“It’ll all be okay,” she had told me when I walked into her house the day after the funeral. “Nothing can hurt you here.” I remember thinking what bull that was; how nothing could hurt me in that house, in their company. It was a regular house; knives, sharp corners, razors – she had invited me into a home where I could make a murder weapon out of anything around me, and she had told me that I couldn’t be hurt. As if I was invincible after stepping over the threshold of the house. As if there was some sort of magic; a spell, charm, curse; meaning that no one could get hurt in this house.
I remember testing her promise that first night; I slammed my fist into the wooden panel at the back of the wardrobe. It was cheap wood, it cracked under the heat and splintered. My fist went into the wall behind it. My knuckles hurt; sharp pains running up the nerves. I pulled my hand out and pushed along the clothes on the hangers; not a single one mine; and looked at the damage. The hole was just larger than my fist, broken shards of wood pointing in every direction, and the wall behind it, once white and now greying from the lack of light, sprinkled with red. Looking back to my hand again, I saw the splinters, caught in my skin, the cuts, the blood. Nothing can hurt me here, I muttered, shaking my hand by my side. Nothing can hurt me here.
Julie had led me into the living room when I first arrived. She had taken my bags and asked her son, Carson, to take them up to my room – what used to be the guest room. Carson was twelve, small, and looked as if he were ready to pick a fight with anyone who came around. Including me. Including Julie. Grudgingly, he moved off the sofa, and dragged my bags along the ground and towards the stairs. If it had been a few months earlier, I would have asked him to pick them up and carry them, not drag, but I no longer cared. Julie didn’t seem to, either.
Her and my mother had been best friends growing up. They had played together, lived together, even dated the same people; it was just a matter of time until I would move in with Julie, too. After they both had divorces in the same year (and I became suspicious that they were only both doing it because one had marital problems, and the other wanted to join in), Mum had gone down in a serious spiral. She had taken her own life on the fifteen of July. Julie’s birthday.
I could say I was a little insulted that she didn’t care about me as much as her best friend; to taint such a day, and set a reminder for the world in blood about who she loved most – ergo, her suicide note on the bathroom mirror of ‘sorry I ruined your day’. But, at the same time, I could still have my birthday and not think about how someone I loved had died that day. Julie didn’t have that privilege.
Julie sat me down on the sofa, and closed the gap next to me, our knees uncomfortably touching, and her hands grasping mine. I wanted to move away from her, sit on the armchair across the room or one in another house completely, but I had a feeling Julie wouldn’t let that happen.
“I’m so glad to have you here with us,” Julie had started. She stopped immediately, though, realising her mistake. I didn’t correct her. I didn’t tell her that she wasn’t glad I was there. She knew already. “I just want to tell you, that while you’re here with Carson and me – we’ll help you through anything you’re feeling. You’re safe here. Nothing can hurt you, and if it comes a-knocking, we’ll keep it away.” I almost laughed. Not because it was funny, but because Julie acted as if something had killed Mum, as if it were another hand. But no, it wasn’t. Mum killed Mum. And if I took the same direction; if I took the same way out, would she keep me away, to protect me from myself?
The funnier thing is, though, that as she said it, a lot of me believed she would. There was a small part of me that knew otherwise.
I spent a long time at Julie’s, just going through the motions. Get up. Get dressed. Go to Sixth Form. Come home. Everyone in my classes knew I was the one with the dead mother. It had been in the newspaper the week before. They knew my name: Jeremiah Kingsley and they knew my mother’s: Missy Passal. I always told her that she hogged all of the ‘s’s. She would laughed and tell me that they liked her more.
Even after Sixth Form finished for the summer, I was upset most days. It had dulled to a constant pain in my hands and ribs. I would pick the scabs on my knuckles and reopen them, trying to get the nerves working again. I never opened the wardrobe. Julie often suggested me putting my own clothes in there; or that she could take away whatever was there. I refused. I told her I wanted it all to stay. She wouldn’t argue. I think Mum’s death took the fight out of her.
I knew that when she and Carson argued before, she would win. He would cower and crawl back into his cave. But now, I could hear them from my room – going at it every night. But Julie stopped winning. Carson would talk about her on the phone, saying worse words than people called serial killers and rapists. He acted as if she was the devil. He told his friends about me; the jerk-off with the dead mother who was eating his food. I wanted to punch him every day for months, wondering if he would splinter like the wardrobe did.
For a while, in those moments when I found the perfect song on the radio, or got to the best part of a book, I would feel like maybe Julie was being honest on that first day. That she really could keep away the bad things; the things that would hurt me. I would think that I would never hurt myself. However much I considered it, or punched the wall or the faces of bullies who got too close to me, I would never really take that extra step. And then, one day, I figured what was out for me. It was a different something to Mum – that was a failed marriage, a lack of money, and herself. I wasn’t out for me. Carson was.
All of his pain and angst over me moving in, Julie becoming distant, his father leaving and not even fighting for any form of custody – it was all coming to a peak in the most logical place. Me. If it weren’t for his mother and mine being best friends, none of the last thirty years would’ve happened. The last twelve for him. Mum got divorced before Julie, Carson knew that. And I was betting he didn’t find a single thing wrong with his mother’s marriage, other than Julie copied Mum a lot. But Mum wasn’t here for him to take it out on. He couldn’t throw toilet paper and eggs at her house, because it had already been sold to a very non-superstitious family, who’d remodelled the bathroom after moving in. He could crap on her grave, yes, but he didn’t have the guts to do that. I was the only surviving memory of Mum; right here for him to take.
I told my Dad about it, one weekend where he was looking after me. You may be wondering why I wasn’t just sent to live with him. His apartment holds all of the answers; every beer stained square centimetre of floor, every can left on the sofa – just the very smell of the place. He was unfit and the world could tell by just the stench that reached the pavement outside the building.
“You can take a twelve year old,” he told me, flicking his eyes between the Sunday football and me. “Go for the knees, necks and eyes – we’ve been over this.” I sighed, leaning my head back against the sofa, and then took it away again – it was damp.
“This is the family who are keeping me, Dad,” I told him. “I can’t just beat up the kid, unjustified.”
“How is it unjustified – you told me he was a right little sh-“
“He is,” I interrupted.
“Well has he done anything to you?” I thought back to the moments we had on the stairs. There were sayings, that you should never pass someone on the stairs, because they could be holding a knife and stab you. I learnt that although stabbing wasn’t Carson’s style, moving his foot out, tripping me up, and letting me fall down ten steps right to the bottom, was. Then there was the fact that for the first month he would mix salt into my morning tea every day. Then, when Julie was out, he threw a load of my clothes into the garden and set them alight. The kid was asking for me to hit him. But if I hit him first, I would be kicked out and sent there – to Dad’s.
“Yes,” I replied, staring at the screen. The team in blue and white had the ball, and they were running up field. Someone on the other side – red and black – sliding-tackled them. The ball rolled away, and a red and black took it. The whistle blew, and the referee walked over to the tackled blue and white member. He held up a yellow card to the one who tackled him.
I looked back to Dad, who was shaking his head in dismay. “That guy’s always getting himself into trouble – if he weren’t such a good shot he’d be out of the team.” Dad stopped talking about my issues. He didn’t talk me to again for three hours.
It was during the summer – right at the end of it – when Carson’s anger reached its peak. That was the day – the twenty-ninth of August – when he went for it. When he went for me. The day started off like any other; I got up and pulled on the nearest clothes to me, eyeing the wardrobe with a silent hate. Then I went downstairs. Tipping away the tea that Julie had made me, I started a new one, knowing that Carson was already up and kicking. I boiled the kettle and poured it into the mug, watching the water turn a muddy brown as the tea bag floated around in the current.
Placing the kettle back on its stand, I picked up my drink and turned to head upstairs. Carson was in the doorway. He stood there, leaning against the frame, glaring at me as if I had killed his mother. I hadn’t – but my Mum did. (And it could have been very literally by that time of the morning – the only proof that she was alive was the warm tea that was lying on the side.) Slowly, I placed the tea down on the counter, not breaking eye contact.
“I don’t want you here,” he told me. “I want you gone.”
“That makes two of us, but unfortunately, the legal system is against us,” I replied. Carson snarled. I didn’t realise humans could do that. But he was more like a beast – it made sense.
“No, I want you dead –“Carson said a word I wouldn’t repeat even in my memories. It was that word - the c-word- that not even the lowest scum would utter. Carson proved that he was worse than them.
“Well the legal system is against you on that one, too.” Carson shook his head.
“It won’t be – not if it looks like a suicide.” I stared at him for a moment, dumbfounded.
“You’re a kid,” I told him. “You’re a twelve year old. How messed up is that? You’re twelve – you want me dead.”
“Stop stating the obvious,” he retorted, crossing his arms. “I hit puberty younger than everyone in my class.”
“Sorry to inform you,” I replied. “But puberty doesn’t make you a murderous psychopath.”
“Sorry to inform you, but that was one of the last sentences you’re ever going to say.” Then he lunged. I expected Carson to be drunk on anger; I expected him to make some bad moves, stumble, and fall. I expected to be able to take a twelve year old. Then, after he punched me square in the jaw, and kicked me in the crotch, I remembered a conversation from a few years ago.
Carson’s taking taekwondo, Mum said. You should, too. It would be a great way to bond with him – as well as getting a few muscles.
You know the ladies will like the muscles, Dad had agreed. I didn’t want taekwondo lessons, and as Carson used the counter to gain a height advantage, and kicked me in the neck, I realised what a mistake that had been.
I was getting pummelled. I was trying to remember what Dad had said. Knees, neck and eyes. Knees, neck and eyes. I repeated it like a mantra, and I stabbed out my fist, connecting with his shoulder. Knees, neck and eyes. He punched me back, right in the face. Then he hit me in the gut for good measure. Knees, neck and eyes. I flailed about, remembering that my fist was still in pain from the wardrobe; from the scabs I reopened every day. My ribs had been aching before Carson had walked in. I went for another punch - knees, neck and eyes – but Carson easily dodged it. He kneed me in the stomach as I fell too far. Knees, neck and eyes.
He forced me upright again, and glared at me, twelve years of emotions flying out in direct punches and kicks. I wasn’t going to survive this. And if I did, I couldn’t think of a time where I wouldn’t still feel the pain. Knees, neck and eyes. I was falling backwards, but I kicked my leg out, catching him in the crotch. Landing a hit made him angrier, though. He pushed me backwards, and I landed on my back on the tiled kitchen fall. My head hit the ground, and the world spun. Carson was red, the walls were red, and I couldn’t feel anything other than the thumping in my head.
The kicks in my side as Carson stood over me felt as if they were coming from a mile away. I was in another world; my head, anyway. I could feel the sense of numbness, I could feel nothing. Just the thumping. I could hear the sound of Carson’s heel connecting with my skin, my ribs, my organs, but I couldn’t feel it. I just heard the thumps. I tried curling up away from him; I tried making my limbs work for me. I tried moving, just to protect those vital organs, but it was too hard. I couldn’t make the nerves connect. I was stuck in my own head; my vision blurring with blood from my eye brow. I could feel the dampness behind my head, and I was almost transported back to Dad’s apartment, where I felt it before.
He hadn’t spoken to me for three hours. His team had lost the match and he had downed two beers in a minute. He broke open the vodka, too. He made me drink some, calling me names if I didn’t want to. But we were sufficiently drunk by the time he looked over to me, his face blurring in my sight and his crooked smile drooping. You know I love you, right kid? I laughed. I nodded. I didn’t tell him that someone who loved me wouldn’t make me get drunk. He’d patted a hand on my knee.
When you were a kid, I used to carry you around the park, because you’d get tired too easily. Do you remember that? I did. I did remember that, even in my state. I remembered feeling like a tree, because I was suddenly so tall – taller than anyone else. Taller than Dad, and he towered over everyone. He stopped talking for a while, and when he did again, he moved up on the sofa, and put his arm around my shoulders. Julie looks after you, right? I nodded. Good, good, he’d said. She promised me she’d protect you. She acts like I killed Missy – but I didn’t. We weren’t working. I think she wanted to protect you from me-
No, I told him, slurring my words. She wants to protect me from everything outside her house.
But that Carson kid’s inside, he realised. She won’t protect you over him. You should move in with me – we could watch football and drink, and I can protect you from anything. I’m six foot! I was in the army! Dad went on about how he was so great, in his opinion. About how the army messed him up. About how the blood he saw was always worse when it was deadly; but it was heart breaking when it was mine.
Even in my numbness, I wanted him there, in the house. I wanted him to stop Carson. I wanted to live like my mother didn’t get to. I called out for him in my mind – the only person who’d always kept their promise when saying they’d protect me, or look after me. Even if he was a drunk – he never broke that promise. I would hold onto the leaves, on my father’s shoulders. I would let them brush over my hands as we walked through the park. I wouldn’t hold on to his hands, or his head. I knew he wouldn’t let me fall.
I heard footsteps over the thumping. I could blearily see Carson moving from my side. I could see a figure, and I wanted to reach out to it. It felt like it was Dad. I wanted to reach Dad. I wanted Dad to hold me, and take me home, and let me sit on his shoulders. I knew he wouldn’t do the last one, but we’d make a great twelve foot giant, when you added our heights together. Dad was a drunk. He was a drunk from my childhood to the present, as I tell you this. He will not stop being a drunk any time soon; the alcohol gives him relief.
From the memories of finding Mum, when coming back to pick up some of his things, he’d said. From the memories of being in a war.
But drunk or not, I knew he could save me in that moment. That he would keep true to protecting me. His fight never left; even when he’s a mess. Julie’s had. She’d left everything in the grave with Mum. She’d let Carson rule over her for far too long. And as I was lying on the ground, only seeing red, only hearing the sound reminting from the back of my head, only feeling the dampness of the ground, she took back her life. She took back her control. I couldn’t see her, and I thought it was Dad, but the figure took Carson away. The figure, Julie, had taken Carson to his room and locked the door. He couldn’t have made the jump from the window to the ground if he tried. Julie had phoned the police and the ambulance. I didn’t know. I thought she was Dad. Dad hadn’t come to save me. Dad, at the moment of the fairly one-sided fight, was watching the red and black team against the green and yellow. Dad didn’t even hear me calling him. But Julie did.
She promised me she’d protect you, Dad had told me in his drunken state. She promised me that she’d protect me too, I wanted to tell him.