because I’m right here beside you.” He rolled back and forth and he held his hands close to his belly. His head was spinning and his throat was warm and dry. It felt like he was about to throw up hot quick sand cause his sick was coming up real slow and it kind of hurt his throat as it did. He rolled back and forth, though, like all those times he did when he was sick at home. Every time, I mean every single time, when this happened, his mother would come running after one minute or two, every time, guaranteed. All he needed to do then was to rock back and forth. Batman had his signal. Whenever Gotham was in trouble, they would shine a light into the sky with his symbol on it and no matter where Batman was, even when he was underground in his cave where he spent all his time; even when he was in the bathroom and there were no windows and he was reading a book or doing a poo or something, he would still be able to see the signal or he would be able to sense it or something. He would know that Gotham was in danger and he would f lush the toilet and then go and save the day. And he’d wash his hands before he left. That’s what mums and dads were like. Or at least, that’s what kids imagined they were like. Most of the time they were grumpy and complained a lot and spoke to you only about the stuff that you couldn’t do and the things you couldn’t touch and the movies you weren’t allowed to watch. Sometimes, though, they could get you stuff like ice-cream or a computer game and if you shouted enough times, especially in front of people they didn’t know, then they would get you whatever you wanted. But when you needed them, when you felt scared or sick or when the monsters were just about to creep under


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your sheets, you could call out to them and they would come running in a second; like Batman. And the monsters would run away and for that night they’d never come back and even though dads looked kind of angry for getting out of bed in the middle of the night, they only looked that way cause they had to fight monsters. And dads came running when you screamed, always, every single time. And mums, they always came running when you moaned and rolled about on your side holding your belly, every single time. Alex rolled back and forth. He held his hands to his belly and he moaned. He did just like all the other times and he kept his eyes shut, just like all the other times. And he kept his nose shut too and he tried to pretend that he was in his bed and it just felt a little funny, but it was his bed and not the boot of some strange man’s car. And he tried to pretend that there wasn’t any rope around his hands. And he tried to pretend that if he wanted to scratch the itch on his nose, that he would have been able to and that the ropes that bound his hands and his feet, that they were just a game he played with his brother the night before, only, he must have fallen asleep before the game was over. He pretended all of those things in his head as he rolled back and forth and he moaned louder and louder. The moaning seemed to settle his stomach a little bit. It was like he was taking part of a medicine and it was starting to work, but he needed his mother there for the rest. He needed the wet cloth and he needed her hand gently patting and rubbing his back. He moaned and he moaned and he hoped and he hoped and he really did expect his mother to just open the boot and to take him in her arms. And why shouldn’t he? That’s what mums and dads did. And the worst thing that should ever happen to a kid is that maybe they should, for a second or two, find themselves feeling this way or thinking this way. But mums and


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dads should always come running, always, without fail. They should always find him. They should always take him in their arms. And the feeling should always go away. He should feel safe again. That’s what happens at the end of the scary movie. That’s what happens at the end of the news. That’s what happens when kids are scared. Mums and dads, they stop it. They stop the fear before it becomes real. No kid should ever have to feel this bad. No kid should ever have to feel this scared. No kid should ever have to guess where they are. And no kid should have to assume that they’re in the boot of someone’s car. Wasn’t there a rule that this kind of thing shouldn’t happen? His mother didn’t come running. Neither did his father. He felt something scratching against this back, but it wasn’t his mother’s long nails. It was a hook, for tying down a spare tire. It must have come loose or something and it was sticking up and it was poking through the wood that kept tilting back and forth every time that Alex rolled. There was probably no spare tire. That’s why the hook wasn’t tied down properly. That would explain why the wooden board was moving so much as well. There was no denying it. There was no pretending. He was definitely in the boot of a car.


Chapter Nine

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Alex woke up for a second time and this time he could see properly. He still felt queasy and his mouth was real dry. He kept peeling his tongue off the roof of his mouth, but it was like trying to peel an old sticker off glass. He thought he was going to tear off parts of his tongue and it sounded like that’s what was happening, but it wasn’t. His teeth were really sore as well. He must have been grinding them again the whole time he was asleep. He wasn’t in the boot of a car, though. But still, there wasn’t much space. And his hands weren’t tied together like they were before and they weren’t tied to his feet either. But he was almost naked. Nothing on. Except for his underwear. Alex wiped his eyes and moved his head around. He was inside a box; a small box. There was a lot less space than before. He tried to wriggle his body, but his feet kept hitting against something hard, probably the end of the box. He couldn’t stretch them out properly. When he tried, he got poked by the pointy end of a nail that was sticking through. So he didn’t try again. He had to keep his knees bent just to fit inside and they were on a kind of angle because the box was so small that he couldn’t roll onto his side. He could see, though. There was a little bit of light that was coming in through some holes near the end where his feet were scrunched and a couple above his head and some under his body. He pulled his hands up to his face to wipe some snot from his nose. It might have been from a cold or probably because he had been crying so much. His wrists were red and


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they were sore too. They had been tied up with something when he was in the boot of the car, but he didn’t see what. He pulled his hands over his face. He covered his eyes and he covered his mouth and he covered his nose and he pushed his two thumbs into each ear and he pushed hard on the little f lap of skin that stuck out and he couldn’t see the nails that kept him trapped inside this wooden box and he couldn’t smell the newly coated lacquer on the treated wood that still hadn’t properly dried and he couldn’t hear the sound of his toes scratching against the ends of the box and his own breath, echoing as it bounced off all four sides. He clasped his hands over his face and everything was black. He tried to think of a game he used to play with his father; one where his father would county to fifty and he would hide somewhere dark and somewhere out of sight and it might have even been a box just like this and in the game, he held his hands over his face and held his breath and tried not to make a sound and he listened to his father finishing his count and then to the sound of his footprints as he came out of the kitchen and towards the room where he was hiding. And even though he wanted to hide and play forever, he still couldn’t wait to get caught. His father would come and he would circle the room and he would pretend he didn’t know where Alex was and he would pretend to be looking on one side of the room while he was creeping up on the box and he would be holding back his laughter while listening to Alex trying to hold back on his breath and he would rip open the lid and he would shout “I got you” and “you’re it” and Alex would jump and scream in fright and delight and though he never liked to get caught, he could never wait to get out of the shadows. With his hands held tight over his face, Alex imagined that the footsteps he heard out in the hallway where his father’s and that his brother and his sisters, they were hiding somewhere really good as well and that his father hadn’t


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found them yet. But he wanted to get found first. It was always fun to play the hunted for a bit and then hunter for a longer while still. It was exciting to hide and be hunted but it was always pretty scary and Alex didn’t like that feeling when it went on for too long, even if he knew it was just a game. The footsteps got louder and they went clump, clump, clump, all the way down the hall and then they stopped. He wondered if his father had caught his brother yet. He hoped not. He liked to try and find him. He was so good at playing this game. He would hide in the best spots; places that Alex would never think of. And he was always the last to be caught. Alex could hear the sound of a key turning and a lock going click two times and then the jingling of keys, on a chain probably, and then another lock clicking but this one was a lot bigger and it didn’t go click, it went clunk. And it went clunk two times as well and then the keys jingled some more while they were taken from the door and put somewhere else. They didn’t have locks on the doors at home. He knew it wasn’t, but he hoped like hell that it was, that it was his brother coming into the room to spook him or his father coming in to save him. It could have been either one, as long as it wasn’t The Man again. The door’s handle creaked as it turned. It sounded like the scratching that the tree made on his window every night. The sound made him think of that tree and that tree always made him feel like something was about to eat him and it was scarier now that he could hear the sound but he couldn’t see what type of monster it was and whether it was salivating and ravished or like a cat, if it just wanted to play with its food. Then the footsteps started again but they only walked once or twice before they stopped. And Alex held his breath. He wished it was his father. His wished it were anyone other than The Man. But it wasn’t. It was him. And he was probably planning to do something.


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Alex tried not to move inside the box. He wanted to pretend he was still sleeping or something and hopefully The Man would go away. That always worked with ghosts and ghouls in the past. He’d just close his eyes and hold on tight inside his mind and then eventually he could open them again and it would be daylight and his mother would be shouting at him to get up or he’d be late for school. The footsteps turned to shuff ling. It sounded like The Man, the monster or whatever he was, was dragging something along the f loor. It must have been heavy too because Alex could hear him grunting really loud just before his feet started shuff ling again and the thing started sliding along the f loor. It only slid a bit each time so it must have been heavy. Maybe it was another box. Alex stayed perfectly still. He thought that very same thought. That maybe he wasn’t alone. Maybe there was another little boy or a little girl and even if they couldn’t get out of their boxes, maybe they could still talk to each other. Maybe they could be friends. It didn’t feel so bad, thinking that he mightn’t be alone. The Man or the monster or whatever whispered something into the other box. Alex couldn’t hear what he said. It just sounded like someone calling a cat or something. It was really low. Then again if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be a whisper. He tried to stay still but thinking about that made him feel an itch in his foot and he tried to pretend that it wasn’t there because he was trying to pretend that he was asleep or already dead. So he shut his eyes really tight, squeezing them so hard that his they felt sore and funny and he totally forgot about the itch in his foot. But the second he let go, the itch came back. And it was small at first but then it got bigger and it felt like there were a hundred thousand ants all dancing on his feet and the itch was travelling up his leg and he could feel it behind his ears now and under his nose and in the corners


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of his eyes. He held his breath. He tried to pretend he was under water and that nothing could make him itch while he was in the water. But the ocean had jellyfish. And the ocean had sharks. And you could never see the bottom and you could never touch it. And you never knew what was swimming just below. And you always swore you could feel something brushing past your feet. It would feel like a fin, or a tooth or an eye or a tentacle and there were probably hundreds of them and they were going to eat you, the second you stopped kicking. Alex gasped as if he had burst from the ocean f loor into the morning sun. He took a mammoth gulp of air and he banged his head on the lid above him. “Ow!” he yelled. Someone laughed. It wasn’t him. Alex lay back down in his box. He rubbed the part of his head that he hit. There was a lump and it was really sore. He was worried that The Man or the monster or whatever was in the room and had heard him and realized he that was awake and for that reason, was going to kill him or eat him or something worse. That someone was still laughing. Mocking him. “It’s not funny,” said Alex. He spoke low. It didn’t really matter anymore, keeping a secret of being awake. It was scarier thinking about what could happen than dealing with what was actually happening so he gave up or he got stronger, one or the two. “It is kind of. You hit your head. Don’t be a pansy” the voice said, before trailing off into laughter again. It didn’t sound like a little boy, not at all. But he spoke like a little boy. The other person, his voice was deep, like there was something caught in his throat. He kind of gurgled as he spoke.


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“Shut up,” Alex said, trying to roll on his right side. “Oh don’t be a sook. You’re not gonna cry are you?” “No,” he said. But he had already started. It was as if the question was a command or an invite or something. He wished he could stop, but he couldn’t. His eyes welled up and his nose got all sniff ly and the muscles in his face scrunched up and if his eyes were open, it would like he was smiling. But his eyes were closed and it didn’t at all sound like he was happy. “Don’t cry?” said the voice. “I hate crying. Stop it. Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop. You’re not crying, you’re singing a song. You’re just singing a song. An annoying song but it’s just a song. It’s just a song. It’s just a song. It’s just a sad song and…. Stop crying please!” shouted the voice. It too started to sniff le. “Stop it!” it shouted. But Alex couldn’t stop. “If you don’t stop I will go over there and make you stop. Trust me.” Still, Alex couldn’t stop. “Ok, on the count of three then. And if you do not stop, I will come over there, I’ll get in your box and I’ll stick my fingers up your nose and I’ll… Well, I don’t know what I’ll do yet but believe me, you don’t wanna know.” “One.” Still, crying. “Two.” Crying still. “Three. Alright, that’s it.” Thump. “Ow!” shouted the voice. “My bloody head.” Alex laughed. He was still crying. But he laughed. He snorted.


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And he laughed some more. “It’s not funny,” said the voice sulking. Alex pulled his hand up to the bruise on his head and rubbed it gently. It wasn’t funny. It hurt like hell when he did it. But it was always funny when someone else got hurt. Especially when they were mean to you about the very same thing. “At least you stopped crying but fuck me, that hurt. Ow, god!” Alex said nothing. He got nervous when people swore. This obviously wasn’t a boy. Boys didn’t speak like that. His brother was heaps older than him and he didn’t even speak like that. He didn’t like it, though. Rough people had rough tongues and he felt like something bad might happen, like whoever it was in that other box might break something or start a fight and then The Man or the monster or whatever, he might come marching back to the room and he’d probably have a knife or a gun or something and he’d kill them both. “Hey” shouted the other voice. “We’re alone, I think. You can talk you know. He aint coming back. Not for a while anyway. He’s out doin stuff. You don’t have to worry. Well, not now anyway” he said laughing. Alex sniffed. “Sorry. Bad humor. That wasn’t even funny, was it? I do that sometimes. My doctor says it’s my way of dealing with fear, making jokes and such and you didn’t laugh so uh, maybe I’m the joke. Hey, hey, I’ve gotta joke for ya. You like jokes?” Alex said nothing. “Of course you do. You’re alive aren’t ya? Well, for now. A good joke will lighten the mood. Let me see… What do you call…. Nope. Can’t remember the punch line on that one. I hate it when that happens. Ok, ok. Alright. I got one.” Alex said nothing. “What’s this?” said the voice, stretching his arms out. Alex said nothing.


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“Oh, you can’t see. Crap. Alright well, it was a shitty way to spend Easter. That was the punch line. I had my arms out like this” he said, stretching his arms out again. “And you didn’t see which means the joke loses all friggin context. God Damnit!” Thump. He hit his head again. “Fuck!” he screamed. Alex laughed. “That’s not the friggin joke. Look I have one. Just give me a second to remember.” Alex lay there on his side, turned away from the other box. He didn’t feel as scared as he had only minutes before. The person beside him shouted a lot and his voice was really rough and he got angry really quickly. But he was kind of funny. The angrier he got, the funnier he seemed. “I got it” he shouted. “Wait… god damnit, it’s gone. Wait… I got it, ok, ok. Ok, so, so there’s three hookers and they’re sitting at a bar and the first hooker says…Shit!” He cursed some more; a lot more. And he kicked and he punched at the sides and at the top of his box. He was pretty angry. He obviously didn’t like forgetting stuff. And he wasn’t any good at telling jokes. “Why did the chicken cross the road?” said Alex. The other person was still fussing and cussing. Alex cleared his throat. “Why did the chicken cross the road,” he said again. “What? Chicken? Cross the road? What?” yelled the voice. He sounded disappointed. As if he was expecting pizza. But he got a salad. “Fuck it,” he said, giving up on his own joke. “Why did the chicken cross the road then?” Alex smiled.


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He took a breath. And he held it. And he suspended the silence. And he liked it. And he said. “Because it had no legs.” “What? That makes no sense. What do you mean? That’s stupid. That’s a stupid joke. Where did you hear that?” “I made it up.” “Yeah well. That was stupid. So that makes you stupid.” “No you’re stupid,” said Alex chuckling between syllables. “Well if I’m so stupid then explain it to me.” “Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it had no legs.” Alex laughed. The voice grumbled. “I don’t get it. If it’s got no legs then how does it cross the friggin road?” Alex was still laughing. And that got the voice even madder. “It’s not funny. It makes no sense. A joke is supposed to make sense, that’s why it’s funny. It should be ironic. That’s not ironic. It’s not even offensive. It just sucks. You suck,” he shouted. “It is funny. You just have to think it in your head. Why did he cross the road? Cause he had no legs. He had no legs,” Alex said in hysterics. “The chicken had no legs.” The other person stopped and pictured a small chicken on the other side of the road looking back at where it had come from. It was sitting in the sand and there were no cars but there; on the other side of the road, were its legs, standing up in the air. He started laughing. It made no sense.


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But it was funny, The voice laughed and he forgot that he was angry and Alex laughed and he forgot that he was scared and they were both laughing so loud that they forgot that they were trapped inside small wooden boxes.


Chapter Ten

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Alex fell asleep. He had to squeeze himself into a strange position so he could, but he managed, after some wriggling around, to push his knees up into the upper right corner of the box and kind of twist his body so he could turn his head to his side. He couldn’t sleep on his back. It was impossible. He never did at home. He always slept either on his belly or on his side. Most of the time he slept on his belly but he turned his head to one side, usually to the right and he always tucked his hands under his pillow so he would sleep over his forearm. It was so annoying having to put his arms somewhere, especially now that he was getting older and they were getting longer and at night when he was trying to sleep, seemingly always in the way. The only time he ever slept on his back was yesterday when he was drugged and forced into a small wooden box. He didn’t really dream about anything in particular. He dreamt he had a car made out of a match box and it was propelled by a two liter soda bottle that sat on the roof. And it was a real matchbox. It was the real size and everything. But somehow he could squeeze in and there was plenty of room and he propelled down the freeway and he drove underneath cars and he bounced over little pebbles that to him were like giant boulders. Then he woke up screaming. He felt something on his foot. It was creeping. It was crawling. It was a spider. “Ahhh!” he screamed.


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He kicked his feet against the end of the box, over and over and over again. “Shhh,” hissed the voice. “He’ll hear. Don’t be a friggin idiot.” Alex tried to contain himself. It was no use, though. He could feel the spider crawling up his ankle and it was so light and tingly and he could feel each tiny leg lifting and stepping onto his skin and he tried to shift his body, he tried to twitch his muscles and shake his leg so that the spider would fall off. But it didn’t. It crawled up his leg and then it crawled onto his thigh and then it must have crawled onto his underwear because he stopped feeling it creeping about and that was worse. Now he was worried about where it might be. Would it crawl back out of the box or would it crawl along the sides and then close to his belly and then under his chin. Would it crawl into his mouth or would it crawl into his ear? And would it lay eggs in his hair? And if so, how long would it be till millions of spiders crawled all over his skin? Who knows?


Chapter Eleven

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Darkness was broken as light crept into the room and filled the tiny spaces between his legs and his scrunching body inside of the small box. Alex tried to clasp his eyes shut and go back to sleep. He’d been dreaming that he was in his old living room in his old city and he was watching his brother playing computer games on the big television. He was standing behind him and he kept wanting to ask for a turn, but he never did. His mother was in the kitchen and she was pouring a glass of wine the whole time. He could hear the wine splashing against the glass but every now and then, when he looked up, he could see that she wasn’t there. She was pulling weeds out of the garden. And it wasn’t wine she was pouring; it was the sound of rain lightly splashing against the pergola. When he turned back to the game, though, he could hear the wine gently pouring into the glass once more and he could hear his mother clearing her throat. It was something she always did before she got drunk. The locks of the door clicked once and then clicked twice and the big heavy bolts clanked and turned and then the loud squeaky handle it squeaked and it squealed as it slowly pressed down and the door spilled open. The light from the corridor f looded into the room and it took with it, the sound of shuff ling feet that at first shuff led by the door and then shuff led around the room. First by the edges and the far corners and then by Alex’s feet that were pressed against the edge of the box. Alex clenched his hands and he tensed his body. He could hear the sounds of large hands rubbing against the lid of the box, rubbing back and forth and around and around


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in big circles and then in tiny circles and then in even tinier circles until finally just a single finger traced around a breathing hole carved into the box by his naked feet. He f linched when the finger touched him. It scratched against his toe and he pressed his foot against the hole and it scratched against that too. He tried to move his feet around, to hide them somewhere, but he had nowhere safe to press them against. There were holes on every side. Alex closed his eyes, but that just made everything worse because he could hear, so loud, the sound of hands sliding over the wooden lid and human nails, scratching against the grain and picking at small splinters as it found them. And the way the sound echoed inside the box, it sounded like there were thousands of giant hands all closing in around him and there were tens of thousands of fingers on those thousands of hands, all poking through the box and trying to touch and to scrape and to scratch at his trembling and shivering skin. Alex played dead. He pretended he was asleep or not breathing. He tried not to move. He tried not to care. He pretended not to feel anything when the poking fingers touched him just above his right knee and then again by his left shoulder and finally when it twisted and curled some strands of his hair and pulled one of them out. He sat perfectly still, just like the mouse, pretending he was asleep or not breathing, just hoping that every poke and every touch and every pull and every scratch would be the last. That’s what kept him still. It’s what kept him from crying out. It’s what kept him from squirming around and making it worse for himself and it’s what stopped him from making it more fun for whoever was peeping through the tiny holes and hoping he would jump and f linch and scream and squirm.


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“Nobody knows where you are,” whispered The Man. “No-one except for me.” Alex thought of his mother and father. Where were they? “You’re never going home.” Alex was shaking. He gritted his teeth as hard as he could. He shoved his tongue against the roof of his mouth so hard that he thought it might push right through. He clenched his hands together so tight that his nails made thick grooves in the skin, but there was so much fear and sadness in his blood and welling in his eyes that he couldn’t feel the pain from his digging nails. He wanted to, though. He wanted the pain to take away the sadness. He wanted his sore hands to be the only thing that was real about any of this. “You think you’re special?” said The Man. “You’re not special. I’m special. I’m the special one. You’re never going home. You’re never gonna see your mum and dad again. You’re not special” he hissed. The Man punched the side of the box and Alex shrieked. He screamed so loud and so sharp that he thought his soul might just jump out of his body and leave him, to this hungry cat. Alex was shaking and crying. He couldn’t pretend anymore. The Man punched on the top of the box and he dragged something sharp along the sides like the rounded end of a hammer and then he started beating against the top of the box. And smack, smack, smack; the hammer crashed down and more light f looded in around the spaces between Alex’s trembling body. And he hit harder and harder and harder and part of the lid split open and The Man, he didn’t stop. “You’re not special,” he screamed, smashing the hammer against the sides while Alex tucked his body as tight as he could. He shook and he trembled and it was all happening so


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fast and he could hear The Man shouting, but he couldn’t make out any of the words and he could hear the hammer crashing against the wood and he could hear the wood splintering and ripping apart, but he couldn’t feel the hammer hitting his thigh or the back of his head. But it did. “Fucking stop it!” When the person in the other box shouted out, Alex heard; and The Man, he must have heard too because he stopped swinging and the hammer stopped crashing down and he stopped cursing and spitting and he left Alex all alone. The Man stepped away from the box. He shuff led back towards the door and there was a terrible clanking sound as he threw the hammer out of the room and down along the corridor. “He’s not special,” shouted The Man as he closed the door. Alex froze. He could feel the lump on his thigh and he could feel the lump on the back of his head. They didn’t hurt. Not as much as they would later on. But he could feel them and he knew he had been hurt. He just didn’t know if he’d been hurt bad or if he was going to be ok. He stayed frozen. He lay there in his wooden box with his legs f lat against one side and his hands pulled up over his face. His heart was beating out of control and his breath was running along with it. As the second lock clicked and clanked and the thought of being safe or out of immediate threat settled in his ears, he let go of his restraint and a warm stream of peepee ran down his legs and it pooled under his body and some of it trickled out from the wooden box where the hammer had hit and in some places where breathing holes had been made. “Hey kid, you ok?” asked the other person. Alex stared at the palms of his hands. They were entrenched on his face.


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“Hey, kid. It’s ok. He’s gone.” The sound of the person’s voice made him feel safe. Not like his father’s would or even his brother’s, but it put a blanket on his fear. It made him think that nothing bad might happen to him. Not now. And maybe, this voice, this other person, maybe they could shout loud enough and keep The Man away, long enough until someone came and rescued them. He thought about his mother and his father. When he thought about his father’s face, he felt strong enough to kick the box open and try and escape. When he thought about his mother’s face, he saw her crying and then he felt soft like jelly and he just wanted her to pick him up and to hold him in her arms and to stretch her arm around the back of his head and to keep his face buried in her chest. And he wanted to hear her heart beating. “I’m getting us out of here. Hold on buddy. Just gotta twist this and turn this and cut this and…” Alex could hear a lot of scratching and then a lot of shouting and cursing. But it was a different type of cursing. The other person, he didn’t sound mad or dangerous, not like The Man. He sounded frustrated, kind of like his father used to get when he had to assemble a bicycle at the last minute. His father would yell and shout a lot and he would say loads of bad words, but the kids would always find it funny. They never felt scared when their father shouted like this because he wasn’t really angry with them, he was always angry with himself. Well, angry at the bike and the stupid company who made the bike and the stupid instructions for being in Chinese and the stupid pictures for being too small. And he was mad at their mother because she was being real nice to him and asking him if he needed any help or a special tool or a drink or anything. But really he was just mad at himself for leaving it till the last minute and he was mad because he didn’t know how


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to do something and he was mad because he wanted it to be really special and he wanted everything to be a great surprise. That’s how everyone knew they were getting a bicycle or a home kitchen set for their birthday, by the level of the father’s expletive frustration. “And one and two and presto, we’re out. Piece of cheap crap.” The lid on the other box f lung open and it banged against the wall on the other side. That’s what freedom sounded like. It wasn’t trumpets or fireworks or even sirens. It was the sound that wood makes when it’s kicked open from the inside. And it’s the silence afterwards that sounds like a prisoner sighing in relief. And that’s freedom; hearing someone else acquiring theirs and knowing that you’re next. Alex listened to the sound of tiny feet scuttering about on the open box beside him and then the sound of those tiny feet being carried over the side and crashing down on the f loor below. Their boxes must have been placed up high. He hadn’t thought about it but the other person, he cursed when he hit the f loor. The other person, he was mumbling to himself as he crossed the room and the climbed up onto Alex’s box. Alex couldn’t really hear what he was saying. It sounded a lot like complaining. He could see the outline though of the person and he looked kind of funny. He looked really small. “Cover your eyes,” shouted the person. Alex did as he said. It was like when the dentist told you not to swallow. It was always because they were using some bad stuff in your mouth. Once it was because the dentist was using a type of glue and she told Alex not to swallow, not because it tasted bad or anything but because it was glue and it would probably stick his food to his stomach or something. It didn’t help. That day, the dentist was filling his mouth with water and more glue and she wouldn’t give him the chance to spit any


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out. She just kept saying, “Now don’t swallow honey, ok?” But she didn’t give him an alternative. So in the dentist’s chair he focused on not swallowing and here in the wooden box, he focused on covering his eyes and not looking. It was so hard not to look when someone said, “Don’t look.” Splinters were falling on and around him. He peeked through his fingers. He couldn’t help himself. He saw what looked like a tiny hand, no bigger than a baby’s, poking through the gaps in the lid and pulling back on the splinters at first and then, when it had a good grip, holding onto and pulling back hard onto the panels themselves and heaving with all might until parts of them snapped and then the little person went f lying off of the box and slid along the f loor, resting by the locked door. “Kick your feet” he shouted. “What? How?” said Alex. “Just kick outwards. Trust me,” said the other person. Alex held his breath. He tucked his feet towards his body as much as he could. He wanted to get some kind of leverage and force before he kicked. He thrust his feet back towards the end of the box and when he did, he sprang backwards and his head bounced off of the top end and then the whole thing just fell apart. The ends popped off and then the sides, they started to wobble and the lid, one side of it fell onto his body as one of the sides dropped onto the ground and then the other side fell off with it. Alex held the lid in his hands. It wasn’t that heavy. It was really light actually. The whole box was. He might have been able to do this all along, but he hadn’t tried. He hadn’t even thought of it. And he wouldn’t be out if it wasn’t for the other person. Alex lifted the lid in the air. It weighed less than his old body board and that didn’t weigh all that much. He threw it to the f loor and lifted himself up. He was sitting upright and


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looking around. He looked at his legs first. His thigh was really hurting. There was a big purple mark and the rest of the leg was red right down past his knee and up to his hip. It was stinging so much. His head was also throbbing really hard. It felt like someone had hit him in the head with a hammer. He was really cold. He was in his underwear and he was sitting in a now cold pool of his own peepee. It smelt kind of funny and it didn’t bother him before, but it made him feel embarrassed now. He’d only ever done something like this once before and that time, it destroyed him. It left him feeling a lot worse than he did now. But still, his underwear was stained yellow and he couldn’t hide it. He started to cry. “No, no, no, no. You can’t cry. I friggin hate crying. I didn’t break you out of this coffin so you could friggin cry. Stop it!” Alex looked to the end of the room by the door. He was sniff ling, but he held back his tears. He was looking for the person who broke him out, but he couldn’t see him anywhere. He looked to the left and he looked to the right. He even looked up on the roof and he hanged his head over the side of his wooden box and peered underneath. “What? What are you looking for? What is it? What are you looking for? I’m right here for fuck’s sake.” Alex looked back to the door, where was the voice coming from? His jaw dropped and his eyes, they stretched wider than they ever had the entire of his life. He couldn’t believe it. It couldn’t possibly be true. He clenched his hands and then he rubbed them vigorously against his eyes. And then he looked back at the door and he did it again and he did it again. And then he shut them and he opened them and he shut them again and he kept them shut. And he expected to see


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something different each time. And when he opened them one last time, he saw it. There, sitting beneath the handle of the door, was a small doll or what looked like a doll; a tiny little doll. And it was different to any other doll he had ever seen. It wasn’t like the dolls that girls kept and it wasn’t like a doll that boys had either. It was the same size, maybe a tiny bit bigger, but it looked really strange. It had black jeans on. And it had these big black boots and the boots had silver tips on the ends and the ends were pointy and the laces were pulled really tight. And the doll, he had a black t-shirt on too and one of his sleeves was folded backwards and it was holding something square. And it had its arms folded and its arms were small, but they looked big and muscly and strong. And its face looked angry and mean. Its nose was all scrunched up and so were its lips. It looked like it had just sucked on a lemon or something. And it had a scar along one side of its face. It was a really big scar and it made it look really mean. And its eyes were hidden under black shades. It looked exactly like the older boys who smoked and were always up to no good; on the steps at the entrances to shopping malls, in parks and on play equipment and along the walls in front of schools. And its hair. It looked like he had multi colored pine trees or furry springs growing out of his head. They were all springy and bouncy and they went up and back down and when they did, the different colors all moved in a f lashy spiral. And it was breathing. And its muscles were f lexing. Alex smiled. “The name’s The Gruff,” it said. “But you can call me Gruff, but not Gruffy or Grufster and definitely not Gruff les. Just Gruff.”


Chapter Twelve

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Alex didn’t quite know what to think. He was just staring at The Gruff as he paced around the room back and forth with his little fingers curled over its chin and it looked like it was thinking an awful lot about how they were going to get out of this situation. The Gruff didn’t look like the fact that he was real bothered him very much. He was just pacing about like an army general and it didn’t sound like he was doing much thinking. It just sounded like he was grumbling and complaining. “Are you real?” asked Alex. The Gruff stopped his pacing. He was still grumbling but he was looking at Alex now and he had his two arms folded and he had his chest puffed out and he was trying to puff it out even further than it already was and he was probably going to shout at any second. “Do you know who I am? Well? Do you?” The Gruff shouted. Alex didn’t. If he was a doll, he had never seen one before and he had never seen a doll come to life either. He must have been from somewhere different. “Are you from Japan?” “Do I look friggin Japanese to you? C’mon, use your head kid. Think. Who do you think I am? Who am I?” The Gruff said in a howling and growling whisper. “I’m sorry. I really don’t know. Who are you?” “I’m the reason you’re out of that god damn box” he snarled. The Gruff started pacing again. He followed the walls around the room and he was looking at every inch of the f loor and the roof. The room itself was empty. There was nothing


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except for the boxes in which they’d just escaped. There wasn’t even a window. “You’re welcome by the way” grumbled The Gruff. Alex felt stupid. He didn’t say thank you. He was raised to always say thank you, even if he didn’t mean it or if he didn’t want to or even if the person didn’t deserve it. It was just the polite thing to do. But he was so caught up in the fact that The Gruff was real that he just totally forgot. And he did feel it. He did want to say it. And The Gruff, he did deserve it. It just slipped his mind. “Thanks,” he said. “Hey, don’t mention it, kid. I’m not in this for the acclaim.” Alex climbed off what was left of the box and then sat cross legged on the f loor by the door. He was soiled and cold. There were no other clothes in the room for him to put on. He looked around, but he couldn’t find his at all. The Man must have taken them and put them somewhere. The Gruff stopped looking around the room. He looked at Alex now and he had his arms folded again. He gave him the same look that his teachers used to give before they’d ask him to sit in the corner or stay back after school. “Are you going to hurt me?” asked Alex. The Gruff laughed. “What’s your name?” “Alex’ he said. “Alex, do I look like I’m going to hurt you?” “Yes.” “Really?” “I dunno. I mean you look mean and that and…” “I’m not gonna hurt you for god’s sake. But I am gonna get us the hell out of here. Somehow.” The Gruff looked up and examined the roof. Alex looked up with him and followed where he was looking pretending he knew what he was looking for. He didn’t though.


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He was just so used to doing things that other people did; copying the stuff his brother used to do and having to do the stuff his mother and father wanted him to do. There was nowhere for them to run. The only exit was through the door and that was locked. And if they did try to break out, The Man would catch them and he’d lock them up again or worse. Alex started to cry. “Hey, hey. What the hell did I tell you about crying?” The Gruff hated crying. He hated the sound of it. He hated the whimpering. He hated the sound of runny noses being sniff led. He hated the appalling bawling. He hated the snorting between tear soaked explanations. He hated the sympathy that it obligated. He hated everything about it “I hate everything about crying,” he said. “If you have to do it. Be discreet or something. You don’t vomit in front of someone while they’re having supper. Well, do you?” Alex sniff led. His bottom lip was trembling. “No.” “Of course not. So if you don’t vomit in front of someone while they’re eating supper, then why the hell do you think its hunky dory to cry in front of someone while they’re thinking happy thoughts? Now you got me thinking about my mummy and my daddy and I’m feeling sad too and I’m gonna cry and….” The Gruff pulled his hands over his face. “I miss my mum and dad too,” said Alex. The Gruff laughed. Alex cried again. He buried his head into his hands. He thought of his mother’s face. He imagined her as he thought she would have looked as she turned the corner and found the parking lot completely empty. He imagined her opening every door in every apartment and seeing every room empty. He imagined


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her returning to their apartment and sitting on the edge of her bed and staring down through her empty hands at his stupid red jumper that had his smell. “Oh don’t get so friggin sentimental. It was just a joke.” Alex looked up. The Gruff was standing right in front of him and he still had his arms folded over his puffed out chest. He looked really angry. He didn’t at all look like he was sorry about anything. Alex lowered his head again. “It was a friggin joke. Jesus. Lighten up would ya. God!” The Gruff kicked the f loor beside Alex’s feet. He looked like he hurt himself. He stormed off to the other side of the room and he sat down against the wall. He pulled his knees up to his sour face and he grumbled something into his legs. The two sat there quiet for an hour or so. Alex had run out of tears and sat there waiting for them to come back so he could cry them out again. “So you don’t like jokes. Well what do you like?” asked The Gruff. Alex looked over to him. He didn’t have his head in his knees anymore. He was sitting with his legs out stretched, but they were crossed as well. He looked like he was waiting for a train to come. “Stuff, I suppose.” “What you mean stuff? Be specific. What, you like football, you like BMX, you like skateboarding, you like armies, what? It’s not Barbie is it? You don’t have… issues do you?” The Gruff made a disgusted face. “I mean, it’s ok if you do or if you are or… You know.” “I don’t like that stuff” shouted Alex. “I’m not a girl.” “Temper, temper.” “Shut up. It’s not funny” “You’re right, it’s not funny. Well, you wanna play a game?” Alex looked at him funny. “What game?”


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“What about… I spy?” “Ok.” “Alright. I’ll go first. I love this game. Ok. I spy with my little eye” he said, winking at Alex. “Something beginning with…u” Alex looked around the room. There was nothing here except some broken boxes and that was ‘b’ and the boxes were made of ‘w’ – wood - and the walls, they were ‘w’ and they were white too and that was it. There was a door, a handle, a couple of locks, but there was nothing that started with ‘u’, except… Alex looked down at his stained underwear. He went red immediately. He felt so ashamed. He had never peed himself before. He had pooped his pants once by accident. His mother had taken too long in the shops and he was waiting by the car and he didn’t know when she would come back and his brother was sitting inside the car and he was pacing around outside. He really had to go to the toilet, but he didn’t know where his mother was so he kind of danced on his feet and he squeezed the cheeks of his bum together and he pressed his hand to his bum and he tried to think of something else, but he couldn’t stop it. As soon as the first bit came out, it all just came out and pretty soon he just stood there, like a little baby, and he let it fill his pants. And then he got in the car and he sat in the back seat. And when everyone got back to the car, everyone knew what had happened, but nobody said anything. That was how he felt now. “Urine,” he said angrily. “What?” “U for urine. Are you happy now?” The Gruff looked insulted. “I don’t get it.” “Urine. Pee. I peed myself. There, I did it, so what?” “Actually I was gonna say, you.”


“Me?” “Yeah you. Starts with a friggin u.” “But you starts with a y.” The Gruff looked confused. “Are you sure?” “Dead sure.” “Can we start again?” “Ok.” “I spy, with my little eye. Something beginning with… y”

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“Me,” said Alex. “No,” said The Gruff all proud. Alex looked around. There was nothing else. “It has to be me,” he said. “Nope.” “Then what is it?” “It’s you.” “That’s what I said. Me.” “No, it’s not me, it’s you.” “But that’s what I meant.” “Yeah, but it’s not what you said.” “You’re stupid.” “Yeah? Well, you’re stupider” yelled The Gruff, throwing his arms in the air and kicking his legs up and down. Alex started to laugh. The Gruff looked really mad but when he got mad, his face scrunched up and he looked like an old man sucking on a lemon. He didn’t at all look dangerous. He looked really funny. And the angrier he got, the funnier he looked. And the funnier he looked, the louder Alex laughed and the louder Alex laughed, the angrier The Gruff got, until eventually, The Gruff sat in the far corner facing the wall with his back to Alex. “I didn’t mean to laugh. I’m sorry” said Alex. nothing. “People laugh at me sometimes as well. Because I do


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things funny. And they push me” said Alex. He was shuff ling over towards The Gruff, inching himself on his bum. When he got about a meter away, he stopped. He leaned himself against the wall and he sat facing the center of the room, away from The Gruff. He turned towards him every now and then. He gave him a little glance and then he turned back to the f loor. He didn’t stare or anything. He just gave a quick glance and The Gruff knew he was looking and he knew as well that he wasn’t staring and it made him feel like he had been noticed, but that he wasn’t being watched. Alex moved an inch forwards. The Gruff grumbled. Alex moved an inch back. “You’re not stupid” said Alex. “I was just mad. I didn’t mean it.” He inched closer again. This time The Gruff didn’t grumble. He just kind of whimpered. Alex knew a cat once and it did the same sort of thing. Whenever he would go near it and try to pick it up, it would run to a corner and it would grumble or hiss and if he called out, it would look at him funny and untrusting before it ran away. One day though, instead of just trying to pick it up, he sat down beside the cat and he didn’t do much else. He just sat there and he looked at the cat the same was he was looking at The Gruff just now. And in the end, the cat came to him. “I kicked the ball the wrong way once.” The Gruff said nothing. “I was playing football. My friend was the goalie. We always played on Saturdays, me and him. He was the goalie and I had to kick the ball past him. I never did though. He was really good. We played a match once for a team and he was the goalie and I had to kick the goals. Well I got the ball and the other team, they couldn’t stop me. They didn’t try. I felt great. Like the best on the field. I ran up the pitch with


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with the ball and the other players, they were yelling ‘pass the ball’ but I didn’t. I kept running and the other team, they moved out of my way cause I was so good or something. And I saw my friend and for the first time, I kicked a goal.” The Gruff said nothing. “I kicked in the wrong goal,” said Alex, a little embarrassed. “The other team, they weren’t chasing me cause I was going the wrong way. I was so used to playing with my friend on Saturdays, I forgot I was supposed to kick to the other goal.” The Gruff chuckled. “Everyone made fun of me. They all pointed and they laughed. The other team, my team, the coach and my friend. They said I couldn’t play for them anymore. And my friend, he stopped kicking the ball with me on Saturdays.” The Gruff chuckled some more. Alex inched forwards some more. The Gruff snarled. But not at him. “I hate people,” he said. “Not you. But people in general. It’s like if you’re not like everyone else then you’re not allowed to be on the same shelf and then just like that, people forget that you even exist.” “Is that what happened to you?” “No-one wants an angry toy. They all want a toy that loves you or hugs you or builds something or fixes someone. But nobody wants the toy that tells you to go to hell.” He was starting to get angry and his face was starting to scrunch again. Alex grew a small smirk. It slowly crept across his face until it became a smile. He liked The Gruff. When he got angry, he didn’t feel uncomfortable, not anymore. He felt safe. Like when he used to watch over his brother’s as he played hour after hour of video games. “I think you’re funny,” said Alex. “Yeah well, I think you’re mother hugged you too much


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and because of that you cry a lot and I really hate kids who cry but you’re not as bad as the other kids.” “I like you too.” “Was that really true, that whole kickin the ball the wrong way story?” “Yeah, why?” “No reason,” The Gruff said chuckling to himself. “How long have you been here?” asked Alex. “I don’t know. How long is a long time?” “Is he going to hurt us?” The Gruff said nothing. But his silence said enough. “I want to go home,” said Alex. He was about to cry but he looked at The Gruff who was wearing a strong stern look. His father had that look sometimes. The other night, when they passed the old man on the chair, his dad, he was scared, you could tell. But he had the same stern look. It was the kind of look that said “If you come near me, I’ll give you two good reasons to go the other way,” imagining that his father’s fists being held in the air were reasons number one and two. “I don’t want him to hurt me,” said Alex. “Nobody’s gonna hurt you.” “Do you promise?” The Gruff got to his feet. He walked over to where Alex was sitting. Alex had his legs crossed and his head was hanging low and he was looking up with his eyes. He looked really scared. The Gruff stood in front of him. With Alex sitting, their heads were at the same level. The Gruff was really small, but he was kind of big for a toy. Whoever made him made him wrong in many ways. They made him too big. They made him too strong. They made him too ugly with all the scars they put on his face. And they made him too angry with all the hot air blowing from his ears and the colored springs for hair bouncing up and down and spitting and bad words that


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that he said. The Gruff put one of his hands on Alex’s shoulder. Alex didn’t look up. He felt The Gruff’s fingers closing over and a wave of shivers ran from the base of his neck down to the tips of his toes. They were the good kind of shivers. Not the ones he got when The Teacher touched him. “I won’t let you out of my sight,” said The Gruff. Alex felt safe. He started to close his eyes and he started to drift. He hadn’t given up on his mother or his father saving him. He would take that if it came his way. But he wasn’t thinking about it. It just seemed like it probably wouldn’t happen. And it only made him sad to think of them. Instead, he thought of The Gruff, standing over him as he fell asleep. And The Gruff would take guard and make sure nobody hurt him. Nobody at all. And he would have fallen sleep right away, were it not for the sound of a key turning inside of a lock. His heart beat fast. The key turned. The lock clicked once. The lock clicked twice. “Don’t let him hurt me.” The Man entered.


Chapter Thirteen

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The Man walked into the room with a plate in his hands. He walked right past Alex as if he wasn’t even there. He didn’t look at him, not even a glance. He just walked to the end of the room and he put the plate down on the ground. Alex was on the other side of the room, crouching against a wall. He had his legs pulled up to his chest and his face buried into them. The Gruff was beside him. He was standing strong with his chest puffed out, one hand on Alex’s shoulder and the other f lexed and by his side. He looked like a wild dog that was protecting his stricken friend. Albeit a wild dog that could stand on two feet and puff its chest out and one that had springy colored hair; still, he looked the part. The Man swiveled his body. He looked towards Alex and The Gruff, but he said nothing. He stared at them as if they were a mark on the wall, something that he would have to clean before the day was through. He swiveled his body back and he placed a plastic fork and knife neatly beside the plate and then a plastic cup beside that. There was nothing in the cup, not yet. The Man stood up and looked around the room. He had his hands on his hips and he moved like a ballerina in a music box except the only sound that came was from the panicked gasping of Alex who couldn’t hold his breath any longer. The Man picked up the broken pieces of wood and collected them in his big arms. He held all four pieces in his right arm and he didn’t even care about the splinters or anything. They would have been cutting him but he didn’t f linch. He crouched down to his knees and he brushed his


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left hand across the f loor. Not the whole hand, just the tips of his fingers. Alex’s mother used to do the same thing when she was looking for dust. She would run her hand along the top of a cabinet or along the back of the television and she would look at her fingers afterwards. If they were grey or black, she would gripe for a bit and then she would take out a duster or a cloth and she would wipe it down. The Man did the same except he didn’t gripe. He wiped his fingers along the f loor, in the parts where Alex had wet himself. His hands almost slipped on this part. He mustn’t have been expecting that. They didn’t slip completely though so he didn’t look silly. He still looked mean and really strange, especially when he pulled his fingers up to his nose and he sniffed them. The Man wiped his fingers on the leg of his pants. He stood up again and he gripped the wood that was in his hands a little better. It was starting to slip. It looked like it was difficult to carry because even though his arms were still and looked strong, his fingers were twitching a lot, like The Teacher’s left eye. Alex was watching them. Through the cracks in his hands that clamped over his face and through the tiniest of gaps in his legs that were pressed against those clamping hands, Alex could see The Man’s stubby fingers twitching away. The Man walked out the door and halfway down the hall he stopped. He leaned over and he placed the broken pieces of wood down onto the f loor. He was really quiet. He didn’t make any loud banging noises and he didn’t sound angry or rushed or anything. Whenever Alex had to clean something – his room or the kitchen table – he would always be in such a rush, even if he had nowhere else to be or nothing else to do, even if he had to go to bed right after it. And he hated going to bed.


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The only thing worse than that was having to get up in the morning. He would always rush, though. He would grumble and groan and he would pick up too many things at once and they would all clang together and it would sound like they were about to crack or break and his mother would look at him angrily and she would she would shout, “Alex! Be careful.” And she would say it in the same tone, with the same urgency as the time he walked onto the road and he didn’t see a car coming. And that time she shouted out his name as if the car was about to hit him. Because it was. But he felt her urgency in the way she said his name and he stopped walking any further and because of that, the car zipped past and it didn’t even graze his skin. The problem was, his mother used that tone for everything; taking too long to clear the table, taking too long to get dressed, taking too long to get out of bed, taking too long to get into bed, not saying thank you, not saying please, crossing the road without looking both ways, a plane crashing and having to get his father - who said he couldn’t hear, when things were shouted from a distance. And Alex would always rush whenever he had to do anything that he didn’t want to do. And he would always bang the things together. And his mother would give him a shout and his father would give him the look and he would try to be quiet but it was hard to take care of something that you didn’t really like. The Man wasn’t like Alex. Maybe he liked picking up the pieces of wood. He didn’t seem sore that they broke the boxes. He didn’t seem sore that they were out and sitting on the f loor. And he didn’t even seem sore that he had to pick up the pieces and take them out and put them somewhere else. If he wanted to use the boxes again, if he wanted to put Alex and The Gruff back in them, he would have to make them all over again. Maybe he liked making boxes. He


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probably liked to think while he was doing stuff. And maybe he thought about how he was going to put Alex in the box. Whether he was going to put him on his belly so his bum scratched against the lid or whether he would squeeze him into one of the corners. Maybe he would make it bigger, so Alex could stretch his legs out and not have to scratch his knees against the nails that poked through. Maybe he would make it out of better wood, so they couldn’t escape again. The door was wide open, but Alex didn’t budge. He had his head still pressed against his knees and he was listening to the sound of The Man breathing heavily. He was being really gentle as he placed the boards of wood down in the hallway. He didn’t just dump them down on top of each other. He took his time and he rested them so you couldn’t hear the sound of one board touching the other. If Alex was The Man, he would have just dumped them and then yelled at himself for peeing on the f loor and he would have made himself clean it up. But Alex wasn’t The Man and The Man wasn’t Alex. The Man entered the room again and this time he had two cloths in his hands. One of them was wet and it smelled of bleach. He knelt down on the ground where Alex had wet himself and he scrubbed hard with the wet cloth in big circles and then in smaller circles and then in tiny circles and then in even tinier circles until just one of his fingers was scratching through the cloth at a smudge that wouldn’t budge from the f loor. It wasn’t anything Alex had done. It was something from before and he hadn’t noticed it until now. When he finished scrubbing, he rubbed his fingers against the f loor and then held them up to his nose. He didn’t really make any kind of face. He just sniffed them and then rubbed his fingers against his pants and then walked out of the room. He was only gone for a second before he came back, this time with a pair of white pants and a white shirt. He


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laid them on the ground beside a plate of food. As he went to leave, Alex looked up from between his legs. The Man wasn’t looking at him. He was looking at The Gruff. And he looked the way Alex used to look when there was something that he had to do, but he would have rather been doing something else altogether. He didn’t look like he was going to hurt Alex. He looked like he was following orders or something, like he wasn’t allowed to hurt him, not yet anyway. And Alex felt less scared now. The Man had come in and out of the room and he hadn’t looked at him once. He’d brought him food. He’d brought him fresh clothes. He’d walked around him. He was careful not to knock him or to frighten him into running. He didn’t even get mad when he had to clean up his pee. And he didn’t say anything about them breaking his boxes. The Man stepped towards Alex as he was leaving the room, but The Gruff grumbled and then he turned away and he closed the door, locking all of the locks behind him as he did. Alex listened to the sound of his feet shuff ling down the hallway. He sounded different. Whenever Alex was bad and his mother or father locked him in his room, they would always yell about what he did and they would slam the door real hard and they would storm off down the hallway. In the apartment, there was no hallway so his mother would slam the door and she would stamp her feet until she got to the kitchen and then she would open and close lots of drawers and cabinets for no reason. But she wouldn’t just close them, she would slam them shut so each bang was like the slap across the bum that she wished she had given him. His mother and father never hit him or his brother or his sisters. They said it was bad parenting, that there was no reason to hit a child. They still got just as angry, though, whenever the kids did something wrong. And they wouldn’t


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hit them but they would slam doors really loud and they would stamp their feet and his father would turn the television up really loud and he would change the channels really fast and you could tell he was mad because he was pressing the buttons really hard. Alex would always shudder when his mother slammed the cupboards. It probably would have been easier if she had just hit him. Sure, it would hurt at first but after that it would have stung for a bit and then it would have been over and he could have felt sorry and he could have learnt his lesson. Hearing her slamming the cupboards made it sound like she was smacking someone else and that sounded worse than being smacked himself. But The Man, he didn’t knock anything about. Even when he closed the door, he didn’t just pull it closed like his mother and father would have done, he pulled it gently. And he even pushed the handle down so it closed without the little knob catching and making a loud bang. And when he turned the locks, he didn’t make a big scene out of it. It was really quiet actually. In the movies, they always make a big deal out of the bad guys locking a door. The camera always zoomed in on the lock and you could see the key turning inside and the sound of the lock clicking was as loud as thunder and creepy, like in the prison movies when they locked the gates after the prisoner enters and they’re trapped forever. This didn’t sound like that. It just sounded like a lock locking. There wasn’t much event. There wasn’t much drama. Alex was focused on something else. He was looking at the plate of food on the other side of the room and he was listening to the sound of The Man’s feet, shuff ling down the hall. He sounded tired. “Alright,” said The Gruff. “I am friggin starving. Please be steak, please be steak.”


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The Gruff ran to the other side of the room and lifted the plate up to his nose. He smelt the food and made a disgusted face. He scrunched his nose up and he threw the plate of food against the wall. “Friggin chicken,” he said. Alex was looking at the food spread across the f loor. He looked disappointed. “I told him. Two pieces of steak. A big one for me and a little one for the kid and still he brings friggin chicken. Who the fuck eats chicken?” The Gruff was pacing in circles. He was really angry. He clenched his hands real tight and he stamped his feet up and down and he cursed, he cursed a lot. When grown-ups did it, when his father did it, he looked mad and it usually scared Alex but The Gruff was really small and when he jumped up and down and stamped his feet and when he swung his clenching fists, little tufts of steam sprouted from his ears and he looked really funny and so Alex laughed. He hadn’t even noticed what The Gruff had said. The Gruff liked it when Alex laughed. He liked it when all children laughed. But children never laughed much around him. They were always scared of him. Mainly because he was always so angry and he was shouting all the time and he used a lot of bad words and he spat when he talked, sometimes by accident but most of the times on purpose. Alex didn’t get scared, though. He laughed. “Did you really want it?” The Gruff asked. “It’s still good. I mean I can just you know, shake off a bit here and…” The Gruff picked up piece by piece of the chicken and wiped them against his jeans and he put them back on the plate. He spat on each one and he rubbed them against his jeans as if he were shining a coin or something. Alex didn’t much want to each the chicken anymore, but he was enjoying watching The Gruff trying to apologize and do the right


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thing. Alex laughed. “What, you don’t trust me? Here, look.” The Gruff took one of the pieces and he put it in his mouth. It tasted like bleach. He wanted to spit it out, but he didn’t. He kept chewing it like it was bubblegum. He twisted it round the sides of his mouth, pressing it against his gums, but he refused to swallow it. Alex watched him like a student. He wasn’t waiting for him to swallow the chicken. He was waiting for his reaction after he did. He just knew he was going to do something funny. The Gruff chewed and he chewed. The thought of swallowing the chicken made him gag. But he was going to prove to Alex that there was nothing wrong with the food, that he could eat it if he wanted to. And so, like a writer circling a blank page, The Gruff swirled the chicken round in his mouth and he braved the idea of swallowing it each time it neared his tongue but each time, he f licked it back to the sides of his mouth again and each time he thought to himself, “Next time round, I’m gonna do it.” The next time came. He looked at Alex and Alex was looking at him. He had no choice. He had to do it, for the boy. He gulped the chicken and his tongue pushed it to the back of his throat and he tried to swallow but it got stuck there and it wouldn’t budge. He tried gulping some more but nothing. It was stuck. The Gruff started to panic. He slapped his hands against his thighs and he started choking. It was funny at first but then when his face went red, Alex got up and ran over to where he was and he started slapping his back, not too hard, though, he didn’t want to break him. After a couple of hard slaps, the piece of chicken f lew out of The Gruff’s mouth and bounced off the wall and onto the f loor. The Gruff stood up and caught his breath. He


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heaved over and over. He looked brief ly at Alex, his friend and then he then looked back at the piece of auspicious chicken in the middle of the room. “It nearly killed me. It tried to kill me” he said. “I don’t think it was trying to…” The Gruff turned and took Alex by the shoulders. “You saved my life. I would have died were it not for you” he said. Alex smiled. He had never saved anyone’s life before. He was usually the one who was choking or the one who broke the expensive lamp or the one who brought dirt onto the carpet. He was never the one to be deserving acclaim. He didn’t know how to act. He was embarrassed. His face went red. “You saved my life Alex. Nobody has ever cared about The Gruff. Nobody except you. Nobody has ever laughed with The Gruff. Nobody except you. Alex…’ he said, pausing. Alex looked up. He sounded so serious. “Will you be my friend?” asked The Gruff. Alex smiled. “Of course,” he said. Alex put his hand out to shake. The Gruff knocked it away. He looked angry as if Alex had done something stupid and Alex felt that he had. He hoped The Gruff wouldn’t change his mind and take away what he said. ‘Friends don’t shake hands” he said. Alex felt stupid. He had never had a friend before. He didn’t know that. He thought it was the right thing to do. He’d made his first real friend and he’d lost him straight away, just by being stupid. The Gruff jumped at Alex. He knocked his hands out of the way and he dived into his stomach. Alex fell back. Fright


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overcame him. He thought The Gruff was going to tear him apart. Instead, The Gruff dived into his belly and he wrapped his arms around his waist. Alex didn’t know what to do. He thought it was a trick. “What? You’re too cool to hug a friend?” He wasn’t trying to tear out his stomach. He was giving him a hug, like friends, did. Alex wrapped his arms around The Gruff. His were so big compared to his new friend. He squeezed him tight against his chest and he swung back and forth. The Gruff grumbled for a bit, but Alex couldn’t hear. He was so happy. The Gruff, he grumbled some more but still Alex was swinging back and forth and squeezing tighter and tighter. He never wanted to let go. “I can’t breathe” shouted The Gruff. Alex heard him this time and he apologized as he unfolded his arms and let The Gruff dust himself off and get back on his feet. He sat there and stared dumbfounded at his new friend. The Gruff stared back, but with less wonder. “Alright, Alex. First things first. Don’t trust the chicken. Second, we need to get you changed and third, we gotta figure out how we’re going to get out of….” The lock clicked once and the lock clicked twice. Alex had been so full of wonder that he hadn’t heard the sound of The Man’s shuff ling feet up the hallway and he hadn’t heard the sound of him sliding the key into the lock. He did, though, hear the sound of one lock clicking twice and then swiftly followed by the other. He froze He looked into the eyes of The Gruff who looked back at his. The Man entered the room and he walked up to Alex and he lifted him from under his armpits and he carried him out of the room. The Gruff shouted. “Leave him alone!”


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The Man closed the door with one hand. He had Alex trapped in the other. He locked the door gently and then he calmly put the key back around his neck. It was tied to a black shoelace and the shoelace was tied together with five or six knots. It didn’t look very pretty. The Man took Alex down the corridor. It was really long and there wasn’t much light. Either there were no light or he had turned them off on purpose, one or the other. Alex’s heart was beating so fast and yet everything was happening so slowly. It felt like an hour had passed before they reached the end of the hallway. Really it had only been about four or five seconds and it wasn’t actually that long, it only seemed that way to Alex because he couldn’t see where it all started and where it was going to end. And I don’t think he wanted to know. Alex didn’t squirm. He didn’t try to fight. He stayed there still and silent in The Man’s arms. It felt like all those other times. In school, when The Teacher lined them up so she could kiss the kids whenever they left or came back to class. He would want to shout. He would want to break the line. But he couldn’t. He would have no voice and no complaint so he would just stand and he would hide within himself and she would kiss him and she would think that he enjoyed it. And then there were his mother’s friends and the people who were not her friends and how they would all come rushing up to him and they would want to touch his hair and would want to rub his shoulders and say how big he had gotten and then pull on his hands and his fingers and get so close that he could smell the wine on their breath and they would blow it in his face as they pinched his cheeks and said how cute he was and how much of a man he was becoming and he’d turn away. And because the world made no sense, they


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wouldn’t take that as a sign that he didn’t like it. They’d just keep on keeping on. But it was always the same thing. Be polite. Say nothing. Don’t say what you think. Don’t say you feel. Just say please and even if you didn’t want what they made you take, remember to say, thank you. Alex stayed like the little mouse. He didn’t think of his mother and father. They were somewhere else. They didn’t help him out of the box. How could they help him here? Instead, he thought of The Gruff and he hoped that somehow he could break out the room and if The Man was going to do bad things, if he couldn’t stop him, then at least he could stay with him and he wouldn’t have to be alone, not now. The Man f licked a switch and a bright light burned and Alex went blind for a second. He was put down on the f loor and he sat there, completely still. His eyes were hurting. He couldn’t see where he was. Everything was white, though. The Man lifted him onto his feet. Alex put up no fight. When he was on his feet he stayed. He didn’t try to run and he didn’t try to punch. He didn’t know how. The Man put his hands on Alex’s thighs and he pulled down his underwear. He pulled them down his legs and had to push apart Alex’s knees with his other hand to get them to the f loor. Alex was so scared. He didn’t realize he was pressing his knees together so hard. It must have been a defense or something. His knees buckled and The Man worked his underwear down to the ground. Then he lifted Alex’s feet one by one and he threw the soiled underwear in a red basket. Alex stood there in the white room, holding his hands over his private parts. He was shaking so much and he was so scared. He wished he knew how to fight. His brother did. He was learning karate. He could probably kick or punch The Man and he would die and then he could escape, but not before he saved his friend The Gruff so they could run away together and his


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new friend could sleep at his house, with his family. The Man turned on a hose and he ran the water over his own hand before it warmed up and then he turned the hose on Alex. He watered at his neck and he let the warm water run down his body. Alex had his eyes closed. He tried to think of something else. He tried to imagine that he was on the street at his old house in his old city and he was watching his father riding past the house on his motorbike and his brother was on the back and he was so focused that it looked like he wasn’t really having fun. It didn’t look like he was scared. It looked like he was thinking about winning a race. And Alex watched his brother but in his mind, it started to rain and he could feel warm water running down his chest and between his legs and as much as he tried to pretend it wasn’t happening, he could feel the hand of a man, The Man, rubbing a soapy cloth on his body. He cringed. But he couldn’t cry. The Man soaped Alex from neck to toe. Alex had his eyes closed so he couldn’t see that The Man had his closed too. He wasn’t looking at Alex. He was looking away from him like he felt guilty about what he was doing but for some reason, he couldn’t stop. After Alex was soaped, The Man hosed him down. He turned Alex around so his back was facing him. He could open his eyes now. He did. It must have been easier looking at Alex’s back, not having to see his face, not having to see his lips trembling and not having to see the tiny tears escaping his eyes, the ones that he would eventually hose away. The Man took some shampoo from beside him and he washed Alex’s hair. He massaged the shampoo into his head and waited a minute or two before he rinsed it off. When he rinsed, he made sure to keep the suds from entering Alex’s eyes. He kept his hand over Alex’s forehead and kept


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washing the water back over the top of his head so it ran down his back. Alex was shaking so much that he slipped. But The Man caught him and he kept one hand around his chest while the other held the hose over his head and washed away the shampoo. When he was done, The Man took a towel from a rack and he patted Alex down gently, drying all the excess water from his body. He wrapped the towel around him and then took a smaller towel and put it round his head to dry his hair. The Man said nothing the entire time. He seemed bored and distant from what he was doing. It was like he was washing his father’s car or scrubbing paint off a wall. He didn’t seem to care. The Man picked Alex up in his arms again. He held him with two hands just in front of himself. He carried him like someone might carry a wet chair. He put Alex down beside the door as he unlocked it and then he picked Alex up again and he carried him inside. He then set Alex down at the end of the room by the pile of clothes. He pointed them out as if to say, “Here, dress yourself.” He didn’t say that, though. He just pointed and Alex understood. As he left, The Man picked up The Gruff and then he closed and locked the door. Alex was cold. He wanted to get dressed. He wanted to put the clothes on, but he didn’t want to take off the towel. He didn’t want to be naked. Not again. He sat by the pile of clothes and he shivered. He shivered from the cold and he shivered from fear. He curled himself up into a little ball and he started to cry. He expected The Gruff to shout at him, to tell him to stop crying. He hoped that he would. The Gruff made him feel safe. But there was no shouting. Alex was alone.


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The Gruff was gone.


Chapter Fourteen

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“You disappoint me.” “What did I do wrong? I did what you asked.” “You know you’re not doing it right. You haven’t even touched him.” “I don’t know. I did everything you said.” “Everything? You brought chicken.” “That was all that we had.” “I told you steak. I specifically said, two pieces of juicy tenderloin. And what did you bring me?” “Chicken, sir.” “Don’t call me sir. You I know I don’t like that.” “I’m sorry Mr. Gruff.” The Gruff sat in his arm chair smoking a cigar that looked more like a gorilla’s big toe and it was almost as big as his forearm. Beside him, on one of the armrests, was a glass of whiskey and beside it, rolled in a ball, a dirty magazine. “Why do you want the boy?” The Gruff inhaled. His cheeks puffed out as he swirled the smoke in his mouth and then twirled his tongue in circles so that when he exhaled, the smoke came out in giant circular clouds that carried in the air, up near the roof before they puffed away into thin air. The Gruff didn’t answer him. Maybe he didn’t want to. Maybe he didn’t know the answer. Maybe he was just mean and he didn’t care. He didn’t even look at The Man, who was now kneeling down in front of the arm chair with his two hands placed on his knees and his eyes wide, like two great planets, hoping that a single stare might gravitate towards him. “I don’t want them to find us.” “Nobody’s getting caught. Stop sounding so defeated.”


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“But we can’t just keep doing this. The last time…” “The last time was your fucking fault!” shouted The Gruff. The Man lowered his head. He was ashamed. The Gruff was right. The other boy, he didn’t have to get hurt. It didn’t have to end the way that it did. If he’d only followed the rules. “He tried to run. He was going to tell someone. I had to do it. I did it for you.” The Gruff snorted and he grumbled. He inhaled again on the cigar and he stared off towards the ceiling as he blew smoke rings into the air, one after the other. He even managed to blow one smoke ring through another. The Man crawled on his knees into the shower. It was too small for him. The shower head was too low. It was made for a small boy, not a big man like him. But it was the only shower there was. The Man took off his clothes. He wasn’t acting tough or mean like he was before. He looked like he was being made to do it, like he didn’t want to. But The Gruff had said nothing. He had made him do nothing. He was sitting back in his chair, smoking his cigar and taking large gulps of whiskey and swishing it round in his mouth before he swallowed it down. He wasn’t even looking at The Man. The Man crawled into the shower and tucked himself into a tight ball so he could fit under the running water. There wasn’t much space. He couldn’t even soap himself properly. He did the best he could, though. “Do you still love me?” The Man asked. The Gruff didn’t respond. He was focused on making a giant smoke ring and then shooting off as many small smoke rings through the center as he could. He managed to get six before he ran out of breath. “I didn’t mean to hurt that boy. I promise. I just… I didn’t want you to go away.” The Man reached his hand out of the shower. He was


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still curled in a ball. It was the only way that he could fit. He reached his hand out so that his fingers were touching the crystal that The Gruff was drinking from. He petted it lightly with his index and middle fingers as if he were petting a small kitten; gentle and slow so as not to frighten it off. The Gruff took the glass and laid it down on the opposing arm rest. He clenched his fist and smacked down on The Man’s fingers. “You used to laugh,” he said. The Man looked up, but water was spilling into his eyes. He couldn’t see The Gruff properly. He couldn’t see that The Gruff was looking at him. And he couldn’t see that The Gruff was upset. “His name’s Alex,” said The Gruff. The Man already knew that. He had watched Alex every day for two weeks. He had followed him to school. He had watched him from across the road as he snuck out of class and ran down along the wall and hid around the corner. He was even thinking about taking him one of those days, but his brother came along. The Man had spent every night sitting in an old tree outside Alex’s bedroom window watching him tossing and turning under his blanket and listening to the sound of rusted springs squeaking. Even in the strong wind that was blowing, he could still hear the sound of the springs squeaking as Alex turned his body back and forth all night long, unable to get to sleep. He even leaned forwards one time, trying to get a peak of an album Alex’s brother had bought. He liked the same kind of music. He leaned on a big old branch and he must have leaned too far or too heavy cause the end of the branch, it scratched against the window and it sounded like someone’s nails, scratching against a blackboard. It made him jump back straight away and that was what made the whole tree shake and that was what made Alex look out from under his covers


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and almost see him. All he wanted was to see the cover of that album. The Man knew his name was Alex. He saw it on his school bag when he followed him and his mother home and he heard it from under Alex’s bed, when his mother shouted his name, calling him to dinner and when she woke him up and asked him to brush his teeth for the tenth time. He knew his name as well because Alex had told him, last night, just before he pushed him into the boot of his car. He didn’t like the name, though. He didn’t like the sound of it. It was a short name, but it didn’t sound short. It made him feel like he had broken glass in his mouth when he said it. Some names you can say them and it’s real quick. Other names are like chewing gum and it’s hard to get the ends of them off your teeth and they make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth. Alex was one of those names. “Alex,” he said. “That’s a nice name.” “He laughs with me you know,” said The Gruff. The Man put his head back under the water. He tucked his body back into his legs. His hair was stuck to the sides of his face as the water cascaded down on top of him. It rushed into his eyes and it rushed into the corners of his mouth and he titled his head slightly so it rushed into his right ear and it sounded like the whole world was f looding and for a second. He couldn’t hear The Gruff grumbling between puffs on his cigar. “You used to laugh,” said The Gruff. He was swirling the ice in his glass. It sounded like teeth grinding. “You don’t do that anymore.” The Man wanted to cry. He couldn’t. The Gruff hated crying. “I can’t believe you brought me chicken,” he said.


Chapter Fifteen

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The Man walked along the corridor and he f licked every switch that he passed, making sure to turn off every light so that darkness shadowed his every step and was ever there, looking over his shoulder and ready to swallow every next step he would leave behind. He passed five doors on the way to the sixth, where Alex was being kept. Neither of the doors had handles on them. But they were all heavily bolted. The Man placed the box he was carrying neatly on the f loor. He took the chain from around his neck and he took his time looking for the right keys. There were two of them and they were marked differently to the others. He preferred to mark the keys with special grooves. This way it was easier to tell the keys apart. Sometimes he needed to lock or to open the doors without any lights on, especially if the children were sleeping and he needed to sneak them out for grooming. It was better to do it in the dark so they couldn’t tell that he was coming. That way they wouldn’t kick and fuss. He didn’t like it much when the children made a fuss. Once he found the right key, The Man slid it into the lock. This as well he had become some kind of artist at doing. Again because clanking the keys around and fumbling for a lock like a normal person would do, wouldn’t at all help in him keeping his visit a surprise. The Man enjoyed surprises. He had never really had one himself. He mainly prepared surprises for The Gruff because it was the one thing in the world that he loved. As fun as it must have been for The Gruff to receive surprises, The Man enjoyed even more to be the author and the giver of those surprises. He loved the planning. He loved the suspense. He


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loved the sound a person made when they were surprised. When people were angry for instance, they would breathe out and their words would carry with that breath. Most of the time, when The Gruff was mad, his breath was like a clap of thunder. When most people were surprised, though, their voice would travel inwards and you could hear it riding the wave of fright back inside their bellies. The Man, he liked to listen to the sound of bent expectations. It reminded him of the beach. He’d never been to one personally, but he’d seen pictures before. And the sound a person makes when they are surprised, it reminded him of how the tides receded quickly and swallowed all of the shallow water, just before a tsunami hit. The Man made an art form out of making every moment, one that could take your breath away. The key slid into the lock and it didn’t clink and it didn’t clank. It was like a light breeze passing through a hole in a fence. He didn’t jerk the key, he turned it gently. That was important, to guide the key and to not force it. The lock clicked into place and it called out to nobody but himself. Sometimes locks made a big scene when they were opened or closed. Everybody could hear. But that’s not the lock’s fault. That really comes down to the person and whether or not they cared about how they opened or closed doors. A big part of The Man’s day was sneaking things in and out of rooms; most of the time when the children were asleep on the f loor or watching cartoons. The Man turned the second lock and then he took the chain of keys and he put it around his neck. He always held the sides out before he put it on. He liked to slide the chain over his head calmly so the keys didn’t jingle and so they didn’t scratch against his eye. He was really careful not to accidentally hurt himself. It sounds silly, but something as simple as a little scratch could get infected and he was really far away from anybody who could help him if he got hurt or anything.


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Alex was asleep. He was curled in a ball at the far end of the room where The Man had left him hours ago. He still hadn’t changed out of the towel that was offering him little warmth. The Man liked this time. He liked it when the children were asleep. It meant he could do whatever he needed to do without having to worry too much. He liked to sneak around. He wore his socks most of the time because they made his feet really quiet. Also, it was fun to slide up and down the corridor. He couldn’t slide very far but if he got a run up, he could slide maybe a couple of meters or something. It was really fun. The Gruff didn’t like it, though. The Man picked up the box from the f loor and he moved slowly into the room. He put the box on the ground and he took out some things and then put them on the f loor. There was a pack of cards, a board game, a small radio, a newspaper and some candy. The Man was about to take one of the candies for himself, but he heard a grumble coming from inside the box and so he put it back but he looked at it and he thought about having taken it. It wasn’t fair that he didn’t get to eat the candy anymore. He still liked it. He still wanted it. Finally, The Man reached into the box and he took out The Gruff. He placed him on the f loor close to Alex’s face. Alex was breathing so heavy. The Man could have been wearing tap dancing shoes and he wouldn’t have woken the child up. All the children were like this on their first couple of nights. The chloroform gave them a kind of hangover and they slept really heavy. It made it easy for sneaking in and out. He thought about dressing Alex. He looked really cold. His skin was all bumpy from the cold draft that was running under the door. Though he was deep in sleep, The Man could see that the cold would rouse him at some point. His toes were all curled up and the ends of his fingers too, they were


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all curled as well. He probably wouldn’t wake up completely, but he’d started moving around pretty soon and that would make it difficult to get his legs into the pajamas. He decided to let him be. The Man snuggled The Gruff against Alex and then took the empty box and shuff led out of the room. He closed the door quietly behind himself and then went through his quiet ritual of taking the key chain from around his neck, rubbing against each key to find the right one and slowly lifting it to the height of the lock so it could slide in without any bother and any noise. He locked the door and then he turned to the corridor. At night, the dungeon was very dark. Without light, it was impossible to see anything. You wouldn’t even see your own hand if you held it right to your eyes. The one surprise that The Man did like to give to himself was at night. On most nights, and just like tonight, he would turn off the lights so he couldn’t see anything in front, behind or even to each side of him. He wouldn’t close his eyes, though. He would like to keep them open. It was scarier having your eyes open and not being able to see a thing. It was easier to shut them and to pretend the dark was of your own making. The Man liked to keep them open. He would take a light breath. Nothing too deep; he didn’t want to wake up any of the children. Then he would run. He would run for about ten or fifteen steps and then he would throw out his left leg and he would lean back on his right and he would slide down the corridor through the darkness. The Man loved the feeling of his body in f light. He especially loved it when his senses were cut short. The feeling of not knowing were the end was excited him. He had to just feel it as he was running and then when he was sliding, there was nothing he could do but either go with it or just brace himself for a heavy fall.


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He loved the feeling. It was indescribable. He would shout out loud, but he would shout out loud inside of himself. He could hear himself shouting in his mind, but he would never move his lips and he’d never make a sound. It was always strange, though, right at the end, when he had stopped. He would feel around blindly looking for a wall, a door or the end of the corridor. He’d never just walk around either. He always did this thing where he would duck really low and slide, what he thought was forwards, really slowly and holding his right foot with his right hand and stretch out into the dark with his left hand, stretching so much that just his index finger poked through the darkness and felt for shapes. That was the best part, the anticipation of knowing just where he was and the fear of maybe that not being true. The far room, room one, was his own and unlike the others, his door had a handle. He liked to take the same care in turning the handle as he did unlocking all of the other rooms. When he slowed everything down, it made him feel like he was connected to all the spaces in the world. He didn’t rush himself and so he found them. The Man turned on the light and he stood in front of the mirror. As he undressed, he stared at himself as if he was staring at a complete stranger. He’d gotten older since this morning. His belly was hanging a little bit lower. This was one of those bad surprises. The one where you’re expecting to see yourself and then you look in the mirror but there’s someone else there and every time you move, they move too. And the person is old and they’re fat and they’re not at all like you would be if you imagined yourself that old. The thing is you’re not that old. You’re still a kid. And that’s someone else standing there in the mirror doing all those things that you’re doing. And you don’t know what you look like anymore because you keep seeing them and you haven’t seen yourself in so long that you can’t remember what


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you even looked like to begin with. The Man stood in front of the mirror with a small razor that he ran over the round of his head. And he was so delicate. He didn’t scratch himself at all. And when his head was soft and clean, he ran the razor over his chest and around his nipples and under his belly button and he had to lift his belly so he could get the hairs that grew underneath. Once again, his hand glided over his chest and cut away every single hair but there was not a scratch to his skin whatsoever. Then, when his chest was soft and clean, he ran the razor down his groin and between his legs and then on and between his buttocks. And once again, each hair was removed without a nick or a scratch on his skin. And then, when his groin and his buttocks were soft and clean, he ran the razor down the length of his legs, from his hips down to his ankles and he cut every hair down to the skin and all without a single scratch. He stood in front of the mirror, soft and clean and not a single hair on his body. But still, the ref lection looking back was not his own. He turned to the left and he turned to the right. He tried to look at himself from a thousand different angles. Still he couldn’t see where his ref lection was hiding. Still, that man was there and even without the hair on his body, he couldn’t find himself. The boy must be there, somewhere. The Man turned away from the mirror. He put the razor down on the table beside his bed. He stood in front of a wall that was covered in newspaper clippings. They were all cut out crudely and they were taped on top of each other and they were spread out over the entire wall. There was a mother and father on each article and they were carrying a teddy bear or a t-shirt or something that reminded them of their child that had been kidnapped. They looked so very sad; like they would do anything to get them back.


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The Man stared at the wall of articles for some time and then he dressed in his white pajamas and he turned off the light and he went to sleep. That night he dreamt he could f ly.


Chapter Sixteen

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Alex woke up to the sound of shouting. It was The Man. He was banging on one of the doors in the corridor. Alex couldn’t make out what he was saying. It didn’t really sound like he was saying anything at all except for cursing and spitting and then banging his fists. Alex curled into a ball and he backed into the farthest corner of the room. He turned and faced the door. He was expecting The Man to burst in at any second and attack him, just like he’d done that other time. He didn’t want to look, but he couldn’t look away. The thoughts he had in his imagination were far worse than what he could see before his eyes so he watched below the door for the shadow of shuff ling feet and he listened for the slight turn of a key, but it didn’t come. Instead, there was just constant and unrelenting banging and then what sounded like a child screaming. Then Alex screamed and The Gruff jumped out from his clutches and stood before him with his chest puffed out. He rushed towards the door and he banged against it with one hand, pounding his clenched fist. “Leave them alone” he shouted. His fist was pounding on the door. As he yelled, his frizzy hair frazzled. It spun around in little spirals and it bounced back and forth like little springs. Alex would have laughed were he not so hung up on what he thought The Man might be doing to another child and would then do to him. “Stop it!” The Gruff screamed. The pounding stopped. Alex could hear the echo of his heart beating out from the tip of his tongue. It carried on every breath that escaped


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with fright from his trembling chest. And the silence made it all sound louder than it really was. He felt as if his racing breath might give him away. And so he tried to hold it, he tried to keep it in. The Gruff was fuming. He had one hand open and resting against the door. It was holding his weight as he leaned forwards and listened through the silence for the retreat of The Man. The spirals in his hair were spinning out of control. It looked as if they might shoot out from his head like missiles. “What happened to your arm?” asked Alex. The Gruff lifted his arm. He opened his palm and turned it towards him. It was shaking from the adrenaline rushing through his veins. But there was nothing outside of a few red marks where he had beaten against the door. He lifted his other arm. He opened his palm and turned it towards him. But he saw nothing but the ground beneath his feet. The Gruff turned to Alex with a look of disbelief. Alex turned to the other wall where there was a stack of games, an old radio and a newspaper. And beneath the stack, something was twitching and something was turning. Alex looked back at The Gruff. He was still staring at the f loor and he still had a look of disbelief. He was clenching his fist as if it was there. He was turning his arm as if it was there. He was feeling his arm move and feeling his nails digging into the palms of his hands as he clenched his fist as if it was there. But his arm wasn’t there. It was hidden under a stack of games and an old radio and a newspaper. It was twitching and it was turning and it was still getting every order that The Gruff was sending. Its fingers were clenching and its nails were digging into the thick skin on its palm. The arm, it was twisting and turning and trying to lift itself. It was acting as if it was still attached. But it wasn’t. It was sitting under a stack of games


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and The Gruff; he was by the door, now rubbing the empty groove where his arm should have been. Alex was too scared to move. He was watching the arm on the far end of the room moving and twitching by itself and he was watching The Gruff; standing in front of him, crying as he forced his other hand in and out of a hole on his side of his body. He wanted to do something, but he couldn’t move. He looked to the left and the arm was twitching by itself. There wasn’t any blood. The Gruff didn’t have any blood. But it was turned now so its palm was f lat on the ground and its fingers were stretching out like an octopus’ tentacles and it was dragging the arm out from underneath the stack of games. Alex turned but saw The Gruff, a small doll with springy spiral hair, cursing horribly as he ran his two middle fingers along the sides of the hole where his arm should have been. Alex wanted to close his eyes, to imagine something else but when he did, in his thoughts, he saw only The Man and he imagined him bursting open the door and rushing in with a knife or an axe or scissors and doing the same thing to him; cutting off his toes or his ears or all of his hair. So Alex turned to the things that he could see the things that he might have to outrun. He stared at the arm as it crawled out from underneath the stack of games and into the light. Its nails clawed into the ground and helped to drag the rest of the arm along. He could see every muscle in every finger f lexing and it scratched and scurried its way across the f loor stopping only once as the hand turned and the index finger lifted and pointed straight at Alex, who pushed himself back in the corner. There was nowhere for him to run. The finger looked at him. It turned in tiny little circles and Alex followed with his eyes. The other fingers were tense. They looked like a spider, ready to pounce. Alex looked at The Gruff. He was still looking at the


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hole in his arm. He looked back at the hand and the finger was still looking at him. But it turned. It pressed back on the ground and the nails; they clawed back at the ground and they dragged the arm along until it stopped by feet of The Gruff. The Gruff looked down. He saw his arm lying by his feet. The fingers were twitching and dancing by his toes. The index finger was looking up at him. The Gruff looked at Alex; his face white painted with fear. And then he looked back at his arm and he leaned down and he picked it up. He held it against his body. He tried to pretend it was still attached. But it wasn’t. “What happened?” asked Alex. The Gruff was walking towards him. He was holding his arm like an infant. “He did it,” said The Gruff. Alex looked at him. His eyes were soft. They were filling with tears. And he wasn’t crying because he feared The Man might tear off one of his arms, he was crying because he was sad. And he was sad for The Gruff. “Does it hurt?” asked Alex. The Gruff gave him a mean look. It wasn’t an unfamiliar look. He’d gotten it from someone before. Someone he looked up to. But someone that he couldn’t remember, not at the moment. He just saw it on The Gruff’s face and he didn’t feel like The Gruff was gonna shout or hold him down or slap him or anything. Just that it was probably a stupid question. “I’m gonna need your help,” said The Gruff. Alex felt important. It might have been the first time he had ever really felt like that. He squinted his eyes and he straightened his mouth. He made his serious face. “What do you need me to do?” he said. “Get dressed first. I’m gonna need to you push my arm back in. Can you do that?” Alex looked at the hole in his body. He could see straight inside of him. He was all dark and hollow. Then he looked at


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the arm. The index finger was staring at him. It could have been a finger on a teacher’s hand. It had the same manners. Alex went back to the corner and he dressed. He felt nervous getting out of the towel in front of other people. The Gruff wasn’t looking, though. He was lining up the stump of the arm by the hole in his body. But Alex still felt uncomfortable. The index finger was watching him. It was moving up and down as he took off the towel and cringed by the corner of the room. Alex tucked his body tight. He covered all his private parts as he leaned to the ground and picked up the white pants that were folded neatly on the f loor. The index finger was watching him, still moving up and down. It looked like it was choosing something from a menu. But it wasn’t choosing. It was just playing. Alex closed his eyes but again his imagination was haunted by The Man. He had to keep them open. He looked to the f loor and he quickly pulled the pants up over his legs and around his waist. He took the white shirt that was folded on the f loor as well and he quickly put his arms through and pulled it over his head. The clothes were light. But they were warm. “Ok, you ready?” asked The Gruff. The Gruff’s hand was clenched. It was preparing. The Gruff too was scrunching his face up. He was expecting the pain to be unbearable. Alex turned The Gruff so his left shoulder was against the wall. Then he pressed his left hand on The Gruff’s shoulder and his right hand down by the wrist. A shiver ran up his spine. He could feel the index finger picking at the fold in his pants. “Do it,” shouted The Gruff.


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Alex threw all his weight onto his left and he forced as hard as he could. The Gruff f lew back against the wall. He lifted up a bit in the air. But Alex was pushing with all his might. It was like he was breaking through a wall or pushing down a door. He didn’t stop. He just kept forcing the arm into place and The Gruff, he screamed as loud as he could as the arm, it jilted and it jolted. And Alex, he didn’t give up. He pushed and he pushed and he forced and he forced and with all of his might and all of his fight, he pushed and he pushed for the sake of his life. He dug his left leg into the ground. He bent his knees. He twisted and turned his hips and he twisted and turned the arm. And the index finger, it gripped against the fold in his pants. “Stop” shouted The Gruff. But Alex wouldn’t stop. He was going to do it. He was going to save The Gruff. He forced as hard as he could and then he found the strength to force harder. The Gruff screamed out loud. The pain was unbearable, more than he had imagined. But his screaming gave Alex more strength. And he pushed and he pushed until finally the arm, it popped into place. The Gruff fell sideways onto the f loor. Alex fell over him, crashing onto his belly. The Gruff’s arm stayed right by his side. They’d done it. They’d reattached his arm. “You are friggin unstoppable. God damnit” The Gruff shouted. He was ecstatic. He was jumping around the room. His colored hair was spinning and springing back and forth and it was turning orange and red and even green. He hugged Alex and then ran to the locked door and kicked it with his feet and then punched with his two hands.


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“You don’t scare us” he shouted through the door. He was sticking his middle finger up and he was cursing so loud. Alex sat in the corner looking at his index finger and wondering if it ever watched him or touched him while he was sleeping. “Poker?” The Gruff was standing in front of Alex with a deck of cards in his hands. “I don’t know how to play. Is it hard?” The Gruff looked a little frustrated. The kid would never get it. He tried to think of another game, something with cards. He went through everything he knew. He listed them all but every name drew a blank look on the child’s face. His frustration turned to irritation and this made him mad. But when he got mad, his face scrunched up and the funny looking hair, it spiraled up and down and the colors changed from red to orange to green and to Alex, it looked kind of funny and so Alex laughed and then The Gruff got madder. And the madder he got, the funnier he seemed. “What about snap? Have you heard of snap?” Alex had. He’d heard of it before. He’d played it before. The name of the game was familiar. He just couldn’t pick where he knew it from. But it would probably all come back once he played the first hand or so. The Gruff laid down the first card. He was tense. He looked like he might scream at any second. He was rocking back and forth on his bum and he was watching Alex’s hand like a horror movie as if the card under his finger were the young camper, going out alone to the lake for a midnight swim. And his index finger that was sliding the card back into sight was the deformed woodsman, unsheathing his jagged blade. And The Gruff, he watched Alex’s hand and then turned to watch the pile on the ground and then returned to


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watching Alex’s hand again as his finger slowly peeled back the card and then he looked back at the ground again to see his own and to remember its suit. And then he turned to Alex and he saw that he had been watching him the whole time. The Gruff held his breath. His eyes were sworn to Alex’s stare. His nerves rattled. His throat parched. His hands readied to sprint. Alex smiled. He didn’t feel afraid. He didn’t seem a prisoner. He had a friend. He’d saved him once. He’d saved him twice. He could close his eyes. He didn’t see The Man. Alex lifted his finger. He turned the card. It touched the deck. “Snap!” he shouted. The Gruff lifted his hand. And Alex’s was there. “God damnit. God friggin damnit. Fucking… Fuck! Stupid fucking game. God damnit” he screamed. The Gruff jumped up and he kind of bounced around the room. He looked like a spaceman who was walking on the moon. He jumped around on both feet and he splashed down really hard and then he jumped up again. If he wasn’t cursing and using so much foul language, anyone would think he was having the time of his life. He’d probably be mistaken for the winner. And that’s what made The Gruff so unusual. He got really angry, angrier than anyone Alex had ever seen before. And he said such really bad things. He said things that


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sounded horrible but that Alex didn’t know what they meant but he guessed they must be pretty bad. But when he yelled and shouted like any other angry person, his hair changed colors and it sprang in and out and the angrier he got, the more the colors blinked and the faster his hair sprang. And then when he really got mad, he would jump up and down on the spot. And when he was really really really mad, he would put his arms out and he would jump and spin in circles. When The Gruff was super mad, he didn’t at all look like he sounded. And that’s what made Alex laugh. It’s what used to make The Man laugh but for some reason it didn’t anymore. “You’ve got to be friggin kidding me. Seven friggin games. You’re cheating. You’re counting cards.” The Gruff was furious. His little beady eyes were spinning in circles and they were rattling. Alex tried as hard as he could to keep a straight face but it was impossible. He threw his cards in the air and he burst out laughing. He rolled around on the f loor and he lay on his belly with his eyes shut, kicking his legs up and down and slapping his open hands against the f loor. He hadn’t laughed like this ever. He wanted to stop. His stomach was hurting so much from squeezing in and out. He really wanted to stop but every time he looked over at The Gruff and saw his eyes spinning and his hair springing up and down, he burst out laughing even louder than before. ‘Wanna play again?” asked Alex. “Of course” said The Gruff. “I was just warming up.” “Oh, so this time you’re playing for real then?” The Gruff gave Alex that look again. He smiled. It felt homely. “I was just letting you have a few rounds. Making you feel good. Before I show you what I really got planned.” The Gruff sounded sinister. Alex laughed though. He knew The Gruff was bluffing. The best he had, had been


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thrown into every hand. If he had any better, he would have used it by now. That’s the way The Gruff was. Alex knew that. He could read him. The Gruff didn’t like to build towards anything. He preferred for you to know that he was the boss right from the get go. There was no subtlety or sleight of hand in what he said or into anything that he did. The Gruff was like a punch in the face. He wasn’t a sneering glance or wry smile. He wasn’t anything that had to be thought about, argued or interpreted. He was a punch in the face, sometimes a kick in the nuts but most of the time, a punch to the face. The Gruff sat down again and started to shuff le and deal the cards. As he cut the pack, both of them were startled. The two locks clicked on the door and they weren’t subtle, not at all. Alex looked to the door. He looked white and panicked. He looked back quickly at The Gruff who was already standing with his chest puffed out. The door swung and The Man walked in. He was wiping something off his fingers. They were stained with something. Alex was trying to see but he couldn’t tell what, just that there was something he was rigorously trying to rub off of them. The Man walked towards the middle of the room. He picked up the old radio that was sitting on the f loor and he held it really close to his face. It looked like his eyes were really sad. He was turning the dial and looking at the different channels really closely and the radio was making a hissing static sound as it moved along with the turn of his finger. The Man stopped on a station for a second. It was a news station. Alex recognized the sound of it. He didn’t know what station it was or who was talking, he just knew it was a news program because news programs always sounded the same. They were always so serious and their introduction song was always so dramatic, like those really old police shows from


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the eighties that were on late at night. Alex wondered if he would hear his name. The Gruff grumbled. “Shhh” said The Man. He had his ear to the radio and was listening to the broadcaster talk about a whole bunch of stuff really quickly like he was reading off a list or something. He talked about things that were stolen and who had stolen them and how the police had caught them and he talked about a war that was going on somewhere far away and he gave his opinion and then a caller called in and then he changed his opinion and then he talked about football and tennis and car races and the weather and the whole time, The Man had the radio pinned to his ear and the whole time, Alex was watching The Man with the radio and expecting to hear his name being spoken. But it wasn’t. Nobody said his name. He wasn’t in the news. Nobody was looking for him. They didn’t know he was gone. They didn’t even care. He looked at The Gruff. He was his only friend. The Gruff had one hand on Alex’s shoulder and the other on his hip. He looked like he was about to save the day, any day really. You name the day and he would probably save it. No, he would definitely save it. And he was going to save Alex. The Man turned the dial on the radio again. The static hissed like a snake as he rounded his finger back and forth over the dial until he gave up and he f licked the switch and turned it off. “There’s never anything fun” said The Man. He threw the radio against the ground. It broke apart and pieces f lung across the room. A spring bounced past Alex’s ear. It almost hit him in the eye. “What the hell is wrong with you?” shouted The Gruff.


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His voice wasn’t at all shaky. He sounded really mad. Alex could feel his little fingers digging into his shoulder. The Gruff was keeping a distance between Alex and The Man. He was acting like a buffer or a shield. And he was breathing really heavy and his hair was springing in and out and f lashing all sorts of colors. “You can’t come in here and do that” shouted The Gruff. It sounded like he knew how to stop him. “I just want to have fun” said The Man. He was crying now. “Get out of here. Let us go or leave us alone” shouted The Gruff. Alex could feel something inside of him; a feeling in his chest that was burning and it was building and it was a pressure that was about to explode. “You’ll never be special like me” said The Man. He was looking straight at Alex. The Gruff was still grumbling and he was holding Alex back with his right hand. The strength in his fingers must have been feeding into Alex because he felt like he could shout back and he wanted to, but then The Man took off his shirt. And then he took off his pants too. And he looked at Alex displeasingly, but he was speaking to The Gruff. “You see” he said. “I’m still a boy too. He’s not special. I’m still you’re special boy.” The Man sat himself down on the ground. He crossed his legs and he buried his elbows on the inside of his thighs and he slumped his face on his clenched fists. And The Man frowned and his hands pushed his cheeks up high so it looked like he was smiling. But he wasn’t smiling, though. He sat there watching Alex and The Gruff and he started to whine. “You’re ok,” said The Gruff to Alex. He was still looking at The Man, but he kind of whispered over his shoulder. The Gruff could feel Alex’s shoulder


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tense as if he were about to shout out his name or punch through a wall, but he could also feel the cold shivers of fright from the young boy’s breath, falling upon his neck. “What are you gonna do? You’re gonna just sit there?” shouted The Gruff. The Man didn’t look at him. He was just staring at Alex. And he didn’t look like he wanted to hurt him as much as he might have wanted to be him. “What do you want?” said The Gruff. “I wanna play as well,” said The Man. He was moping. He shoved each word out of his mouth as if he were pushing a heavy box up a steep hill. He sounded like a car that was spluttering on its last fumes. “You can’t play,” said The Gruff. “You’re too big.” The Man started to cry. “I am not too big” he shouted, sounding out every word. He uncrossed his legs and then kicked them up and down on the spot. Alex hadn’t done this sort of thing since he was four. He hadn’t seen a grown-up do something like that ever. And he didn’t seem as scary now as when he was sneaking around in the dark. ‘What are you playing?” asked The Man. He had stopped his whining. Just like that. The crying and the sulking and the speaking as he was breathing in, it all stopped. It was like he just turned a switch and then he was happy again, as if nothing had happened. The Gruff grumbled. “Snap,” he said. ‘I like snap.” “No, you don’t.” “I do. I do. You’ve just never seen me.” “When the hell have you ever played snap? Do you even know what the hell it is? What is it? Come on. You play it all the time. Tell me rules big shot” The Gruff shouted. “Are you…?”


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The Man was starting to sniff le and his bottom lip rose. “No, you’re not gonna do that. No, no, no, no.” The Gruff jumped up and down on the spot. He was stamping his feet as hard as he could and hitting his two fists against his side as little pouts of steam spurted from his ears. The more he shouted and the more he cursed and the more vulgar his words became, the funnier he seemed. Alex soon forgot about The Man who was sitting a few feet in away from him, naked and sulking. He even forgot about where he was and what that meant. He forgot about being scared. He forgot what that felt like. The only thing he could do was laugh and laugh he did. He rolled over onto his sides and he pulled his knees up to his chest and he laughed so hard that it felt like there was an alien in his chest trying to burst out. It hurt so much. And the pain he felt, it made him laugh even harder. The Gruff, he was swearing so much and he was using really bad words and he was yelling about really gross things and he was using his fingers to make lewd gestures and he was swinging his hips back and forth and it looked like for a second that he was riding a bull or something and Alex had no idea what he was doing and neither did The Man but Alex thought it was hilarious and The Man sat there despondent, just wanting to play. Eventually, The Gruff settled down. He huffed and he puffed and little tufts of steam and then black smoke listed from his ears. If he was a kettle then the tea would be ready. He wasn’t a kettle, though. He was a little doll and he had funny hair and he could talk and he could walk and it seemed like anything would just set him off. He was highly strung and it was great to watch him snap. “Alex,” said The Gruff. He spoke politely. Alex didn’t hear. He was rolling back and forth and when he did look to The Gruff, he just started laughing again


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and he couldn’t stop. The Gruff made him, though. “Shut the fuck up” he screamed. Alex stopped. The Man looked at Alex and smiled. He wouldn’t have done that. He would have responded when The Gruff had spoken to him. He would have told The Gruff what he wanted to hear, spoken the way a good boy was supposed to speak. He wouldn’t have laughed at him, though. That wasn’t nice. And The Man didn’t laugh anyway. That part of him wasn’t there anymore. The Gruff walked over to the center of the room where The Man was seated. Beside him, on the f loor, were some other games and a newspaper. The Gruff took the newspaper and brought it over to Alex. He held up the front cover. “What does it say?” asked Alex. It was his picture on the front of the paper. It was a really big picture. It was from before they moved cities when he had that silly haircut. His mother made him grow it out. She refused to take him back to get it fixed. All the kids made so much fun of him over that haircut. And they’d probably be doing it again now, now that it was so big and it was on the front of the newspaper. “I can’t read,” said The Gruff. “I’m a friggin doll, not a librarian.” Alex stared at the picture of himself. It felt like he had stepped out of his own body and he was f loating around here with The Gruff and The Man and there was probably no way he’d ever get home again. He didn’t feel sad. That part of him wasn’t working. He just felt estranged. “I suppose you’re gonna hang it on your wall then,” said The Man. He sounded bitter and jealous. Alex looked at the photo. Then he looked at the walls, all of them. He looked left and he looked right. He looked up on the roof and he looked down on the f loor. Everything was


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so plain. It was really clean as well. There weren’t even any hand prints at all. White walls always had some kind of scuff mark. Alex looked to The Man. “Don’t look at me,” he said. “I’m not gonna put it up. You’re not gonna be here long anyway” he said as if he knew something. “What?” asked Alex. “What the hell does that mean?” shouted The Gruff. “The new boys they never stay long” he sang. “The new boys go far away. Far, far away. Best to dig another grave.” Alex dropped the newspaper. He turned to The Gruff. The Gruff howled. “You will never hurt another friend of mine. Not as long as I can help it” he shouted. The Man smiled. “Can I brush your hair?” he asked. He stood up and he walked towards The Gruff. He had a small colored brush in his hand that he got from the pile of games. But when he got near, The Gruff spat in his face. The Man jumped back. He wiped the spit from the top of his brow. “You’re fingers are too fat,” said The Gruff. “You’ll only knot it up.” ‘Why did you hurt The Gruff” asked Alex. He didn’t sound scared anymore. “You broke his arm off. That was bad” he said. The Man looked at The Gruff who was rubbing his shoulder that was still tender. Then he looked at Alex who had fire in his eyes. “I could have fixed it,” The Man said. “But you didn’t,” said Alex. “I did.” “Yeah but I could have” shouted The Man. The Gruff smiled.


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He looked victorious. “Do you want to play with my hair?” he asked. He was looking at The Man, but both of them knew he was speaking to Alex. The Man threw the brush down on the ground and he ran out of the room with his hands over his face bawling. He rushed down the hallway and he was crying so loud that even when he slammed his door and threw himself under his blanket, his whining was still loud enough to make The Gruff mad. “He left the door open,” said Alex. The Gruff looked up. He was right. The Man had run off and he hadn’t closed the door. He hadn’t locked them in. They could escape. If they wanted to.


Chapter Seventeen

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Alex ran to the door. His white pants were still a little big for him so he had to hold them up with one hand. He grabbed the door and pulled it back slowly, peeking his head through the gap to see down the corridor. There was nobody there. The Man was gone. He was in his room and he was still sulking. Alex could hear the sound of his muff led cries sifting through the corridor but it didn’t sound like he was going to stop any time soon. Alex looked behind. The Gruff was still sitting there by the wall. He was holding the newspaper in his hand. He looked scared. For as mean and as grumpy as he was, he actually looked kind of scared. “Come on,” whispered Alex. “He’s gone. Now is our chance.” The Gruff was shaking his head. His eyes were big, like a cat when they’ve just done something wrong. And he wasn’t moving. It looked like he was trying to get Alex to not move too. Alex rushed towards The Gruff. He knelt down and put his hands on his shoulders. He pulled him close to his face. The Gruff looked still and lifeless, like any other doll. He had probably cursed for this day to come for as long as he was kept a prisoner here. He probably thought about all the things he needed to do to make it happen, but he had no idea what to do once when the time had come. “Gruff, I need your help. I can’t do this alone” said Alex. He was pleading with his eyes. There were no tears welling and there was no sign of breaking down in his voice. He wasn’t breaking down. He was set on breaking out. “Ok,” said The Gruff, but he didn’t sound so sure. Alex took The Gruff under one arm and he held up his


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pants with the other. He had to limp across the room. His leg was still throbbing from where he got hit with the hammer. It didn’t stop him, though. He ignored the pain, focusing only on the door and then when he had reached it, the end of the corridor. He ran down past the other doors and as he passed each closed lock, he thought about another young boy or girl that might have been kept inside. There was no time, though. Not for them. “I’ll get help. I’ll come back” he thought. That made him feel better about leaving them behind. Alex stopped before the end of the corridor. On the right was a door that led out of the dungeon. There was probably a phone upstairs or a computer and the internet. He could call the police. He could message his brother. The door to the left belonged to The Man. It was the door to his bedroom. It was closed, but it wasn’t locked. There were two big latches on it, like all the other doors, but like Alex’s, it had been left undone. Alex pressed his ear against the door. He held his breath so he could hear better and he put his hand over The Gruff’s mouth so he could shut him up too. The Gruff was breathing so loud; deep nervous types of breaths. “Is this the way out?” he whispered, pointing to the other door. The Gruff nodded. Alex slowly turned the handle of the door and the handle slowly turned. It made a slight creaking sound, but he was careful enough to keep it low and diffused. He thought he heard the sound of The Man jumping out of his bed, but it was just the sound of his heart trying to jump out of his chest. “We’re getting out of here,” he said. Alex let the door shut behind him and ran. He ran with The Gruff under his arms. He was still keeping his hand over The Gruff’s mouth, just in case he made any noise. It was too


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late, though. The door slammed shut behind them and there was no suppressing the sound of his feet slapping against the staircase that wound around in circles. And around and around it wound and everything was so dark, he couldn’t see a thing. But Alex pressed on. His heart was beating so fast. His breath was hot. It felt like there was a fire in his lungs and every breath he took was short and it scolded his chest. If he wasn’t escaping from a man in a dungeon, he probably would have keeled over then and there and conceded defeat. The stairs seemed to go on forever. They just went around and around. He had one of his hands outstretched trying to feel for a door or a window or light switch; something to put an end to this winding darkness. The Gruff said nothing the whole time. He stayed completely still, letting Alex lead the way. Alex took a few more steps and stopped. His hand hit against something solid. He felt around. It must have been a door. He brushed his hand, feeling for a handle but he couldn’t find one. There were just lots of rows of bricks. It felt like a wall; a wall at the end of a staircase. What an odd place to build a wall. “What do we do?” asked Alex. “We have to go back,” said The Gruff. “We can’t. We’ve come this far. We have to get out. If we go back, he won’t let us go.” “There’s a door, in his room. It’s how he brings things in; food, games, children” said The Gruff. “Do you know where it is?” “It’s hidden. It’s behind a mirror. I’ve seen it, though. But it’s locked. It’s always locked.” “Well, then we just have to get the key.” “But he keeps it on him all the time. He never takes it off.” “We have to get it.”


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Alex leaned against the brick work. He slowly slid down the wall until he was seated on the last step. The Gruff was still in his arms, but he was holding him upright now and seating him on the steps beside him. Alex was breathing heavy. He felt like he was at the end of a race. And he wanted to give in. He was certainly at the end of this one. He felt like crying. He didn’t though. He could hear The Gruff starting to grumble. He didn’t want to make him mad. It would be funny if he did. And it would probably cheer him up. But he didn’t feel like laughing so he decided not to cry. The two sat here silent in the dark stairwell. Alex wasn’t thinking about anything. There are times when you’re so tired and so spent that you just don’t think of anything, your imagination is like a f lushing toilet, just constantly washing away every new idea or every bad thought. And then people ask you, “What are you thinking about?” and you say “Nothing” and they don’t believe you, but really, you’re thinking about absolutely nothing. “Whatchya thinking about?” asked The Gruff. Alex said nothing. The Gruff felt a little uncomfortable. He had never really felt like this before. It didn’t at all feel good. He had this compulsion, deep within him, this stupid desire that he couldn’t stop. It was like an itch that he couldn’t scratch and it was making him want to turn to Alex and put his hands around his neck and he didn’t know why, but for some reason, he felt that he had to give him a hug. It was a horrible feeling. “Do you wanna play a game?” asked The Gruff. “I just wanna go home,” said Alex.


Chapter Eighteen

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Alex and The Gruff walked back down the stairs and stopped outside of The Man’s room. He was breathing heavy and probably asleep. Alex was tired. He yawned out loud and The Gruff took him by the hand and pulled him along the corridor away from The Man’s door, back into his own room. Alex went to his corner and he lay down on the ground. It wasn’t comfortable, but that didn’t seem to bother him. He used his arm for a pillow and he tucked his legs up into his body and he closed his eyes. He was asleep before the cold could abrade him. The Gruff sat by Alex as he drifted into slumber. He was proud of him. He had found his strength quickly. He had seen an opportunity and he had taken it, without loitering in the thought of repercussion. He was finding his voice. The Gruff ran his small hands through Alex’s hair. He hadn’t had a shower in days so it was all knotted and clumpy, but The Gruff just ran the palm of his hand over the crown of his head. He had never had a friend like Alex before. He hoped he’d never leave. After some time, when Alex was lost in his dreams, The Gruff got up and cleaned the room. He packed away the games that were sitting in the middle of the room into the far corner. Then he took the newspaper that was on the f loor. He held the picture up in front of his face and he stared at it. He looked at the picture and then he looked back at Alex. And he did that for maybe half an hour. He smiled. Alex was just like in the picture. He was real.


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He was a boy. The Gruff placed the newspaper down on the ground near the stack of toys. He was careful not to scrunch or to fold the pages. They wouldn’t be able to get another one, not with the same picture. All the other papers now would be showing pictures of his mother and father and there’d be less about Alex and more about the people he left behind. The Gruff couldn’t sympathize with that kind of grief. He took one more look at Alex sleeping on his side and he smiled to himself. He looked like a proud father lost in peaceful gaze at his son at the end of an arduous day. And the day had been just that. But not just the day. There were many of them. Many long days that lead to this peaceful gaze. And that’s what made it so special. The Gruff turned off the light and he slowly walked down the corridor. He ran his hands along the walls as his tiny feet slid along the slippery f loor. He stopped at every door and at one, in particular, room four, he bowed his head and he rested upon it, the palms of his hands and upon them, his tired and weary head. And The Gruff closed his eyes and he took a breath. He took a long deep breath. A breath that was like an icy shower on his arid thoughts. There were so many things that he missed, so many people that he would never see again. “Why does everything have to grow up?” he said to himself. A tear ran down his cheek and pooled by his tiny feet. It splashed when it hit the ground. It sounded like a disciplining hand being slapped across an apologetic cheek. The Gruff wiped his eyes and he bit his lip. He hated crying. And he hated how warm it made him feel. He peeled his frowning face away from the door and he lifted his spirits with his feet and he turned the handle on the last door on the left. The lights were off, but The Gruff could still see. His eyes could always see what others could not.


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The Man was asleep on the bed. He was snoring loud and he was curled up foetal, just like Alex. He had his legs tucked tight against his fat belly, his head was leaning in towards his heavy chest and he was sucking on his thumb. Beside him, on his nightstand was a comic book and beside it was some kind of denture. It was what he used to make his teeth look normal and to hide the ones that were missing from where he sucked relentlessly on his calloused thumb. The Gruff climbed up onto the bed and he crawled under the blankets beside The Man. The Gruff loved climbing into a warm bed. The Man preferred the opposite. His favorite thing in the world was to take off all his clothes and put on a fan and then dive under the blankets. He loved to feel the shiver of cold and knowing he was about to get warm any second. It gave him the other kind of shivers, the ones of excitement. The Gruff though would always wait until the bed was warm enough for him to calmly enter and cuddle up. With Alex, he liked to sleep at his chest. He liked to feel Alex’s chest rising and falling and to hear the sound of his heart beating or his chest wheezing, especially because Alex’s room was so cold and he had no blankets. Alex probably didn’t know at the time, but last night he snuggled his arms around The Gruff and wrapped his chin over The Gruff’s head. It kept them both really warm. And it felt good, to have something to hold - to have something to care for, to have something that mattered. “Did you like the picture?” asked The Gruff. The Man was awake. He hated the picture. He hated Alex. He didn’t want to talk about him. He didn’t want to think about him. He just wished Alex was gone, that he was never born in the first place. He wanted someone to hurt Alex, to make him go away. And so, he pretended to be asleep. “Do you think they look the same? I do. I think they look the identical. I mean, he was a bit younger then and his


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hair his different. I know, know. It looks a bit silly. I thought so too, but I wasn’t gonna tell him that. You didn’t tell him that did you? You better not. I don’t want him thinking his picture is stupid. But maybe we should cut his hair, so it’s more like the picture. What do you think?” The Gruff was stroking the back of The Man’s neck. He was twisting and twining the fine hairs of his neck between his tiny little fingers. The Man continued breathing heavy. He kept on pretending he was asleep. “Do you remember when I met you?” The Gruff asked. The Man, he remembered. He didn’t say so, but he remembered. He couldn’t remember anything before that day, but he remembered that day like it had just passed like it was yesterday and not thirty odd years ago. But more than that day, he remembered the day he found his voice; the day The Gruff helped him to find it. He remembered how bloodied his hands were. He remembered how bloodied it left his soul. He remembered how after that day, he didn’t laugh as much as he used to. “You don’t look like your picture anymore,” said The Gruff. “But I still love you.” He hugged The Man. He wrapped his tiny arms around him. He kissed him on the nape of his neck. “I’ve always loved you,” he said. “I’m so proud of you.” The man shivered. It wasn’t from excitement. And he stopped pretending that he was asleep. “You missed some hair,” The Gruff said in a disgusted tone. The Man shut his eyes tight. The Gruff ran his hand down his arm and The Man tensed. The Gruff’s little compassionate hand felt like a wasp creeping along sunburnt skin. He tried not to move a muscle in case it should sting. “My arm is better,” said The Gruff.


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“Why did you do that?” asked The Man. “I don’t want you to have to hurt yourself anymore. You’re the only friend I have.” The Gruff kissed the nape of his neck again. Again, The Man shivered. “It’s ok. Alex made me better.” “I could have.” “But Alex did.” “Does he have to stay here?” “You don’t like him?” “It’s not that. It’s just…” The Man wanted to say what he wanted to say. He just didn’t know how to say it. He wanted to say that he didn’t like Alex, that The Gruff didn’t need Alex, that he was enough of a friend for them to be friends forever. He wanted to say that Alex was stupid and that his picture was stupid and that he would grow old too and that just because he looked like his picture, it didn’t at all make him special. It wasn’t his fault that he grew. It wasn’t his fault that he got all that hair. He tried to get rid of it. He really tried. But it always came back. It wasn’t his fault that he got old. It wasn’t his fault that The Gruff never did. None of it was his fault. But he was still special. He was still the same boy he always was. He was still the best friend The Gruff had ever had. And if The Gruff didn’t think so, then he was stupid too. He wanted to say all that. But it was so hard when there was so much to say and then all he could really do was to cry and to moan. And that’s just what he did. “You know what you have to do,” said The Gruff The Man said nothing. He knew just what he meant.


Chapter Nineteen

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After The Man had fallen asleep, The Gruff pulled himself from under the covers and he watched The Man for a minute or two before he left the room. And although he had grown accustomed to seeing him like this, there was something about the way The Man slept that unsettled The Gruff. There was nothing about The Man that he first fell in love with. His hands were bigger now, much bigger. They weren’t the kind of hands that were small enough to work the fine parts of small toys. They weren’t the hands and tiny fingers that could gently pull on fine threads to make small moving parts work. They weren’t the same small arms that needed to stretch in their entirety to embrace a small toy. These arms, they didn’t belong around him. And his hands, they were that way so they could carry things and put them far away and maybe even break them, just for measure. The Man was no longer a boy. And The Gruff wondered, how long would it be until he realized that he wasn’t a boy anymore? When would that day come? Would he wake up tomorrow and would he start drinking from a bigger cup? Would he want coffee instead of juice? Would he start cutting his own meat himself and would he want to swap his spoon for a fork? And where would it end after that? Would he start using bigger words? Would he try to confound the Gruff with longer sentences? Would he speak in circles and if so, how long then until he started to speak in tongues? He didn’t even sound like a boy anymore, not like the boy he once knew. His voice was deeper. It sounded like his tongue was a shovel, cutting through a mound of thick tarry gravel every time he spoke. When he was a boy, his voice sounded like an excited shiver. It was lighter than the air and


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and it would rain down on The Gruff’s ears like an afternoon drizzle, on a warm’s summer’s day. Now, as a man, older and bigger than he once had been, his voice sounded like a stern warning. It was heavy and oppressing, even when the words that he said were kind and appropriate. They were weighed by something The Man couldn’t understand. But The Gruff, he had felt this weight before. And he knew what it meant.


Chapter Twenty

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The dungeon was cold. There was a constant draft that spilled refrigerated air from cracks in the roof. It didn’t bother The Man too much. He slept naked, but under the mound of blankets, he slept warm. Alex, on the other hand, had nothing but an old shirt to keep him warm. He shivered his way through the night and though he woke up here or there, it was exhaustion and disbelief that set his mind back into sleep and had him ignore the jittery lumps all over his body. The Gruff didn’t sleep. He had no need for it. He used to pretend from time to time, like a game, to help his little boys go to slumber. Every boy loved to fall asleep with their favorite toy pinned to their chest. And for many sad and lonely little boys, The Gruff had been that toy. And at night, The Gruff would visit them all. There were seven rooms in total including the shower and the kitchen. Alex and The Man, they both had one room each; Alex at the far end of the corridor and The Man, in the master suite, by the dark stairway that led to a stony wall. One of The Gruff’s favorites, if that could be said, was room number four. He spent a lot of time in there when Alex and The Man were sound asleep. He would moan and he would weep out loud, but it would never be loud enough for any of the other rooms to hear. And after some time, he would leave into the darkness and close the door behind him. He would trap in there, whatever didn’t belong in any of the other rooms. And he would lock the door and he would keep the key close to his heart. When he was done, The Gruff walked into Alex’s room. It was his room now. Before it was something he was trying to escape. Now it was somewhere for him to go at the end of a day and to lay his head and sleep.


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The Gruff liked to watch. He liked to stare at Alex while he slept. He sat cross legged right in front of him with his little hands tapping against his boot as his friend breathed his heavy sleep. The Gruff liked the way his mouth hanged open when he was really tired. It looked like he was about to sneeze and he got stuck in that position. He lay himself down and copied his friend. He curled his legs up to his body and he stretched out the muscles in his face and he cemented his eyelids and lowered the anchor on his heavy jaw and he breathed heavy and churning, like a bear, clearing phlegm from its throat. As much as The Gruff liked to watch Alex sleep, the things he did, like pretending to sleep and snoring out loud and creeping up to his freezing belly and tucking himself between his arms, they were done to wake the boy up more than anything. The Gruff hated to be alone. He felt abandoned when the children went to sleep. They were right there beside him and even though he could touch them and he could curl up with them, the one thing he couldn’t do was to go with them, into their dreams. And this made him sad. The Gruff watched Alex’s eyes twitch and he ran his little fingers along his arms and he felt the rising bumps of shivers all along his body. Then he felt his own arm. There was nothing. Not a single shiver. Alex was mouthing something. He must have been talking in his dreams. The Gruff wondered who he was talking to. Was he talking to him? Was there a Gruff inside his mind? And were they as good of friends as they were in real life? Was there a man too? And was he going to take Alex away? The Gruff leant close to Alex’s whispering mouth. So close that he almost kissed his cheek with the slight touch of his lips. He could hear Alex speaking. It wasn’t coherent, but he could hear him speaking and in his dream, he was plotting


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an escape. The Gruff leaned forwards. He could hear his own name being spoken but about what, he did not know. He imagined that he and Alex were somewhere dark in his imagination and Alex had drawn a spark of invention. He had found a way out of wherever they were and he was conspiring on what had to be done. It sounded like so much fun. Like when they ran up the dark winding stairs and Alex thought they had a chance of escape and The Gruff said nothing because it was so much fun to watch Alex try. He leaned into Alex with his own plastic lips grazed against the fine hairs. His musky breath crept into the boy’s ear. It formed his words. “I love you Gruff” he whispered. “I love you too Alex. And I love you more than anyone. Hey, Gruff? Yeah, Alex? will you be my only friend? There’s nothing I want more.’ The Gruff whispered over and over in his ear. He fed the idea into the young boy’s mind and as he slept, his fingers and his eyes twitched. Alex’s eyes stopped f lickering. He went into a deeper sleep. His mouth dropped back open and there was no chance of waking him. The Gruff tried, though. He pulled on his fingers. He climbed on top of him and yanked out some of his hairs. He even licked his own finger and squashed it inside Alex’s ear. None of it was sufficient to wake the boy. The Gruff started to fidget. He was getting anxious. He could tell that Alex was away somewhere else and he was having fun with someone or something other than him. It wasn’t fair. Alex should have been awake. He shouldn’t be allowed to sleep, he shouldn’t want to sleep. He should want to stay awake and play all day and all night. He shouldn’t have other friends in his head. The Gruff was angry. He was standing on Alex’s shoulders, looking down at him as he slept. He wanted to unzip his pants and urinate on him. It’s how he made him feel; dirty and neglected.


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“Wake up Alex” he whispered. “Alex, I want to play.” But Alex didn’t wake up. He didn’t even stir. His snoring only grew louder. The Gruff groaned. “It’s ok Alex. It’s just us.” Still nothing. The Gruff jumped off Alex and he paced back and forth. His fingers twitched and his arms couldn’t sit still. The last thin slice of his patience spilled off of his plastic tongue. He gurgled and spat out what he brought up. The white of his eyes filled with hate. They glowed a fiery red. He stood still, in one spot, but he was rocking back and forth and his fingers were clenching into his plastic legs, cutting through the fabric of his pants. There was nothing funny about the way he looked. He wasn’t angry. He was left behind. He didn’t want to scream. He wanted to crawl inside Alex’s skin and tear his way out. He wanted to scratch at his skin, tear off his nails and bite off his ear and say “I’m sorry” a thousand times over; enough so that he’d know it was true. Alex slept peacefully on one end of the room while The Gruff stood manic on the other. The boy had no idea what was happening just a foot or two away from him. He had no idea the doll was making a fantasy of his suffering. He had no idea of the things that the doll was imagining being done to him. He had no idea of the extent of the horror that a living thing could conceive. He had no idea at all. Hell swept through The Gruff’s body. He could hear a thousand laughs all echoing in his mind. They insulted him. They mocked him. They danced around inside of his head and they dared him to do what they said he had not the courage to do. They pointed their fingers and they stuck out their tongues and they danced around him in circles. And they sang.


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“Nobody loves you; nobody likes you, all alone and you got no friends. Nobody needs you, nobody wants you, all alone till the very end” the voices chanted. They were children’s voices. They were children’s faces. Some of them had their smiles smeared with blood. Some of them didn’t even have mouths. And their eyes, where they once had been, were stuffed with paper and their necks were channeled and grooved. And they danced around him in playful reverie. They joked and they sang and they laughed as his worry grew. The Gruff tried not to imagine them. He tried to look somewhere else. Somewhere less dizzying. But when he stared through the dancing children, his sight f loundered upon a young boy crying in the back on his imagination. The boy was sitting alone on a bed. He had a leather strap in his hands, a man’s belt, but he couldn’t make a knot. “Stop crying” The Gruff shouted. But The Boy didn’t listen. It wasn’t mocking or laughing like the other children. It hadn’t succumbed to his wrath like any of the others had. There were no cuts on his body. His ears were still where they should have been. His hands were not bound or chained. They bore no marks of whips or small cutting knives. There were no cuts along his chest or on his penis and there were no bruises upon his face. “Stop crying” shouted The Gruff. “He’ll hear.” But The Boy couldn’t hear The Gruff, or he chose not to listen. And then came the sound that The Boy dreaded. First the creaking of an opening door. Then the casual banter. “I’m just getting a soda,” said the voice behind the door. “Make me a sandwich while you’re there,” said The Boy’s mother, unaware of what happened each and every night. Then came the footsteps through the hall. They didn’t stop at the kitchen. They came to his door.


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Still, The Boy wept. The Boy knew what was coming. The Gruff knew what was coming and the boy cried. He cried loud and wailing. He shouted out the name of someone but that someone didn’t come. That someone never came. Then he shouted out “No!” The door opened and a man walked in. He had his belt in his hands. He had a smile on his face. “Shhh,” he said. “You’ll disturb your mother.” The Boy threw the box against the door. The Gruff could feel his mind shaking with it. “You don’t like your present?” asked the voice by the door “I don’t want it” The Boy shouted. “But it’s yours,” said the voice by the door. “I’ll tell my mum,” said The Boy. “You’ll do no such thing. If you tell your mother she will be embarrassed at how filthy you are, at the filthy things you do. She’ll kill herself. She’ll take a rope and tie it round her neck and she’ll kill herself because of you. Because you told her. Do you want that to happen? Do you want her to die?” asked the voice by the door. The boy wept. “No,” he said, his words, caught in a stream of tears. The voice by the door made a kissing sound. He turned and closed The Boy’s door and snipped the lock quietly. As he walked towards The Boy, the buckle on his belt shook and it rattled. The boy hated that rattle. And The Gruff, he hated that rattle too, but not as much as he hated the sound of the boy crying. The Children were no longer dancing around inside his mind. All that The Gruff could see now was the boy, sitting on his bed and weeping. He wasn’t moving. There was a small trickle of blood running down the inside of his leg. And as the boy wept, The Gruff listened to him. There was


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nothing else that he could do. In his mind, he was only reliving a dream, something he had spent the entirety of his life trying to forget. And in the dream, he was inside that box, having watched unspeakable acts being done and having no voice to speak against them. Being inside that box and watching the boy cry and not being able to console him. Being inside that box and watching the boy with a leather strap in his hands and being unable to stop him. Being inside that box and watching the boy tying off a crude knot and not being unable to stop him. Being inside that box and watching the boy hanging from the ceiling and not being able to look away. Being inside that box and hearing only the echo of the boy’s desperate sobbing before he took his own life. The Gruff screamed. He looked at Alex sleeping on the other side of the room and he saw the boy in him. He had to help the boy. He had to save him. Rage swelled at his fingertips and his fingers, they clawed at his legs. He tore at the fabric of his shirt and then he dug his fingers into his eyes and he ripped back on his hands so his plastic skin peeled and snapped. He screamed; “God damn you!” as loud as he could. The pain rode through every vessel in his body. It shouted from the tips of his toes to the furrow of his brow. Alex woke. He jumped from his sleep. He looked through the dark. It only took a second for his eyes to settle. He heard The Gruff screaming. He was at the other end of the room. And he ran to him. He saw his shadow lying on the f loor. He didn’t even think. He swept him up. He took him in his arms. He brought him back to his corner and he watched the door. He watched it like a hawk, waiting for The Man to come in and finish them, to finish what he’d started. The Gruff was screaming. His hand was clenching something, but Alex couldn’t find out what it was. He was trying to settle his friend down. He was trying to quell his


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madness before The Man returned. “What happened?” shouted Alex. The Gruff took Alex’s hand. He pulled it over his face. It was scratched. Deep, thick scratches. And there was a hole where his eye should have been. “Who did this?” he said. “Who did it? Was it him?” The Gruff nursed at the palm of Alex’s hand with his fingers like a newborn at its mother’s breast. “Don’t leave me alone,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere,” said Alex. “But we have to do something.” “He wants to hurt you. He’ll try to act like friends. But he’ll do bad things. He did it before. He told me. He won’t let you be my friend. We have to stop him Alex. I can’t do it alone” said The Gruff. The Gruff, he reached out and he took Alex’s hand. He squeezed it tight. “I’ll help you,” said Alex. “What do I have to do?” The Gruff smiled.


Chapter Twenty-One

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Alex was awake. He didn’t sleep the rest of the night. He just pretended. He spent the night holding The Gruff in his arms and he drew his breath heavy and deep as if he were anchored in slumber, but his mind raced the whole night through. All he could think about was escape. He wasn’t thinking about his mother or his father. He wasn’t thinking about his brother or his sisters. He just wanted to be out, wherever that was and whatever he had to do to get there, he’d do it. Alex had never as much as punched another boy. At his old school, he didn’t really have to. He was bigger than most of the other kids and they all assumed that he was stronger and that he knew how to throw his weight around. He didn’t really, but for as long as he could remember, which for him was an eternity, he had always felt like he could do what had to be done if the time ever came. And that time was here and now. And he was trying to draw on that same well of self-belief. But as much as he tried, time after time, he kept pulling up an empty bale. And that was how he felt inside as if the tears he first cried had left him barren and droughted with only the air he breathed to puff up his veins, fill out his soul and dance his sapping body. He had never even seen someone being hit, outside of a movie that was. He didn’t know how it was done and he wasn’t sure if the sounds would be the same. In the movies, they often fought for so long. They would punch back and forth and the hero would be bruised and bloody and on his last indebted breath before he found some pulse of rebellion and knocked his fist against the villain’s jaw and they’d both f ly to the ground but the villain, his f light would be over a low lying railing and his arms would f lap like the broken


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broken wings of a dove as he sailed down to the pavement below. Alex didn’t know if he could survive more than one punch. He didn’t even know what it felt like to get punched. Would it hurt? Of course, it would. But would it kill him? The Man was so big, so much bigger than he was and one punch from him would probably knock his head clean off his shoulders. Was that even possible? His heart raced when he thought of that. He saw in his mind The Man walking up to him, f lexing his fat arms and stretching his fingers like Alex did when he was reaching for the sun. His heart pounded. His skin felt like it was burning. His blood was pumping so fast. There was no way he could do it. He imagined The Man wiping his hand across his face, clearing a pool of snot from his upper lip. The Man smiled. He took something from his back pocket. It was a shoelace. He tightened the lace and snapped it back and forth, wrapping it round the palms of his hands. And as The Man wound the noose around his neck, Alex opened his eyes and fought to clear his mind, to focus on something in the room and to describe it, in detail. There were many things he could focus on but most of those things he had no inkling as to what they actually were. They were just shapes in the darkness. They could be anything. And with his wild imagination, that anything would be big, scary, salivating and wearing razors for teeth, electricity for blood and lizard’s tongues for fingers; even if it were just shaped like a box. Alex chose the newspaper. He saw it sitting on top of another shadow. He knew it was the newspaper because of the way the shadows curled up on one end. Alex used to love to fold over the corners of pages and then push them back. He would try to rub the crease of them and then blow his hot breath and rub again to see if that would work, but it never would. Once they were damaged there was nothing you could


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say or do, they would never go back to being how they once were. Most things were like that. You couldn’t iron out the crease no matter how careful you were. Alex could see, even through the darkness, the outline of a boy’s face on the front page. He followed the neck line up to the jaw line and then up and around the right ear and then around the neat parts in his hair, the shadowy mounds that stuck out like a squared veranda. Last year, when they had their school photos, his mother made him get that haircut. He had never had it before. His hair looked nothing remotely like it. It was just something she had wanted and that day, she whispered into the hairdresser’s ear and the hairdresser held him down and she nipped and she cut and snipped and he tucked and she combed his once lived in hair into this presentable and scholarly fold of angles. The whole time Alex wanted to yell stop. He wanted to shout out to the woman cutting his hair, but she was bigger than he was and every time he wiggled, she thrust her hands on his shoulders and she pinned him further to his seat and she told him, “If you move, I’ll cut your ears off.” And so he didn’t move because he didn’t want to have to get his photo taken with box hair and no ears. While she was cutting and parting his hair - straining her face and squinting her eyes as the comb pulled tightly on the insubordinate frizzy strands - Alex could see his mother in the background, reading a magazine and looking up every now and then. Alex looked at his mother through the mirror and when she lifted her brow, when her eyes met his, he fought to speak through a longing stare, but he couldn’t fit the expression on his face and so he blinked once or twice and he spoke through his eyes and through his face, a language of which his mother had no tongue. And his mother, she turned to look at herself, and she brushed her hand against the side of her hair, and she hid her ponytail in small bunch inside her hand and then


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she pretended that she had the courage to chop it off. But she didn’t see the look in Alex’s eyes. Even if she did, really, what would she have done? The woman who threatened to cut off his ears twisted and turned his head like she was screwing an apple onto a stick. And when she was done, she swept the dusted hairs from the back of his neck and she stared in the mirror, looking at what she had done but as she looked at the boy’s trimmed hair, her stare drifted like a truant vessel, aside to her own ref lection and how proud it seemed. On the car ride to school, the back of his neck was so itchy. He kept throwing his hand back to scratch at it but every time he did, his mother slapped it away like it was a buzzing f ly circling a picnic of treats. And when Alex caught his own ref lection in the back of the sun visor, he knew the other kids were going to mock him. He knew because if he ever saw anyone looking like he did, he would have mocked them too. Why would she make him look so silly? What did she have to gain? If this was how she wanted him to be remembered then what of every other day she had spent with him looking as he always did? Was each of those days so forgettable? And his last birthday, when at most, she made him tuck in his t-shirt and wipe away dried chips from the corner of his mouth, could she remember what he looked like before the f lash blinded his eyes? Were they magnetic and smiling when he sang the word ‘cheese’? When he was happy and when he most felt like himself, wasn’t that she would have preferred to remember? Why this photo then? Why this stupid hair? The children were always going to pick on him. He knew it before he even brushed the first dusted hair off his shoulders. He’d walk with his shipwrecked face drawn to the f loor and dragging his heavy feet behind him. And the other kids, they would be wiled not by the shape or peculiarity of


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his hair, but by the strangeness in which he carried himself. And they would look and they point and they’d be beckoned to laugh. And some would snigger but they were only just being polite. For children were not kind in how they treated the absurd. And that was how they had made him feel. The hours before the photo felt like the last days before an execution. When they sat in their class, the children all pointed and laughed and threw spit balls at him. And they called him queer names. And then, when they broke for recess, where normally he would revel with others in game, the children continued their ritual torment and pushed him to the dirt and kicked sand and spat in his face. Tomorrow they’d no doubt be friends but today, he was theirs to disgrace. And when it came time for the photo, Alex sat on the stool which was tall and uncomfortable. He had nowhere to put his arms that felt real or natural. He wanted to fold them over his chest or tuck them under his bum, but the photographer kept pointing and prodding and demanding that he cross them over his lap. He felt in front of the camera as he had in front of the mirror, anything but himself. Why did the pictures have to be like this? Why couldn’t they be real? Why did he have to look so proper when inside he felt so reviled? Why couldn’t anyone see that he felt this way? Why did they put him in front of the camera? Why did they lend him to poking and prodding hands? Why did they push him in front of strangers? Why did they make him feel this way? And why on earth would they want to remember it? Alex felt every one of these questions as he sat on the tool and he wobbled back and forth and tried to steady his balance. He thought everything but without the words. He felt as if he were asking himself each and every doubt but even in his mind, he couldn’t form the words. He couldn’t form them because he didn’t know them.


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All of this, the photograph, the photographer, the hairdresser, the strangers who touched the top of his head, the dentists whose warm stinky breath pressed against the underneath of his tongue, the aunty who gave him things only so she could be gifted with his obliging applause, the doctor who touched him when the pain was somewhere else and the parents who made him act out things that they thought others wanted to see. “Do that thing you do. You know the one I’m talking about. Go on, do it. Don’t make me look stupid. Don’t be rude or you’ll go to your room. Stand here. Stand there. Don’t be rude. Say thank you. Tell the strange man your name. Tell him how old you are. Tell him your favorite color. Tell him what you wanna be when you grow up. Shake his hand. Look him in the eye. Tell him what scares you the most. Answer his questions or I’ll answer them for you. Be polite. Say thank you. Smile and be gracious. Act like you mean it. You must be polite. That’s all we care for is how it appears not what you are feeling inside. So shut up and take it. Pretend that you like it. It’s courtesy you rude little child. Whatever you’re thinking, just keep it inside. We don’t want to hear it. Smile and be good and polite.” What did it mean to be polite? What did it feel like inside? There had been many days like that day. There had been many more ways that he’d learned to be polite. And he’d learned very well that right and wrong was not something that he felt inside, it was a rule that he needed to learn. It could be written on a board or it could be shouted into his ear, but it had nothing to do with the feeling in his stomach. That, as he learned, was just being rude. And Alex stared through the darkness at the shape on the front page of the newspaper. And his mother and father had needed, even his abduction, for him to be polite. And maybe it was reverent after all for this really was the image of


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how he felt. If a smile should represent joy then what was the image to best show fear, desolation, ridicule, provocation and despair? What was the face of abandon? How fitting, the picture they chose was of a time when he felt despondence and derision tingling and tickling his skin. Maybe they knew all along. Maybe this was what they had wanted, the perfect reason to show the perfect picture; their perfect son looking plain and polite. There was a second or two of loud buzzing and then a light f lickered in the hallway. It didn’t turn on at first. It buzzed and it shook the dungeon and his room from night unto day in the split of a second and so fast that his eyes could see only in a blur. And every time the light f lickered on, The Man was another step closer to him. First, he was in the doorway. And he blocked out the light. Then he was in the middle of the room. And he had a crooked smile. Then he was standing above Alex. And he had something in his hands.


Chapter Twenty-two

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“Put this on and come with me.” The Man handed Alex a plastic apron. He threw it on his lap and then he walked back out the door. He f licked on all of the lights as he walked along the corridor. It was so bright that his shadow stretched all the way back to room seven’s open door. Alex looked at The Gruff who nodded his head and he gave Alex a sly wink. “Any chance you get,” he said. Alex held the apron up to the light. There was a picture of a mouse on the front. It had a big knife in its hands and it was about to cut through a giant slab of cheese. It was licking its lips and it had a big chef’s hat on but the end of its tail had been scratched off. Probably the apron was really old or someone here didn’t like mice. He put it around his neck and it f lopped all the way down to his feet. It must have looked pretty silly. He tried tying off the two pieces of string, but he didn’t know how to do knots properly. He’d seen people doing it all the time and it was something that looked so easy but when he’d watched them in the past, he always just kind of drifted off and thought about other things while watching their hands twist around. It wasn’t because he was bored or anything. It was the opposite actually. Whenever he was amazed, the world became like a television and he’d stare manically but his brain would start thinking and talking about other things altogether. So when he took the ends of the string, his mind had no idea what to do. Really it was just two or three little moves of his hands but to his brain, it was so complex that it was stupid of him for even thinking he could try and his brain got mad at him and it made his blood really warm and his face felt like


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a hot bath and he just wanted to take off the stupid apron and throw it in the bin. The Gruff saw his frustration. There were a lot of things that he couldn’t do either, things that other people did so easily that he thought would be just the same for him. But when he’d go to do them, his brain would seize up as well and then he’d go all crazy and shout and want to break the thing in his hands and then shout at everyone else that didn’t have to think about what they were doing. And though The Gruff could never stop himself from feeling this way most of the time, he could see it in other people and he could step in a help them to not make a mess of themselves and whatever was in their hands. “Let me,” he said, taking the strings from Alex’ hands. The Gruff pulled the strings tight around Alex’s back and he tucked them under one another and then he pulled tight again. Alex was shocked. He jumped and pulled his belly in and The Gruff pulled tighter, his hands making an ‘x’ with the string and pulling them tight like he was about to chop Alex in half. “You remember what you have to do? You have to save us both. He’s going to hurt you. Then he’s gonna hurt me. And he’ll go to your home and he’ll hurt your family.” “I’m scared.” “I am too. But that’s why we have to do this. The fear, it’s like this because he’s dangerous. But when he goes away, so will the fear. It’s hard at first I know. You just wanna stop and hope it goes away. But it’s just an alarm, that’s all. It’s ok to be scared. It doesn’t mean you’re gonna die. It just means you gotta do something, so you don’t.” “Will you help me?” “Alex, you have to do this on your own.” “But I don’t think I can.” “If you don’t do this, you’ll always be a victim. You need to learn how to speak. You have to find your voice.”


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“I know how to speak.’ “You know how to talk, but not how to speak. That voice you have, it’s not your own. It’s your mother’s. It’s your father’s. It’s your auntie’s. It’s your teacher’s. It’s everyone’s, but it’s not yours. It sounds like all those people who made you say what they wanted to hear. Your voice, it’s somewhere in there, but you never learned how to use it. You did, when you were a baby. You shouted what you felt but your mum and dad, they quickly shut you up. They hid you in another room. You shouted all night long and they never listened. They’d shake you. They’d rock you. They’d shove a bottle in your mouth. But they’d never listen. And soon, they just left you there until your voice gave in to exhaustion and you fell asleep. Then, when you were quiet, when you couldn’t speak, they snuck in and they smiled and they adored themselves at how cute and quaint you were when you were without your voice. And every day and every night, they locked you away and they left you speaking and screaming to the walls until you learned that no matter how much or how loud you screamed, you would never be heard and no matter how deep was the hole that your fear dug for you, they would never pull you out. And then your voice went somewhere and it never came back. When you got older, you felt that feeling. I know you did, we all do. That funny feeling in your belly like there’s worms or rockets ready to burst out. You didn’t know, but that feeling, the one you called being scared, that’s your voice, the one your mum and dad put in a box. Just like the box you were in when you came here. But I helped you out of that box, didn’t I?” Alex looked at The Gruff. Nobody had spoken to him like this before. Nobody had dared treat him as if he might understand. “I’ve done all I can. Now I need you to do the rest. You need to find that box and smash it into a billion pieces. Free your voice. Scream as loud as you can. Save yourself. And you


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might just save us all.” Alex didn’t feel scared anymore. He felt his body tingle all over. It was like he had stepped into his skin for the first time. He felt taller and abler. “Alex” shouted The Man from the hallway. He sounded impatient, but he didn’t sound mad, just like he’d wished that he would hurry up. His brother sounded like this when they played video games. He’d shout at Alex to hurry up and catch up to him, to finish killing the enemies so that he could move on to the next level. Alex would get so caught up in a moment that he would forget how long that moment felt for another person when their hands were tied with boredom and expectation. He’d never be really mad. Raising his voice was just his way of hurrying him up. Alex looked at The Gruff again. This time, it was he that nodded his head and winked his eye. He turned and he walked out the door and into the hallway. The Man was waiting by door number three. It was open and there was a bright light buzzing away. The Man walked into the room and Alex followed him. When he entered the room, Alex saw a table prepared with knives. There were seven of them and they were lined up side by side. Next to the knives were three slabs of marble and they looked really heavy. There was a large green plastic bag on the f loor that was empty, but it had been pulled apart and was opened, ready to have left overs or off cuts dumped into it. The Man picked up one of the knives. It looked really sharp but for whatever it was that he wanted to cut, it obviously wasn’t sharp enough. He stood there in the middle of the room with a long metal rod in one hand and a really big knife in the other and the knife, it screeched and it scratched as The Man grazed it slowly and forcefully along the metal rod, back and forth. The Man laid the knife down on the table next to the


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others. He stood with his back to Alex, moving the handles so that the sharp points were all sticking straight up and none of them were crooked or uneven. “Do you know how to cook?” The Man asked. Alex looked a bit confused. He thought for a second there that he was going to be lunch. It did seem like that. Know how to cook? He didn’t know how to tie off an apron, let alone crack an egg. So he shook his head. “No,” he said. “Mum always made the food.” “Come here then. You have to learn some time.” Alex moved slowly towards The Man. He wasn’t sure. All things that ended up hurting him in the past, they always came across as being so kind at first. And as he took each step and as he edged ever closer, he felt the hidden box inside his stomach shaking and rattling and something inside of it, trying to break free. “Your fear is in a cage,” he thought. “Break it out.” Alex stood beside The Man. The table was higher than he was. Everything was, really. Even the step that he had to stand on to reach the table, it was so big that he needed The Man to help him up. Alex looked at the knives spread across the table. They all glistened under the f luorescent light. They looked so sharp. If he could get one quick enough then he could stab The Man, over and over until he went away. But he needed to find his voice before he could do anything else. What good was a saw without teeth? The Man set up two silver bowls on the table and beside them, he placed a mound of vegetables, some eggs and a clump of chicken meat which had been thawing on a table in the far corner. “You want to be careful with the knives, so you don’t cut your finger. It’s real easy. I’ve done it to myself a couple of times. A small cut is ok, we got some bandages for that, but a big cut can be real bad. Remember we aint got no doctors


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round here so safety first. The trick is to press your fingers into the meat like this” The Man said, pressing his hands into the bloodied meat and then digging away with the large knife. “You see the way the knife is scratching against my nail? Better that than cutting off my finger right?” he said laughing. Alex didn’t know if he was supposed to laugh or not. He didn’t know how he was supposed to react. He watched the knife slicing through the chicken meat. It didn’t catch or anything. It just went through like it was butter. Then he looked at the other knives. They were all sitting so nice on the table and they were still within reach. He’d have to stretch a bit, but he’d be able to get one. He wouldn’t be able to do it now, though. He’d have to lean past The Man who was cutting the chicken. And if he did that, The Man would just take his knife out of the chicken breast and stab it in the back of his head. It’d be stupid to try now. It didn’t stop him, though, not from thinking about it. “You always want to cut your meat on a different surface to your vegetables. And use a different knife. You don’t want to get blood or nothing on the different foods. I use a knife with a straight edge for the carrots. It cuts real easy and you can chop them up real fine. I don’t know about you, but I love my carrots chopped up really tiny. The Gruff likes em that way too so you’d better pay attention.” Alex took his attention away from the knives for a second and watched the way The Man cut the carrots into tiny little pieces. He put his fingers the same way so he was only grazing his nails and he cut the carrot long ways so there were about twenty or thirty little round chunks. Then he piled them together and he rested the palm of his left hand over the top of the blade while his right hand went crazy pushing up and down real fast over the chucks of carrot so that they cut small and smaller and even smaller still and The Man, his face scrunched up and his eyes squinted real small and he was


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grimacing like what he was doing was real hard or that he didn’t like it at all. Alex watched the way The Man cut and he practiced not the movements of his hands, but the expressions on his face. He scrunched up his lip and his nose and he strained his face so that it went all red and then when he looked really silly, he started pretending to cut at imaginary carrots like The Man was doing. “The Gruff doesn’t like squashy tomatoes so you have to be careful ok?” Alex nodded. “Here, I use one of these small knives. They’re butter knives, but they are real good for cutting through tomatoes. They don’t push or nothing, and it means the tomato doesn’t squash.” The Man went through all the vegetables on the table. He showed how to slice and dice each one and why he did it in each certain way. And he always started by saying he preferred it this way, but he always followed that by saying it was the only way that The Gruff would eat that particular food and that if he did it any different, The Gruff would get angry. “Are you paying attention?” Alex snapped out of his dream. “Yeah, of course,” he said. “He’s not all he says he is you know.” “Who?” “The Gruff. He acts like he knows the answer for everything, but he doesn’t you know. You’ll figure this out soon.” “Are you going to hurt me?” “Is that what he said?” Alex felt f lushed. He didn’t want to say anything bad about The Gruff. He didn’t want to get him in trouble. He looked at the knives. It wasn’t the right time. Not now. “No,” Alex said. “It’s just… Why did you take me?” He was cutting vegetables into tiny little pieces and


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then brushing them into round piles with the palm of his hand. It looked like he enjoyed making perfect circles out the vegetables and they looked like small colored planets all sitting side by side. “You haven’t figured this out yet?” asked The Man. Alex looked confused. “What do you mean?” he said. “I’m not here to kill you,” The Man said. “Then what? Why am I here? Why did you take me?” pleaded Alex. “You’re here to kill me,” said The Man. The Man continued cutting the vegetables into tiny little pieces. The Gruff loved them that way. He liked everything diced and sliced into tiny little portions. He was a small doll and he had a tiny little mouth and he demanded that everyone eat from the same plate so what he loved, whoever dined with him must also love too. And if he fell out of love with something than that whoever would fall out of love with it too and if he fell out of love with someone than that someone would fall out of love with themselves too. It seemed as if The Man hadn’t even heard or understood the sound of his own words or maybe he had and he just assumed what great joke it was that Alex would be brought here to kill him. How could he? He was so small. His hands could barely warp themselves around his own wrist let alone the neck of a grown man. And if he did manage to get a knife in his hands, would he have the strength to push it through a grown man’s chest. “Remember to rinse your hands and rinse the knife after each use. After this, I’ll show you how to use the washing machine. You probably never used one before right?” Alex shook his head. “It’s real easy. There’s lots of buttons and things, but you only need to use one or two. Grown up stuff is like that. There’s all these machines and stuff and they all have heaps


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of buttons and numbers and words and options and it all looks so confusing. But in the end you only ever need to use one or two buttons and the rest is just nonsense. It’s like the fridge. Do you see all those buttons?” he asked, pointing to the bright blue buttons. There were a lot of them. Three rows of buttons. And there were numbers and there were pictures of different things and there were words that he had never seen or heard anyone say before. “It looks real confusing and real scary but it’s not. It’s a fridge. It can only do one thing, make things cold. Those buttons, at first I had no idea what they were. The Gruff likes all this high tech stuff. He made me get that one. I didn’t know what they did at first then after a long time I realized that all they do is make things cold or colder or colder and when you press a different button, it has a different alarm, that’s all. Grown-ups just like to have all these buttons that they’ll never use. It makes them think they’re smart or rich or something. But really, all they use is the on and off button. All the machines are kind of like that. But don’t let The Gruff know. He likes to think we use them and that they’re really important. And he’ll tell you what they mean and what they do. All you have to do is nod, smile and say ‘wow’. It’s real easy, though. You don’t have to do it you know?” Alex looked confused again. There was so much information. “I don’t have to press the buttons?” “Nothing. Don’t worry,” said The Man. The Man stopped slicing. He turned to Alex with this knife still in his hand. It was pointed towards Alex’s heart. Alex looked at the tip and it was looking at him. His heart was beating so fast. He felt his stomach rising up to his throat. But he couldn’t look away. He feared that if he did, if he turned to run or to reach for his own weapon, The Man would slip the knife into his side and then throw him on the table and -


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like the chicken and the carrots and the tomato - he’d cut him up into a hundred thousand tiny pieces and the small choking bones that he carved away from his tingling white skin, he’d brush off into the green plastic bag, sitting open beside the table. “You don’t have to do it Alex. I know he talked to you before you came in here. I know that he told you that this had to be done. I know what you talked about last night. I know all the things he’s said to you.” “What?” said Alex, playing dumb, obviously caught. “I know, because a long time ago, he said them to me. Did he tell you that I was going to hurt you?” “Yeah.” He felt like he was cheating a friend. “He said the same to me too. We’re the same Alex, me and you. I came here the same way you know?” Alex said nothing. He couldn’t comprehend how he was feeling. But he did feel a moment of release knowing that at least that he might not have to fight anyone. “When I was your age, I had a mum and dad too. I had a brother as well. He wasn’t older, though. He was younger than me. But I loved him. I’m sure I did. I can’t really remember cause it was so long ago, but I bet I would have. I don’t really remember my family. You forget a lot of things. I forget what my favorite ice-cream was. Now I love choc chip but I wonder if I ever preferred Napolitano or something more traditional like mango or strawberry.” Alex immediately thought of an ice-cream parlor that he had gone to with his brother. He used to mix a whole bunch of f lavors together; mango and strawberry and cherry and bubblegum and choc mint and passion fruit. And he’d mix them all up. And he didn’t have a name for it. He just remembered what f lavors needed to go into the bowl. “Do you still remember them?” asked The Man. He didn’t sound so big anymore.


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“Who?” “Your mum and dad. Your brother. Your sisters. Do you still remember them?” “Of course I do. That’s a silly question. Don’t you?” “No. Well, kind of. I remember kind of what they looked like. I remember their outline, like when I think about them, I always see them from a distance. It’s like I’m looking at them through someone else’s glasses. But I can’t remember what color their eyes are. I can’t remember what their voices sounded like. I know my mum she probably called my name a thousand times, but I can’t recall a single one. In my mind, I see that she’s moving her lips; that she’s calling out to me, but she’s not saying anything. There’s just this squealing and gurgling sound escaping from her mouth.” “Did someone take you too?” “There was a man. I didn’t know his name. He didn’t say it and The Gruff, he didn’t use it either but that man, he knew my name. He knew a lot about me.” “But why did he take you?” “For the same reason I took you. It’s what he had to do, it wasn’t what he wanted to do. But he took me and he scared me at first. And he did all of these things to The Gruff. He hurt him. He scratched him. He pulled him apart. And The Gruff, he helped me. He helped me find my voice, the one he said my mum and dad had locked away.” “What did you do?” asked Alex. He was looking at The Man like he would have his brother, lapping upon a new truth or some fantastic news. He hadn’t even noticed that The Man was speaking with empty hands and that this could have been his chance. “I killed him,” said The Man. The Man sounded upset as if he were admitting to breaking a vase. Alex’s stomach sank. “I didn’t want to do it. I was just a boy. I was like you.


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But he did all these things, at least, I thought he did all these things. The Gruff, he said that he hurt him and that he was going to hurt me too and that only I could stop him. And I did what he said. I didn’t want him to hurt The Gruff anymore. I couldn’t stand to see him that way. And I didn’t want him to hurt me. I just wanted to go home. So I took a knife and I snuck into his room and when he was sleeping, I put my hand over his eyes so he couldn’t see me and I cut his throat from ear to ear. It’s funny. I can’t forget that sound. The sound of him panicking and breathing blood back in through the gash in his neck. I hear it all the time. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.” “I want to go home,” said Alex, riding a lump in his throat. “I can help you Alex. But you have to help me. I want to go home too. I want to see my mum and my dad. I want to see my brother. I want to see him all grown up. I don’t hate grown-ups, not like The Gruff does. He brought you here so you could kill me just like he brought me here so that I would kill the man before me. I don’t know how long he’s been doing this. There’s a room, room four, it’s always locked and only The Gruff keeps a key. I can’t go in. He doesn’t let me. All the other children are in that room. The only room that isn’t locked is mine and yours. I don’t know how many boys have been taken and for how long but Alex, we can be the last. We can stop him.” “I don’t know,” said Alex. “You have to trust me. Why do think he you’re here now? He has me here teaching you all of this so that you can keep that house all by yourself so that you can cook and clean and then when you are older and less like the boy in your picture, he’ll send you out to find another boy just like you. And you’ll do what he says because you love him. And you’ll do what he says because you need him. And you’ll go out and you’ll find a young boy whose voice cannot be heard, who’s


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pushed into the hands of polite attention, who shudders whenever his name is called and who comes to you because all they want is to have a friend. I always wanted to be older and now that I am, I wish that I wasn’t.” “I don’t want to fight you.” “You don’t have to. But believe me, he will make you. And I see you looking at those knives. You can’t imagine picking one up can you? You probably didn’t even cut your own steak did you?” Alex shook his head. His father always cut his meat. “But you will. And you never come back from that. He’ll get inside your head. He’ll pull off his own arms and tell you that it was me. He’ll scratch his own skin and tell you that I’ve lost control. He’ll introduce you to fear and tell you that I am its host. You can’t imagine fighting me. I couldn’t imagine it either. But I did and you will too. You will do something unspeakable and it will haunt you. And then one day when you are much older, you will teach the boy who you bring here to replace you, how to peel and dice vegetables in a particular way so that The Gruff doesn’t get mad. But it doesn’t have to be like this. We can stop him. I’ll help you.” Alex exhaled. He tried to escape with his breath, but it didn’t work. He was still there, trapped inside his own skin. He didn’t want any of this. He just wanted to go home. “What do I have to do?” he said. The Man smiled. He cut thin strips of red meat and he dipped them into some egg and then rolled them in f lour. He did it with some chicken too, but Alex didn’t see. “I’ve put something in the food. It will make The Gruff go to sleep. You have to make sure he eats it, though. Once he’s asleep, you take that key from around his neck and you bring it to me.” “Then what?” “We escape. The key on his neck, it opens the door out


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of here.” “The Gruff said you had that key.” “He would say that wouldn’t he. He doesn’t want you to leave. Don’t you understand? If you kill me, if you do what he wants, you’ll never go home. You’ll never see your mum and dad again.” That’s all Alex wanted. And if The Gruff didn’t have to get hurt, if he didn’t have to fight anyone, then this was the best plan. “You can’t let him know that we’ve spoken. He’ll kill us both. Can you do this?” Alex thought of his brother. He imagined him riding past on the back of their father’s motorcycle except this time, as the motorbike passed the front of the house, his brother turned his head and he looked at Alex and he smiled and then the motorbike sped off. “I can do it,” said Alex.


Chapter Twenty-three

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Alex watched The Man as he spooned the food into two small bowls. He had his back turned and he couldn’t see that Alex’s hand was reaching across the table and his fingers were feeling around for the handle of a knife. “Remember,” said The Man, “he only needs one mouthful. That’s all. But he won’t eat it if he thinks it was me who made the food. He thinks I’m trying to kill him. He doesn’t trust me anymore. You’re gonna need a reason too, that you didn’t kill me. We’ll say I saw you reaching for a knife…” Alex froze. The Man was looking at the bowls of food. Surely he couldn’t have seen. Alex pulled his hand back. It coiled like a spring and he held it tight against this body. “But he won’t believe just that. So I’m sorry Alex. I have to do this.” Alex didn’t know what he meant. The Man turned and he punched Alex in the face. Alex fell back against the f loor. He hit the back of his head hard on the ground. It was true, though. A punch didn’t hurt at first. The pain came afterwards. “It has to look like you were crying,” said The Man. He took a handful of peppers and he squashed them into Alex’s eyes. It burned so much. His eyes instantly watered but not from the pepper. He was already crying from the punch to the face and the knee that was pressed against his chest, squeezing the air out of his lungs. Alex was gasping. The Man was on top of him; his knee on his chest and his hands around his throat. He was smiling as if this were some game that they were both winning. The Man leaned close to Alex’s ear. So close that his tears ran down onto The Man’s cheeks. And The Man whispered in his ear.


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“Just one bite.”


Chapter Twenty-four

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Alex walked along the corridor with a limp. His lip was swollen and he couldn’t breathe properly through his nose. It whistled every time that he inhaled and the bloodied scabs blocked off his right nostril. He carried a tray with two bowls and two spoons and his head was spinning so much that by the time he reached his room, he had forgotten whose bowl was whose. Alex stopped at the door. He looked at both bowls. One was blue and one was red but which was which? One of them had been poisoned for The Gruff and the other had been prepared for him, but which was which? He looked lost standing beneath the frame. “What happened?” asked The Gruff. He sounded concerned. Genuinely concerned. The Gruff rushed over to Alex and be hugged him. He wrapped his arms around his waist and he hugged so tight that Alex thought that either The Gruff’s arms would fall off or he would split in half. It felt wonderful. He hadn’t been hugged like that before. Not even from his mother. It took away the stinging pain from his swollen lip and bloodied nose. “He did this?” asked The Gruff. Alex looked down at The Gruff. He saw a friend again. This was so confusing. He didn’t feel like The Gruff would do him any wrong and yet, The Man had dealt him the same favor. He just wished he was at home. “I tried,” said Alex, shying his face away, showing his bruises. The Gruff lifted his hand to touch the wounds on Alex’s face and when he did, when he shifted his body, Alex saw it; the key. It was around his neck just like The Man had said.


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Maybe he was right. “I’m sorry,” said Alex. “Don’t apologize. Look at you. You’ve been bruised. What have I done to send you in there? But what choice did we have?” said The Gruff. He had his tiny hands over his face and it looked like he was crying as he doubted himself for having put his friend into the hands of that cruel monster. “What do you have?” asked The Gruff. Alex looked at the bowls in his hands. “I made it myself’ he said. Alex placed the tray down on the ground. He still had no idea which bowl had the poisoned meat. “I’m not hungry,” said The Gruff Alex looked defeated. What could he do? “Alex, are you ok? You should sit down.” The Gruff took Alex by the hand and helped him down onto the ground. He was as white as a sheet and panting like a thirsty dog. The Gruff took out a tissue and wiped away some of the blood that was trickling from under his nose. He rolled the tissue up and placed it back in his pocket. “I’m sorry Alex. You’re the only friend that I have. It pains me to see you like this. This is my fault. I’ll fix it. I’ll make it better” said The Gruff. “What are you going to do?” “I’ll kill him myself. I should have done it. I should have done it a long time ago. I shouldn’t have put you in there with him. The second he brought you here, I should have done something.” Alex looked at The Gruff. He seemed so genuine. The emotion on his face was smooth. He wasn’t tense at all. He didn’t look like people looked when they were lying. But Alex just had to know. “What is the key for?” he asked, The Gruff turned his head like a thinking dog.


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“What key?” he said. “The one around your neck.” The Gruff pressed his tiny hand against his chest. His fingers ran over the sides of the key and he clasped it in a clenched fist. “It’s nothing,’ he grumbled. The Gruff ran to the other side of the room. He curled himself in a ball and he slid back against the wall. Alex approached him, slowly, not looking at him directly so as not to scare him off. The Gruff’s both hands encircled the key and he shook as if a fever were swimming in his blood. “Why did you bring me here?” asked Alex. The Gruff looked up at Alex. He had his head buried into his folded arms but he looked from the corner of his sight and it looked like there was some apology in his eyes. “I just want to know.” Alex crouched down beside him. He reached in between The Gruff’s chest and his legs, unclasping his fingers and pulling his hand away from the key tied to his neck. “When you do something bad, you should tell someone. You shouldn’t pretend that you did nothing wrong.” He took The Gruff’s two hands. The Gruff fought at first, pulling them back towards himself, but he didn’t have the strength to fight free. These past days were wearing him thin. Alex didn’t try to hurt him, though. He didn’t try to wrestle him to the ground. He didn’t want a fight. He looked at The Gruff. His eyes gently washed away the fright and concern that wrinkled The Gruff’s face. “I’m not mad,” he said. “I just want to hear you say it. Why did you take me?” The Gruff’s eyes swelled and they reddened all over. He looked in Alex’s eyes for just a second before his lip started to tremble. Then he turned and he faced the wall and then he turned and he faced the other. He tried to gamble enough strength to shout or to curse or to stamp his feet up and down.


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He tried to inf late his disgust and his rebellion. He tried, but he couldn’t. Instead, he gave in. The tears rolled down his face and the words f loated up from the sink of his chest like popping bubbles. One by one they exploded from his mouth and he heaved and he cried as he tried to confess the truth. “I tried to help you,” he said. Alex didn’t look mad. He was sitting calm, holding The Gruff’s two hands and looking him in the eye. This was something his mother had done to him. Whenever he had done something wrong, she wouldn’t yell like his father would, that only made him madder and got them further from sorting everything out. His mother started doing this at some point. She would sit down with him at his level and she would hold his hands. And she wouldn’t squeeze them so that they hurt. She didn’t try to make him feel like he couldn’t get away. She held them as if she were a port to which he could tie himself off so that his sadness and his remorse didn’t take him somewhere where his loneliness would make an awful friend of him. She would hold his hands and she would look him in the eyes and hers wouldn’t be mean or convicting, they would be kind and forgiving. They would turn his attention like the pages of a book, each time that that it was that his fear ushered him away. Her eyes wanted to see and to understand, nothing more. And she would ask the same question over and over and each time she would maintain her gentle reserve. She wouldn’t tire of her consideration and her soothing voice wouldn’t coil into a scornful rasp. She would just hold his hands and she would wait for the moment where he would no longer confide in denial and he would look at her and salted water would spill from his eyes and he would say exactly what he had done. And he would be lifted. And she would be lifted.


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And they could move on. And that was how Alex looked at The Gruff, without deception and without scorn. He held The Gruff’s hands gently and gave him all the time that he needed to admit to the truth. Not just for Alex, but for himself too; so if it was wrong what he was doing and what he had done, he could either live or live not with the person that he was and he could either change what he would be or celebrate in what had become. He held The Gruff’s hands and he asked him over and over the same question. “Why did you take me?” The Gruff turned away from his eyes. He tried bowing his head. He tried pinning it back between his legs and his chest. He tried looking up the roof and finding some dull patch of peeling paint that he could focus on, something that would absorb that emotion that was building inside of him. But each time that he turned, he could feel Alex’s eyes unchanging and his love unyielding. It was like the sun on his skin. It did not change in how it touched him no matter how hard he fought to shiver or to wrinkle his skin. For Alex’s eyes were the sun and the light of his consideration shone down on The Gruff’s gritty defenses. No one look lessened than the one before. And no one look was more coarse or abrasive. There was no respite from his constant care and consideration. There was not a second where The Gruff could build some defense and there was nothing harsh for him to gather in his own stony hands and then throw back twice as hard. Love was the breath of his munitions and it was eroding the forte of The Gruff’s negation. “Why did you take me?” asked Alex. The Gruff turned and then he turned back. “It wasn’t me,” he said. “It’s ok. I’m not mad. I just want to know. Why did you take me?” “It wasn’t me.”


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“It’s ok Gruff. I’m not mad. I just want to know. Why did you take me?” The Gruff turned and he turned again. But each time, he grew more weakened in his fight. His lies were just empty shells rattling along the f loor. They fell from his tongue like the autumn leaves in the setting sun. “It’s ok Gruff. I’m not angry. I just want to know. Why did you take me?” The Gruff didn’t’ turn anymore. That part of him had settled. He was looking at Alex dead in his eyes and The Gruff’s were red and glassy. “We have to be responsible for what we have done. It’s ok Gruff, I’m not mad. I just want to know. Why did you take me?” “I wanted to help you. That’s all I ever wanted” said The Gruff. He burst into tears. His head hanged low and he tried to f ling to either side, but not so he could hide or negate the truth, but because it felt so heavy having carried this weight for so long and it was heavier still, having to cast it out. Alex took him in his arms. The Gruff wrapped his tiny arms around his waist. His head was buried in Alex’s chest and his tears were f looding onto his white shirt. The Gruff wept loud. He hadn’t wept like this in so long. “You need to eat something,” said Alex. The Gruff nodded. As Alex brought over the tray, The Gruff sat on the f loor with his legs crossed. He trusted Alex in a way that he never trusted The Man or any of the boy’s before. He watched his friend gently picking up the tray and carrying it towards him. He had the most caring eyes. He looked like he had had a lot of wrong done unto him but that it had not corrupted him, that he still had the good gene pulling his strings. Alex sat the tray down on the f loor. He handed the blue


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bowl towards The Gruff and he humbly accepted. The whole time, he followed Alex’s eyes. They were so kind. He knew with all certainty that this time, things would be different. This time, Alex would have the strength to find his voice, unlike the other children, all the ones who came before. But The Gruff, he tried not to think about them. He was about to speak, but Alex shushed him. He put his finger gently on his mouth and he quieted whatever concern was willowing from his belly. “Eat,” he said. “Just one bite.” The Gruff smiled and Alex smiled back at him. He took the spoon and lifted it to his mouth, the whole time, his eyes locked tightly onto his friend and his companion; his confidant, his savior. “Will you do it?” asked The Gruff before eating. “You mean kill him?” “Yes. Will you?” “Why is he here? How did he get here?” “I don’t know. Just one day I was playing with my friend and the next, my friend was gone and he was there instead.” “Did you take him, when he was a boy?” The Gruff’s eyes widened. “No. is that was he said? I swear I didn’t.” “It’s ok Gruff. Here, eat” he said, helping him with the spoon towards his mouth. The Gruff had fear in his eyes. He saw now something different in Alex, something he hadn’t seen before. He didn’t look so scared. He looked committed like he had already started something and was prepared to see it through. The Gruff felt like he was inside that package again. He could feel the hard plastic pushed in against his face. He could feel the plastic binds holding his wrists and his legs tight against the cardboard backing. He felt the same uselessness that he had felt that night when he watched that young boy turn in the terrible way that he did.


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He couldn’t fight it. Alex took his hand and he lent it towards his mouth. The Gruff wanted to say no, but he couldn’t. He wanted to shout, but he had no voice. He wanted to throw the spoon to the ground, but his wrists were tied with the loving touch and pull of Alex’s consideration. He closed his eyes. He saw The Boy again, sitting on the end of his bed, blood running down the inside of his leg. The Boy was looking at him and he was just a doll in a box, unable to please and unable to make the child’s hurt seem less affectionate. And The Boy looked at him, safe in his packaging and The Boy said, “I wish I were you.” The Gruff chewed the first mouthful of food. It tasted like copper on his tongue and on his teeth. But Alex’s eyes assured him that everything would be ok. The Gruff closed his eyes. He saw The Boy again and he was weeping. He was tying off the noose that would make all of his hurt go away. The Boy‘s eyes were drawn upon The Gruff and he whispered and he mouthed, “I wish I were you, I wish I were you” and he tied the noose around the fan above his head and he climbed up onto his nightstand and it wobbled and he steadied himself, because he was worried that he might fall. The Boy placed the noose around his neck and he pulled it tight so that his throat lumped as he continued to say, “I wish I were you, I wish I were you.” The Gruff fell to the f loor. His body went limp. Whatever poison had been in the food had taken affect. Alex looked around. The Man wasn’t here yet. He called out to him. “It’s done,” he said. There was still no commotion, no response at all. “Hey, I did it, it’s done” he shouted out. He shouted in a whisper, thinking that even in his slumber that The Gruff might hear him and know of his treason, know of what he had done. Maybe he would find out. Maybe he would wake up after they had gone and his anger would be something that couldn’t control. Maybe it wouldn’t be funny.


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Alex didn’t want to hurt The Gruff. He didn’t seem like a threat. He just wanted to get home. He wanted to see his mum and dad. He wanted to hold his mother’s hand. He wanted her to hold his. He wanted to feel her sunshine warming the bumps in his skin. He wanted to say he was sorry and he wanted to hear her say that it was ok, that it would all be ok. A door closed at the end of the hall and Alex could hear the sound of dragging through the stillness of the dungeon. The Gruff was entrenched in unconsciousness. His breath was loud and heaving, but it sounded nothing like whatever was being heaved up the hallway. Alex turned to The Gruff. He opened up his shirt, undoing the top two buttons. When he pulled it back, he saw the marks all over The Gruff’s body. It looked like someone had beaten him for years. The cuts, they ran deep into his skin and they scarred into chasmal grooves that wreathed around his body, from the ridge along his chest and down to the sunken ravine in his lower back. There were so many marks where some pronged metal instrument had been lashed and slashed against his skin, over and over. It looked like he had been taken to with a belt or with a ringed fist. Alex looked around his neck. He reached his hands around the soft felt that hanged a small silver key to his chest. This was his freedom. This was his salvation. He could hear behind him, The Man grunting as he heaved some heavy box or container along the hall towards the room. Maybe it was his possessions, the things he wanted to take with him. “I’m sorry,” said Alex as he took the key from around The Gruff’s neck and he put it around his own. The Man burst into the room. “Is it done? Did it work?” He sounded desperate like he wanted to escape but like he assumed for it never to happen. Alex turned to him. He


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had The Gruff still in his arms. He was limp, but his body was warm. He was sleeping and not dead. The Man dragged a chest into the room. “What’s that for?” asked Alex. “It’s for you,” said The Man. “What do you mean?” The Man smiled. He took a large knife from under his vest and he let it hang beside his body. It shone and glistened so much. It looked so shiny and so pretty. Alex could see his own fright looking back at him. “It’s not a large chest. I would have preferred bigger. It was the only one they had. But it will do.” Alex’s heart was racing. They weren’t escaping together. This is what it felt like. “Why do you need a chest,” he asked. The answer was obvious but asked nonetheless. “To put you in,” said The Man. “But we’re going to escape, you and I.” “I don’t want to escape. This is my home. The Gruff, he is my family.” “Then why did you tell me…” Alex broke down in tears. He held his hands to his chest. “I love The Gruff, I always have. He’s the only friend I’ve ever known. Even if I’m not that for him, he still is for me. I will be again you know. I just have to get rid of you” The Man said, sharpening the large knife on a stone. “Let me go. You can have him. You can be his friend. I have friends at home. I just want to go home. I don’t wanna be here.” The Man smiled and then sneered. “I can’t let you go, Alex. You’ll just tell your whore mother and then she’ll tell your father and then he’ll tell the police and then they’ll all come running and they’ll find me and they’ll find The Gruff and they’ll lake him away from me. I can’t have that. You can’t go home. Your home is here,


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in this chest.” The Man opened the lid. It squeaked and squawked as the metal turned and it f lipped backwards. The smell was atrocious. The stench of death. Once, a long time ago, there was a bird that died out the front of Alex’s house and nobody came to clean it up. His mother and his father, they didn’t want to touch it in case they got sick so they just left it there to rot. And then every day when his mother and father came home, they would drive over the bird and they squash more of it in to the ground each time. And whenever Alex came home, he had to walk past the bird but it wasn’t the site of the dead animal that made him feel sick, it was the smell. And the smell, it carried throughout the garage and up the steps along the side of the house towards the front door. He smelt it every morning when he walked to school and every afternoon when he returned. When they ordered pizza, he would smell it when he went to the door with his father and when he ate his pizza, the smell, it stayed in his nose. And the chest, it smelt like his driveway. “But you can go home,” said Alex pleadingly. “You can see your mum and your dad. You can see your brother again. Don’t you want to see them?” “They won’t know who I am. Look at me. I don’t know who I am. She won’t hold me, not like she used to. I’m old and I’m big and I’m strange now. She won’t know who I am.” “She’s your mother,” said Alex, “of course she’ll know you.” “I saw her,” said The Man. He stopped carving his knife. “I went to my old house. They were still living there; my mum and my dad. My brother, he was living somewhere else but my mum and dad, they never moved. They were scared to move. They thought like a dog that one day I’d find my home.”


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“How do you know?” “Because I asked her and she told me. She told me my brother was married and he had three kids of his own and he was living in another city and he was a teacher. I always wanted to be a teacher” said The Man. He looked despondent. He looked cold. “But what happened? Were they happy to see you?” “No, they weren’t. They were expecting their son to walk through the door, not a man, not a stranger. They never wanted me to come back. They wanted that boy; that abducted boy to walk through the door. Even after all those years, they kept photos of me in my fanciest clothes, even though they weren’t the ones that I used to wear. And they thought of me every day but they didn’t think about me, they thought about that boy who got abducted. And when that happened, when that man took me and brought me here, I stopped being that boy. I stopped being myself. Their son became an idea. He became an impossible ideal. He became the thought in their head that stopped them from moving on.” “That’s sad,” said Alex. “But she still loves you. All mothers do.” “She had no love in her eyes. She looked at me like a menace. She just kept gripping that picture, that picture that was no longer me. All the things that had been done to me for all those years; they didn’t matter, she didn’t care. They disgusted her, they frightened her. I frightened her.” “What did you do?” The Man took the handle of the chest in one hand. He dragged it along the room and the stench worsened. Alex held his nose. He tried not to breathe in and he tried not to imagine what was inside. “This is my mother,” he said, reaching into the chest and lifting out a severed arm. “This was the hand she used to coddle me when I was


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a child.” He put the arm back into the chest. Blood was dripping from his hands. Then he reached in and he pulled out a severed leg. “She used to sit me on her lap during storms. I used to get so frightened, but she would gather me up and she would take me in her arms and she would sit down in front of the fireplace and she would sit me on her lap. She used to rock back and forth and she’d smile with every bolt of lightning and she’d lean in a second later and whisper “I love you” with every crack of thunder. I loved that” he said, throwing the served limb back into the chest. “And this is her,” he said, taking her severed head and throwing towards Alex. Alex screamed. He jumped back and the head rolled along the f loor and it stopped with its face staring at him, its eyes hollowed out and its teeth, having all been removed. “I have another chest,” said The Man. “There’s one for my father. There’s one for my brother and his stupid wife. And there’s one where I keep all of his kids. I don’t want to go home Alex. I have my family here with me. And I can’t let you go. You’ll just break us apart.” “I promise I won’t. I won’t tell anyone” said Alex. The Man just shook his head. “I have to kill you too,” said The Man. “But why? We’re the same. I was taken like you. It’s The Gruff, he did this. Kill him.” “The Gruff saved me. My family, they weren’t perfect. They were anything but. My father, he hit my mother. He hit her every night. He didn’t touch me or my brother. He didn’t have to. When we saw her bruises, when we saw what hurt he could do, we knew there was nothing that we could do. I tried once you know. I asked why, why we didn’t run. And you know what she told me?” Alex looked blank.


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“She said that she loved him and that I wouldn’t understand, that he was a good man and that a man who is kind in all of the ways has little honesty and little truth in either one. She said that in his apology, she found his kindness, a kindness that nobody else could see. A kindness that nobody could feel. A true and honest kindness that was hers and hers alone. And that, she said, was love.” “But my family wasn’t like that. They didn’t hit me. Why me?” “The Gruff wanted you. They didn’t hit, no. But they did silence you. They put you in front of monsters. I watched and I saw every time. It was your parents’ need to be kind and polite that saw them dangle you on a hook. They pushed you in front of people you didn’t know, people who poked and touched you and made you crawl inside your own shell. I watched. I watched many times. I didn’t see your whole life, only the last months.” “But we moved only weeks ago,” said Alex. “I followed you from city to city and I watched how your mother and father shut you up. That time when you were in the doctors and you were crying. Do you remember that? Probably not. Why would you? By that time, this was just normal.” Alex gulped. He did remember. “You were crying so much, so loud. And I remember watching the doctor from outside the room. He asked you once kindly and then he asked you twice a lot more mean and you wouldn’t open your mouth. And you looked to your daddy and you were crying so much. And he was looking to you and he knew what your cry meant, he knew what your stare meant and you would learn about his. He wanted to stop that man. He wanted to take a chair and lift it high in the air and smash it over his face and beat him and beat him until his back broke and his neck split in half. He wanted to, but he


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couldn’t. He had no voice either. It was how he was raised. It was how we were all raised. We were domesticated, but in front of fear and when our senses shouted and begged us to fight, our teachers, the ones we adored, the ones who should have known better, they taught us to be quiet. They taught us to do what we were told. They taught to lower our arms and give up the fight. They taught us to give in and submit. They taught us to play along and to open our mouths. They taught to sit still while they fondled our hair. They taught us to be polite. They made us like obedient dogs. They beat and they educated the survival out of us so that we were polite so that we smiled and said thank you and said sorry and said please and so we only said what needed to be heard and not what we really felt needed to be said. They taught us to be victims. They taught us to have no voice. Your mum and dad, they taught you to be taken by me. They put you there in that school. They taught you to be molested by that teacher. And that would have happened, you would have been taken by her, had not been for The Gruff. That would have happened, had it not been for me.” Everything he said was true; the awkward feelings, the fear and the silent blame; learning not to even look in their direction anymore. Learning how to sneak inside his own skin and wait for whatever festive predator to have their way before they bored themselves and moved on. “But why do you want to hurt me?” asked Alex. Tears were pouring from his eyes. “Look at you. If you went home right now, you’d look just like your picture. You think The Gruff is any different to my mother or my father. I have changed with him, but I have changed. I’m not the same as my picture. Not anymore. I try, though. I try to eat less to stop getting bigger, but it doesn’t work. I try to shave off all the hair but it just grows back thicker and there’s always more of it. I can’t stop it.” “You don’t have to. We can be friends. All of us.”


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“We can’t and we won’t. You’re not the first. There were others before you. They couldn’t find their voices, not like me. I did away with them. I wouldn’t let them replace me. It’s not fair. I’m special. I’m the special one. Not you, not the others.” “What did you do with them?” “I ate them,” said The Man, licking his lips. “If meat can give sustenance than a child can give me youth. I ate them all. The Gruff, he thinks some of them ran away. He doesn’t know that he ate them too.” “Why didn’t you kill me before?” “That’s not why you’re here, The Gruff, he doesn’t like grown-ups. They scare him. I don’t know why. But he likes to save kids from grown-ups and then when they grow up, he takes another kid to save himself.” “I just want to go home. I promise I won’ tell anyone. You can tell The Gruff that you killed me and that you buried me outside.” “I can’t do that. And I can’t let you live either. You just poisoned The Gruff. You tried to kill my friend and then you tried to kill me. You were gonna escape to the police and have The Gruff arrested. I caught you, just before your fed him the fatal spoon. And then I fought with you and you were brave but I was braver because it was love and not vengeance that steeled my heart and strengthened my fist. And I cut you into a hundred pieces that I scattered around the house so that The Gruff could know that even children had the spark of grown-ups and couldn’t be trusted. That it wasn’t age that made a friend; it was what they were willing to do to keep you alive. And when I tell him that, that you tried to poison him, that you stole his key, he won’t be angry with me anymore. And he’ll start to love me again. And I‘ll be able to laugh again like I used to, when he grumbles and when he gruffs.” The Man walked towards him. He was wiping the long blade against his leg. At any moment, he would slice and he


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would carve that blade into Alex’s chest and he would cut him into a hundred pieces. Alex looked on the f loor, The Gruff was unconscious. There was nothing he could do. The Man edged closer, blood from his mother’s body dripping for his twitching fingers onto the long blade and down along the jagged edge to its fine tip and then drop by drop, onto the f loor. Some of the drops splashed against The Man’s toes, others into the bowl of food. Alex had nowhere to run. He had nothing to think of. He stood silent and he took off his shirt. The Man stopped. He looked caged. But Alex was unhinged. He lay the top down on the f loor and then he took off his pants and he laid them too, neatly on the f loor. “What are you doing?” said The Man. He had his hands covering his eyes. “Look at me,” said Alex. But The Man couldn’t. He was ashamed like he was that day in the shower. He held his hands over his eyes and he pretended he was somewhere else for a moment. It didn’t work, though. When he closed his eyes, he only saw himself as an old and fat man with enormous breasts that hanged onto his enormous belly which hanged over onto his bulbous knees. And as much as he could shave every hair on his body, in his mind, it all grew back and he didn’t at all look like a child. He looked like the very man that took him away. When The Man opened his eyes, Alex was gone. There was a pile of his clothes on the ground. They were lying next to a severed head but the boy was gone and he had taken The Gruff with him. “I’ll kill you” he screamed. He turned. He heard a click from outside in the hallway and he ran, but it was too late. He slipped on blood as he scrambled for the door and by the time he reached it, Alex had already disappeared. The Man ran down the hallway, his feet stamping like an angry mule. He shouted and he cursed


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as he banged his fists against the walls and when he got to room number four, he pounded against the door. He beat so hard that his hand cracked and a small bone pushed through the skin. “I’ll fucking kill you” he screamed. There was no reply. The Man leaned back against the door and he slid down onto the ground. He could hear mumbling and fumbling from inside, but he couldn’t change the fact the he was here and they were there. He couldn’t undo what had already been done. “I didn’t want to get old. It’s not my fault. I just wanted to be his friend that’s all. I didn’t want to do those things. I’m sorry mum. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I won’t do it again, I promise. Please let me in. Please. Mum? Please? I won’t do it again. I won’t. I’ll be good. I won’t kick and I won’t punch and I won’t hurt no more kids. I’m sorry. I won’t be bad anymore mum, I promise. Let me in. I wanna watch cartoons” said The Man, finding his voice, the voice he thought he had grown out of. “Mum,” he said. “I’ve done some bad things.” He sat there with his head in his hands sulking and blowing snot onto the f loor. He hadn’t cried like this, not since the first night, not since he wished and he thought that he could find his way home. This was how he sounded now. This was the sound of his voice.


Chapter Twenty-five

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Room four was dark, very dark. Alex placed The Gruff neatly on the f loor. He didn’t just dump him like a ragged doll. He placed him carefully so that his head wouldn’t rattle and his back wouldn’t hurt even if he was in his dream. Alex stretched his hands out wide. He didn’t know where the walls were and more so, where the light switch was. He leaned down to the ground and closed his eyes kind of, just so he didn’t accidentally poke them into anything as he moved slowly round the room. He had that feeling, like when he would go through his father’s wallet, that at any second something was about to happen, either a judging voice would clear its throat and ask what the hell was going on or he’d walk into something pointy that was sticking out of somewhere and he’d bruise his head. Eventually, he found himself running his hand against a wall. It didn’t feel like the others, though. This was covered in paper. Maybe wallpaper but if it was, they did a really bad job because it was all sticking up and f lopping about and there were a lot of dog ears, folded back and poking out. Alex moved his hand gently along the wall, careful not to tear any of the wallpaper. He ran his left hand along, waving it up and down and trying to imagine where a switch might be, all the while, shielding his face with his elbow and arm, certain that there was something there always about to bump into him. He could hear The Gruff still breathing heavy. He was still trapped in his slumber but his body was stirring and he wouldn’t be asleep for long. Alex moved about the room thinking that he was f loating through a galaxy, just a lone planet spinning through the vast black emptiness, looking for


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the sun to make his home. All of a sudden, it seemed like the things he was afraid of was infinitely miniscule and infinitely far from his spinning self. He could throw himself in any direction and he would still only find more empty space between him and where it was he imagined himself being. And that it just what he did. Alex stepped away from the wall. He let go of his concern. He stretched his arms out wide, as wide as they could. And then he turned. He turned so fast that all of the air in the room and some of the dust swept up by it, it turned with him, it turned around him. Alex spun in wild magnificent circles around the black empty space. As he spun, he bent his knees and he leapt into the air and when he crashed back down, he almost lost his footing. He almost tripped over his twisting feet and crashed face first into the ground. He almost did, but he didn’t. He twisted and he turned and he spun on his toes and he tipped to one side and then he tipped unto the other and he jumped and he danced and he twisted and he turned and spun around the universe and the universe, it spun around him. And when he stopped, his head was spinning. It was spinning faster than his body had. His thoughts were a whirlpool turning over themselves and sinking into his stomach. He felt sick and dizzy and so he threw his hand out to brace himself and then the sun opened her eye. She burst her radiance through the black empty space and colored his skin. Alex looked up. It was so beautiful. She was so alive. He reached upwards, up towards her gleaming eye and he held her in the palm of his hand. She was so near. She had never been this near. She had never felt her so warm against his skin. She had never shone so bright in his eye. His hand was clasped around her. He had one eye closed and the other watching his scrunching fingers. Slowly, he lifted finger by finger, peeling them back into the open space until his hand


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left her restraint and it drifted free by the side of his planetary body. Alex closed his eyes. He squinted as tight as he could. He could see her in her form. She glowed inside the darkness of his mind. And her colors they changed so wonderfully and wherever he looked, she was always right there, lighting up the furthest and most desolate corners of space. He opened his eyes again and this time he saw faces. They were everywhere. There were hundreds of them, maybe more. What he thought was wallpaper were many pictures cut from newspapers and taped on top of and next to each other, all along the wall. He turned his body. He followed every wall. And on every wall, there was not a lick of paint to be seen, only hundreds or maybe thousands of children’s faces. His heart was beating fast. He neared closer to see the pictures up close. All of the children looked somewhat the same. Their pictures were all proper like they’d been told to sit and hold that position and it looked neither comfortable nor real. It looked like his picture on the front page in room seven. Alex ran his hands along the papered wall. All of them, they all were cut from newspapers; clippings of missing children that were collaged into a private nursery dressing. Some of the papers looked newish. The whites were still very white and the blacks were still bold and very black. Some of them, though, they looked very old. The whites were more like yellow and the blacks were eroding themselves off of the page. Alex looked at the pictures of the boys. They all looked so similar. Their hair was pulled and tied back behind their ears. Neither of them was smiling. Not a real smile anyway. It looked as if some invisible wire were dug into the corners of their mouths and some invisible hands, somewhere out of shot, were pulling on those wires and forcing the boy’s mouth to pull and then pin them into a content and affective stare. Under each picture was a name. One boy, his name was


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Steven and another was called Graham. They looked like they could have been brothers. They were almost the same age when they were taken, but they’d been taken from different cities. Alex could see this by the names of each of the papers that were printed below each picture. Steven was six and Graham was seven. One was taken from outside his school, the other, from an open window that hanged over his warm bed. Graham was supposed to take the bus home. He was an only child of a single mother. His father left him when he was just young. His mother was a nurse and she worked long shifts so that they could pay their bills. She was never there to see him off in the morning and she was never there to tuck him in at night. He was last seen playing tag by the back of the bus. Steven had both a mother and a father. They worked a lot too but not so much that they couldn’t see him off every morning or chase away the ghosts that spooked him under his bed every night. But Steven’s mother and father, they worried like all good mothers and fathers. They worried about traffic accidents and report cards and whether or not they could put him through college, even though he was still just six. And like most parents, they looked to insure their worry, to pay someone to look over it and take it out their hands and out their minds so that when they saw their son, they were free to think about what color was the brightest, what star was the farthest away, which ball they could kick the longest and whether or not he wanted to be a race car driver or an astronaut. They bought health insurance and life insurance and income insurance and car insurance. They insured their house, they insured their money, they insured their debt and they even insured their two cats and their kittens. But the one thing they couldn’t insure was their six year old son and on a warm balmy night with his window wide open, he was taken from the comfort of his bed, never brought back alive. And all


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that insurance meant nothing. And there were hundreds more boys like Steven and Graham and they all had the same unfortunate story to tell and they were taken from their beds or on their way home while their mothers were working or busy on the phone. When no one was watching or even around, they were taken without warning, without even a sound. Alex ran his finger lightly along the wall from picture to picture and some of the older ones; the real older ones, their takings, they happened over fifty or sixty or seventy years ago and one of them was even longer. This had been happening for so long. All of these boys had been taken from their homes and kept here, in this room, on this wall. He wanted to rip it all apart, to dig his nails into the folded edges and tear them into a thousand billion trillion pieces, so small that nobody would ever be able to see their faces again at least nobody that would celebrate their taking. “Don’t be scared.” Alex froze. The Gruff was awake. He was standing beside him and he had his tiny arm locked around his right leg and his little hand was massaging his knee. “Do you like it?” asked The Gruff. “Who are they?” “They’re my friends, all of them.” “You knew them all? Every one?’ “They all lived here, every one of them. We had so much fun” said The Gruff, looking around at all of the faces, remembering all of the embraces and the great times they had shared but oh, how they all grew so very big and how their ages got so very old. Alex turned away from all the children’s faces and looked down at The Gruff who looked so proud of all the children he had saved. “Why?” asked Alex. He had no other idea what to say or what to ask. There


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were a thousand ideas that needed to be understood and he couldn’t catch a single one to put at the end of that question. So all he could say was that one word, why? The Gruff moved over to the wall and he rested his palm against a very old picture. It was so old that the whites had changed from yellow to brown and the picture of the boy had faded so his eyes looked like two black dots and his polite smile, merely a fold across scratched and etched ink. But for The Gruff, his face etched not on the wrinkling paper, but in the recess and horror of his mind. His was the face of the young boy that wept every night. Even when he was given as a gift to quieten the boy by his captors, still, as the child ran his little hands through The Gruff’s funny looking hair, the boy wept continuously. The Gruff started to cry himself. “He was my friend, my first friend. His name was Alexander, like you, but he didn’t cut it short. He pronounced it Alexander and I did too. I don’t know why names were always cut so short when it was so dear to be allowed to say them at all. People are stupid.” “Did you take him too?” The Gruff pulled the picture close to his heart. He squinted his eyes, scrunched his face and swallowed the lump in his throat. “No. I couldn’t save Alexander.” He saw the boy’s face in his mind. He tried to close his eyes, but it only made it worse. And like those bright sun spots in Alex’s playful mind, The Gruff was haunted by lustrous doldrums with the bright luminescent face of a young boy f loating about the void in his cerebral eye and the child bore; like Saturn’s rings, a cavernous red mark around his neck which captured the tears that licked free from his eyes. “Who was he?” asked Alex. The Gruff squeezed his hand against his face, so tight that his nails scratched against his plastic skin and the short


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stabbing pain cut the image in his mind like a broken circuit. He was looking again at Alex and he felt still like he was inside that box. “He was my going to be my friend. And we would have been best friends too. If it wasn’t for those god damn….” “How did you meet him?” “I was given to Alexander for his birthday. I was his special present. I was supposed to make him happy and I guess, make him forget about all the horrible things they had done.” “Who?” “The Lady and The Man.” “Who were they?” “The Lady was his mum. She wasn’t very nice. But I never saw her. I just heard her voice. She never came into his room, not once. She didn’t ask how he was. She didn’t kiss him goodnight. She didn’t check on him while he was pretending to sleep. She didn’t care if he was ok and she did nothing to stop those things that happened.” “And The Man?” “He came in every night. Sometimes four, five times a day. He had hollow eyes and a salivating tongue, like a hungry lion picking on a wounded calf. He always had that same look, like he knew just what was best. I’ll never forget it. But Alexander, he had no voice. He was real polite, really nice even when The Man took off his belt. He said nothing. He smiled as if he thought it was fun. But I could see, though, this was just something he learned how to do because he never smiled when he was around me, not like he did with him, not when we were alone. And I was his friend. And I didn’t want to do those kinds of things to him.” “What kind of things?” “It’s the things that grown-ups and animals do. You don’t want to know. It’s not for kids. Not for you.” “Is he ok?” “He died Alex. A long time ago. He died.”


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“How did he die?” Alex asked him the question, but he had no idea of what it meant. The Gruff took the picture of the boy and he sat down cross legged. He held the picture in his hands between his lap. He looked up and he saw Alex staring at him with his big kind cat-like eyes and he didn’t feel so frightened to look at the boy’s face anymore. “The first time I met him, everything was black. I woke up with hands and my legs tied inside of a box.” Alex rubbed with his own hands, the marks around his ankles. He still had small splinters dug into his skin from where he was scratching at the box that he himself had woken to. He still had the marks on his legs where something hard and heavy had punctured through the box and smacked against him. “I guess I assumed that I was going to see his fingers; like knives, stabbing through the paper and ripping it to pieces, desperate to get at whatever was presented under that wrapping and inside that box. They didn’t though. I was carried out of a car and everything was already black. The box I was in had been packaged and wrapped long before The Man came to take me home. I remember he was rough. I had to grip the sides and push my legs out, just so I wouldn’t bounce around. I couldn’t see what was happening and everything was shaking and bouncing and I could tell that he didn’t care if anything happened to me. I remember being brought into the house and he must have sat me down on the sofa or something cause I could hear him talking to Alex’s mum. It was his birthday. She didn’t know, though. She couldn’t remember. She kept arguing with The Man that it wasn’t, that his birthday was in September. He kept calling her a stupid whore. He said that it was her birthday that was in September and Alexander’s was in April. That’s when I first guessed that something was wrong, that this wasn’t gonna be a happy birthday, not like I imagined anyway. The Man, he said real


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nice things about Alexander, he called him his boy, even though there was no relation. The Lady, though, she was mean. She talked about him like he was a disease or a cyst or something. Like he was something they cut out of her and that she had kept, growing in a jar. She called him a thing, can you believe that?” asked The Gruff, looking at Alex with disbelieving eyes. Alex returned the same wretched stare. He couldn’t believe that anyone would have that kind of life. It was hard to imagine that a mother could ever be so foreign to her heart, to the things that loved and needed her so much. It sounded like The Gruff was just making it all up. Alex thought of his own mother. She could be a pain sometimes and though her patience was more often tried and worn thin, she was taken to giving him a forgiving hug, a look of assurance or a kiss goodnight. For regardless of what devil he had been that day, at night he was always her angel. And it was hard, almost impossible, to imagine a mother being anything but what a mother was supposed to be. “The Man, he picked me up and he took me downstairs to where they kept Alexander. He gave me to Alexander as a present. I honestly thought he was gonna tear through that paper. I thought I’d see these scavenging fingers ripping it to shreds, but he didn’t. The Man, he said happy birthday and he put me down on the f loor beside Alexander’s bed. But he didn’t take me out right away. I stayed there in the dark and I heard so many horrible things. That was when I realized how sorry I felt for this boy. A toy is supposed to bring joy to a child. All that I brought was insult. I was his reward for keeping his mouth shut, for having no voice, for being polite, for being a good little boy, for doing what was expected of him.” The Gruff wiped away a tear that was running down his face. Alex had seen him mad and bored and frustrated and all types of moody but he hadn’t really seen him sad, not like this. Alex sat down cross legged in front of him and he stared


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with The Gruff at the picture of the boy. “You know what I remember the most?” Alex’s stare was spent upon the picture of the boy. He offered no response. “I remember the sound that his belt made when he took it off; the clanking sound of the buckle. And then the sound of leather stretching as he wrapped the belt around his clenched fist. And then the thumping. It was horrible, just, thump, thump, thump. You know, the sound of someone being punched in real life, it’s so different to the movies. It’s hard to explain. It sounds f lat. And then after every thump, Alexander made these sounds that I guess was like air escaping or something. But he didn’t cry, not once. I think it was a day or two later. I can’t be sure. Down here it’s hard to tell. There’s no day and there’s no night. But it was a while anyway. And Alexander he never really slept. I could tell even though I couldn’t see outside of my box. I could tell by the way he breathed. It would change a lot. One minute it would be heavy and then a second later it would be real calm and light. Just as if he were thinking about something the whole time. But a couple of days later, Alexander picked me up and he put me down beside him on the bed. He was real slow at picking off the tape. He peeled it real slow and I saw later that he took each piece and he carefully rolled it back into a ball and kept it on the f loor where his hand hanged over the bed when he slept. Then he took off the wrapping and that’s when I saw him. He didn’t look anything like his picture. Not like he does here. His eyes were like a swimming pool. It was hard to look into them and see straight through. They were different to your eyes” he said, looking up at Alex. “He doesn’t look very happy there either,” said Alex. “I know. No one ever does” said The Gruff looking around at the hundreds of photos around the room. “What happened to the boy?” “I’m getting to that. Don’t… don’t rush me.”


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The Gruff ran his thumbs along the picture. He caressed the boy’s unsmiling face. “He never took me out of the box. He looked at me and he smiled. It was a weird kind of smile like he was uncomfortable and the muscles in his mouth ref lexed or something. It wasn’t a happy smile, but it wasn’t a sad one either. It just looked like he had decided something. That night, The Man came back. He put my box on the ground by the door. I could see everything. He asked Alexander why he hadn’t opened the box, but he didn’t say anything. That made The Man angry. He punched him in the face. All the other times he’d been punching him in his belly and on his legs and on his back but this time, he punched Alexander in the eye and it swelled up real fast. Still, he didn’t shout, he didn’t scream, he didn’t make a sound. Then The Man took off his belt. I tried, I really tried. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t get out of that box, not in time to help him. I had to sit there and watch. I tried lifting my arms, but I couldn’t. They were tied at the wrists and my legs, they were tied at the ankles. And the box I was in, it rolled back and forth but it wouldn’t roll over and from it, I couldn’t break out. When he was done, The Man pulled up his pants and he walked out and locked the door. Alexander was bleeding. He sat up on the edge of his bed and he looked at me. He whispered, “I wish I was you” and then he started laughing. But it wasn’t joyful. It was pained. It was tortured. He had blood running down the insides of his legs. And his toes were all red. They squished when he patted them against the ground. His face was black and bruised. I couldn’t see his eyes at all. And his mouth, it was split open and there were holes where his teeth should have been. I guess I must have had an honest face or something because he stopped laughing and for a second there was nothing. Nothing except for the squishing sound of his toes slapping against the wet f loor wet from the trickles of blood that streamed from down his legs and cascaded from cuts on his body, his hands and his


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face. But then, he gave me that smile again, that smile that was neither happy nor sad. It was a decided smile. One that says, ‘I give up’. And then he started to cry. I tried to break free. I tried to shout. I couldn’t. I was just a doll. I had no voice. Not then. But I watched him and I said nothing as he took The Man’s belt and he made a loop with it, big enough to poke his head through. And he was so calm, like all those times when he pretended to be asleep. I guess all those other times when all those bad things were happening, he was actually thinking about this moment and what he would do and how he would do it. He tied off the other end to a pipe that ran across the ceiling.” The Gruff looked up and Alex followed his stare. And above them, that very pipe ran over their heads just below the line of the ceiling. “He didn’t die straight away. He hanged there for a long time. I remember that he didn’t fight, not once. His last breath wasn’t anything special either. It didn’t look like he held any vigil or final thoughts. He didn’t take any deep breath either. He just slipped his head through the loop in the belt and he stepped off the bed. He was so quiet that I thought he died straight away. He didn’t though. I saw him blink a couple of times and he was staring right at me like he was trying to put himself inside my body. But there was nothing I could do. I just stayed there, stupid, while he hanged there and died.” The Gruff sniffed and Alex rubbed away the tears from his eyes. “It wasn’t your fault,” said Alex. “I couldn’t save him,” said The Gruff. “But I promised that I would.” “Would what?” “That I would save another boy. Another boy just like him. If I could save just one, then it wouldn’t be so bad” he said. “Me?”


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“There were others before you,” The Gruff said, looking at the hundreds of children’s polite faces. “It started with one. The Man and The Lady, they took another boy. They brought him down here. And they did bad things to him just like they did to Alex. But this time I stopped them. When they came down, I snuck up through the trap door and into the kitchen. I came back down. The Man he was doing horrible things and The Lady, she was standing there laughing and taking pictures. I cut the back of her feet and she fell down. She didn’t get back up. The Man didn’t notice, not at first. He didn’t know anything was happening until I had his belt around his throat. I put one foot on his back and I dug the other into the bed and I pulled so tight. He didn’t die right away, though. He just passed out. I pulled him off the boy and I dragged him into the hallway. I got The Lady too and I dragged her out and I lay next to him. She was screaming. She didn’t think it was real. I was a doll and everything. But the pain, it was real. I stabbed The Man first. I cut the tendons in his shoulders just in case he woke and so he couldn’t use his arms. Then I cut off his thing. I broke his teeth and I put his thing in his mouth. Then I stabbed him some more times. A lot more. Everything was dark red - the walls, the f loor, the roof and my hands; everything. I think The Lady was saying sorry or something, but I didn’t know. I couldn’t hear much. I just had the sound of Alexander crying in my ears. It was so loud. I stabbed her as well. I stabbed her until she stopped moving and then I stabbed her some more. I don’t know, maybe it was five minutes or so, the whole thing. It felt so long, though. It’s funny how things can happen so fast and at the time, five minutes can feel like half a day. But five minutes was all it took. It was all it took for me to save that boy. It was all it took to drag those fucking monsters outside and put them down. And it was all it took for the boy to hang himself, just like Alexander. When I went back into the room he was just hanging there. He must have struggled


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a bit cause his neck was marked all over, but he wasn’t breathing. And I didn’t even know his name. That’s him” The Gruff said, pointing to one of the children papering the wall. “I couldn’t save him either. And I could hear Alexander crying in my ears and I could see him smiling in my thoughts and he wouldn’t be free until I could free myself. And I couldn’t do that until I saved another child.” “All of them? And you couldn’t save any?” “Not one,” said The Gruff exhaling in defeat. “You were the only one.” “What do you mean?” “You’re the only one who tried to escape, even though there was no escape. You’re the only one who didn’t give up, who never stopped thinking or dreaming about a way out and way home. You’re the only one who left the belt alone. You didn’t try to fool around with a noose. You put no loops, no nothing. You just left it alone. You’re the only one to last this long. And you’re the only one who knows the truth. You’re the only one who has heard this story. You’re the only one who has seen me cry. And you’re the only one who can help set me free” he said. “What happened to all the other boys?” “All of them died. One of them grew up.” “What do I have to do?” “You know what you have to do Alex. I can’t do it for you. Not anymore. You have to do it yourself. You have to find your voice yourself. You have to say no. You have quarry deep within yourself and find that strength. You gotta dig it out with your finger nails and clump it together with your hands. You gotta mash it into your eyes and rub it all over your skin. And you gotta gnash it between your teeth and spit it on your hands. You gotta fill your soul with it. You fill it until it touches the very ends of your fingers and stretches out your littlest toes. And when you feel that fire burning inside of you, the one that says ‘No, ‘I will not be a victim, not


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anymore’, when you feel that sun inside of you, you scream. You scream out as loud as you can and you fight. You fight for your freedom. You fight for your life. This is what the universe bestowed upon you. It’s what your mother and father educated out of you. They trained you like a dog. They disciplined you to bark on command to say thank you and please and to sit and parade around when it was appropriate and to be gone when it was not. Day by day, second by fucking second, they cemented a mount of shame and ridicule on top of your will. When your mother pushed you in front of strangers, how did you feel?” “I don’t know,” said Alex. “Of course you know. How did you feel?” “I don’t know,” he said again. “Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear? How did you feel Alex? How did you feel?” “I don’t know” he shouted. “Did it feel good, when they touched you when they dragged you into their net? Did you feel thankful?” “No.” “Did you want more?” “No.” “Well, how did you feel? “I don’t know.” “Alex” The Gruff shouted. “Bad,” said Alex. “Bad? How did you feel Alex? How did you fucking feel?” “Bad. I felt bad ok,” he said. “You didn’t feel bad. Tell me the god damn truth Alex. When your mother abandoned your call for help. When she let absolute strangers kneel down and put their hands all over your face and your body and through your hair, tell me, how did you feel? And don’t tell me you felt bad. You did not feel bad. And you didn’t feel fucking shy. How did you feel?”


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“I felt scared,” he said, tears f lowing from his eyes. And he felt that fear now. He felt a chaos swarming in his belly. He wished he had something to cling to, something that could have him less exposed. “That’s ok Alex. You can cry now. Get rid of it. Get rid of the fear.” “I felt scared. I’m scared. I’m always scared.” “That’s right you were scared. You were like a baby seal, being paraded in front of a fucking polar bear. You tried to hide between her legs. You clung to her legs. You wanted to say, ‘mummy, I’m fucking frightened. Mummy, I’m fucking scared’. But you couldn’t. You looked at her, but she gave you that shit eating grin. She smiled back at you in a way that said ‘shut up, it’ll be over soon’. And she didn’t mean it in a bad way cause she was brought up like that too. She was just being polite. She was just being educated. How did you feel when these strangers touched you?” “Scared,” said Alex. “How did you feel? Shout it out!” “Scared,” he said. “How the fuck did you feel Alex?” “I was scared” he shouted. His voice was shaking. He felt a torrent of energy coming from somewhere in his belly. It felt like he standing on a shaky platform and at any second his feet would come up from under him and he would melt away into the energy that spewed from his repression. “When that doctor opened your mouth. When he forced your mouth open with a stick. When he wedged that stick between your teeth and pried your mouth open like locked drawer, how did that make you feel? When he stood over you and he had that stick in his hand. When he stood over you and he had that look in his eye. How did that make you feel Alex?” “Scared,” said Alex.


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“What? I didn’t hear you.” “Scared. I felt scared.” “Louder. I can’t hear you. He can’t hear you. You cannot hear yourself. Scream!” “I was scared” he screamed, his veins bulging. ‘I was scared, I was scared, I was scared.” “Were you rude?’ “I was scared!” “Were you polite?” “I was scared!” “Were you safe?” “I was scared!” “Were you shy?” “No. I was scared.” “Were you shy?” “No. I was scared.” “Were you fucking shy?” “I! Was! Fucking! Scared!” he screamed. His hands were like two great crushing devices. They curled and cradled the fire that raged within him and met at a point between his two shaking palms. And that energy that was spewing from his repression, it erupted through his entire being and his voice, it cast it out into the room and it lit up magnificently. His arms, his legs, his body, his every vein and every muscle, they all twitched and burned and the energy coursed through every fiber of his being. “What is your name” screamed The Gruff. “My name is Alex.” “Alex, are you scared!” “No!” “I can’t hear you. Are you scared!” “No!” “I don’t believe you. What are you scared of, what do you fear?” “Nothing and nothing,” Alex screamed.


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His voice changed. The look in his eyes changed. The shape of his body changed. He changed. “Who are you and what do you fear?” “My name is Alex and there’s nothing I fear. My name is Alex, there’s nothing I fear. My name is fucking Alex and there is nothing that I fear” he screamed. The Gruff smiled. His work was done. “That man out there, he hurt those children. He hurt them all. He wants to hurt you. Are you gonna let him hurt you?” “No.” “I can’t hear you. Are you gonna let him hurt you?” “No!” “Then what the hell are you gonna do?” Alex was breathing fire from his eyes. He looked hardly human. He looked anything but domestic and servile. He looked like the animal that he needed to be, the one that could set them both free. “I’m gonna kill him” shouted Alex. “What? I can’t hear you.” “I’m gonna kill him. I’m gonna kill him. I’m gonna kill him” he screamed. “I’m gonna save you,” he said, sounding calm, as if a storm had receded, but it had not vanished, not entirely. It had merely settled itself better into his muscles and into his skin. He didn’t sound threatening. He sounded convinced. Alex looked back at The Gruff. He looked infantile. He looked weak and at threat. Alex unlocked the door and the shut it behind him. He didn’t want The Gruff to have to see the things that he was about to do.


Chapter Twenty-six

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Alex walked down the hallway towards room seven. The Man was gone, but his mess was still there. There were two arms and two legs, a mangled torso and a severed head clumped together on the f loor. They almost looked like a person, except for the spaces that couldn’t join them together. Alex looked inside the chest that The Man had dragged in. It was full of human remains. Most of it, in fact nearly all of it belonged to children. Small arms and small legs and tiny little torsos, but their heads were somewhere else; they weren’t with the rest of their bodies. Alex took the large serrated knife that lying in a pool of blood on the f loor. He held it up to his face then pressed his finger on the edge of the blade. The blood that pooled quickly smudged and ran down his finger and onto his hand. Alex watched the trickle of blood run along the side of his hand, down past the line of his thumb onto his wrist and then down the inside of his arm to the bend in his elbow. It felt cool and ticklish. He slipped along the room and into the hallway. His feet were slithered with dark red blood. He looked at the far wall and he smiled. He had never really done something like this before, but it was something he had always wanted to do. He put his arms out wide and he lowered his left knee and he heavied his back foot and then he ran. He ran so fast and the hallway was long that he could do just that. He shouted with glee as he threw his left leg straight and his body slid along the f loor and as it did, he closed his eyes and imagined himself sliding through the open galaxy, closer to his sun than he had ever been before. He could feel her warming his skin. He could feel her lighting his path. And he could hear her heavenly voice telling him to do what must be done.


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Alex turned at room one. The door was closed, but he could hear whimpering coming from inside. He held the knife up to his sight. He could see his own ref lection. If he were to be scared of anything right now, it would be the look he had just given himself. He turned the handle and the door creaked as it opened wide. The lights were off and it was dark, but it wasn’t so dark that Alex couldn’t see The Man cowering in the corner of the room. Alex locked the door. It turned quietly and clicked into place.


Chapter Twenty-seven

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“You have that look. This is it, isn’t it? You’re going to kill me.” The Man was curled up into a ball and shrunken into a tight corner. His voice didn’t sound nearly as deep or as mean as it had before. He sounded like a young child, trying to reason their way out of a spanking. Alex sat on the edge of the bed. He pushed himself up and down and the bed sprang back so he nearly bounced right off. It must have been comfortable sleeping here night after night and not having to curl up on the cold f loor. There was carpet too. It felt soft and warm under his toes. He squished them around the curling fibers and he smiled as they tickled the tender parts of his sole. He leaned down and ran his hands through the fibers. He lightly brushed the palm of his hand over the carpet as if it were the skin of a hot bath and a shiver ran up his arm and tickled the hairs on his neck. “Is it difficult to clean?” he asked. He looked over at The Man. He had an ‘answer me now’ kind of stare. “You shouldn’t bring food into the room. It’s hard to get the crumbs out.” “Why did you do those things?” “I had to. I had no choice. You don’t understand. But you will.” “How many?” Alex was standing now. He was standing over The Man and he seemed so tall. His shadow cast onto the wall and it crept so large that it blackened half of the room. He had a large serrated knife in his right hand. It had been wiped clean and it glimmered under the half-light mirroring The Man’s


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panicked stare. The Man turned to the picture in his hands. It was still well kept, no folds and no tears and no dog eared edges. He looked at the boy he had once been. He wondered why he had to change, why anything had to change. Couldn’t it just be as it was until it couldn’t be anymore? The Man remembered a dog he had when he was just a boy. It had slept on the edge of his bed before he was even conceived and when he was brought home, when he was put into that tiny cot, when he was left alone to his own cries, it was that small dog that sat beneath him and whimpered at his every waking struggle. It was that dog whose cries called his mother and father to his defense. It was that dog who never tired of his game, even when that game had gone too far, never once biting back at the infant and child that was learning to sharpen its claws. One day he was happy and wagging his tail, wanting to go for a walk. And then one day he wasn’t. And then the next day he died. Dogs never changed their way. They were dogs up until the day they could be dogs no more. He didn’t feel old. He felt tired and his body hurt more. When he fell, it took longer to heal and to get better. But he still did the same things he always did. He still liked the same things he always did. He still thought that way he always did. Maybe he didn’t show it as much. Maybe that was the problem. But he didn’t feel like he’d changed. “Look at me” shouted Alex. He growled when he spoke. He wasn’t the same boy, not anymore. The Man could hear how he had changed. He wondered if Alex could feel it himself, if he knew what he was becoming. And if he did know if he could feel it if he knew what it meant, would he still do what he had to do? The Man looked at Alex for a second and then he turned away. He saw himself in the boy’s ref lection. Not as he was now; cowering on the f loor and silently protesting the end of


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his life. He saw himself as he had been. He saw himself a he had never himself seen. That fire was so familiar, that which ran under Alex’s skin. He had felt it before, blood like gasoline, running through his veins that once ignited, made him feel like he could accomplish anything, that he could reduce an empire unto ashes with just a single breath. He’d felt that very same fire once before, but he’d never seen what it looked like outside of his own skin, not until now. The Man tried to think of somewhere special, somewhere better than this. He had spent his whole life in this dungeon, from a young boy taken from his family and haunted and preyed upon by an older man who set upon him with cruel whippings and jesting laughter, who made him do things, dirty things, memories that he couldn’t erase from his mind, things that made him convulse and gag even now, long after he found his voice. It was horrible when he first arrived. He had found himself inside a small box, desperate for air and unable to move his legs or his arms, both of them tied behind him to the f loor of his prison. There were holes on all sides of the box and when he was sleeping, the man who haunted him would pour hot water into the holes and it would scald him and he would hear the sound of his own skin sizzling over the manic laughter of his captor dancing wildly around the room. That man, he had done things, he had done things that should never have been done. And in the end, he paid for everything that he did. The torture done unto him was no less kind than what he had ever done unto another human being. The Man looked at his picture. The worst he had ever felt was just a little discomfort, an annoyance or a little shame. Maybe he had been scared, maybe. He didn’t like to be ushered here or there, no child ever did. But this, this experiment, this was no medicine. This was no better.


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The Man wished he could be that boy again. He stared into the child’s eyes and he closed his own and he thought, “When I open them, I’ll be clean again.” “I wish I were you,” he said. But when he opened his eyes, he saw only the carpet beneath his feet, with the picture taken from his hands like he had been, from those of his mother and his father. And he felt as they must have, having his reason snatched from his hands. Alex wore a cruel murky grin. “How many?” he asked. The Man looked at him. He wore sorrow as the color of skin. “A lot,” he said. “How many?” shouted Alex. The Man wiped a tear from his eye. He hadn’t cried, not in so long. Not since before it was he speaking with a gravel tongue. He thought about them all, all of the children, the ones that had come before him and the ones that he had seen bloodied and dismembered. “I didn’t kill any of them. I didn’t touch any of them. He wanted me to. He wanted me to, though. He is so cruel” said The Man, fumbling over his words as he cried. “You killed them all, hundreds of them, small defenseless children. You killed them all” shouted Alex. His fingers were strangling the handle of the blade. He could hardly hold his hands still. They looked as if some invisible anchor were keeping them from slashing and stabbing. “I didn’t hurt anyone, I promise. It was The Gruff. He did everything. He made me bring you here. He made me put you in that box. He wanted me to scare you. He wanted me to hurt you. He wanted me to…” The Man choked on his words. He buried his head in his hands. “What? What did he want you to do?” “He wanted me to touch you” shouted The Man.


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He buried his head in his hands again. He wept loud and he sobbed as the tears streamed down his face. He could taste, in every salted tear that touched his lips, every lashing he had ever received from his captor. He could feel his captor’s every sweaty finger creeping up his back as he pretended to sleep, seeing The Gruff, watching it all from the other side of the room. “I couldn’t do it,” said The Man. The Man was shaking. He was defeated. “I can’t take this anymore. I can’t be his eyes when all he wants to see is suffering. I can’t be his hands, not when all he wants is to take what is not his. I can’t be his hate, not when it leaves me hating myself and I can’t be his love, not when it has me so scared of growing old. He asked me, when I was like you, a long time ago, he asked me if I’d ever leave. I told him I never would, that we’d never be apart.” The Man closed his eyes. He could see, so plainly in his mind, himself, standing where Alex was now. He had his hands clenched around the very same knife. Like Alexander, he had a trickle of blood running down the inside of his leg only the blood was not his. On the ground before him lay, in a crumpled mess, the man who had tormented him for weeks. His clothes were torn. His face was torn. His thing had been removed and the carpet around his tattered body was painted red. “Every day we grew further apart. You couldn’t see it. You could feel it. The closer we were, the further we kept ourselves. I tried to be his friend, like the friend that he wanted, but he stopped caring. He didn’t want to play cards anymore. He didn’t want to play chasey. He didn’t want to do anything. He just kept telling me how I changed and every day, how I was changing more. Until he said that I was old and at first I didn’t believe him but then he made me go up, up to the house and look in the mirror.”


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The Man looked at the picture in Alex’s left hand. He couldn’t see the boy, but he knew every shade and every angle of his face off by heart. It was all he had to look at for forty years. Just as a body and soul might find re-juvenescence in its ref lection on the face of a placid lake, he found his, staring at this picture each and every day. It didn’t matter that it was in Alex’s hands. When he closed his eyes, he could see the young boy clear in his mind. He imagined the boy stepping inside his body and filling his empty soul. He tried to imagine what it would feel like having innocence instead of gasoline in his blood. “You’re not a good person. You took me. You brought me here. You took me from my mum and dad. You tried to hurt me.” “But I didn’t hurt you. You see?” “You did this to me. You were out” he said in disbelief. “Why didn’t you go to the police? Why didn’t you run away? You didn’t have to take me. You didn’t have to take those other kids too.” “It was The Gruff. He’s sick. He wants to relive his fear over and over. I don’t know how long this will go on but if you kill me now, if you do this, it’ll continue, with you.” “He won’t hurt me.” “He won’t let you go. If you kill me, he wins. This is all he wants. Both of us are the victims here. I gave you every chance to get away, but you came back.” “There was no way out. The stairs were blocked.” “What do you mean? No, they’re not.” “There was a wall. I couldn’t get out. The Gruff said that you have a key. That you have the way out.” “He lied. There’s a door here, but it doesn’t go outside. Do you want to see? Do you want to see what I keep?” There was still a fire burning in Alex’s eyes, but it was more of a blaze than an inferno. He looked at the door and curiosity dampened the brunt of his ignorant rage.


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“Open the door” he ordered. “Don’t hurt me, please.” “I won’t, just open the door god damnit.” “The key,” he said, extending his hand. Alex looked lost. “What key?” “The one around your neck. It’s the only key. It opens every door. I need it” The Man said. Alex touched his chest and tightened his hand around the key with his other choking the handle of the knife. He could feel a sickness swelling in his stomach. He could feel adrenaline shaking at his toes. It started to course up his legs and like rising magma, it rumbled and shook his stomach as it rose up towards his gaping mouth. “The key,” said The Man. He looked kind, no different to any other boy. Alex took a breath. He felt disorientated. He didn’t know what was up and down anymore. He didn’t know what was right and wrong and whose story to believe. He took the key from around his neck and he gave it to The Man. “You’ll see what I mean, what The Gruff really does to little boys,” The Man said. He turned the key on the small door. It looked like it could have been an en suite or an entry to a small closet. The Man turned the handle and opened the door. He turned on the light and then stood back, letting Alex walk in. “I don’t understand,” said Alex. He dropped the knife. He turned back to The Man and he no longer had gravel in the back his throat. When he spoke, it didn’t sound like he was shoveling through the silt of his repression. He didn’t sound fevered or angered. He didn’t sound like any kind of threat at all. Alex remembered in that instant, the moment his mother and father had told him that Santa Claus wasn’t real. It was one of the worst things he had ever felt in his life. Until today,


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nothing had ever compared to that. No other child, no other mean and villainous child had ever said or done anything to ever make him feel as low and as embarrassed as his parents had done that day. He remembered how everyone laughed at him; his brother and his sisters. They were hiding around the corner and they were listening as his mother kneeled down and said, “It’s not real. It was just a harmless lie.” And they laughed themselves and over time, even Alex, he learned to laugh. He learned to laugh at all of the nonsense that was made of him. How dare they make him feel so low. How dare they; they, who should love and protect him, be the first to make a fool of his hope, his joy and his trust. How dare they. “Is it not what you expected?” asked The Man. “What are they?” The Man entered the room. It wasn’t very big. He could put his arms out and his elbow would still bend. If he closed the doors, he could reach an appendage to all four walls and he could keep himself up off of the ground. He could if the walls weren’t covered in human faces. “They’re the other men,” he said. He took one off the wall. The faces had been cut off the heads of grown men. They hadn’t been cut with any order. Some looked like they had been hacked while others had been pulled and torn away. And you could see the extent of how some children had taken to their captors. All of them, every mask, had been sewn back into a complete face. They all looked horrid, except for the one in The Man’s shaky hands. “This is him,” he said. “The man?” asked Alex. The Man wept as he held the face of his captor in his hands. “He didn’t just take me. He took from me. He took everything from me. He took me and he made this,” he said, weeping as he lifted his shirt and showed once more, the


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ravaging scars across his chest and across his back. Alex too wept. “That boy,” he said, pointing to the photograph. Alex opened his left palm. He stared at the young boy. “He took him. When he died, he took him. I stopped being that boy long before I grew up. He took him to the grave and I’ll never be that boy again” he said crying. “The Gruff, he made me this way. That man, he could have had his way and I could have died that boy. He could have tortured me until fear and hurt eventually turned off my mind. He could have tortured me for an eternity and I still would have always been that boy. Instead, I listened to The Gruff. He told me that story and I believed him, every word of it. I did just what you’re doing now. I even carried the same knife.” The Man unfolded the leathered face in his hands. It was the only face of all the others on the wall that wasn’t torn. It hadn’t been ripped and it hadn’t been sliced or slashed or hacked. It had been cut with careful consideration. “He made me cut it off. He said I had to unmask my fear, to truly find my voice.” “Who are the others?” “This has been happening forever. I don’t know when it first started, but it’s never gonna stop. When you kill me, you will unmask me and you will keep me on your wall. You’ll spend a lifetime looking at your picture and knowing you will never be that boy again and every night, when you are alone, you’ll come in here and you’ll take my face off of the wall and you’ll press it against your skin” he said, lifting his hands up to his face until the leathered skin was masking his own. “Do you see me?” he asked. Alex stepped back. He almost tripped over his own shadow. “You don’t want this for yourself. This is no accolade. This is my hell.” Alex looked at the photograph in his hand. The boy


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looked like he had been sat there, but he didn’t look like it had hurt to do so. He looked like he was fighting under that grin to grimace or to pull a face. He looked like he was fighting to poke out his tongue or to twist his eyeballs. He looked like under that forced smile, he was fighting to be a little boy. Alex looked at The Man. Under that mask, he saw The Man’s hollow eyes and they neither stole nor paid no attention and they cared not for any to is called upon them. Under that dead man’s skin, there was no boy, there was just another dead man, waiting to be unmasked. Under that mask, there was nobody fighting to be a little boy, there was nobody fighting at all. Under that mask, The Man was as dead as the skin he guised upon his face. “Yes. He lied to all of us Alex. He lied to all of us.” “I wanna go home,” said Alex. The Man took the skin mask off of his face. He dropped it down on the f loor so that its tightness rolled it in a neat ball that sat near his naked feet. “Then let’s get you home,” said The Man, putting his arm around Alex’s shoulder. “What about The Gruff?” “He won’t hurt you. Trust me.”


Chapter Twenty-eight

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The Man left the room first. He stepped into the corridor and held his back against the wall. He was looking for The Gruff, but he couldn’t see him. The corridor was dark; the lights had all been unscrewed. All except for one, the dim f licker coming from room four. The Man had his picture folded in the palm of his hand. He’d had this picture all of his life. He’d stared at it every day and he’d memorized it every night. He always imagined no matter how tall he got or how tight his clothes got around his belly, that he was still that little boy, that nothing had changed. But enough was enough. He couldn’t live in this mask anymore. He couldn’t stretch inside this skin. He held the picture up to the dim light. It was hard to make out the boy’s face into the dark, but his could follow the line of his face from his jaw up to his neatly parted hair. He smiled as he scrunched the paper into a ball and let it slip from his opening hands. It made little noise as it shuff led along the f loor. The Man took a breath. It was a long breath, but it couldn’t clear his thoughts. Nothing ever would. He thought of escape, of ending this all. He touched his waist for where his belt would have been. He wondered if it would hurt if he were to hang himself. He closed his eyes and he wished they would never open again. “So it’s done?” said The Gruff. “You were right again.” The Man felt sick. He had tired of this game. He walked into room four, into the dim light. He looked around, but he couldn’t see The Gruff anywhere. “I told you. This is cruel. You’re not saving them. You’re not saving anyone. Don’t you see? Look at me. I became the


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the very hand that rested upon me. You made me this way. I’m not saved, none of us are.” The Gruff was seated somewhere in the dark. “Where is he?” “He’s gone, like the others.” “God damnit” screamed The Gruff. “I’m not gonna do this anymore. I’m leaving” said The Man. “You can’t leave. You need me. What are you gonna do out there? They’ll catch you for what you did you know. Your mother, that whore. You can’t leave. Your home is here, with me.” “You don’t mean that. I stopped being special for you the moment I killed that man, the moment you so called saved me. I shouldn’t have been brought here. I shouldn’t have had all of those things done to me. And I shouldn’t have had to have become this” he shouted. “You were perfect,” said the Gruff glowingly. “Then what am I now” screamed The Man. “You grew up” shouted The Gruff. “What does that even mean?” “You’re no fun.” “I never touched him,” said The Man. The Gruff grumbled. He stepped out of the darkness wobbling from side to side. He was carrying something behind him that ground along the f loor. “I never touched any of them,” said The Man. “Never? Ha! Your hands marked the neck of each and every one of them.” “I set them free, but I didn’t hurt a single one. What you would have had done, no child could be saved from such horror. No child whose mind can still feel the salivation spilling onto the back of their neck, who can steal hear the heavy breath that stinks and warms the cusp of their ear, who can still taste their own dried blood like ground aluminum in the


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back of their throat and who can still see his face after all these years, every time that they close their eyes. No child who has to live forever with their torment itching under their skin is free or thankful or alive. All I ever wanted was for one of these children to kill me, to make this hurt stop. It’s all I ever wanted. But I couldn’t do what you wanted. I couldn’t touch them. I couldn’t look at them. I couldn’t hurt them. And in the end, they could do no harm. And why should they? They’re god damn children.” “They’re victims, the poor little things. They weren’t born this way. They were nurtured into being victims, nurtured by the people who claimed to love them. A human is as a human does and a human being is in every way a human having been done. These children learn from the people they look to most for protection that their mother and father will not attend to their cries and will, in fact, put them to the whimsy of the predator. The child learns that they cannot cry out so they learn through politeness to be quiet and to submit. Politeness is the discipline of molestation. Politeness in its most detail is keeping one’s mouth shut when one most needs to have it open. It is domestication, like the dog, being fearful to bite back and then accepting every angered boot in the bum and slap across the face as hopefully being the last in adoration and desperate need for a tickle behind the ear. They were made this way. They watched their mothers ignore their cries enough times so they learned to ignore their own. They were primed to be taken.” “And we fucking took them” shouted The Man. “For their own good. If we didn’t take them, someone else would. And they wouldn’t have our considerate trial. They wouldn’t learn to find their voice.” “None of them have,” shouted The Man. “You did,” said The Gruff. The Man wiped away tears from his eyes. They were the downfall of his frustration. They did not rain from his


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sadness. He had left that, scrunched in a ball outside of the room. “This world can be unkind. Some bad people do some very bad things but most of the time, they’re taken themselves; by a bad thought or a bad urge. The animal stretches inside of their skin. It’s fucked up, but what we do is worse. We hurt them not to gratify ourselves, not for some sick animal instinct. We hurt them to make them better. We hurt them so that we can save them. We’re so much worse. You’ve made me so much worse.” “Listen to you,” said The Gruff. “Listen to your humanity. You think you’re worse? You killed how many children? Fifty? Sixty? Even in the midst of depravity, you found compassion. You were never worse. I made you better. You saved all of these children. Just think, their lives would have never taken hold if they hadn’t have come to us. They would have been victims in so many parlors of abuse, long before disease or old age had made their beds. Sexual abuse, intellectual abuse, domestic abuse, financial abuse and emotional abuse. They would have found lovers who stepped on their spirits. They would have subscribed to remorse and regret. They would never say what the felt because the truth was not polite; it was not what anyone wanted to hear. And they’d get sick; sick in the body and sick in the mind and they’d turn to anything that would just shut up that insolent voice screaming inside of them, that voice unto which they gave no tongue. They would have spent a lifetime living on the contrary. Why is it so easy to take children? It shouldn’t be so. It shouldn’t be.” “Then stop.” The Gruff grumbled. “Just stop. It’s not your place to sharpen their claws. If politeness is to have them pinioned, then let them have a world where birds cannot f ly. It is only strange then to be that one bird, f lapping it wings and blocking out the sun. Just


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stop. No more.” “Was it different?” asked The Gruff, “killing that man?” “To what?” “All of those children. You didn’t just kill them, did you? And your mother and your father? Was that any different?’ “Shut up,” screamed The Man. “You could have just let them go, all of them, even Alex. You could have just let them go. But you didn’t, why?” “I was scared! Scared to go home. I was scared to leave. No-one would know who I was. They’d find out what I did. They’d call the police. They’d come and they’d take you away from me. I didn’t want to be alone. Not after all this. Not after everything we’ve done. I hate you, I do. But only cause I can never be away from you. You promised we’d always be together. I wanted to free you from the nightmare you endured. I wanted to save you.” “Is that what you tell all those children before you save them before you cut their throats?” “Don’t try to turn this on me. You made all of us. You turned us into murderers. And you watched us as we grew, you pretended to care. You pretended to be our friends, but you were just waiting, waiting until you could do it all over again. I spent every day waiting for my turn to come. You stopped playing. You stopped joking.” “You stopped laughing” shouted The Gruff. “You stopped giving me a reason to. You made me old. You made me older than I was. You didn’t save me. You made me the predator so you could save some other child. I’m not the animal here.” “Not the animal? Isn’t that your mother in pieces on the f loor? And the last boy, what was his name?” The Man squirmed. Sweat was stinging his eyes. “Graham,” said The Gruff. “That was it, Graham. He looked a lot like Alex. What did you do to him?” “Shut up. Just shut up. I never wanted any of this. ”


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“And yet, you were so good, except this one-time,” said The Gruff. “What do you mean?” “Well Alex isn’t dead,” said The Gruff. “Yes, he is. He’s dead. He’s free. Like all the others.” “How did you do it then? How did you kill him? Was it like the last? Did you shave him too? Did you have your way when you were done?” “Shut up” screamed The Man. He turned to run out of the room but in the doorway, under the f lickering light, he saw a specter, a face that only came when his eyes were closed or when the night whispered the truth of his past. The Man stopped. Adrenaline f lowed through every crevice in his body. He sank inside his own skin. He sank inside his own mind. “You’re not real” he shouted. “You’re dead.” The Gruff laughed. “Tell him you’re sorry” laughed The Gruff. “Tell him you didn’t mean any of the things that you did.” The Man turned back to the doorway. He looked at Alex who standing under a f lickering light with a long serrated knife in his hands and a leathered mask, made of a dead man’s skin, dressing his own face. Alex licked his tongue through the dead man’s lips. His eyes looked so far back behind the dead man’s skin and they were so white, even in the dim play of light. “Alex please.” The Man was pleading, but he was looking to the f loor. He couldn’t bear the sight of that face, alive once more and chewing at his resolve. “Please, Alex. Don’t listen to The Gruff. He only wants to live out his hell for an eternity. Don’t do this, please. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I took you. I’m sorry I took all those children. I was only following orders. I didn’t want to do any of it.


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Trust me. I wanted The Gruff all to myself. I didn’t want to bring other children here. I didn’t want to have to hurt them like he ordered me to. I didn’t want to have to be that man that did all of those things to me. I just wanted to keep my friend. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I just wanted to keep my friend.” “He’s not your friend,” said Alex. “He’s mine.” Alex stepped out of the f lickering light and into the darkness. The light f lickered once and twice and then everything went black. Blindness arrested their sight. The Man moved backwards, panic gripping his nerves. He swung his arms left and right and he threw himself from one side to the other, but there was nothing but black space between his hands, under his nose and beneath his feet. Silence was impossible, what with his heavy breath exclaiming his fear. It was so loud that he couldn’t hear the cutting of air as behind him, from below his buttocks, a large serrated knife moved swiftly through the darkness. To hear it, one’s breath must slither through a whisper and not bid as one’s voice. Alex closed his eyes. He travelled through his galaxy feeling his sun behind him though its radiance had been darkened by the entity that stood grieving before him. It was a monstrous entity. It had outgrown the galaxy and it would swallow them whole should he fall under its invisible dance and be drawn towards its center. Alex knew, the only way to return the sun was to divide zero and cut through the heart of darkness. The Man thought of the picture of the boy that was scrunched up and rolled about on the f loor in the corridor. He tried to remember the boy’s face, but he couldn’t. In his mind, the child had turned away. He saw only the corner of his smile as the boy turned to then be with his friends. His own ref lection had left him alone. Alex swung the knife. It carried low and travelled swift


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and quiet through the air. And he almost cut himself as it tore through The Man’s right heel, hardly slowing or losing force as it severed through the tendon. The Man stumbled backwards and he tripped over Alex’s body. “No,” he shouted. Alex walked around his shaking body. He slipped once or twice but he curved his toes and the round of his feet and he found his grip again. The f loor was covered in so much blood. It splished and it splashed when he wiggled his toes. “Please!” said The Man. That word, when it shouted, was not as polite as Alex had imagined. Alex unwound the belt that was wrapped around his hand. It sounded like a gust of wind passing through a tight bend and then, in the end, there was the rattle of metal on metal and then the scraping of metal on the cold bloodied f loor. Alex walked in slow dragging circles. The air scratched at The Man’s ears. Horror and fright were clawing and burrowing its way inside his skin. “You’re only human,” whispered Alex. His arm ran a perfect circle. The buckle whistled as it cut through the air, carrying past Alex’s legs, up over his head and soaring down from such a great height and cracking like thunder on the bridge of The Man’s nose. The Man screamed. He pulled his hands over his face, covering the gush of blood from his broken nose. Alex swung the belt once more and then once more again and then once and then twice and then thrice and tenfold and twentyfold and with each swing, the air whipped as the belt ran high above his head and then like the hands of time, it fell upon the inevitable. And crack and then whip and then crack went the whipping belt on his skin. Up it went, so smooth and rounded and then down


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it came, smashing against the rough edges of a broken and bleeding skull. And it lashed against The Man’s curved and shaking body and it tore away his shirt and his skin like the wrapping on a present and it hacked off clumps and then chunks of tendons and nerves and muscle. And it grooved and it cut deep, deep into his bones. Alex whipped him until the buckle broke and slid across the f loor. And then he whipped him some more. The Man’s back looked like a tethered sheet. Alex rolled him onto his back and climbed onto his chest. He held the knife firm in his hands. It felt as natural neath his fingers as his tongue between his teeth. It would speak for him how his mouth had been trained to not. He pushed the tip of the knife forwards. It knocked off a piece of bone on The Man’s chest and traveled up into his throat. It cut through so easy. Alex barely had to struggle. As he pushed the knife upwards, he fell over onto The Man’s chest. The Man was trembling under his body. It was amazing that someone so big and someone so strong, couldn’t shake off such a small skinny boy like Alex. But he didn’t see Alex. He saw the mask that he wore. He saw the man who had tormented him all those years ago. He saw the dead face that spoke to him every night and laughed in his ears as he fought to deafen the screams of scores of frightened children from his insomnolence. He saw the man who beat him, who mocked him, who tied him up and who tortured and molested him. He saw in that man’s dead face before he became the very monster that he had fought. And he felt as weak and as servile. Alex had never felt this kind of calm before. His breath was hot under the dead man’s skin so he took the mask off. It made a spluttering sound as it clumped in a pool of blood on the f loor. He rested for a moment and caught the fresh breeze running across his face. He thought about his brother,


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passing him on the motorcycle and his brother smiling. He was still clinging to his father’s jacket, but he had turned to Alex and he smiled. The Man gurgled. He was trying to speak, but the knife had dug from his throat, up through the bottom of the jaw and sliced his tongue in half. As he trembled and shook and moved about, his jaw slid further down the blade and the tip edged closer to his pallet. Alex tore the knife back out. It made a mess coming out, shredding his windpipe. It must have been the serrated edges. They went in so easily. Who would have thought? He’d have to remember that when preparing lunch. Alex dug his heels into the side of The Man’s legs. It gave him some leverage and that gave him the strength to push the knife deep into The Man’s stomach. Alex’s face splashed cool and red. The Man thrashed about, f linging Alex to the f loor. It was still dark. Alex landed somewhere at the back of the room. He couldn’t see a thing and he could feel now, electricity coursing through his veins. He closed his eyes again and he listened to the sound of The Man gasping and the scratching of the handle against the tiles as The Man dragged himself on his belly to what he though was out of the room. Alex stepped onto The Man’s back. The knife dug deep into his chest and he stopped moving almost instantly. His breathing was fast and shallow and it emptied itself of life with every squeak and squeal from his broken throat. Alex rolled The Man onto his back. He sat upon him once more and pulled the knife from his chest. This time, it was harder. It was caught on muscle and bone, but he pulled hard and the knife tore out and almost f lung out of his hands. The Man was still alive, but barely. Alex ran his fingers along the ridge of The Man’s face. He ran from the tip of his forehead, down along past his ear and to the point of his chin. He had strong features.


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Alex pressed the knife into his skin. He tried to be gentle. He didn’t want to accidentally cut into the face. He had seen what some of the other masks looked like. Some children should not play with scissors. Even in school, his art was so different to all the other kids. The other children, they painted what they saw or what their teacher wanted them to see. They painted the f lowers. Alex painted the space between the f lowers. He ran the knife along the side of The Man’s face. There was no struggle in his body anymore. He wasn’t dead, but there was no struggle. This was wonderful. Alex ran his left finger along The Man’s jawline and he followed with his right. He could feel the tip of the blade cutting through nerves and the face snapping away from the skin that pulled tight over his neck. When it was done, there was not a single mark upon The Man’s face. The light in the doorway f lickered once more and then light f looded in from the corridor. The Gruff stood with his tiny hand on a switch and he was smiling. He was proud. Alex fought to catch his breath. He had The Man’s face in his hands. It was wet and slippery. His fingers slipped on its surface and he had to hook his index and middle finger inside of the mouth grooves so that it wouldn’t slip ion to the f loor. Now that his blood was without electricity, no that it was without gasoline, now that the fire within his eye had been extinguished, he felt different. “You did it,” he said. “You’re no longer a victim,” said The Gruff. “Then what am I?” asked Alex. The Gruff smiled. He turned and walked back up the corridor. Alex followed. In the corridor, he found the small piece of paper scrunched up on the f loor. He unfolded it in his hands. The


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picture wasn’t torn, but the face wad been wrinkled and some of the ink had smudged. He took the picture back into room four and he walked along the walls, lightly passing his index finger over every child’s polite smile. He closed his eyes and he thought of his sun that was now burning brightly over his head. He didn’t feel lost anymore. He didn’t feel like his universe was skipping under his feet. He had found himself in the light of his own trial. Alex smiled and he pressed his hand firmly against the wall. He took the paper and evened it out, brushing his hand over and over until the wrinkles all turned into f lat edges once more. It didn’t look pretty, but it was where it belonged. Alex looked at the wall. So many children had been saved. So many. He went back into room seven where there was a mess of blood and human remains all over the f loor. In the corner, he found the newspaper with his picture on its front. There was a pair of scissors sitting by the old radio. Alex took the scissors and carefully cut around the large picture. He cut close to the edges, keeping the line straight and being careful not to cut into the picture itself. When it was done, he held it in his hands and he admired the boy sitting with a polite smile and neatly parted hair. He hardly knew that child. He had never been him, not once in his life but now, he would become all he ever knew. Alex took the picture and skin of The Man and he slowly walked down the corridor. It was funny how everything could change so quickly, how things one day could seem so big and impossible and then the next day, they are so finite and fragile. Alex opened his door. He walked into the room and squished the carpet between his toes. He loved the feeling of being tickled. He tried to fight the feeling, to pretend that it wasn’t there. He closed his eyes and he smiled because he


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knew that the more he ignored it, the louder its shout would become and the more it would itch. And he tried to hold on for as long as possible before he yelped and gave in and dived for the bottom of his foot with his scratching nail. Alex walked into the room of faces. He turned on the light and he was enshrouded in death. On every wall they lingered and they leered. They hanged like plaid expressions, trophies of transition, hanging one by one from the ceiling to the f loor. And there were two spaces; one for the trophy he had claimed and another for when he grew and his would be taken from him. Alex hanged the skin mask onto the wall. It looked beautiful, but it was starting to sink and curl inwards. He looked at the sides of the mask and then at every other mask. “There was space,” he thought. “To nail small hooks so the faces could be pulled and stretched and so they didn’t curl inwards.” It was interesting, staring at a dead face. Even though he knew The Man was not living, he stared at the empty pockets for eyes and the cavern for a mouth and he stared and he stared and part of him still expected a twitch of an eye or a nudging of a grin; even though he knew that The Man was dead. Alex took his picture next. He sat on the edge of the bed and he sprang up and down. He wanted so much to just jump up and down on the bed; to jump up and down and sing some rock n roll. To jump up and down and sing rock n roll and to wave his arms around and kick his feet when he was high in the air and then f lop down on his belly when he got tired and had had enough. He found the perfect spot to hang his picture. It was on the ceiling, hanging over the bed so that every night when he went to sleep, he could see his ref lection watching over him and every night, the boy that he was would f ly down from the heavens and he would sleep in his soul and it would keep him


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young and it would keep him a child, forever. “Do you want to play a game?” asked The Gruff. He was standing by the doorframe with a deck of cards in his hands. “What do you want to play?” asked Alex. “We can play snap if you like?” “I don’t like snap,” said Alex. “That’s a silly kid’s game.” “Well what do you want to play?” asked The Gruff. “Teach me poker,” said Alex. The Gruff smiled. “Promise you’ll never change,” said The Gruff. “If you promise you’ll never leave,” said Alex. “I promise,” said The Gruff. “Best friends?” shouted Alex extending his hand. “Best friends,” said The Gruff, ignoring his hand and running to him, wrapping his small arms around Alex’s body. Alex smiled. He had never been this happy before, but it would only get worse from now. The Gruff held him tight. Alex felt like a young boy in his hands, but he felt like a young boy who was quickly becoming a man. The Gruff was so proud of Alex, but he knew that one day he would change, regardless of his promise. And The Gruff would hate him for that. He’d hate him for growing up, for breaking his promise. And one day, he would have no choice but to send Alex out to take another child and it would put a bandage on the cancer that ate away at his reason and at the joy in his heart but it would be no permanent cure. For now, he didn’t have to close his eyes. He could watch Alex while he played, charging himself on every look that he gave as he fought in his mind over which card to put down next. And he could watch him while he slept, as his eyes trembled and tremored as he ran through the trinkets of his imagination. And maybe, just maybe, if he watched him enough, time would have no courage to steal him away, for if


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he blinked, Alex, his dear friend, would age another day. And every day, the currents of time would drift him further from the moorings of his promise. He would no longer sway in pleasant tide but instead swarm to a tempestuous sea of rage and then all of his joy and good tidings; they would be crushed under the heavy spill of his broken crest, only to emerge placated in a tepid swill of still boredom. And the second he stopped looking like a boy, The Gruff would have no choice but to close his eyes and it is then that he would be given to the madness in his mind, the hell from which he could not abscond. And no amount of feigned elation or joyous regard would silence the sound of the young boy weeping inside of his mind. And his curse would continue. For even in the lightest part of the day, he would be reminded, in the shadow that it drew, of the darkness that was forever preparing its stage. And he would somehow find, even in the polite address of a thousand dead children, no rest from his blessed woe. When would The Gruff ever find peace?


husband, father, son, brother, philosopher, story teller, recluse.

Also by C.SeanMcGee: A Rising Fall (City Book 1) Utopian Circus (City Book 2) Heaven is Full of Arseholes Coffee and Sugar Christine Rock Book Vol I: The Boy from the County Hell Rock Book Vol II: Dark Side of the Moon The Terror{blist} The Anarchist Happy People Live Here The Time Traveler’s Wife Ineffable

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www.cseanmcgee.com www.facebook.com/c.sean.mcgee www.goodreads.com/c_sean_mcgee www.issuu.com/cseanmcgee

Alex and the gruff (a tale of horror)  

This is the tale of a polite and well-mannered boy named Alex who; after being abducted, develops an incredible bond with an angry and foul...

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