Skin so soft it felt like tissue paper. Eyes so round, so round and blue with green and gold-colored flecks, so transparent they looked like multi-colored marbles picking up the sun. Fierce ice piercing blue.
“Hold him Jimmy! Don’t let him squirm.”
Twelve-year old Bertram squatted on his knees and stared at little man; standing on tippy toes, his arms pulled above his head by Jimmy, 18-month old Petey, a.k.a. little man, was too tall for Bertie. He couldn’t taste or smell him.
“Ain’t he porky, though,” Jimmy laughed.
“And look at them legs.”
Petey up on tippy toes so pink and pearly soft at the edges, like the insides of milk duds, those creamy candies you suck on at the movies.
“White chocolate! That’s what he is, so cream-y!”
Betram dropped to his belly and crawled up to little man. Wriggling against the concrete he snarfed his head up, like a dolphin protruding above water. He came up against little man’s midsection and stopped. Stared him dead in the eye. The yellow-gold flecks had taken on a hideous glaze. They were all shiny and focused. It was like looking straight into the brain of a spinning top or directly into the center of hell. Except for the ugly, frightened innocence.
Petey started moving his legs and howled an animal howl that said, “Mama, Mama, mama, maaamaaaa…” In the end it sounded like a bleet; the bleeting of a sheep being led to the slaughter or a stuck pig. Snarfing again Bertie dipped into little man’s pubis and bit. Petey couldn’t talk.
It’s funny how you start out playing with a fresh born, you throw it up in the air ever so gently and it smiles. You throw it a couple times more and it smiles again. But then you pick up the pace. Higher, higher, faster, fast. It stops smiling. No ability to decode, to consciously analyze and say, “Hey, I’m in danger here!” but it knows. Maybe it’s the acceleration of the heart rate, the inconsistent, sharp, interrupted supply of oxygen to the brain. The gasping that leaves its lungs hollow. But it knows. Petey knew.
Blood was everywhere and little man cried. His eyes clouding over like eighty year-old cataracts.
“Now you’re circumcised!” Jimmy screamed, yowling.
Blood gushing like oil from a spigot, he could hardly hold still. Dancing around on gaunt legs prefaced by knobby knees Jimmy lifted little man by his arms, the bones almost popping out of the sockets. He twirled him round and round, like a merry-go-round whirling in the air. The remaining flesh dangling to one side; the blood plop, plop, plop! sploshing against the walls. They were tiny prints. Dripping onto the floorboards beneath where Petey was held the red dots looked like evangelical Os, exquisitely shaped circles; the kind expelled from the mouth of a perfectly shaped funnel.
Bertie just swallowed it whole. The flesh flapping against his teeth, the soft wriggly meat slipping over his tongue. He relished the taste of blood on his lips but he couldn’t stomach the chewing. He sucked it back into his throat then went over and banged his head up against Jimmy’s.
Bertie’s eyes held the look of a wild dog that’s panicked; like a kid who’s gorged himself on birthday cake and now stands torn between delirium at accomplishing his mission, and the awful knowledge curdling and grumbling in his gut, that in a minute the cake will exact its vengeance and he will be violently ill.
‘Have some blood mate,’ he crowed, wiping the stain against Jimmy’s lips.
He remembered Jimmy’s voice twenty minutes ago. He’d stood there watching while Jimmy indulged in tossing Petey up and down.
`Look at him wiggle Bertie! Look at the little sucker go!’
‘All right insect, put him down,’ Bertie had wailed. ‘Let’s have some fun!’
They’d put Petey down and together they’d stripped him naked.
It had started out as a boyish prank, motivated by good will and malicious intent; as enticing as the ten-foot tall bushes you could hide in down behind Lichester Abbey and never get found. As easy as a stroll through the Coventry Gardens mall, the new shopping center up on Sunrise and Covington.
Bertie and Jimmy had been there; shopping for trouble is what their mothers called it, for an arse whipping is what Bertie’s father typically bellowed. Jimmy’s dad had gone missing three, maybe four years now. The boys had cruised the mall scouting for chicks, trailing a few in and out of shops, stopping to feel them up in the passage housing the phone banks. They’d been examining the stinky goods under Melinda Hasselburg’s skirts, Bertie with his right hand crawling up her fat pink leg warmered
thigh, Jimmy’s fingers skipping around the corner of her blouse, fiddling with the nipple on the scabby hag’s tit, when like a meteor tumbling out of London’s skies Petey had wandered into their ambush. He’d been toddling through the mall, a white blob of innocence, looking lost and frightened but also cured by the excitement of his unexpected burst of independence. He wore a dog leash around his arm, the kind that lazy, undisciplined mothers used, at least that’s how Bertie pegged it.
“Ah mean,” he said to Jimmy, “what in the hell kind of moth-er couldn’t hang on to her sod without the benefit of a leash, eh? She’s a rotten bitch, that one is.’
He’d said it, his waxy face red and puffy with self-righteousness, his voice heavy with confirmation, like the priest’s on Easter Sunday. Jimmy nodded along with him. It was Jimmy who’d eyed Petey first. He’d seen the soft pink whiteness toddling towards them. He’d seen the chain around the baby’s hand and that where someone should have been holding it there was empty space. Jimmy had shivered. He had a soft spot for kids ever since he’d lost his little brother Tim to a simple case of the measles gone rampooey, caught too late by his mother’s overextended neglect. There were ten children in her den. So he’d spotted Petey and the protective instinct that puppy dogs sucked out of children, popped out of Jimmy.
Jimmy dropped the round fatness of Melinda’s nob. Bertie pulling his hand out from Melinda’s knickers didn’t bother to stick it under Jimmy’s nose or smell it as was customary.
‘Hang on a minute,’ he’d said to Melinda – who got testy immediately having no choice but to wait, knowing Bertie was doing her a favor, and that his actions enhanced her reputation among the set of hideous hyenas who called themselves her friends.
Bertie had walked over to Petey and dropping down in a squat, a bit like a bouncing yo-yo or a zen master, picked up his dog collar. He’d smiled at the child and tweaked his nose. Petey gurgled with delight. He liked other children. He liked them playing with him. He liked following them.
Both boys knew Petey’s mother. She’d gone to school with Bertie’s older sister Pamela and Jimmy’s sister Mary Elizabeth and his living brother Marcus Ryan. She was a dirty bitch everyone in Chisslewurth said and they meant it beyond the frowziness of her frocks, her stink mouth and pockmarked face. When she spoke her attitude, and her breath, unleashed things that were foul smelling, like someone who constantly vomited.
‘Poor little Petey. Lost are ye?”
Bertie sang his question to the babe. Petey grinning like one of the idiot’s on Monty Python’s Flying Circus turned and toddled towards them, his face open and generous like a platter heavy with cheese and giblets. Very appetizing. Bertie looked at him and laughed. Something about little children, their taffy-like neediness, the extra-
added sweet and softness, the dolly-eyed innocence of the barely aged, made him recoil. It reminded him too much of how he’d been when he was young. Well really he was still young, he thought, younger then, younger and needy. But today he was in a good mood, feeling less vulnerable. Today he’d be patient.
Petey clucked with pleasure and confidence, like a chick happily gobbling corn in its pen, delighted that he recognized them and that he’d been rescued by big boys who’d take care of him. Bertie grinned into the cherubic two-year old face, with cheeks disturbingly apple red.
‘We got to take him to the lost and found Bertie,’ Jimmy leaned over Bertie’s shoulder and looked at Petey, his needle chin digging into Bertie’s brown, hand-me-down leather bomber jacket.
‘That bitch Susan’s probably pitching a fit looking for him. We’ve got to take him back right now. Though she don’t deserve it, the cow.”
Bertie flicked Jimmy off his shoulder, holding Petey’s leash in one hand he hopped up and brushed invisible scales from Jimmy’s peeling and pimply chin off his jacket.
“What are ya bleeding knackered? What the hell are we gonna do that for? Let’s take the sow to school; show her what’s what and teach her a lesson. She’s got to be more responsible if she’s going to fuck every sod in town and breed a bevy o’ little bastards. Next thing you know it’ll be your niece or my nephew the cow’s got hitched like a prize puppy and losin’.”
Petey stared up at them, his dimples deepening, his cherubic gaze dependent and impersonal.
Jimmy stroked the soft yellow peach fuzz framing Petey’s scalp like a halo. Everything about the babe was softness.
‘Don’t worry sweet Pete, we got ya. Ya buddies Jimmy and Bertie got ya. Ya’re safe now with us sweet baby.’
The two abandoned Melinda who gaped after them, her knickers gathered in steamy anger and wet frustration, horrifically aware that her cohorts having salivated and envied her felt up action, now gorged themselves on the spectacle of her humiliation.
Walking between the two boys Petey cooed like a satisfied pigeon, his eyes darting about like a ferret’s sucking in all the sights and habits of Coventry’s rabbit-like citizenry. Bertie placed Petey’s pudgy hand in his own, the soft, white flesh like butter
melting and dripping in his fingers. It caused him to grimace and to overcome his revulsion he quickly hoisted Petey up onto his shoulders.
‘Come on with us Petey little man, we’ll show you what the big boys do, when there ain’t no fuckers to molest us.”
The band of three strolled the mall for twenty minutes scoping shop windows, taunting chicks, giving the finger to fellows from Norchester. Bertie stripped Petey of his collar and laughing like a banshee Jimmy stuck his American baseball cap – the one belonging to the Cleveland Indians- on Petey’s head, along with a pair of oversized dark glasses that dwarfed and hid the infant’s bewildered face.
When Petey drooled at a sundae a red-headed boy single-mindedly gobbled, the boys turned marshmallowy and raced to the vendor to get him an ice cream cone: vanilla, with a scoop of chocolate on top for Jimmy, and lots of sprinkles. Any kid worth his salt loved rainbow sprinkles, that’s what Bertie figured. And pleasing him immeasurably, Petey did.
At quarter past four they heard the message spring over the loudspeaker, declaring that a two–year old had lost his mother. The raspy male voice of mall security described the child and what he was wearing. The boys had removed Petey’s winter jacket and his dog leash. They’d turned his shirt inside out so he now sported a white fuzzy sweatshirt instead of baby blue. The voice of the mother teary and desperate, replete with sniffles, broke through the speaker then, the mall suddenly quiet like a cemetery, saying the child was timid therefore to please approach him gently.
The boys listened with appropriately pitying looks along with the rest of the mall patrons, Petey happily licking his ice cream and gurgling. Five minutes after the announcement ended they continued their stroll, looking like what they were, a couple of kids from the slums roaming on a Saturday. When at last they found themselves between the two sets of the mall’s glass exit doors, without a word spoken to each other they headed out, walking down Milburn Boulevard to Ketchum Avenue, crossing the train tracks and heading towards Birn’s Abbey with the big barn dwarfed behind a grove.
Bertie thought it would be a grand lesson if Susan sweated over Petey’s whereabouts for a couple of hours; Jimmy less sure, slingshot between mirth and anxiety, grinned and rubbing his hands manically, consented. The two found the barn and entered it with Petey, still animated, held by either hand, walking in the alley created between them.
To keep Petey entertained and to ward off the guilt gnawing them, they played a game of tag. Jimmy tapped Petey on the shoulder and urged the babe to run after him. Petey grinned and stared, eager to please but unsure of the big boy’s instructions. Bertie demonstrated.
He socked Jimmy in the gut and darted off like a squirrel. Petey laughed, toddled over to Jimmy and punched him, then beat his baby legs, clumsy and fat, away as fast as he could. The gang of three played tag for ten minutes, followed by cops and robbers, then murder and robbery. The two boys performed splits and cartwheels, and Petey tried to copy them but the movements were too complicated. His tiny limbs, outmatched by Bertie’s and Jimmy’s were exhausted. He tumbled on the ground and banged his head in the process. They were amazed when he sat up dazed and giggled instead of crying.
As the light in the barn dimmed Petey grew anxious. Glancing around him he started to fidget. Every few minutes he asked for his mommy. ‘Petey wanny Mummy.’ To quiet and distract him Jimmy launched into a personal rendition of the Rolling Stones ‘Satisfaction.’ It was one he was extremely proud of.
Petey stared in bewilderment, rubbing his nose which had started running. He pulled himself away from the boys, and eyeing them with suspicion demanded his mommy, his cries growing strident and unforgiving. Agitated by Petey’s fussing and Jimmy’s massacre of a good oldie, Bertie order him to shut it. Jimmy ignored him.
‘He’s just tired Bertie, that’s all he is. It’s to be expected ain’t it. If ah sing to ‘im he’ll close his eyes and grow tired. That’s what used to happen with Timmy.’
Jimmy launched into a chain gang of childish lullabies, singing till a weary and confused Petey toddled over. Biting his lip he grew quiet, crawled into Jimmy’s lap and surrendered. After several versions of Old MacDonald, the itsy bitsy spider and Jack and Jill, ambushed by exhaustion Petey dozed off, crying softly.
Wrapped in Jimmy’s arms, drooling onto his coat, the infant crapped and farted. The stench wafted through the barn. Clogging his nostrils with two fingers, and laughing hysterically, but silently, Bertie commanded Jimmy to ‘Stay exactly as you are before ya wake the bleedin kid.’ Bertie escaped to the other side of the barn.
The dark came on. Tiny shards of light filtered through cracks in the barn’s walls. Bertie searched out the barn till he located an oil lamp. Bragging to Jimmy about the luck of the MacNiltys he dug in his pocket, flicked his lighter out and lit it.
Petey slept for forty minutes. His stomach bloated with hunger from several hours of not eating, he woke up crying. The boys watched him in confusion as Petey crawled out of Jimmy’s arms and stood in the center of the barn, tears running down his face, mucous dripping out of his nostrils, and bawled. The thick pudgy ball of white dough dressed in jumpers with a blue sweatshirt turned inside out, and a blue sailor coat, no longer looked innocent. His clothes were muddy and dirty, his face marked by smudgy tear streaked paths was sooty, the hat had fallen off his head so his peach fuzz spiked up at attention. Petey looked pathetic. Pity flooded the boys, coupled with a growing revulsion and budding annoyance at Petey’s failure to compromise, to comply with their wishes.
First Bertie approached him, then Jimmy who’d become so frightened by the baby’s howling he’d wanted to run. Bertie dropped down onto his knees and stared at the baby. He lowered his head till he’d made direct eye contact with Petey, who angry and wilfull, kept looking away.
‘Come on now love, don’t be a big baby. What are you going on like that for?’
Petey stared at him in blank denial and after a minute more of failed coaxing Bertie threw his hands up disgusted. Jimmy approached the baby. He stroked Petey’s hair, then lifted him and started singing.
‘What’s the matter Petey baby, are you missing your mummy? Is that what it is little man, little babe?’
Petey kept bawling.
Jimmy set Petey down firmly. ‘I think he’s hungry Bertie that’s what he is. My brotha Tim used to act the same way when his gut was empty and botherin’ him’
Both boys scanned the barn. Straw and farm utensils stared back at them. Jimmy spoke first. ‘We have to give him back to his mother. Let’s give him Bertie. Otherwise he’s gonna spend all day crying and I can’t stand it.’
Bertie scanned his friend contemptuously. His voice held the frost of winter, Jimmy could see the vapors dancing off the syllables, freezing to ice in the open air.
‘How’re we gonna do that, genius? Just walk back into the mall with him? Especially now that he’s dirty and crying? I mean look at him, we can’t say we just found him happy as ever wandering the mall. Someone’ll see us with him if we go back tonight. You’d better believe we’ll catch all hell for it.”
Jimmy whimpered. ‘So what are we gonna do with him Bert. We have to return him. Why can’t we just take him to the shop up on Milburn, tie the leash around his neck, chain him to a post and leave? Hunh Bertie, why can’t we do that?’
Bertie stared at Jimmy for a millisecond, then shook his head and turned back to the baby.
“Around his neck, idiot? First of all that’d hang him. Second, everything’s always so simple for ya, ain’ it. I guess that’s what comes from bein’ an idiot, don’t it. Makes life easy, not thinkin’.”
He walked over to Petey. “Come little man, don’t be that way with your big brothas. So what you’re a little hungry, here have a minty bar baby.’
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a half eaten candy bar that he’d forgotten. He broke it off and with supreme satisfaction at his discovery stuck a piece into the baby’s gob.
Petey sucked on the candy until the minty bar dissolved leaving behind his hunger. Almost immediately he resumed bawling. His cries rending the ear drums of the barn’s dejected inhabitants. Jimmy panicked.
Striding up to Petey and whisking him up quickly, the baby lost his breath it happened so suddenly, he chanted, ‘We’re going to play a little game with you Petey. A little game for the baby. Come on now, I’ll show you.”
And so it had started.
“Bertie stand over there for a minute,” Jimmy chortled. “We’ll have a quick game a football, you and me and Petey baby. Timmy used to love it.”
He glanced at Petey singing: “Fun and games for Petey. Petey’ll be the football. Football fun and games for Petey.”
Overhead, overhead. Twenty-four inches of smooth, cuddly white flesh sailed through air. Alternately gagging and gasping for breath. Two pairs of fine young hands reached out to catch him. Jimmy’s fingers, slim, gracefully shaped, the fingers that would tune a piano or sketch a painting, only now a bit of grub hovered beneath the nails. Bertie’s thick, stubby and sallow-skinned. Smooth, pre-pubescent skin, the kind on which flesh hunters place a premium.
Petey had lost his breath. Unable to cry, his face panicked and screaming. Buoyed by his delirium, his increasing panic, the games had escalated. The boys felt giddy with mischief and power.
`What’s that ad say?’ Jimmy yelled. `So cuddly soft it melts in your mouth, but not in your hands. Put him in your mouth Bertie! Put him in your mouth! Bite his fingers off. Bite `em. Suck `em hard! Nob `em off!’
They’d placed Petey on the ground, stripped him naked and started pinching and biting him.
“Hee, hee!” Jimmy yowled, rocking back and forth on his heels. Standing in place he felt the world spinning round him, spinning wildly off kilter and he its axis.
The ball tumbled to the ground. Splat! On concrete. Neither looked. It had simply popped. Its guts crunched in on itself. Better to let it lie there and regain its breath.
‘You don’t think he’s dead do you Bertie? You don’t think he’s dead?’
‘Touch him and see,’ Bertie rasped.
The words barely escaped his clenched teeth. Bertie always talked by barely moving his lips or opening his mouth.
`Must be in training for a gangster movie, eh sod?’ his pa used to say and laugh, big and hard, hollow like. There was no mirth.
When the kid had gasped as though sucking air Bertie had heard his old man’s echo:
‘Whup his arse Martha, whup his arse!’
Jimmy reached the tip of his boots out to white chocolate; slipped it under the fleshy, deflated belly, skin concrete scraped.
‘He’s moving!’ he breathed, the words coming fatuous, a prom queen about to be crowned.
‘Roll him over unto his back then,’ Bertie ordered.
Jimmy rolled. The two left the child alone for minutes. A bizarre thing that had been thrown into their midst. They stood staring down at him like an oddity. Bertie’s head hanging askance as though perplexed by the fallen star that had landed. It was like a giant blowup ball that had been squeezed to bursting, yet still held on to its oxygen. Hands in his pocket, left leg propped against the rotting weatherbeaten beam Bertie cocked his head sidewise and studied the mass lying on the barn floor. He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a cig, lit it and threw the match onto the mass of yellow halo.
‘Lucky for you it didn’t catch your hair,’ he grunted.
The match’s sulfurous tip seemed to take heed on making contact with the doughy cotton.
Jimmy meantime danced round, hopping back and forth on one leg. Bertie reckoned he looked like a grasshopper.
‘You’re such a flippin insect,’ Bertie barked.
‘What’s wrong with you? Sit your arse down!’
But Jimmy just looked over at his friend who he knew roundly enough to see he was wired to bursting. Chuckling in the semi-attentive manner of a basset hound Jimmy continued on his rounds. Hopping once, twice, three times around the body before Bertie started for him. When Bertie was within palms grasp Jimmy flew off even more madly than before, his feet scattering like chickens after a feed. Hopping wildy after him Bertie began the chase. Round and round they hopped, their size sevens and eights clack, clack, clacking out staccato-like taps on the concrete floor. Jimmy grinned hopping with the shrillness of a wasp about to be set afire. Shooting after him Bertie laughed; his laughter much like the rhythm of his hopping, occurring in short, precise beats, the soul drums to Jimmy’s percussive staccato.
Though it was the dead of winter and the barn unheated, sweat dripped down Bertie’s forehead. His shirt stuck to his skin like a second coming. Tumbling after his friend Bertie laughed inside himself, the laughter playing itself out as a fierce concentrated grimace across his forehead and lips, the only sound emitted, short, corn-like grunts, yellow and hard. He kept his eyes on Jimmy.
‘Ah Bertie, you fat bastard! You caaan’t catch me. You caaan’t catch me.’
Brimming with sweat, his lips glossy with spit, white foam buds forming in the corners of his mouth which was as red as cherrysuckle, the muck and sweat mingling in the crevice of one eye, Jimmy stopped hopping for a millisecond and stared at his friend. A hair’s brush later, with the intensity of the doomed, he resumed his frenetic mission. Upping the ante he jerked within an ankle’s reach of his robust friend. And it was then that Bertie had him. Unbending the crooked knee Bertie swung it out into the right angle of Jimmy’s raised leg, hooked himself round it and brought the boy with wheat colored hair tumbling down. Both collapsed with dazed looks across their faces. It was as though the earth had reached up to grab them. Not one for dwelling Bertie favored the expression of the infinitely victorious. Jimmy, the inevitably vanquished, stared at his friend through glossy eyes: a cross between candid apprehension and outright admiration.
‘So I couldn’t catch you, eh insect?’
Bertie sent his hand flying into Jimmy’s forehead. Jimmy ducked.
“I was only gonna wipe that speck o’ dirt off your forehead Jimmy boy. Don’t be such a puss.”
Jimmy and Bertie fell to fighting, rolling around on the floor each boy alternately had the upper hand. Jimmy, his body gaunt and wiry, a disciple of natural muscle-tone, flailed his arms about like a madman, wrapping one hand around Bertie’s neck and squeezing till his face turned blue. Flailing and grunting like dogs at a prize fight the two rolled over and over against the grey concrete, butting heads and twisting limbs.
When finally they stopped, neither the worse for wear, and stared across the jumble of their legs at the pile lying still on the ground immediately both began to cry. Jimmy’s cries coming fast and hard like the whistle of a diesel, Bertie’s the slow steady hum of its engine, his skin completely whitening, the knuckles dead white at the corner and hot pink at the tips. Bertie’s eyes housed the look of a deer caught in the headlights, the quick easy recognition of his death. He lifted his hand and wiped away the vision.
After watching Jimmy and the baby Bertie roused his mate.
‘Come on Jimmy, stop it. Crying’s not gonna help any.’
Momentarily caught off guard Jimmy stopped and looked into his friend’s eyes. It was as though crying had unleashed an army of old hurts and the boy was reluctant to recage them. Rising on his knees Bertie reached over and pulled his friend to him. He grabbed him with all his might and began to squeeze. Jimmy responded in kind. Then slowly the tremors stopped and the squeezing turned to gentle caresses and solace. Sobbing the boys held one another and in the minutes that flew like crows around their shoulders, circling ever closer, Bertie could hear their bruised wings beating against his ear drums. Jimmy felt the talons of their feet rake against the back of his neck. It was decided.
`He ain’t dead Bertie. I know it. He ain’t dead,’ Jimmy huskily whispered, crawling rapidly across the floor on two knees to the crumpled body and touching it. Staring up into Bertie’s eyes he dusted the cornsilk hair out of the two year old’s eyes, opened them and looked into glass. Jimmy reached down and put his head against he lad’s chest. There he felt the tiniest murmur.
‘He’s not dead yet Bertie,’ he shouted.
“He’s not dead.”
The tiniest glimmer of hope danced across Jimmy’s crown. Looking up into Bertie’s emerald eyes he crowed, ‘We can…..we can… He’s not dead yet Bertie; he’s not dead.’
Bertie pulled out another cig, his dark green’s never leaving Jimmy’s he gauged the other boy’s reaction.
‘We can what Jimmy boy? We can what? He’s worse than dead Jimmy. He’s worse than dead.’
Jimmy’s head slunk to his chest. He got up rapidly, backing away from the body, refuging himself in a corner, at the opposite end of the barn.
“We’ll have to take him down to the tracks. We’ll leave him there. Nobody’ll know. They’ll think he wandered off from the scag and got hit by a train.’
‘Why?’ Jimmy howled.
‘Why we gotta hurt him Bertie? Why?’
Biting off the tip of the cigarette Bertie spat.
‘Figure it out Jimmy. You’re a smart lad.’
Jimmy’s eyes refused to leave Bertie’s face. They danced to the youngster’s, then back again.
‘Awright, genius. Look at them bruises. Them black and blues.’
Choking on the words he added, ‘His goddamn cock’s gone for Chrissakes. How’re ya gonna explain that?’
Jimmy dropped his head down unto the collapsed chest. He stroked the corn-silk hair. Dusk blanketing the snow capped meadows heard him whisper, ‘How’re we gonna do it?’
‘How’re we gonna do it without being seen?’ Jimmy asked, his lips trembling.
‘We’ll have to wait till nightfall,’ Bertie replied his gaze straight ahead to the vision before him.
Not one to fall apart in front of others Bertie felt his lips quiver. Through the cracks in the ceiling he saw his guts bang up against his insides like waves beating against unwelcoming and resistant shores. He sawvhimself running along the shoreline in Normandy, the sea white, clear and foamy, a thousand wild horses galloping to greet the sea; so different from Bristol.
In his vision a seagull winged overhead and Bertie heard the whip of its wings, the arc of its cry. Its uhr, uhr, uhr.’ It was a funny sound. A kind of singing like a dirge.
Sad, mournful, really. But he Bertie, he was happy running. In his blue schoolboy shorts, the snaps in place and held tight across his gut. His little belly bubbling over feet. Naked to the waist, his arms, his stomach, even his legs and bare feet were pitch white. ‘Perfect Irish white,’ his mother would have said.
Bertie smiled feeling the grainy sand beneath his foot bottoms, the whipple whirl of gusts beating against his face. And the gull? There! It had made that piercing sound again. Bertie looked back and saw it was almost upon him. He ran laughing, laughing to outrun a gull. `Outrun a winged creature Bertie boy, you can do it lad. Yes you can.’ Bertie ran. He felt the wing first beat against his back, the flapping of its wings whisk against his ear. ‘Whirr, whirr,’ as the gull unfurled soaring beyond him.
“You know Jimmy,” Bertie whispered cocking his head, “I ain’t never been to the shore. We should go sometime.”
Bertie plunked himself down. The weatherbeaten beam at his back, the rotting fboards on the left side of the barn easing splinters into his skin. Now that the decision had been made they were both more relaxed. Jimmy turned in to himself as though recording his abject misery. Bertie alert and alone. Looking over at his friend he felt sure Jimmy was relaxed. Jimmy left everything up to him. It was always his decision.
‘Aye,’ he said smiling, suddenly tired, ‘I’m the man here.’
Bertie lay down and Jimmy came over to him. Watching his friend fight the sleep threatening to overtake him Jimmy said, ‘Why don’t you go to sleep Bertie. I’ll watch him.’
For a moment Bertie doubted the intentions of his friend. Inside something cried out, ‘He’s gonna get you in trouble. He’s gonna run off and get the cops and you’re gonna get nicked.’
But Bertie smiled and said, ‘Sure Jimmy, I could use that.’
Terrified and alone Jimmy was pleased to be in charge. He looked from body to body then crawled closer to Bertram. Outside he heard rustling and the wind, the noise of animals familiar to the night. Inside the awful quiet yawned out at him. He was completely alone. ‘How had it happened to him he asked himself. What happened Jimmy boy, what happened?’ He looked over at two-year old Petey and pulled himself up next to the boy. His breathing had stopped and the ice cold blue eyes no longer reflected its flecks. The eyes were glassy and hard. The baby’s stomach a greenish blue. Jimmy thought of the times when he’d had such marks. A cricket sang and jumped in a woodpile next to them. Jimmy flinched. In his mind’s eye he saw the day breaking out over the hills and dreamt of waking up from the ghastly nightmare, running over to Bertie’s house and howling with him about the fantastic nature of the dream and the unlikelihood of it happening.
‘Magine that,’ Bertie would say.
`You’re a stupid insect.’
And he’d laugh one of his short belly laughs. They’d collapse on the floor howling. It was a good yarn with which to frighten their mates, to promise them they were capable of doing. Afterwards he’d run up to Mrs. Edwards penny-anty shop and while Bertie played look-out, he’d nick some games, and they’d go back to his house and play with the games and his model train, his only possession.
Jimmy looked up with a sigh. The body was still there. He leant his head down on the concrete floor and sobbed the life-weary sobs of an old man whose heart is broken.
‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry you followed me. I’m sorry.’
Then afraid of waking Bertie he arrested the sound.
A dream within a dream. With each punch and the resultant collapse of flesh closing in around his fist Bertie felt his father’s eyes upon him. He felt his father’s power surge. He felt his own eyes upon his face. Tossing the boy overhead Bertie went into a reverie, a private reverie he could not outrun. He saw big hairy hands reaching out to grab him. He saw the web of black hair across the hands and forearms grab him from behind and hold him. Bertie heard the belt buckle loosening and the dark woolen trousers drop to the floor as his father pulled him closer. His own belt was loosened. His pants fell to the ground.
The demons were often successful. Bertie reckoned they were closing in fast.
Biting into the smooth flesh Bertie felt the demon creeping up behind him. He saw the tiny white bottom poised quivering in the air. Unable to move, held in place. Bertie’s head exploded into mindsplitting screams.
‘A secret. A secret. A secret between…’
‘Tell and I’ll rip your arse from here to Wallingford. Besides you little bugger you liked it. I saw the way you moved,’ Titus McNilty taunted his son.
Bertie ripped into Petey’s guts then. He saw the hairy monster before him and he wanted to make it hurt. To knock all recognition from its eyes. Bertie felt the power of the damned. The power that brings fear into focus. He looked into Petey’s eyes looking into his own and saw himself. Only this time he was all-powerful. This time, he Bertie, was the terrorizer. This time he would win.
Petey’s eyes balking in panic at first gave Bertie cause for alarm but when he recognized it for what it was – absolute, unadulterated terror – he relished it. Bertie felt a
sensation cruising through his gut, sinuous as the movement of snakes, as delectable as the time he’d fecked a girl against her will. It was better than Christmas morning or a hot toffee on the tip of your tongue. It lit up his very being. Bertie dove into the feeling and lived.
Waking minutes to midnight the boys ignored the body between them. Instead they began the game again. Jimmy hopping madly, Bertie chasing after him.
“I’m gonna get you! I’m gonna get you!” Bertie growled, his own pace slowed by the hopping.
‘I’m gonna get you!’
Jimmy laughed and whirred right past.
‘I’m much better than you at this Bertie! Hoppin’s my game!’
‘You goddamn grasshopper! You ain’t nothin’ but a flippin insect!’
That said Jimmy banged directly into Bertie, upending him. The two collapsed into a pile of bony joints and strong muscular limbs sticking out in all directions. The two boys hooted with laughter, the sound high and hysterical.
Straightening himself Jimmy pointed at the body still on the floor before them and cried a sheet of tears as hard as the rains of Bristol, cutting down dikes, gutting roads, driving hollows down his cheeks.
‘What are we gonna do about ‘im Bertie? What are we gonna do about ‘im?’
That said he succumbed to all out bawling, doubling himself up in a knot and wiping his nose on the mud covered sleeve. Bertie’s voice was equally tight.
‘Shut up insect, shut up. How do you expect me to think?’
Jimmy shut up.
‘Plus, what are ya bawling for?’ Bertie hissed. ‘It was your idea to take him.’
“They’re gonna kill us Bertie, they’re gonna kill us when they find him. Me mum’s gonna whip me. What are we gonna do Bertie, tell me? What are we gonna do?”
‘Shut up insect. Shut up. Nobody knows we took him. So shut up insect, shut up.’
<i>— Sandro Max, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, is a writer of short stories, poems, nonfiction essays and journalistic articles.