by Ian O’Brien

Daniel bites his nails down right to the red, until the pain is almost soothing. He sucks at the flared skin, until Dean tells him to stop. What for? he asks, and continues, looking out at the grey of the motorway, a wet burring. Dean is nibbling the end of the pen he has used to take the register, the clipboard balanced on his knee. Because they won’t heal, he says, his eyes on the paperwork, scribbling notes against names. ‘Inhaler’, ‘Epi-pen’, ‘Risk’. Daniel sniffs a response, looks at the torn fingers, the frayed skin, hands that look older than they should, rough and soft at the same time. Are you looking forward to it? He doesn’t answer, makes a point of shifting in his seat, thumbing the seatbelt so that it loosens its grip on his chest. He gets on with Dean better than some of the other carers but he is still annoyed that he made him sit away from the others. Not after last time, he’d said. Jesus, I’m surprised they’re trusting you out again after that stunt. He’d opened the fire door on the M6, on a trip to a safari park the year before and they’d nearly lost a girl who was sat behind. You can sit up front with me and the driver. Daniel looks at the cancelled horizon, at the distant hills where the rain is dragging down the cloud. This’ll clear by the time we get there, Dean says, as if guessing his thoughts. They’ve forecast sun this afternoon. Daniel doesn’t take the bait. He traces a finger against the window, writes his name in the condensation, the streaks it leaves expose slices of motorway, of the disappearing city, pylons, and the dark green bank of hills and forests and rivers he doesn’t know the name of. His country, foreign and blank.

Dean does a count up in the car park as the supervisors stretch and yawn, blinking at the thin sun and pulling on sweaters. We stay together, he says, pointing to the pier, all the way along. There’s an arcade at the end, that’s our meeting point if anyone gets lost. But his voice is already out at sea and they move like a wave, surging and thinning. Across the road and onto the pier, two dozen of them spilling and separating. There is the sound of gulls and the sound of traffic, the jagged music of the arcades and stalls and somewhere in the background the white noise of the sea and the distant rattle of a rollercoaster like a hospital trolley. The boys are gone, lost in the crowd. They race like rats on a sinking ship, desperate to find something they don’t know they are looking for. They weave and bob, thread through people, under barriers, over shuttle tracks and Dean’s voice is swept away.

In the arcade Daniel licks his fingers, the candyfloss has left a sweet red and he savours it. He has spent up, and now the arcade’s whirlpool of sound and colour is hollowing and the machines have lost their pull. He goes outside and the others are already at the end of the pier, looking over, spitting. He joins them. A gull shrieks close by and wheels away and he lashes out at it, half-scared and half-filled with something else that he doesn’t understand. Below the waves are crashing against the rotting bones of the pier. The boys spit, their weightless white offerings are whipped away and sometimes thrown back to them, to wild cries. Passers by tut and shuffle on, button up coats; there is no sign of Dean.

It happens instantly and it happens pointlessly. There is no build up, no discussion. No reckless bets or challenges, no dares. One moment Daniel is moving his hands across the barrier, feeling the cold in the steel, the fleck of saltwater spray light against his skin, the next he has stepped up onto the first rung of the barrier. At this higher level, the wind both pushes at him and pulls, tugs and drags, makes a ragged sound as it ripples his clothes and he widens out his arms and spreads his fingers wide, feels the wind pour through them, fluid almost. Another rung and another and the wind is wild, a barrage of attention, a flood that makes a flag of his jacket and stings his skin. He has closed his eyes and doesn’t see the sun break through the cloud but feels it, he feels light, like a balloon and feels like he could take off, watch the pier shrink and the waves become ripples, the gulls suddenly beneath him, the ocean wide and blank and his. His hands fill with something.

Ian O’Brien is a writer and teacher from Manchester, UK. When not writing dark stories, marking books or walking his dog, he is usually berating the world on Twitter @OB1Ian.