by Chris Castle
part 1 of 2
I’m going to write it all down now, once and for all. It won’t make any sense, as much to me as anyone else, but I have to get it out. It’s been too long. But as much as anything, I’m writing it for Bub, because no one else will.
I came home and it was the same. My mother, a nurse, would either be working or sleeping. It was only the two of us. The few hours we managed to collide were the best times. She’d trade stories, patients, porters and crazies, all of it. We’d eat ready meals at our broken table and all I had to do was listen and laugh, which came easily. A stay for a smile.
My Mum traded up a lot, I guess. A husband who drank and ran and then a series of deadbeats who didn’t drink and still ran. There were only two things to her; me and her patients. I like the way she cared for strangers as much as she did for me. She said it was the connection between people, times and places. Sure it sounds hippy, but my Mum was like that. Pretty and goofy, like a friend’s older sister; forever in touch, forever out of reach. But those times were few and far between.
The one constant around us was the hospital. It was always going to be full and my school accounted for a lot of that. Sal Alma was the poison to all my mother’s antidotes. The kids who formed groups did so because they hated the next guy more. I stood away from it all; away from the jocks, the geeks, the Goths and the dealers. I stumbled into class and I bolted out into the streets.
What I had going for me, which meant I only got beaten from time to time, was that I could draw. Everyone knew it. In art classes I was on the walls, but in other classes I became famous for drawing my double sketches. That’s what Mum called them. She’d pin them on the fridge each week.
It was never anything cruel or spiteful. I drew my history teacher in a chariot, a cheerleader shaking her ass in a full stadium. People liked it, teachers and kids requested them from me. And it was one of two things that led me to Bub.
My Mum died quickly and suddenly at the hospital. An ‘incident’ the police said, as I was hauled out of class and into the principal’s office. I was halfway through sketching my history teacher on a horse and I was just up to the flared nostrils.
A junkie Mum was treating had lunged forward and stabbed her. They tried to save me the details but then asked me to identify the body. I did. Her skin was pale and white and she still looked beautiful, even then.
The junkie, whose name was Daniel Blackweather, was captured at the scene and was going to jail. I was told my mother’s sister was moving over to look after me for the final year before I became an adult.
My aunt was a nice lady, and we got on as best we could. We ate meals and talked and then we returned to our own small worlds. I went to my room and saw my Mum’s pale skin everywhere, in the wallpaper, the sheets. I went to school but I didn’t draw anymore. People asked me and I refused. This led to fights, which I started to enjoy. Soon I was known for something else and was left alone because of it.
One day I was sitting at the far end of the fields, eating the sandwich me and my Mum made whenever we were together in mornings: cheese, peanut butter and cucumber. I tried to like it, but nothing tasted the same anymore.
I heard some shouting from someplace and for a minute I wasn’t sure if it was in my own head or not. I looked up and saw figures by the chain fence that separated the classrooms from the fields.
The school day was long over. I stood up and walked over; looking at the shadows of them against the sun, thinking it would have made a good sketch. Like one I had made the summer before, when me and Mum walked the fairground by the beach, when it was hot and cheap and beautiful.
It wasn’t screaming I heard but cheering. I knew the three boys who were pinning him up. They were the regular bullies and I knew their names, even though I never spoke to them. They took the kid, tore his shirt sleeves and tied him with them, same with his trouser legs. They walked away from him, an even twelve paces and shook empty a net of footballs. The kid wasn’t crying. There was a gag, his tie, in his mouth, but his eyes were dry. He was just... watching.
They began to fire the balls at him, one after the other, rat-a-tat-tat. The first few missed, but they soon found their range. First they started at his head, then his chest, his gut. Then his nuts, his knees, his shins. They got pretty good.
The kid’s eyes started to swell, but that was just a reaction to the pain. He wasn’t crying. Same way he was gasping but not calling out behind the rag. As I ran over, I figured this was just someone that was already used to taking a lot of pain from people.
I didn’t call out or challenge them. Why would I? I punched the closest one in the back of the head, kicked the next one in the shins. They were kids who knew how to fight, but I was too much that day. I hit out for the kid, my Mum, the junkie, the... needlessness of things that happened.
And I beat each one of them until they lay on the floor, still, amongst the footballs and the wide-spread net. I kept going even after they were down until I looked up, looking for a ball to kick into them, when I saw the kid, still and looking right at me.
He was shaking his head. He wasn’t scared for himself, or even what he saw, he was just letting me know to stop, that it was enough.
I stopped as soon as he did that. I didn’t know why. It’s hard to stop that suddenly when your blood’s up. It was like another... antidote.
I stopped and I walked over to him. I untied him and let him get his blood back. His cheek was swollen. He lifted his shirt and there were red welts and other earlier bruises not quite faded. He looked back up to me and we awkwardly walked away from it all, just as the day was fading and turning dark.
I found out his name was Mark. Mark Edgeworthy. I say found out, because he didn’t talk. That first night as we walked down the streets and alleys I talked, still coming down, more than I had done for months.
I figured at first he just liked to listen, was shy and still in shock. Then he pulled a notebook out of his back pocket, the old-fashioned ones with the steel spines and the perforated holes, the pencil wedged inside the steel.
He wrote down his name and then for some reason we shook hands like true adults, and then we kept walking. I never asked him why he didn’t speak. I didn’t wonder why I knew that it wasn’t because he couldn’t speak. But then he never asked me why I helped him. So we built our friendship on not asking questions about each other.
For that summer we saw each other every day, pretty much. We got the fag tag from the blocks, strange looks from the adults, who saw a six-foot plus boy walking with a barely five-foot kid who looked for all purposes like my secretary taking notes, but when you don’t have anyone else in your life, you don’t worry about other people’s opinions.
I brought Mark round for dinner one evening, but my aunt’s eye darted from the macaroni to the pad so much the food got cold and the paper ran out. My aunt was glad I was out so much and one freak became a pair, much to no-one’s concern.
I never set foot in Bub’s house. We always stopped at the top end of the street, and all I knew was he lived a long way down it. More questions that didn’t need asking. Sometimes I watched him walking away until he was little more than a dot, as if the road was eating him up. Sometimes I wanted to follow him but had the feeling the street would stop me, eat me up the same way. It was the only time I ever felt scared.
The other thing me and Mark had in common was that we loved comic books. Me, I remember my Mum bringing me a stack home from the hospital and leaving them by my bedroom door when I missed her. I came home and scooped them up and didn’t leave my bedroom all weekend.
Me and Mark walked into a store one day and made a beeline for the same shelf. He never had the cash for them, so he’d stop in four different shops in a row and read one in each before he got kicked out. Each week he’d read a sequence of four, so by the turn of the month he’d have read everything on the shelves and be ready for the next batch.
One day he wrote something down; it was after a comic run and we were both exhausted and bursting to talk/scribble about what we’d read. I always let him go with the first question and when he put it down, I smiled and for the first time, took the pencil and drew a speech bubble around the question.
“That’s a good question, Bub.” I said. It was the only time I saw him laugh. Silently of course. He’d grin all the time when we talked, but this was the only fully fledged beaming smile. And for all the trouble he had put on him, he had the most perfect straight white-tooth smile.
I couldn’t help it; I smiled too as I handed him the pencil back and later as I walked home, I realised it was the first time I’d smiled since the day before my Mom died.
So it went on, the summer. We’d cycle out to the lakes, the parks, anywhere there were no people and it was beautiful. We climbed old mineshafts, caves, anywhere we could find where we weren’t supposed to be.
We hatched plans, admitted which girls we liked. Bub would write his down and put the book behind his back and we’d count 1, 2, 3, until he showed me the paper as I said out loud. Talked about comics and guess-worked the heroes’ future for the next six issues. Who would get married, who would die, who we would be, given the chance. We talked until dark and well past it and neither of our homes worried or waited for us; we didn’t want to be there and they didn’t want to have us. It was perfect.
Then, at the height of the summer, Bub told me Comic Con was going to be arriving at our local mall the following Saturday. The biggest travelling convention of comic book fandom was going to be slap-bang in the middle of our dead-end plaza. Writers, artists, costumes and over 150 stalls, all there and all free.
Bub’s writing was so frenzied, I had to tell him to slow down and write in capitals. He was breathing heavy and quick at the same time and after he finished I was speechless. All I could do was grab his pencil and write ‘wow’ on the sheet. And Bub read it, took the pencil back and very carefully drew a bubble round it and finished it off with an exclamation mark. He smiled and I laughed so hard I doubled up cramped on the floor.
We cycled to the creek on our bikes with the bag full of leaflets in our bag. We unfolded the map and marked out what we wanted to see, x-marked what didn’t interest us. We read through the titles, sat slack-jawed at some of the promos for upcoming events. It was going to be perfect.
Then Bub looked at me very carefully, straight-faced and pale. I turned round, thinking someone had found us, but there was no-one there. When I turned back he was holding up the notepad, his hands straight and forceful, like when he wrote down Laura Bricks’ name the week before.
“You want us to steal?” Was all I could say. I felt myself go pale, and then shook myself out of it as his head nodded forwards slowly. He looked nervous and hopeful, the same way he’d done the first day I’d met him. And... defeated too. I didn’t want that. I breathed in, straightened my back.
“Good idea Bub! It’s a once in a lifetime deal, right? A one-shot! We’re never going to have the cash to get them right?”
I saw the colour come back into his face. He nodded and began to scribble on his pad again furiously. It was the first time he’d ever taken the lead in our friendship and I was... proud of him, I guess. We sat and planned away, my voice shouting and echoing along the creek for what seemed like forever with the promise and the excitement of what we were about to do.
Down at the creek we planned it. We marked the places we would take from, how we’d break apart and work our way down and through and meet outside. We even decided on what clothes to wear; the baggiest, spaciest outfit we could come up with. We grinned at what we would wear, how stupid we’d look.
Each afternoon for six days we sat and schemed. The night before we shook hands, not awkwardly as before, but easy and natural. Then we cycled back under the stars, into the town, past the plaza, the posters and we looked over it all and then back to each other, but for some reason, right then, neither of us smiled.
The queues were around the block. People came from the town over, muttering in different accents, wearing costumes or school team jumpers. I stood a few feet from Bub, who looked even smaller in his baggy clothes, as if he could run between people’s legs to the front.
The morning edged agonisingly on, until we finally filtered into the foyer. Guards checked for spray cans and confiscated lighters. Bub was just going in when he pulled a piece off his notepad and dropped it on the edge of the bin. Soon I was at the same spot and I casually picked up the ball and unscrewed it. ‘Good luck’ was in the bubble, five exclamation marks after it. I smiled and folded it into a neat rumpled square and headed in.
I wish I could have enjoyed it. The cut-outs of my heroes were ten feet high, authors from inlay covers actually sat and signed, sifted through crowds and shook hands. There were speeches and men in costumes and music played anthems from films and people cheered and hummed along.
But all I could think of was the plan. I was cold even as everyone else complained about the AC. I walked in a daze, the map heating and growing soft in my pocket. I looked for Bub everywhere, but I couldn’t find him anywhere.
I went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. I was breathing too quickly. I took out Bub’s message. I looked at it, over and over. And slowly my breathing slowed and my heart calmed and I realised it wasn’t the message but Bub’s letters, ones I’d grown so familiar with, like my own voice, and I turned to the door and walked out.
It was easy in the end. Amongst the commotion and the excitement slipping a comic down my top was a piece of cake. After a while I almost started enjoying it, the action, the turns and slips. I hoped Bub was getting the same kick as I was.
The hour passed so quick it was only the announcer calling the midday seminar that brought me back to myself. I began to head to the doorway, still light, each magazine fitted perfectly against my skin. I was ten feet from the door when I made my mistake.
Copyright © 2011 by Chris Castle