Hiraeth

Over the last year I’ve done a lot of writing, including a collection of stories set in Wales, entitled Hiraeth. This is a unique Welsh word – a word I’ve read essays on, listened to entire podcasts on – with no direct translation in English. The only word in any other language (I’m aware of) with a similar meaning is the Portuguese Saudade. An undefined, insatiable longing. A nostalgia for a time that never was. A bittersweet pain.

To kick off the release of this series of stories, I’m starting with the title story, Hiraeth. It’s a bit of a long one, but I hope those who read it enjoy it.

Every Sunday, for the next eight weeks, I’ll release a new story from the collection.

So, here’s Hiraeth. A story about childhood.

Hiraeth

Homesickness for a home which one cannot return to, which may never have been.

When he grows up, Edward Jr. wants to be just like his father.

His father who sits him on his knee in the back garden in their quiet little atavistic South Wales village and tells him stories, fantastic stories, stories of the two sleeping giants either side of their little house, the sleeping giants who were once wide awake and at war with each other, carving canyons in the land and painting shapes in the sky with the spectacle of their battles, causing mayhem and misery for the few scattered farmers of the countryside and their bewildered pigs and cows and sheep who got trampled and squished or just kept awake, until one day, when the sleeping beasts realized they were too perfect a match for each other, too equal in their strengths and weaknesses and brutality, and they reached a truce, then collapsed, exhausted, and fell asleep for a thousand years.

Now the two giants rest, all peaceful and serene and languid, like the wise old grandparents of the world, watching over the villagers that have since settled in the valley between them.

His father tells him these stories and Edward Jr.’s mouth and eyes are both wide open in astonished joy.

On days so bright and brilliant blue and clear they can make out the painted stripes on the bodies of the little dotted sheep grazing in the fields atop the sleeping beasts, Edward Jr. asks his father about the old house, right at the top, lonely and desolate and crumbling, and his father gives him another story, as stories are their currency and lifeblood, this one about the peacekeeper, the brave noble man who in fact brokered the truce between the two giants in the first place, and built his house on the belly of the giant from the East, from where he could keep his foot on it and his eye on the other, to ensure they would keep to their word and that the villagers who live between them would be safe.

On other days, on the grey days when the sky let out moist yawns, cloaking everything in a hanging drooling mist, Edward Jr. begins to fear the drizzly breath might swallow up the peacekeeper, that the giants might wake up and start the fighting again, and the villagers, who would have no way of knowing in time to pack up their things and escape, would be doomed.

On those days, when Edward Jr. feels a nibbling inside that won’t quit, his father tells him to close his eyes and dig his fingernails into the dirt and hold on, and if Edward Jr. is ever sceptical of this his father does it first, and the two men, different in age and size but fatally alike in every other way, crouch down in the garden and clench the blades of grass, force their fingers into the earth and close their eyes, feel for any vibration in the land, any signal that the two giants might rumble into sore wakefulness, grumble and scratch their heads, then remember with a bang their fierce timeless crusade and resume their earth-shattering fight.

His father stays alongside him, both their hands snug in the mud, until Edward Jr. is convinced they are safe, and if he cannot be convinced, if he cannot shake the fear that just the other side of the curtain of mist the beasts are stirring, his father tells him all he needs is patience, then leaves his son in the dirt and goes back inside to quench his thirst, while Edward Jr.’s mother watches on carefully and stoically, keeping count of exactly how many times the man has felt the thirst that day, good days being five times, bad days being into double figures and vaguely between two integers, keeping count for no reason because her statistics and protests are futile, always on the verge yet reluctant to ask the man how many he has had that day to see if their totals align, aware he will shrug nonchalantly and act out the apparent insignificance of that number, maintaining the illusion that the thirst is casual for him and not in fact at the forefront of his thoughts for each minute of each day, always tempted but afraid to tell the man that maybe just maybe now listen perhaps it’s about time he gives up on trying to quench the thirst as no amount of drinks seems to do to the trick, always aware that during most weeks she asks him this anywhere between four to ten times, always aware of how easily he can be triggered into defensive attack mode, always aware of how much their son is observing and noticing and picking up things even though he is still just a boy, a boy with his hands in the dirt, who sometimes remains in such a position in the garden until the sun falls down behind the sleeping beast where the peacekeeper lives, and has to be fetched inside and put in the bath.

This inner battle is a daily habit for his mother, as fixed and routine as his father’s battle with the thirst, and, much like his father, she too stays silent about it, most of the time.

Edward Jr. asks his father if he has ever visited the peacekeeper’s house, to which he nods, why yes of course, in fact Edward Sr. and the peacekeeper are on close personal terms and often spend the long lazy hours of the evening talking together, and when Edward Jr. declares this impossible, his father assures him he will bring it up with the man on their next meeting, and Edward Jr. then goes quiet, afraid to anger the peacekeeper and in turn the sleeping beasts.

Edward Jr. vows to himself that when he is bigger and stronger and smarter and braver, he will climb up the sleeping beast and visit the peacekeeper himself. He will sit down next to him and listen to his stories, and the two of them will look out over the village and the distant towns and even the sea.

Edward Jr. shares the story of the sleeping giants and the war and the peacekeeper with the teachers and children at his school, but they are all dull empty grey people, in fact most people in the world are this way: dull and empty and grey, all getting dressed and going to work and watching TV and drinking tea and eating takeaway and going to the supermarket and reading the newspaper and counting the days away, all nodding their heads along to a rhythm playing on a frequency people like Edward Jr. and his father aren’t in tune to, all mumbling the same harmless little phrases they repeat because they have no original thoughts of their own, all called John and Margaret and Phillip and Susan, all carbon copies of each other incapable and undesiring of colour and light and adventure and danger and fear and more, much much more.

His teachers listen to his stories and whistle with a glaringly fake enthusiasm that he can’t believe they think he is dull enough to fall for. His fellow students dismiss his stories as lies, tell him the sleeping giants are meaningless mountains, and when he smacks them in their faces, he is the one made to stand in the corner, not them.

No one can see the world in the same shades as him.

No one expect his father.

One evening he asks his father when his next appointment with the peacekeeper is and his father tells him he plans to see his old friend tomorrow. He begs his father to share every detail of their conversation with him when he gets home from school, and his father nods, why yes of course.

He comes home from school the next day, a day he spent most of his time in the corner with his head against the wall after calling his teacher something she wished not to repeat to the headmistress in her official incident report, something she felt was a severely unwarranted response to her simple efforts to get him to focus on his Welsh numeracy booklet instead of his silly little scribbled stories about sleeping beasts and peacekeepers; he comes home to sit on his father’s knee again and hear about the incredible things he and the peacekeeper must have talked about, but his father is not there.

His mother is on the living room sofa and her eyes are red.

He asks nothing. He sits down next to her and waits to be told.

***

When he asks his mother the question, which is at least five times day, over and over again like the information just refuses to sink in, his mother gives him the same answer with growing weariness and a more discernible snap to her voice followed by immediate guilt.

She tells him – Soon.

His father will come home soon. He wonders when soon is. He learns that soon is not today, not tomorrow, or next week. Soon is not this month or next month even. Soon is on no calendar. Soon is in no one’s diary. Just when it seems soon is around the corner, it edges out of vision again, playfully egging on its chaser.

Young Edward Jr. waits for soon while he stares up at the peacekeeper’s house on the sleeping mountain every evening, wondering if the man who saved the world from the giants is also patiently awaiting the return of his father, waiting to sit down with his old friend and catch up on all the important things in the world while the sun goes down.

He waits for soon as he goes to class and argues with his teachers who once called him bright and full of potential but now call him flippant and too clever for his own good and he wonders how it feels for them to be outwitted and outfought by a child, a child who, unlike them and all the other dull empty grey adults all around him, sees the picture of the world for what it really is and dismisses the platitudes they give him about the ruthless nature of time and life because he knows he is special, different to them, immune to their problems which give their faces wrinkles and their shoulders invisible weights to carry.

He waits for soon as his mother cries in her bed every night until she falls asleep and he listens from his room, his room where he grows intimate with the colourless floral patterns of his ceiling  as he stares at them long into the forbidden hours of the night, afraid to drift into the daunting void of sleep in case a woman dressed in white floats in through his window and takes him away forever, and despite his mother’s assurances that this woman only exists in his imagination, she is more real to Edward Jr. than all the blank silhouettes of people around him.

He waits for soon and thinks it has arrived one night when, while counting the cracks in his ceiling for the thousandth time yet somehow coming up with a different number on each go, he hears the front door to the house cracking open, the furtive appearance of a body in the doorway.

His heart sings.

The waiting is over. Soon is finally here. His father has come home. He has chosen an inconvenient time to arrive, in the terrifying silence of night, when everyone is asleep, everyone except young Edward Jr., but that’s just how his father is, a player of his own game with its own illegible-to-most rulebook, a puzzle piece the wrong shape for this ordinary square equilateral world with its flat and smooth and nothing people.

He jumps out of bed and rushes to his bedroom door. He reaches for the light switch but before his hand can reach it, before it can squeeze and turn and drag itself closer, it is forced into retreat, back to his side where it belongs.

The harsh, secretive whispers of strange voices. Two of them.

Then footsteps, quiet naughty footsteps, the kind only taken by those in places they know they should not be.

He stays exactly where he is, listening to the sounds from underneath him, keen to move his ear closer to them by crouching down and placing it on the carpet but finding himself physically unable to move.

He hears it, hears them. Two large men. Breathing and shuffling. Muted words shared under tight breath. Doors and cupboards and drawers opening. Though he wants to meet the faces of the night-time invaders, he finds his feet will not obey his thoughts so he remains limp and stupid on his tiny spot of carpet.

He knows his mother is a heavy sleeper, and is even more so now that she has started taking those tablets she guzzles down so eagerly each night, so there is no one, no one around to protect him, his father is gone and does not even phone; but it is better he learns this now, that no one can save him, at his tender age, rather than growing up with the false belief that there are those responsible for him, adults, parents and teachers and bosses, because the harsh truth everyone learns too late but which he has got a head start on already is that they are all completely alone and no one can save anyone, and the sooner this is accepted the easier growing old becomes.

He can feel the vibrations of his mother’s snores in the tips of his toes, and he realizes he is sweating as the footsteps below reach the bottom of the stairs.

His hands grow colder as the steps grow louder and nearer, and at the same time he finds his feet are tingling and alive and able to obey him and move again, so he springs from his spot by the door back to his bed, where he shuts his eyes as tight as they can possibly go and slows his breathing to a coma-like crawl.

The footsteps reach the landing and stop for the longest time imaginable, then resume.

The shadowy figures join the young boy in his bedroom. He remains still and soundless, remembering those times he was angered by the emptiness and density of his classmates at school to the point of near blackout, where he grew so exasperated all he could do was collapse and play dead on the playground, refusing to move or be moved from the floor until the headmaster had to be called to deliver threats, until the bell went and everyone went home and the sun started going down and his parents had to pry him from the cold concrete floor and carry his rigid ironing board body home, where they would scold him for being such a nuisance, unaware of what good practice it was, to be dead and motionless and undetectable, for a dangerous situation such as this exact one.

The figures move like deft mice around his bedroom, but to him their presence is loud and large and fills everything. They stay in his bedroom forever, while he tries to tell himself it is all a dream and it is all okay, lies which he names as such and dismisses before they have even fully formed as thoughts.

The slow unzipping of a rucksack.

The quiet pain of material things and immaterial innocence lost.

His heart rate slows to nothing and he remains still as the sleeping beasts sit either side of him, beasts he wishes would choose this exact moment to wake up from their great slumber and unleash the many years of unspent rage on these two cowardly invaders.

He also thinks but tries to quash the thought down as it is too black – If only his father was here.

He would teach these men things only violence can teach.

After forever and a bit longer, the ghosts leave young Edward Jr.’s bedroom and inspect the rest of the house. Then when they are satisfied there is nothing left worth taking, they leave. The little boy remains in his bed all night, wide awake, no longer afraid of the white woman of sleeplessness who might float in and take him away, because he has felt a threat much more immediate.

The next morning things are gone. The white portable television, the wireless radio, the cassette player and the assortment of albums and singles, the telephone, the VHS tapes, the jewellery box, the china plates, the perfume, the toys, the comfort of home.

They call the police and the police do nothing, only send an officer around who tries her best to sincerely express sympathy and condolences and assure the authorities will do everything they can to track the culprits down, and even Edward Jr., the young boy who sees things no one else sees, can tell that everything they can do amounts to very little, he sees it in the futile look in her eyes, that the cowardly invaders will never be caught and will go on to violate the homes and lives of more.

After that night, young Edward Jr. keeps a baseball bat under his bed.

***

He waits for soon until new people arrive.

At first they visit on weekends but then before Edward Jr. notices they are living with him in his house, his house vacated by his father who now, he is told, lives elsewhere, all alone, somewhere an impossible distance away in England.

He is never consulted on the issue but is forced to share his bedroom with a boy a year younger than him, an overweight child named Rhys who farts and snores in his sleep and has a permanent snail trickle of snot on his upper lip, whose mother is apparently dead from some disease, the son of a similarly grotesque man who has taken his father’s place on the three piece sofa and in his mother’s bed and in the garden which to young Edward Jr. is sacred territory between him and his father, a man whom he is told to address as Gwyn, though he does no such thing and stares at the floor whenever the big quiet man tries to talk to him.

The boys fight constantly.

Over the television, the bathroom, the sofa, the front seat of the car, the toy from the box of cereal, the biscuit tin, and if they have nothing to fight about they fight about that.

When Rhys laughs at the story of the sleeping bests and the peacekeeper Edward Jr. scratches a hole in his face and then intentionally wets his bed every night for a month in an act of filthy protest. He begins to relish his days at school as at least there he can get away from the parasites who have crawled into his home just like the cowardly invaders, although he still has to put up with the dull empty grey people who populate his classroom and tease him over his messy handwriting and scruffy clothes and strawberry blonde hair, and yet it is still he who gets the blame when he refuses to lie down and take abuse from people who may as well be holograms and strikes back with first words and then when they don’t do enough damage, fists.

His hatred for Rhys burns and glows like something made of gold and buried underground, he nourishes it and cherishes it and talks to it like it is a living person, a true friend, he holds onto this hatred for weeks and weeks, he holds onto it even as he feels it slipping away, like on Saturday mornings when the pair of them are dumped in front of the television and find themselves jumping in their chairs with excitement as The Rock finally wins his championship belt back from Triple H, when Bart Simpson prank calls Moe the bartender and asks for Hugh Jass, when Malcolm and his brothers fight the same way all brothers fight, and he hates to use this term as he would rather die than call Rhys his brother, but despite his concentrated efforts to maintain and sharpen the knife point of his hatred for this vile boy who has invaded home just like the strange men of that traumatising night, he finds himself looking forward to weekends where they can enter the world of American television, which will do far more towards raising them and the rest of their generation than just about anything else, weekends where for a few hours before sundown they are allowed outside to explore their rustic village, where there are no shops banks schools or post offices, only fields mountains trees and rivers, where the reluctant arranged brotherhood comes alive, takes to the wilderness and grows like a lifeform, where the boys explore together and build dens made out of sticks and hide away from the world and talk for hours, where they discover hidden gems like the bamboo jungle and the frog pond and the elephant tree and the forest with a ground so soft it almost feels like it is breathing beneath their feet.

Some breezy Saturday, the kind with hours so free and yawning and easy they don’t seem to move chronologically, sees the boys walking along the river, the river which seems to go on forever, to faraway places, walking silently as they like to, chopping down anything in their paths with their sticks, sticks with pointy edges which they found and picked out and carved to perfection themselves, their companions, their weapons.

They are bold explorers.

The world is so big it is impossible for them to even think about but they are ready to see it all.

They talk as they walk.

It will be disputed for weeks afterward who truly spotted it first, the crumpled wrecked car lying in the river, half hidden by weeds. Rhys will claim he saw it first and cried out in wonder while Edward Jr. will claim it was in fact he who shouted – car! – and had to convince his brother to brave the treacherous slippery river bank and wade their way through the current towards it.

Edward Jr. reaches it first, knee deep in hepatitis-inducing river water, then his brother arrives breathlessly at his side, and they inspect the rusted burned out machine, each wondering aloud as to who would be insane or foolish enough to dump their car in a river and leave it there. They look around for somebody to tell them they should not be there, that they should leave it alone and return to the safety of their homes, but there is no one around for miles.

It might as well be only they who exist.

They try to open the doors and the boot but they are jammed shut. Rhys vocalises his fears of there being a dead body or bodies in the boot, or even worse living bodies waiting to be freed, waiting for naïve vulnerable young boys to happen upon the planted car wrecked for them to devour. Edward Jr. ignores him as his eyes have landed on something promising, something in the passenger seat which he leans in through the smashed window to drag out.

A black handbag.

Rhys tries to take it from him but his brother pushes him back and he falls on his backside in the water and both of them laugh. Their attempts to open it go nowhere as the zip is rusted and sewn shut, but this is the moment where the true value of their sharp sticks shows itself; they tear and hack at the old, weakened fabric material until a hole appears, a hole big enough for them to jam their fingers into and use their might to tear the thing open and see what secrets wait inside.

Most of what they find is unremarkable.

Bank cards, receipts, vouchers, makeup, a hairbrush, a mirror.

They find a driver’s licence with a picture of a woman on it. Her name is Georgina. Her birthday is three days before Edward Jr.’s, and to him she looks like she could be kind, colourful, bright and alive, unlike the dull empty grey people all around him every day.

He wonders if she is dead and drowned and washed up somewhere far away.

They drop the bag in the water when they find the thing which makes them stop breathing, which makes them laugh out loud and shriek and jump around, the same way they do when The Rock delivers his spinebuster and removes his elbow pad and the whole crowd knows what’s coming.

A damp and flimsy but still intact twenty-pound note.

More money than either of them has ever seen or held at one time in their little lives.

The possibilities are endless.

They wade their way back through the river, holding onto their treasure, which they lay out on a rock when they reach the other side. They talk about all the things they will spend it on as they wait for it to dry.

A new house, a rocket, a horse, a sword, a Nintendo 64, the WWF championship belt, every Simpsons boxset ever made, Haribo, Fanta, ice cream.

It will all be theirs.

***

The brothers brush their teeth together every night, standing over the sink, debriefing each other on the day’s invariably dramatic events at their school where playground fights are common and broken up by vigilant twitching staff members too quickly and to the chagrin of both competitors and spectators, so rematches are scheduled outside the gates on the rugby fields after the last bell, where the interested parties gather and sometimes place bets of up to fifty whole pence or a coveted Pog or Pokemon card, where victory is flaunted but defeat is never final as there is always tomorrow, tomorrow which the boys at the sink make plans for as well, their plans ranging from building a new den or maintaining an existing one to seeing how far up the mountain they can get this time before darkness comes and forces them back home.

One night Rhys tells his brother about a strange sighting in the farmer’s field adjacent to their house, the field with the grass so tall it reaches over their heads, making it the perfect arena for hide and seek, for racing away from imaginary velociraptors, or for running to the centre and simply sitting down on the spot and embracing that feeling of being totally lost and invisible.

Rhys spits his Aquafresh into the sink and speaks.

– I saw something Ed. In the field, today. A creature. I don’t know what it was. Like a dog . . . But with no fur.

– How big?

– Like a dog. A medium dog. But with no fur.

– How many legs did it have?

– Five. Six.

Edward Jr.’s eyes widen first with wonder and then fear and that tingling combination of both which always teeters on the edge of either phenomenon but always manages to stay in the middle, prickly and gnawing and heavy.

– You’re making it up.

– Shut up, I’m not.

– When did you see it?

– Today.

– Who was with you?

– Nobody.

– Don’t lie.

– I’m not, Ed, serious, I swear on my mum’s grave. Don’t tell my dad, but I took a slice of bread from the bread bin. I wanted to see if the monster would eat the bread. I took the bread to the field and left it there. I wanted to see if the monster would eat the bread.

– . . . Did it eat the bread?

– The bread was gone.

Edward Jr. feels a familiar crawling sensation in his vital organs, like the sickly stirring of insects walking all over each other.

He knows these creatures well already. They are his friends.

The boys go to bed and stay awake long into the night discussing what needs to be done. The monster is likely dangerous, likely to be capable of killing and eating everyone in the village, likely to be desperately hungry to do just so.

They know if they enlist the help of their parents, their parents will tell them to stop wasting their time with such childish fairy tales.

They know if they are going to stop the monster and save everyone, they can rely only on themselves.

***

The dangers in his head and all around him keep him awake into the long hours of the night where he knows little boys like him are not supposed to be awake, where he has grown used to and even fond of the colourless floral patterns of his ceiling as the backdrop and the sounds of Rhys’s pig snores as the soundtrack to his sleeplessness.

On some night just as lonely and endless as the rest of them, the sounds of his mother’s hissing whispers come from downstairs, harsh and desperately hushed.

Someone is at the door.

The sleepless little boy with his head full of monsters gets out of his bed, nimbly hops over Rhys’s sleeping body and cracks open his bedroom door.

He needs no longer than a second to place the voice responding to his mother’s, familiar and close and warm, however far away, the voice that brought the magic of the stories to him what seems now like an impossibly long time ago.

His father is home.

The boy feels the urge to sprint down the stairs and launch himself into the arms of his hero but intrinsically knows something is wrong with this visit, knows that his presence at this untimely scene will only prompt frantic shoos and shouts from his mother, so he tiptoes across the landing, to the top of the stairs where he can see what he needs to see and stay hidden in the shadows.

His father is in the doorway, swaying from side to side, speaking but not saying real words. His mother is trying to close the door but his father is blocking it with his foot.

The shrieks she makes sound loud enough to wake the entire village.

– Look at you, look at the state of you.

– Tell ‘um face me and down ‘ere, come on, like, bosh, who is he? Huh? Real man? Piss off.

– If you won’t leave, I’ll call the police.

– ‘Umnum the right to see my boy.

– It’s the middle of the night. You’re pissed.

His hero shakes his head violently and thrusts himself toward the door frame. The five foot two woman finds the strength inside to push the towering man backwards and send him falling to the floor in a broken heap, after which she hurriedly slams the door shut and lets out a whimper, which is met by enraged growls from outside the door which go on for a time and then quieten in defeat and disappear altogether.

The boy at the top of the stairs shoots back across the landing and into his room, where the colourless floral patterns of his ceiling and the ticking away of the night await him.

He does not sleep for even a second.

The next morning he waits for his mother to inform him of his father’s return while she plonks breakfast in front of him, he waits while she gets dressed for work, while she lays out his school uniform for him on his bed, but she offers nothing, has the audacity to act as if nothing ever happened, and this infuriates him, makes him question his mother in deep, disturbing ways, makes him wonder what else she might be capable of hiding from him.

She finds him in the bathroom delaying the brushing of his teeth.

She sighs impatience, and he snaps.

– When is dad coming home?

– . . . What? He’s . . . Edward, it’s time for school.

– He’s not coming home, is he?

– Edward, listen –

– Don’t say soon. You said soon before. Soon isn’t real.

His mother looks upwards as if for some guidance and when none is forthcoming, for her or for anyone, she lets out a long, embattled sigh.

– Your dad is sick. He’s too sick to come home.

– What’s wrong with him?

His mother tries to find a way of saying what she has held swirling around in her head for the best part of a decade, what she always quietly known but tried to downplay or reject.

– Your dad has a monster inside him. He’s not a bad man, but the monster makes him bad. Does that make any sense?

Young Edward Jr. does not respond as his voice, his whole identity, is caught somewhere in his windpipe.

The monster.

It is real.

Firm, undeniable proof. His brother has seen it with his own eyes, the pair of them have spent long hours in the night planning their attack, but neither of them has done anything to stop it.

Something is metamorphosing in his gut. 

– What? What monster?

– . . . It’s . . . Time for school –

– Where is it?

– . . . It’s inside him.

– How did it get there?

The exhausted woman lets out another weak sigh as the imagination of the little boy in front of her winds and ties itself into pained knots, picturing hundreds of these oversized insect monsters, thousands of them, all over the world, scuttling around and crawling inside people, enslaving them and turning them into incoherent, dribbling, swaying fools in exile.

– It’s time for school.

The car journey to school is silent.

There is nothing to say. Only something to be done.

***

The plan is simple.

Another two slices of Hovis will be swiped from the bread bin when the grownups are preoccupied which the boys have noticed is increasingly more often, as their respective parents spend night after night at the kitchen table going through bills and other meaningless bits of paper, with calculators and pens and notepads, rubbing their heads, looking at each other and sighing at regular intervals.

The Hovis slices, one of which is a backup in case the first one fails for any number of potential reasons, will be taken to the field with the long grass by the boys, who will also carry with them their sharpened sticks.

They will throw the Hovis slice into the grass, then fall where they stand, concealing themselves.

Then they will wait.

They will wait for something, anything, a flicker of movement in the grass, the scent of a wicked creature on the wind, the damp sounds of animalistic breathing.

They will wait as long as it takes for that vile monster to show its cowardly self and when it does, they will kill it. Young Edward Jr. has repeatedly expressed his desire to land the first blow, has described in rich vivid detail how he longs for the creature’s blood to stain his hands. It is not just about his father. It is about preventing the parasite from crawling inside someone else’s mouth and planting its horrible babies there. He already walks around with the cold crippling fear that the babies have already been lain inside him, that he has inherited his own set of internal monsters from his father, as he feels them chewing and tickling his insides at night, but this he has refrained from sharing with his brother. He fears he will become tainted in the eyes of others and seen as another one of the infected.

Rhys throws the Hovis slice into the grass and holds onto the backup.

The brothers crouch down in the long grass, in perfect disguise.

They wait.

Nothing but wind passes through the blades of grass around them. At various moments, they look at each other, sharing a deep, knowing look of pain and patience. No one will understand them, but they will be thankful.

An hour passes, two.

Nothing but the wind, which is now joined by the first gentle signs of rain; the blackening clouds above them and the inquisitive moist drops on foreheads.

Edward Jr. instructs his brother to throw the second slice of bread out, a hail Mary to further tempt the salivating beast, which they are certain is about to show itself any second.

The rain picks up and brings with it shivers to their spines. Rhys shakes water from his hair and speaks.

– I want to go home.

– Rhys . . .

– It’s raining.

– So? It’s only water.

– I’m cold.

– This is what it wants. It wants us to give up.

– I’m hungry. I’m hungry and cold. I’m going home.

Rhys gets up, shows himself to the monster and to the world, and undoes all the hard work the boys have done. He makes his way out of the field with the long grass, back to the village.

Young Edward Jr. spits at the boy he once called his brother.

– Coward.

He waits in the grass for another hour, until his hands turn blue and his teeth shake and spasm in his skull. Darkness comes and the monster is still hiding. His teachers constantly tell him he is bright and capable of anything he sets his mind to but they are wrong and liars and cheats and he is a failure. He cannot save himself, his father, or anyone.

As he walks home, the determined young boy steels himself against the wind and the disappointment, does his utmost to assure himself all is okay, because tomorrow is another day which will bring another chance to catch the monster and murder it with his bare hands.

Suddenly he can hardly wait.

***

He refuses to believe what he has heard. He plays it back in his head again and again hoping that somehow by doing this the words will mutate and transform into what he wants them to be.

The boy he once called his brother has shown his true self. He refuses to join young Edward Jr. on another mission to the field with the tall grass. He has given his various reasons, the first of which was a fear of getting caught by his dad stealing slices of bread, the second of which was a simple and flat lack of desire, and the third, the fatal one, the one which Edward Jr. cannot stop repeating in his head, was that the whole thing is and always was just another story.

There is, and never was any monster.

It is all made up, just a bit of fun.

– . . . You wouldn’t lie about that.

– I didn’t think you’d actually believe it. You’re a little baby.

– It’s real. The monster is real. I know it is.

– I made it up because I was bored and you believed me because you’re a baby.

– It got my dad.

– Shut up. I’m not going to the field. Go by yourself.

Rhys takes to the sofa where he gets comfortable with whatever happens to be on Nickelodeon while young Edward Jr. breathes heavily and tries to fight off nauseating light-headedness, as he pictures the monster’s eggs inside Rhys, manipulating him and twisting him into claiming the whole thing a lie, as he pictures the creatures inside himself he knows are there but is not yet ready to admit out loud, the creatures which scuttle and dance on his nerve endings, playing haunting symphonies which only his ears are tuned to, the monsters inside his mother and his teachers and everyone, turning them into dull empty grey drooling slaves.

That night, deep in the forbidden hours, as his eyes trace the colourless floral patterns of his ceiling again, he feels the churning of the insects inside him and he reaches a moment of awakening, a clarity so precise he wonders how it took so long to reach him, because although he may be powerless to stop the monsters of the world, in the field and in his father and in everyone else, he knows he can destroy his own private monster. All he has to do is deprive the bastard of nourishment. If he does not eat, neither does the monster, and the thought of starving them slowly and painfully brings a sick smile to his face, there in his bed, in the middle of the night.

For two days he refuses to eat. His teachers ask him why and he wants to tell them but knows how they will react to stories of monsters living inside people so keeps his mouth shut.

When the school calls home and informs his mother it takes the combined strength of her and the big quiet man, Gwyn, to pin him down and force feed him some mushy peas which he immediately spits back out and screams.

– I’ve got to kill them! You don’t get it!

His mother is already in tears which she tries to stifle long enough to get out a choked response.

– . . . What are you talking about?

– They’re inside me! I have to kill them!

– Kill who? Kill what?

– The monsters! They got dad! They can’t get me too!

The sounds which come from his mother can be likened more to primal screams than to sobs, and it takes Gwyn all night and the next week to calm her down and get her to see that her son needs a doctor.

The doctor shows young Edward Jr. an x-ray of his insides which show no trace of parasitic insect like creatures thriving off his suffering, though this means nothing to him as he knows them too well to have them so easily dismissed, and he knows everyone in his world, including this doctor who claims to know everything but knows very little, to be dull and empty and grey, their eyes unable to see things right in front of them

Edward Jr. sees things no one else sees.

This is his gift and his curse.

The doctor recommends the boy has some counselling which his mother gently tries to bring up on the car drive home but is only met with resounding and disgusted refusal.

That night the young boy packs things into his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backpack; three pairs of pants, three pairs of socks, a pair of shorts, a pair of tracksuit bottoms, two t shirts, a coat, a notepad, his Gameboy and a set of batteries, all he needs for his life on the road which he is forced to take as no one around him can accept the harsh ugly truths of life he has already come to know.

The boy he once called his brother walks in on him just as he is zipping up his bag, ready to sneak his way to the front door.

Rhys takes one look at the scene and screams for his father.

Young Edward Jr. lunges at him and knocks him to the floor.

The adults come rushing upstairs to find the boys entangled in a violent huddle. They separate them and keep them in locked rooms for the remainder of the night, creating prisoners in what was once a harmonious home, while they hide away downstairs and discuss what they can possibly do, about the disturbing behaviour and about the mounting pile of paper at the kitchen table signalling their financial doom.

In the end, his frayed and distraught mother can only think of one way to convince her boy that there are no creatures devouring him from the inside out.

She takes him to see his father.

He lives now in a one bedroom flat with no windows and no light, with brown sticky carpets, with a small black and white TV, with a smell of piss and despair.

Young Edward Jr., who was excited to the point of having almost forgotten the monster and its babies inside him on the long drive, is revolted at the sight of his hero, now visibly smaller, frailer, greyer, buried in a hole of ash and spilled cans and pizza boxes and magazines with nipples on the front covers and dirty tissues and misery.

Just like all the other slaves. Dull and empty and grey.

The man tries to pick up his son and place him on his knee, tries to hug and touch and kiss him, but his affection only causes uncomfortable squirms in the boy who has spent much of his nascent life waiting for this exact moment.

His mother stares at the picture, father and son, the two loves of her life, with a sadness so profound it disables her from speaking for quite some time, but then, as the boy wriggles his way free of his father’s grasp and back onto the filthy carpeted floor and over to his mother, she manages to find the words make the request she came here to make.

She tells the man to assure his boy, their boy, that there is no such thing as monsters and he needs to eat and everything is going to be okay. The man pretends not to hear and coaxes the shy boy back over to his knee to sit and talk for a while. The boy stays close to his mother and the safety of her hand. The man gets up and goes to the fridge and opens a can of something that to Edward Jr. smells like underpants washed in sick and hung out to dry in the baking sun, swigs half of the contents inside, belches and falls back to his chair with a resignation that this spot is as far as he is going to make it now, for the rest of his life, that this dark little room covered in dust and insects and mould is his waiting room, because all he has left to do is wait, wait until the pain stops resurfacing after every time it is washed down, wait until the liquid drowns and kills him, wait until it is over.

His mother bends down and whispers in Edward Jr.’s ear, asks him the simple question of what he wants to do which is answered immediately: the boy wants to go home.

On the drive home they stop for a Happy Meal which the boy devours rapidly, without mercy, thought or breath. His mother never thought she would be so delighted to see him eating such garbage. 

Neither of them speaks for the whole journey because there is nothing which needs to be said.

The boy has seen enough.

He forgets about the monster, for a little while at least, his overactive imagination moves onto something else, as life goes; just a series of things he will eventually forget and wonder how they could ever have meant so much to him.

***

Plates are slapped down on tables and met with groans, economy baked beans and mushy fish fingers, value beef burgers and peas, halves of frozen tomato and cheese smart price pizzas, plastic sausages and instant noodles, ketchup sandwiches, glasses of lukewarm tap water and absolutely no seconds or desserts.

Despite the fact that the adults of the house both get up when it is dark and go to work all day and come home when it is dark again and do just about nothing else besides work or think about work or worry about how working is killing them, while their boys grow up secretly vowing to themselves to never turn out to be slaves like them, they find themselves, like countless others, struggling to come up with the seemingly arbitrary sums of money printed on the letters sent to their house in intimidating brown envelopes marked urgent or very urgent or open this immediately or suffer unspeakable consequences, struggling to fill the cupboards and replace the broken or outgrown shoes of their boys who seemed to getting taller and larger by the minute, struggling to mend the holes in their clothes which in turn prompts the other boys in their ruthless school playground to refer them as the skippy twat brothers, which in turn causes Edward Jr. to throw one to the floor and strangle him until his air cuts off and his eyes close and his skin turns a strange colour and he has to be dragged off by teachers and sent to the isolation room for the rest of the week and have long terribly boring conversations with professional strangers who call him boss and champ and young man and do not realise that the boy sees right through them the same way he sees through everyone and their translucent meaningless words, struggling to find even a single moment of relief from the choking fear that any minute the whole thing will come crashing down and they will end up on the streets.

Things are made worse one night when Rhys decides to go for a walk and does not come back.

He leaves the house at seven pm and tells his father he is only going to the end of the lane. When an hour passes and he still has not returned, the big quiet man, who is stressed enough, expecting a package with a big mean word beginning with R on it any day now, delivered from his boss at the factory where the profit margins could stand to look a little more impressive to the shareholders, gets in his car and drives around the village and the surrounding valley villages.

He returns home in tears and shakily dials for the police who ask for a description and last known whereabouts and assure him they will do everything in their power to find the young boy.

Young Edward Jr. is sent to his room where he slams the door behind him and listens in to the increasingly short and tense snaps coming from the grownups below, the grownups who try to remain calm and in charge and sure of themselves but are quietly falling apart inside.

The police find nothing and report this information to Gwyn, the big quiet man, every time he calls and asks for information which is at least twice an hour until the sun rises.

Sometime in the morning, as Gwyn flits from consciousness to an ethereal sleep in which he is convinced he is awake and the walls are just dribbling and changing colours around him and this is how they are and always have been, Rhys casually walks in through the front door. His clothes are covered in mud and ripped at the knees. His father grabs him by the scruff of the neck and screams at him. The boy is quizzed on his whereabouts for the entire night and cannot account for anything, even fails to see what all the drama is about. He politely asks to be allowed to bed where he can sleep, and his father has no choice but to let him go and fall back on the sofa and pass out himself.

He misses work that morning which gives his boss the ammunition to send that magic R word in the post, ammunition he did not really need as he was preparing to send it anyway but now has the choice easily made for him. It arrives in the post and does not even need to be opened. The big quiet man knows what lies inside the envelope. It is the end of everything.

The boys find their respective parents sat at the dinner table that night. Both of them are quiet and calm, which tells them in a deeper way that something is wrong than if they were screaming and throttling each other.

Young Edward Jr. sees his mother’s red eyes which tells him all he needs to know. He looks for someone to blame but is now just starting to grasp that no one is responsible, for him, for them, for anyone.

Everyone is clinging on, desperate and clueless and doomed.

Gwyn, the big quiet man, packs bags for himself and his son. They find a small flat in a town the other side of the valley. Young Edward Jr. at least gets what he wanted even if now he does not know how it feels.

He and his mother are alone again.

***

To his surprise, the young boy who is looking more and more like a young man misses the obese, unhygienic boy he once called his brother and shared days and nights and seasons with. He expects them to come back one day, the same way he expected his father to return, but more days and nights and seasons and even years pass and they never do.

One day he finds a phone number for Gwyn, the big quiet man, in the phone book, a trick he learned from television, and calls him, but a miserable sounding woman answers who tells him to never call again and slams down the phone and that is the last time he ever tries to contact them or anyone.

He waits a long time before he makes anything close to another friend, so long that he finishes his SATS exams in year six and strolls out through the gates of his primary school for the last time, celebrating a false sense of freedom because the summer ends as quickly as it started and he is thrown into big school, which to him is aptly named as everything about it is exactly that, big, the hall, the yard, the classrooms, the scowling teachers, the oversized bearded teens who prowl the corridors with menace looking for anyone foolish enough to not give them a wide enough berth and punish them with flicks of elastic bands or charlies or rugby tackles, who wear diamonds in their ears and have blonde slim shady hair, girls who smell like chemical fruit with sinister high heel shoes that are more like weapons than footwear, whose very presence makes the young Edward Jr. feel small and frightened and dumb.

Now he has to walk from class to class carrying his belongings on his back instead of staying in the comfort of a single chair for the whole day while the teachers came on a conveyor belt to him. In some ways it is like something from the American television he has grown up with, gossiping teens with piercings and skateboards and lockers and cigarettes, only less shiny and perfect, more brutish and ugly.

He moves into year nine before he makes a single friend.

Her name is Rebecca West, a boyish girl with dirty, crispy ginger hair, a freckled face and cheap school shoes, who the boys in school treat as diseased, pushing each other into her and mocking each other for having come into physical contact with her, branding each other infected, diagnosed with a highly disgusting and highly contagious case of West germs, which no doctor in the civilised world can cure; while the girls are less thuggish but no less cruel in their treatment of her, keeping a radius of several feet around her in the gymnasium changing rooms, putting their bags on empty stools in the canteen when they see her approaching, talking loudly about how she will inevitably die alone and sad.

It all starts one morning at the bus stop in his bucolic village where he learns that lots of other children live whom he never knew existed. One of them is a cocky kid named Ashley Watkins, who, despite being a year younger than Edward Jr., is not terrified of and overwhelmed by the process of growing up the way he is supposed to be, and spends the morning wait for the bus persistently ridiculing the short length of Edward Jr.’s school trousers, until Edward Jr. snaps and pushes him to the ground.

The appalled gasps from the other children let Edward Jr. know he has just made a mistake.

The bus arrives and they get on and start the plodding journey to the big mean gates of school. Word soon spreads to Ashley’s cousin, Craig, a rough kid with an eyebrow piercing from the year above Edward Jr.

Craig gets off the bus in the school car park and waits. When he finds Edward Jr., he lands a punch in his gut and throws him to the floor, spits on him and walks away.

Edward Jr. refuses to speak all day. His teachers ask him what happened and he simply shakes his head or scribbles on a piece of paper the word “no.”

He thinks he has served his punishment but this is only the beginning. Craig and his friends establish the casual routine of torturing the young boy every morning during their commute, while young Ashley sits with them baring the fiendish grin of someone who knows they are well protected.

– Did you hear his mum tried to kill herself?

– Oh aye?

– Threw herself in front of a train. Train was late. Everyone was pissed off. Had her name taken and everything.

– Genuine?

– Fuck aye, my uncle’s a rail guard. Told me. Ini? Edward? You scruffy twat. Why did she try to kill herself? Eh? Edward? Don’t ignore me you little prick, why did your mum try to off herself? Is it ‘cos she has to live with you? Isi? Eddie boy? Why’d she do it?

Edward Jr. spins around, at first to Craig’s surprise and then to his amusement.

– She didn’t try to kill herself.

– Yeah she did boy.

– Shut up.

– Pauline Williams.

Edward Jr.’s entire body turns cold.

– Jumped in front of a train she did, daft bitch, but missed. How dumb do you have to be?

The boys laugh like predators and Edward Jr. turns around again, digs his fingernails into the seat until his knuckles turn white. There is no way it can be true. He is certain of that. He knows his mother is unhappy but she is not launching herself in front of moving trains. He never even brings it up with his mother as he knows it is too absurd to even think about.

He does his best to forget about it but his gang of oppressors ridicule him and christen him with a new nickname: Choo-Choo.

They chant it at him one morning relentlessly until something pops inside him and causes him to scream at them with rage, which brings the whole bus full of children to its knees with laughter. He wants to shrink and shrivel up into a tiny ball and go to sleep for a long, long time, but his mind ticks on and so do the awful days.

The nickname grows in popularity. An entire movement is sparked. Like insects the schoolchildren march together. Strangers from all the year groups latch onto the seemingly random moniker, the hooting sound, the pulling of an invisible chord, and the hilariously furious reaction it prompts from a boy no one has noticed before. They walk up to him in the corridor and scream it in his face. Girls sing it to him with wicked lipstick smiles. There are incidents of entire classes chanting it at him, and even Mr. Jenkins, the chemistry teacher who is secretly gay but makes jokes about boobs with the rugby boys to gain their approval, puts an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine on his overhead projector to uncontrollable whoops and cheers from the audience.

It evolves into a game played by the entire school, all twelve hundred animal adolescents of the valleys, with the sole objective being to get the biggest reaction possible out of the innocuous little boy with the untapped wellspring of anger inside.

A record is set by a year seven boy who throws a full can of coke at Edward Jr.’s head before screaming – Choo-Choo! – and running away full of giggles. Edward Jr. tries to chase him but has no chance; all he can do is gasp for air and watch his smiling attacker saunter away, so he takes out his white boiling rage on his own belongings, throwing his bag onto the floor and destroying his schoolbooks and pencils. A teacher catches him in the act and puts him in the isolation room, where he tries to coax an explanation out of him but receives only stern silence.

He becomes a cult icon in the school, infamous, a reluctant celebrity, known to all who are eager to go through the rite of passage, to scream at the strange boy who always gives chase and never even comes close to catching anyone; the perfect victim.

At breaktime, lunchtime, in the corridors between classes, every moment is another chance to play the game, just another schoolground fad. And every time, young Edward Jr. folds and crumbles and gives into his exploding rage. He can hardly even explain the abandoned anger himself when quizzed about it by the support workers who tilt their heads sympathetically at him and make laughable attempts at trying to communicate with him on his level, though he suspects it has been waiting dormant inside him all along, bred by those sickly insect creatures that crawl around inside him, which give him stomach-aches, make him doubt himself and doubt everything, make him scared of the night time, the private friends he has always known are real despite his mother’s best efforts to convince him they are only alive in his head.

It reaches its climax one day in the lunch queue, when a dumb faced kid named Jordan Day in year eight, with spots, round glasses and an impish circle of friends, gets brave and eager to join in the fun, to establish himself as bold and daring and elevate his playground rank to new heights.

He tiptoes up to Edward Jr. but gets a little too close.

He cups his hands over his mouth and shouts the magic words – Choo-Choo! – but he does not count on Edward Jr.’s heightened state of alertness, agitation and bare aggression. The boy dashes away but only makes it two steps before Edward shoots out an arm, grabs him by the throat, squeezes until his forefinger and thumb meet, and throws him to the floor, off which his head smacks and bounces back up, creating a thwacking sound loud and clear enough to halt the many conversations going on all around them.

The boy does not move for exactly one minute and fourteen seconds apart from a spasm in his lower leg. Crowds gather round with hand covered mouths. The boy’s friends kneel beside him and try to slap him into revival. The circus turns to Edward Jr. and berates him, scolds him and punishes him for manhandling a defenceless year eight boy half his size, and he cannot take it, a ringing starts in his ears and all he sees is a bright light with a hot centre. He is the victim, not the assailant, brought to near insanity by the hive consciousness of abuse, the masses who gang together to gawp at public torture, who collectively presume his worthlessness and comicalness.

He screams and cries and throws his fist into the wall with rising force and fury until the spectators back away, both disturbed and amused by the mental breakdown happening right in front of them, until a teacher stumbles onto the gruesome scene and shouts things in anger at the barbarism of youth and drags Edward and his bleeding knuckles away from the cracks in the concrete wall.

The situation is serious, as is explained to his parents over the phone.

Both of them.

The most miserable family reunion imaginable is staged in the office of the school social worker who smokes ninety cigarettes a day just to break even. He looks back and forth between Edward Jr.’s parents and says his piece, speaks of his concern for Edward Jr.’s wellbeing and those in danger of him.

His father, who miraculously has shown up and who is less than pleased at being dragged across the border for a grilling on his failures as a parent, finds the word hyperbolic and speaks up.

– Danger? Are you serious?

– The boy was sent to hospital. Concussion. His parents could quite rightfully choose to press charges, you know, but, well, by some miracle, they’re not. Luckily the boy is showing no signs of brain damage. It could be much worse. 

– The little shit provoked him. Everyone knows that.

Edward Jr. looks at his father and does not recognise the man, the man whose knee he once sat on and listened to fables of sleeping giants and peacekeepers, the man whose hair is now the colour of ash, whose nose is oversized and red, whose eyes are wide open and panicked at all times.

– But –

– I don’t see the point in making a big deal out of it. The kid was asking for it.

– I . . . Well . . . I can’t say that excuses the excessive reaction. The violent reaction. Yes, Edward was provoked, by name calling, but that doesn’t justify violence. That’s the way I see it, and the way others will see it too, I’m sure of that. He needs to control his anger. Take a look at your son’s knuckles again, if you would, Mr. Williams.

Edward Jr. tries to hide his hand away but everyone in the room and all those present in the lunch queue have already seen his raw mangled knuckles, the red stains on the wall, the unconscious child who is now in hospital and being temporarily fed through a straw.

The social worker coughs something up, then swallows it, winces and speaks again.

– . . . The wall will need repairing . . . That’s just the start of it . . . We need to, and most importantly Edward needs to, understand and appreciate the gravity of what has happened. Now the school has already expressed an enormous gratitude to the boy’s parents for not taking further action, which, as I say, would be expected. Having said that, the last thing I wanted to do with this meeting is cast further blame and punishment on Edward here. He knows what has happened. What we need to do now, is talk about it why it happened –

– Oh, come on. Why? Why do we need to do that? Why do we always have to talk about why? What will that achieve?

Edward Sr. is clearly angered by this and throws his hand up in the air dramatically before bringing it back down with a slap.

– . . . Like I said, Mr. Williams, we need to come to terms with the gravity of the incident.

Edward Sr. turns to look at his son who doggedly keeps his eyes fixed on the floor. He looks up once but only sees a poster on the wall, covered in little blob cartoon characters with various caricature-like facial expressions and the bubbled question – which blob do you feel like today?

His father grabs him by the shoulder.

– What’s wrong with you? . . . Kids call each other names. You can’t go around beating the shit out of people, especially not kids half your damned size! What’s the matter with you mun?

Edward Jr. has nothing to say and neither does his mother who watches her painted fingernails overlapping each other.

– . . . Now, you see, I think asking judgemental, provocative questions like these can do us no good, Mr. Williams. Edward knows what he did. Obviously he is upset. This is not the reaction of –

– What’s he got to be upset about?

– Why don’t you ask him yourself?

– We’ve tried.

All eyes land on Edward Jr. who keeps his head down. The social worker’s eyes suggest that now is his chance to prove his father and everyone wrong and speak his mind. The young man knows this is a chance to let it all out but he prefers to watch it slip away, as his mind is too dark to be spoken of, so he holds it in tight and waits for the acidic ball to dissolve, something which he is finding he is hereditarily adept at.

– . . . Jesus . . . I got called names in school, come on, everyone did. I didn’t strangle anybody or smash their heads off the damned floor!

Edward Sr. throws his arm in the air again. The social worker does his best to keep his own at his desk.

– Edward is at an age where hormones kick in and wreak havoc. Some have more difficulty than others in dealing with the sudden onset of emotions. I’m sure you both remember what that was like. Do you think Edward’s home is the kind of environment that can support this transitional stage?

– Oh, okay, yeah, it’s our fault, right, of course. Glad you got that out of your system, you’ve clearly been dying to say it.

– I . . . I didn’t suggest that, now, if we go down an antagonistic road –

– So what are you suggesting?

– I asked a simple question. I mean, all I’m saying is that something isn’t right for Edward, somewhere, something is wrong, wouldn’t you agree that’s clear?

– Yes! He was being bullied! You’re the bloody ones who told us that!

– Mr Wil –

– That solves your little psychic mystery doesn’t it? Why did he go toxic and hit the boy? Because they called him names. There you go.

– Please, Mr –

– Look, mate, I know you’re just at work right now so you don’t actually care about any of this, but he’s my son. I know him.

– That’s not true. I do care. It’s my job to care.

– You know that phrase is a paradox, right? Will you be up all night? Losing sleep over this?

The social worker exhales and watches the frantic man across from him closely, trying his best to remember passages from the books he read in his training about how to deal with defensive, obtuse people.

Edward Sr. lets out a long sigh, ready to go home.

– What’s his punishment?

– . . . Mr. Williams . . .

– Come on, let’s get this over with.

– . . . He will obviously have to be suspended from school.

– How long?

– Ten days.

– That’s it?

– That’s quite severe.

– Right.

– Now, please, Mr –

– You know what? His mother will punish him at home, to an extent we both see fit, right?

Edward Sr. turns to his ex-wife who has grown almost entirely absent from the room. She has to fetch herself from her thoughts which were mostly questions about how things have reached this point. She nods her head, unaware of what she is responding to.

– That will be all then, pleasure chatting with you.

The social worker watches Edward Jr., who keeps his eyes downward, holding everything back, while his parents get up out of their seats and head for the door.

He does not immediately follow.

The social worker speaks.

– Edward, when you come back to school, you should come talk to me. I’ll be here.

Edward Jr. then sharply gets up and follows his parents out of the door, out of the school and home, sickened by the social worker and everyone around him.

He comes back to school after ten days of staring at the colourless floral patterns of his bedroom ceiling and finds himself among the exiled, which leads him to Rebecca West, who spends all her time in the Indoor Club, the safe haven classroom for outsiders, for the meek and lowly and differently abled, where she scribbles dark cartoons in her sketch pad and speaks to no one.

She is accustomed to her status as a social freak, an experienced veteran, whereas Edward Jr. is a novice. In Rebecca he finds a mentor, an ally, a spirit similarly sick of living. They find comfort in each other. They spend lunchtimes together in a perfect spot in the bushes behind the arts faculty where no one can find them and they can pass the time talking, joking, storytelling.

Or sometimes, if they feel like it, they don’t talk at all and simply hold hands.

To the populace, she may be grotesque, but to Edward, Rebecca West is more real than the blurred cartoon characters of the playground and the streets all around them, the dull empty grey slaves, the carbon copied plastic people who walk around as if they are happy and have it all figured out but inside are screaming and terrified, most of all about what others might think of them.

After a few weeks, Choo-Choo, the chases, the fights, the whole phenomenon, it all fades away, and when someone smears the walls of the girls’ toilets in faeces, the schoolyard’s attention is diverted, in that unspectacular way that life plods on, and Edward Jr. goes back to being ignored, which is all he has ever wanted.

***

Year nine becomes year ten and the first signs of sideburns appear on his innocent cheeks, cloaking and reddening them in turn; similar hairs appear in other areas which he does not understand but knows they must remain a dark secret.

One easy May day, when the exams are finished and the school year is trundling to a close so the teachers fill up the surplus classes with quizzes and movies and free chat times, Edward Jr. and his new best friend go on an adventure, one which starts with the legendary rumour they heard during their first days at the school, a rumour which most have heard but have dismissed; the rumour of the Wall of Names.

The Wall is hidden somewhere between the second and third floors of the school building, only accessible by entering the lift, pressing the emergency stop button and wrenching the doors open manually. Edward Jr. has always been eager to find out the truth about the wall but has been held back by his fear of getting trapped, of getting found out, of getting caught by teachers and sent to jail, but with Rebecca by his side, he finds the fears he has kept close by during childhood to be nowhere as big as they always seemed.

Mr. Johns, their geography teacher with a high pitched nasal voice who has been caught staring down the unbuttoned polo shirts of year eleven girls on more than one occasion, sends the friends on a photocopying errand during a class in which the students are watching the movie Volcano for the seventeenth time without even the pretence of being educated or even entertained, conversing, as they do, in small, sinister clusters around the room.

This is their chance for adventure.

Edward Jr. asks his best friend if she wants to finally look for the Wall of Names and his best friend says yes.

They get in the lift on floor one and press the button for floor three, staring at the electronic display, waiting for one to become two, at which point their hands link as they slam them down on the stop button and rip open the doors and behold the sight, the true sight, the Wall, right there, real and touchable, in its glory, decorated in names, surnames, nicknames, dates, swearwords, smiley faces, penises, swastikas, joints, phone numbers with offers of blowjobs, cartoons of teachers declaring their sexuality and innate racism through speech bubbles.

They hold their hands together and stare at the wall in amazement.

Then Rebecca notices that in their giggling excitement neither of them ever thought to bring a marker pen. They are looking at history and they have no weapon with which to leave their mark. The chance to have their names engraved in the structure of the building itself for the rest of time is passing them by as they stand with their mouths held open.

Rebecca suggests going back to Mr. John’s classroom to get a felt pen and claiming a malfunction of the photocopying machine which they need to return to fix.

Edward Jr. agrees.

They pull the doors closed once more and press the button for floor one and: nothing happens. The stillness is disturbing. They press the button again and get only a perfect nothing, they press it again and again and again and gradually are forced to come to terms with the fact that they are stuck which makes them slowly turn to look at each other with the whites of their eyeballs and teeth on show.

The first thing Edward Jr. does is look for someone to blame, his father, his mother, his teachers, the government, society, god, but no one is responsible for him, he is here, was planted here without his consultation, and now he has to figure out how to make it to death all by himself.

He is trapped in more ways than one.

He grabs at his hair and spins around in circles. Rebecca tells him to calm down and this makes it worse, because hearing those words out loud, the words that are only used in decidedly uncalm, dangerous situations, confirms to Edward Jr. that he is in trouble and all alone.

She grabs him by the shoulders and steadies him by looking him right in his hazel eyes.

– What do we do? The alarm?

– . . . We’ll get in trouble. They’ll find the wall.

– You have another plan?

– . . . Uh . . .

Rebecca sounds the alarm.

The lift shudders and jerks into life and she shoves her hand into his again, he feels a surge of warmth and strength coming from inside, but it is extinguished as soon as the vehicle they are trapped in stutters and halts once more, and the lights go out.

Her fingers squeeze around his; both sets of knuckles turn white.

Rebecca whispers something but Edward Jr. does not hear it.

She presses the alarm again.

The metal box enclosing them plods another metre or so downwards in a fit, and then they hear a teacher’s voice from outside the door.

– Who’s in there?

The best friends look for each other’s eyes in the darkness. Their mouths say nothing.

– Are you stuck?

They say nothing. While the teacher calls for back-up and summons a team of stern faced educators concerned with health and safety regulations and bad press stories of children caught in and decapitated by ill-maintained school facilities and neglect and tribunals and swarms of furious protesting parents lining up outside the offices with picket signs showing graphic images of dead children with rhetorical captions, they say nothing, while they wait for three hours until the fire brigade show up and stand around asking questions and scratching their heads, they say nothing, when a team of them disable the lift and crowbar open the doors and find them in there with grins on their faces and pull them out by their arms, they say nothing, when they are shoved and sat down in the headteacher’s office and asked question after question about what they were doing and why and make irate phone calls to the lift company, they say nothing, while their parents come to bring them home, they say nothing, they say nothing to anyone about the secret Wall and the legacy of yesterday’s generations, about the electric tension they shared, the fear and excitement, the closeness that an emergency brings, they keep it all in, hold it tight, as to speak about it will let it out into the air where it will fade and disappear and lose all its weight.

And for their silence they get a day off school due to potential perceived “trauma” which even Edward Jr., the reckless irresponsible naïve teenager, and his friend Rebecca West knows can be translated to “don’t make a fuss and let’s keep this quiet”.

They use their free Thursday for another adventure.

Edward Jr. tells Rebecca, like he has never told anyone before, about the stories his father told him as a child, in their back garden, those stories about the sleeping beasts and their raging war and the peacekeeper’s house and the wonder he felt at those moments, a wonder which he has never been able to replace.

Rebecca snorts and dismisses it as childish drivel and Edward Jr. agrees but silently still clings onto some hope that the magic he felt on those long lazy afternoons on his father’s knee still exists, that that home they made and shared together can still be returned to someday.

They decide to climb the mountain and see for themselves who lives in that old house at the top which Edward Jr. has stared at from his bedroom window for a large portion of his young life.

They meet at the old tram road near Edward Jr.’s house, both revelling in the excitement of seeing each other as well as seeing what the day looks like free from the gates and walls of school when all the other fools are still trapped inside.

This kind of freedom has never existed before.

They walk until they get to the River Tawe which runs along the foot of the mountain, and from there they cross the bridge to the tarmacked cycle path where more walking takes them to the crumbling overgrown footpath at the sleeping beast’s base, a semi-discernible route which, if they can manage to stick to it and not veer off into the unknown nettle bushes and hidden swamp puddles, will lead them most of the way to the summit.

The walk is steep and difficult but neither of them gets tired; they’re young and make each other more so.

They talk the whole way, about the future which is so far away it is not even real, about their classmates and the failures they will inevitably become, about their private dreams and fears and hopes.

Rebecca tells him how she only mocked the idea of him and his father living in daydreams together because she is envious of him and the mythical stories he got to live in as a child, because her father has never shown up, not once, not even for Sunday dinner, especially not for long lazy afternoons of make believe, and her mother has never recovered from the day when the man she loved went for a long walk, the longest walk in history, and has used various things as coping mechanisms like cigarettes and food and medicine, and none have worked at all, not even slightly, and no wonder her brother has not attended school in over a year because he has no one around to grab him and throttle him and tell him he is throwing it all away and the only reason she does attend school is for some relief from the bleakness of her and her family’s cracked council house.

After two hours that is really more like five whooshing minutes they reach the waterfall, stop, gaze at its crystalline spears of glacial water, screaming things into the void created by the gushing cacophony.

They stop to eat the packed lunch Edward Jr.’s mother insisted they bring; ham sandwiches and bananas and crisps, then head on, until they reach the abandoned coalmine, which for Edward Jr. is something of an historic achievement, as this marks the furthest up the mountain he has ever gone; his previous expeditions with Rhys all failed after the boy he used to call his brother would complain of fatigue and hunger and boredom and anything else and would demand they return, while his solo attempts only led to him getting scared of being lost and trapped on the side of the mountain in the dark until wolves found and snacked on him, or even more afraid of reaching the peak and having no one to share it with, to go through the unique pain of witnessing beauty alone; but here with Rebecca by his side to talk to and listen to and share everything with, he knows this time he has everything he needs to make it as far as he wants to go.

They look around the place, at the dumped and rusted trucks, at the old portable office cabins, still equipped with chairs and phones and notepads and stationery and coffee cups, now all covered in dust and cobwebs and insects and decay, as if something terrible happened which caused the whole operation to shut down and evacuate urgently, something like the death of a miner, or the earthly stirring of the sleeping beast starting to open one eye.

They find a sledgehammer and throw it through one of the cabin windows and watch it smash to pieces and laugh at their power and how there is no one, no one around for miles and years, to hold them back.

They find a deep cavernous hole dug into the side of the mountain which goes so deep and so far they cannot even begin to see or comprehend the end, they shout obscenities into it and listen to the ringing echoes around the trees, they find rocks and launch them down to hear the bouncing and skittering, all the way down to an underworld far away.

Edward Jr. sees his best friend, the tomboy who everyone else in their town calls hideous and contaminated, and who until now he has thought of like a sister, he sees her transformed into an uninhibited, strawberry glowing beauty, a force of nature, a photograph, capable of stirring feelings in him he is neither used to or prepared for, feelings which he instinctively wants to hide, which are inherently mischievous and dirty and exciting beyond anything that has come before.

They march onward.

As an embarrassed dusk sets in, they emerge from a dense thickening of trees and see it, and as they do music starts playing in Edward Jr.’s fingertips, which unknowingly reach for and grab Rebecca’s, dovetailing them, and together they race for it, the peacekeeper’s house, right there in front of them, somehow both smaller and bigger than it seemed from down there on the ground, shouting to whomever awaits them inside that they do not have to be alone anymore because they have been found.

He has made it. After all these years, his whole little life, he has made it. He wonders where his father is right now and wishes he were here to see his boy, the mountain conqueror, on top of the whole world, about to shake hands with the peacekeeper, his old friend, but what he does not know is that at this exact moment his father is scared and confused in the back of a van with blinking lights and loud sirens, after a series of incidents in which his memory failed him, the most recent event revolving around frozen fish fingers left in the oven for two hours before catching fire, fire which spread to the rest of the flat, filling it with smoke, causing the confused old man to pass out in front of the television with a Kestrel in his hand, causing the neighbours to shriek and call the emergency services and have his limp body rescued from the melting picture.

They stop when they see that the house, the house young Edward Jr. has spent so many hours staring up at, is not a house at all.

It is a two-dimensional shape, a single wall, one side of a house of which all walls but one have crumbled and turned to rubble, to be eaten up by the earth.

No peacekeeper lives here, only thorns and birds and moles and insects.

Edward Jr. falls to the floor, landing on his backside, where Rebecca joins him, aware that there is nothing for her to say in this moment.

They simply stare at the derelict building which falsely served the foundation of the boy’s childhood dreams.

Although he always quietly knew the story was a fairy tale, to see they grey stone reality in front of him like this still stings in a way more profound than his young mind is ready for.

He wishes he never climbed the mountain, never found the house, he wishes he could have just left it as it was, an untouched, unviolated memory.

His home has been taken away from him. It was never even really there.

In the darkness, they tentatively feel their way along the path, back down to the normal world where they should have stayed all along, and neither of them says a single word.

***

He can tell by his mother’s stillness and the fresh redness around her eyes that what she wants to tell him is serious.

– Your father . . .

She does not need to say much else.

At first he refuses to go. He sits down on the carpet with his arms folded and shakes his head over and over. His mother reminds him that he is old enough now to understand that sometimes mums and dads make mistakes too, make terrible, lifelong, irreversible mistakes, and that he should get up off the dirty floor and stop being a baby, and also sorry, overwhelming, harrowing levels of sorry, for blindly putting him on this earth without ever asking if he consents to it, for making him and dumping him in his consciousness which will always exist within the tiny frame of his skull no matter where he travels to or what he sees, for passing on all of her and his father’s terminally flawed and insecure and incurable genes onto him and watching him turn into the same mess as everyone else.

He still tries to argue the futility of visiting while listening to the click of the seatbelt in his passenger’s seat and then before he knows how he is waking up in the car park of a hospital somewhere in England.

As they timidly walk towards the entrance Edward Jr.’s hand reaches out for his mother’s like it has not since he was a little boy, something he is growing distinctly aware he no longer is.

He stares as they walk by an old man with a tube in his face shakily smoking a cigarette by the entrance. The old man stares back then coughs something large up in his throat.

His mother leads him through bright sterile corridors where dead looking people are wheeled passed them until they reach the ward where his father is strapped to a bed with his head shaved and his eyes half open.

Edward Jr. does not recognise the man and the man does not recognise him.

A doctor or at least a man in a doctor’s uniform talks to his mother in a quiet voice, the kind of voice his teacher’s use when they’re passed screaming, the kind of quiet that signals an oncoming storm.

Edward Jr. stares at the floor and tries not to listen but catches phrases like “cerebral atrophy” and “still running tests” and “treatable but no not curable”.

At some point during the hushed, sombre interview, his father opens his eyes fully and lands them on Edward Jr., who looks up from the floor at his father and there they are again, the two boys and men, together.

Edward Jr. feels the urge to shout at him and ask him why he lied about the peacekeeper’s house and why he lied about everything, but just as he opens his mouth he sees in his father’s eyes that his father is not there anymore, only this wasted old body is.

He looks down at the floor again and chews on his sleeve until his mother and the quiet doctor finish their sorrowful dialogue and it is time to get out of there, to say goodbye to his father who has already been gone a long time, to go back to Wales, to his home, which may not be there when they return.

***

Assemblies full of teachers who hate their jobs preaching at children the importance of career conscientiousness reach a close, and the penultimate summer of not so young Edward Jr.’s school life arrives.

He meets Rebecca’s older brother, Vinnie, and is floored; the sixteen year old who wears necklaces and rings and smokes cigarettes and spits and swears and does not care one little bit about what others think of him, which Edward Jr. is slowly learning is the most precious trait a person can possess, far above intelligence or empathy or determination or the other nouns his teachers throw at him when they try and fail to explain what being successful means.

It will take Edward Jr. a long time, but shorter than most, to learn that being successful is being happy and so few people are able to make that connection and that is why the whole world is running around on fire screaming and naked and crying and looking for someone to blame.

To the young boy whose role model now lies dribbling in a dark bed waiting for it to be over, Vinnie West is something like a god.

Vinnie scares away the other boys of the village, the mean apes who seek Rebecca out to throw stones at her, call her a pig and grunt at her, cough up brown phlegm and spit at her, make sweeping public accusations of each other’s secret affection for her which are met with jeers and cries of denial, and if they seek her out and find Edward Jr. with her, which they invariably do as these days they are almost inseparable, they aim their blows at him too, singling out his haircut and shoes and anything else they can find; the older ones remember the days of Choo-Choo and do their utmost to bring back the once so popular craze, and although he feels the familiar little twinging and gnawing of those insects and the fury they are capable of creating in him, he mostly keeps it together, because he knows, like Rebecca knows, that her brother will come and lay waste to anyone who messes with his sister, his sister who he treats far worse than anyone but does so with the unique privilege only enjoyed by the equally cruel and protective older brother.

Vinnie knows all the secrets of their rustic little village in the Welsh mountains, and one Saturday afternoon brimming with spontaneity and promise, exactly one week before Edward Jr. will become fifteen years old, he shares his most prized one: the old plastic factory.

The three trailblazers squeeze onto Vinnie’s bicycle and speed together out of the village and down the long stretching hills, zipping past the trees and fields and scattered houses, the smile on Edward Jr.’s face growing as the wind rockets through his ears and he feels a sense of the possibilities life can offer to those free enough to take them.

Vinnie’s brakes screech as they pull up outside.

The old factory is derelict and barely standing, the smashed windows and rusty frames just about hold up crumbling walls and hollows doors, the floor is covered in rubble and filth.

No one knows why or how the thing has not yet been knocked down and no one bothers to ask. The wasteland of economic opportunity becomes the playground for the deviant and disillusioned.

Vinnie leads them through a jagged hole in the rusty perimeter-surrounding fence. Edward Jr. hears the quiet squelches of those insects of anxiety but holds his breath and pushes them down, puts his faith in Vinnie, his protector and saviour, and steps through the fence.

They enter the building through a hole in the back of the building that once was a door. The first place they see inside looks like it used to be a canteen; tables and chairs, fragments of plates and cutlery, the remains of a kitchen and serving area, an empty vending machine, the dining place of past generations of factory workers, whose current state of life Edward Jr. cannot help but wonder about while his jaw hangs wide and he takes it all in. Are they all dead now, are they all bones in the ground, or are they old and full of memories and pain; these are the questions he silently asks himself as he tiptoes his way through the detritus, the others in front.

They make their way out of the old canteen and through a door at the rear.

They walk into a desolate, unsettlingly silent room, a room that gradually reveals itself to be more like an arena, a giant cavernous hall with an area so vast and a ceiling so high that they can hardly see where either ends.

Rebecca holds in a gasp as her eyes look upward and all around, she looks to her friend beside her, who feels that music in his fingertips again.

The friends step forward, finding around their feet scraps of metal, glass, card, plastic, waste.

Edward Jr. is in awe of the place.

Inside he feels stirs, but not the stirs of those crooked insects, the stirs of something new, something exciting and scary and electric and glowing and soaked, something his old world could not even dream of, his old world which he is sick of, the world of waiting for his father, staring at the colourless floral patterns on his ceiling through the forbidden hours of the night, the dull empty grey people who blurt out the same trite meaningless musical little phrases to try and mask the harshness of existing day after day, all the limitations and pretenders and boredom, he is sick, sick of it all, he wants more, more than anyone in his entire life will ever be able to give him.

The trailblazers walk around the room in their own directions, at their own paces, discovering the treasures around their feet: beer bottles, pairs of gloves, smashed up pairs of glasses, stationary, clipboards, shoelaces, cigarette packets and ends, lighters, dirty tissues, cardboard boxes, socks, shoes, hats, gloves, used condoms, needles, doll’s heads.

Edward Jr. stops and looks up at the frightening ceiling, at the black defunct industrial fans hanging from the rafters waiting to fall at any minute, at the far edges of the room, along one of which he sees a set of double doors, the most curious, inviting sight there is, and he feels a sudden undeniable urge to open those doors and see what is on the other side, an urge that grows until his knees shake and he laughs and runs around.

He shouts into the big empty room which tells too many stories to comprehend all at once.

– This place is amazing!

Vinnie picks up an old analogue radio and launches it to the floor, watches it smash into a million pieces, Rebecca jumps and screams and laughs at her own echo.

– Told you, didn’t I? Been here loads of times, boy.

– What’s through them big doors?

They walk across the room and reach the double doors.

The young ones stand back and watch as their leader pries them open, their eyes peer in from behind and first can only make out darkness but when the density of the gloom thins, they make out a long corridor, a  hallway with more doors and rooms all along it.

Edward Jr. has never seen something so mysterious and full of wonder before, his hand naturally makes it way towards Rebecca’s, but when he looks at her he sees signs of fear on her face. He asks her with his eyes what there could possibly be to fear, in the whole world, now that the three of them are together.

She bites her lip and speaks.

– It’s dark. What if there’s hobos and rapists in there?

Vinnie laughs and calls his sister a pussy and a bitch and a whore and punches her in the arm and struts his way through the corridor.

Edward Jr. follows and again uses his eyes to implore Rebecca to do the same, which after some more hesitation, feeling empowered by her friend, she does.

As he walks along the corridor Edward Jr. tries to picture it as it would have been years ago, lit, alive, breathing, the rooms full of people sitting at desks and talking on telephones and writing in ledgers, chatting and laughing as they passed each other.

Now he can only see the skeletons and ghosts of it all.

Most of the rooms are empty, one has a table and only the legs of an office chair, another a few plastic bags and rubbish.

But in one room, there is something which makes the trailblazers stop cold and stare in, each holding their breath.

A tent.

For a while, they watch it, silent and waiting, waiting for movement or the sound of breathing. Vinnie is the first to brave breaking the quiet, and hisses through his teeth at Edward Jr.

– Go on son, have a look, is it?

– Me? You do it.

– I told you about this place though. You got to look.

Edward Jr. cannot find a way to fault this line of reasoning so steps forward, feeling unlike the version of himself he lives with every day, feeling no fear while in a scary place, feeling new and boundless.

He nears the tent and sees it is full of holes, giving him a clear view of the inside, where he can see a blanket, empty bottles, a lighter, a spoon, a needle. But no people, murderers or demons.

He whispers despite knowing they are alone in here and everywhere.

– Someone was living here, guys, seriously someone was living in this place, by themselves, can you imagine that?  How cool that would be?

– Probably a bum or tramp or hobo or something.

The others move up behind him and inspect the tent for themselves. Vinnie finds an unfinished pack of cigarettes and pulls one out, picks up the lighter from the tent floor and is amazed to see it still works and uses it to light up.

The flame momentarily draws Edward Jr.’s eyes to a sheet of plastic on the floor.

There are words written on it.

A spider wanders aimlessly within the warmth of a shadow

Not the regal creature . . . (illegible) cunt!

I am a sinner and . . . (illegible)

Your carnation will rot

We’re all insects and flies. All to blame for ourselves.

Love Paul. 2002

Edward Jr. reads the words and has no idea what any of it means but feels certain whatever meaning it has is hugely significant. He shows it to Vinnie who smokes his cigarette and shrugs and spits and he shows it to Rebecca who believes it to be the ramblings of a drug addled mind minutes before suicide.

Years later when the internet becomes widespread he will try to remember those words written on the sheet of plastic in the old factory but they will flutter and circle around the edges of his memory and he will be cursed forever.

Then Vinnie finds it, in the corner of the room, behind the tent, the container with the red label, the clear liquid inside, and he holds it in the air like a trophy, even lets out a shriek of joy.

Edward Jr. has never seen anything like it before and does not understand the joy but is certain of his faith in Vinnie so trusts that whatever is inside this bottle must be good.

– What is it?

– As if! It’s almost full! Who would leave this here?

Vinnie opens the bottle, sniffs it, nods as if assured, then takes a swig.

– What is it?

– Vodka.

The bottle is passed to Rebecca, who takes it without trepidation and drinks, before holding it out to the hand of Edward Jr.

The insects inside him belch, releasing something vile, which bubbles and squelches, floats up into his organs, where it morphs into some winged creature with fangs, dribbling sour venom, nibbling and prodding.

He takes the bottles and drinks.

It is the worst thing he has ever tasted, like poison, like plastic leaves doused in corrosive battery acid, like bottled electric sickness.

He chokes, gags, almost throws the mouthful back up but keeps it in and buries it. His eyes water and his lower lip shakes.

Then from the same toxic hole inside him where those insects lay their eggs, he feels shivers. Bright, tingling fireworks. A furry warmth wrapping itself around him. He feels lighter, stronger, louder, brighter, bigger, more, he feels more, more, he wants more.

The trailblazers drink the whole bottle together, and for the first time Edward Jr. catches glimpses of what life can offer, the happiness waiting for him somewhere if only he can access it, he feels it all burning inside him, all the potential he has been told he has but has never believed in, suddenly it’s there, rich, glowing, screaming to be let out of its box, its box where it’s been kept locked up all this time, but no more, because now he has found something to kill those crawling termites inside him, smother them, drown them, and nothing can stop him now.

Rebecca sees him, her best friend, the broad smile, the magic in his eyes, the life spilling from within him. She decides in this moment that it is just about certain that she loves him and always has and always will.

After the last drop of the life-giving liquid is finished, Vinnie throws up and falls asleep on the floor.

Edward Jr. and Rebecca sway and stumble and hold onto each other, falling into a slow, tender dance, right there on the dirty floor of the old factory, next to the old tent where someone once lived long enough to scribble down their innermost thoughts onto a piece of dirty plastic before switching off the lights forever.

They are both unaware of the boundaries they are crossing, but they know that they love the feeling of each other’s hands on their bodies. They get closer and closer until their mouths are touching and what shines brightest is the burning in their jeans.

They check to see if Vinnie is out cold and he is.

They lie down together. Edward Jr. touches Rebecca and she touches him back. They please each other and hurt each other in ways they never knew were possible.

And then they fall asleep, in the tent, next to the sheet of plastic with the words written on it.

Edward Jr. will wake up tomorrow and not be aware that he is now irreversibly on the way to at last getting his wish: growing up to be exactly like his father.

Hiraeth was published in The Scarlet Leaf Review in September 2020.

https://www.scarletleafreview.com/short-stories33/richard-collins-hiraeth

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