by Ian O’Brien
He’d sit at his desk at the back and eat garlic. Whole bulbs, he’d crunch into them, casual, like they were apples, without even wincing, chew greedily on the cloves, bringing shrieks and gagging sounds from the girls. The flakes would shimmer onto his desk and he wouldn’t brush them off, let them gather on his closed exercise book, if he’d brought it in. The teacher ignored it at first. No eating in class, she’d squint as if he’d opened a bag of crisps. There’d be cloves on the desk, left over, half-chewed, in pools of saliva, purple as the shadows of his eyes. When he did produce any books from his bag they had grown, swelled with rain or mould. The fuss that erupted when he drew back the string, the must that clouded him. It smelled like cigarettes congealed in the gutter, like attics, like something found in a closed-down orphanage.
In the changing rooms, stripped, he’d make his shoulder-blades dance, rotate them, almost dislocate them to shrill laughs. Suck in his stomach within his ribcage, swing his arms in a skeleton dance. The bruises changed each week, his body like an autumn sky. We’d dress him up with dregs from the lost property box, he never had his kit, shorts that clung or flapped, boots like clogs three sizes too big, and he’d stand in goal like a ghost. His disinterest in the ball would bring shouts and sometimes he’d gesture a save, spread his limbs like a spider in its web and stretch, a shadow of a dive, and end up in the mud, sprawl in it, let it slip between his fingers and sit up dazed, the ball in the net, deaf to the teacher’s whistle. He was neither bully nor bullied. The tough kids in the year would leave him alone, unsure what to do with him, like they’d found a wasps’ nest suddenly in the corridor, pretend to paw at it and leave it be. The older ones seemed to not see him at all.
The summer that it happened, we’d started taking the long way home, by the motorway bridge. He’d tag along, a clown, pulling things from his bag of tricks, all limbs and hair that hung in rats’ tails. More garlic, a razor blade, pages ripped from a dirty magazine. They were like payment for our time, our attention, something between sympathy and awe. We’d dawdle at the bridge, watch the chainsaw of cars below. The sky seemed to stretch and everything seemed sharper somehow and the strangest thing, looking back, was how calm he’d be. The noise would be a roar, the constant sear of tyres on tarmac, a fierce concrete shoreline. He’d watch hypnotised, we all would for a time, shouting above it, but he’d be silent, almost reverent and his gaze would lift to the distance. The hills, perhaps. The ancient hills that stretched on the horizon, unseen from below, in the day to day, in the cramped grime of buildings and fences and smashed-glass houses, but from here they stood sentry, almost graceful, a kind of silence to them that the motorway couldn’t reach. The town sprawled away on either side of us, belittled by them, like toys or props in comparison, flimsy, temporary.
It started with small things. Spit, at first. Hunched over, watching the line stretch and snap before it fell, never seeing the impact on windshield but imagining and laughing, listening for a blast of horn, a validation that rarely came. It was him who threw the first stone, a small one, just a chipping from the bridge surface. It fell fast and we held our breath, heard the thin tack tack as it bounced from one car to another, the sound as tiny as bird prints but solid enough and he spun, wild. Another, larger, his eyes wide with hunger, listening for the crack it made as it hit a van roof, sent him spinning, pirouetting, wired. We should stop it now, we should’ve said, but he’d set something going, a mad ticking, a spring that had been sprung and wouldn’t stop, his hands groped for stones, scampered for anything, he tore at moss that grew in the mud at the sides of the bridgeway, watched it flutter down, reached into the bag, more garlic, cried out as it smashed against a windscreen, the cloves spinning, crushed, another blast of horns. He gorged on the moment, the reaction, we stood back, some laughed, some left. The cloves from here looked like teeth. And it went this way for days. Sometimes, when he’d thrown all he had, the paper, the pennies, a coke can once, an empty match box, the smile would evaporate, the eyes dilated and mad would cast over and he’d look to the hills again. Sometimes we’d leave him like that, just looking, our laughs unheard, unfelt.
He’d been off school the day it happened, and we’d found him on the bridge already, waiting. Sat cross-legged, his back to the railings, away from the roaring traffic. He toyed with something in his bag, something dark that seemed to move. We got closer and he hardly looked up, the crooked smile giving way to bit-lip laughs as he toyed with the thing in the bag. Where were you, someone said, and kicked at him gently like you would a nest or a fire. He had this thing where he’d look around you instead of at you, would only make contact for a second, those eyes like wounds would flash upon you and you’d feel a stab somehow, a lance, as they passed over yours.
He pulled a cat from the bag.
Little more than a kitten, a crying hungry bundle. He held it carefully with one hand, almost skilful, and prodded a thin finger at its mouth, tapping at its teeth, as if wanting it to bite. It cried thinly, almost unheard over the din of the traffic beneath, the chainsaw sea. We collapsed around him, some stroking, some stuffing hands in pockets, as if awkward or afraid. Where did you get it? What’s its name? Is it yours? The questions something like concern, and he stood stiffly and flipped it on his shoulder, like a conjurer or circus act. Its eyes widened as it glared at the cars, the constant tide, and it seemed to shrink to him, to claw at his neck, at his shoulder, he grinned as if tickled, though it drew blood on his neck. It’s mine, he said. He held it in place on his shoulder with one hand and toyed with a stone on the railing with another, half-facing the traffic. I could see he’d lined the stones up. They were only small, and he idly flicked at them, they fell in silence and we didn’t hear them connect; he looked sullen. The others left, as if they sensed what he might do next, an unspoken signal agreed. He eyed the cars. Above, a buzzard wheeled. I remember the cat looking up to it, its head twitching between the bird and the ground, a kind of hungry torment. He took his hand away. It was if he knew the cat would be too afraid to move. It dug its nails deeper, thin beads of blood springing on his neck. He didn’t seem to notice, just rigidly looked out. I don’t even know if he knew I was there.
I didn’t want to stay but didn’t want to leave. I stepped away from him, undecided. He took the cat from his shoulder, its legs stretching and scrambling, like a spider’s. He placed it on the railing. I remember the buzzard crying high above us and the cat’s own thin cries becoming deeper. He held it in place on the railing, not looking at it, just looking out. I moved cautiously alongside, a few feet away, my hand against the railing, suddenly afraid of the distance below, of the cars that slammed into the space just feet beneath. He was looking to the hills, transfixed, at a fire I think, that had started in the distance, small and thin, the cat clawing at his hand and arm that held it in place. It’s scared, I found myself saying and there was a vague wince as he realised I was there. He didn’t look at me, just sideways slightly, and down to the cat, as if he only just realised it was there. He suddenly let go and it sprang away from him, across the banister, between us, and down to the surface of the bridge, by my feet. It ran past me and away, the way we had come, quickly disappearing to the steps. He didn’t see it go. The blood was slowly streaming on his neck and he put his fingers to it, looking at them, almost confused. You were going to throw it over, I said, finding an anger I didn’t know I had. You sick bastard, I spat, the words acidic, angry, old. There were tears I realised with a dull panic, springing just beneath the surface and my cheeks flushed with blood. He looked at me then. Not around me or across me but at me. And there was something like outrage and hurt and sorrow and madness all combined. I just wanted it to see, he said.
Ian O’Brien is a writer and teacher from Manchester, UK. When not marking books or walking his whippet, he writes flash-fiction and short stories. His work has been published in Fictive Dream, Neon, Prole and Flash Fiction Magazine. He will one day complete that novel, if he can get off Twitter @OB1Ian.