Stone Heart

Chapter.5 Getting High

Daniel sat cross-legged with Lincoln’s head in his lap, back against the fridge, looking out through the kitchen window at the grey skies of the morning. The dog dozed in and out of consciousness, occasionally stirring from sleep to fix him with its thoughtful eyes. He took his time petting the animal’s head, enjoying the softness of the fine fur under his fingers.

“No walk today?” Kate asked, coming down the stairs.

“Not today.” Daniel never stopped looking out the window.

Kate went to the fridge and dug out two brown paper bags: their lunches, prepared by their mother the night before. “You don’t want to forget this.” She extended the bag to Daniel. “You keep forgetting it and taking mine when you’re hungry. I can’t afford the calories.” she patted her stomach, “I’m wasting away, look at me.” Daniel continued to stare out the window and her slight smile died. She placed the bag next to him. “Just please put it in your bag.”

Sighing, Daniel stood up. “Thanks, Kate.” Unzipping his bag, he stowed away the lunch for later.

“You won’t forget what you promised today?” Kate’s smile returned, hopeful, imploring.

“No way, Kate,” said Daniel ruefully, putting his arm around her and squeezing as they left the house. “Never.”

————-

Daniel caught himself looking at the empty desks of Thommy and Dean. He shouldn’t care. Why do I care? He scratched absentmindedly at a scab on his temple. The beating from weeks earlier still left its mark. Feeling a tap on his left shoulder Daniel turned. It was Milton.

“We still on today?” Milton asked.

“Yeah, for sure, man.”

“Nice.” Milton leaned back, balancing on the back two legs of his chair.

“What’s the plan, the usual?”

“What’s the plan everyday, Pinky? I try and take over the world.” Milton winked.

Daniel laughed. “Sounds good, Brain.”

The two boys exited the school together. Classes were boring as usual, but now that Daniel talked and joked with Milton through most of them, time passed quickly. As they approached the maple tree at the exit to the school, Milton started to lag behind. “You forget something?” said Daniel.

“Nope, just figure it’s your choice.” Milton took a pack of cigarettes out from the front pouch of his bag. After tapping it on the back of his hand he pulled one of its long cylinders from the packaging and placed it in his mouth.

“What?” Daniel stopped, confused. “What’s my choice?”

A lighter materialized in Milton’s hands. He lit his smoke and shrugged. “Everything,” he said between puffs of smoke, “just take your time.”

Daniel almost lost his footing as Kate collided with his lower half, hugging him around the waist.

“You ready?” Kate held tightly while looking up at him.

“Ready? Goddammit.” Daniel hated being confused. “Ready for what?”

Kate released him and stepped back. “You promised that today we’d walk together.” Kate’s expression was suspicious. “Daniel… I’ve been asking you for weeks. I asked you this morning. You promised. You forgot?”

“I didn’t forget!” Daniel answered angrily, loathing himself for forgetting. “I just forgot I had to do something today after school, Kate, otherwise I would, for sure.”

Kate looked for a moment like she wanted to hit him, but the frustration passed from her face leaving only a demoralized girl. “I see… well, tomorrow right. We’ll walk together tomorrow then?” She wouldn’t look at him, only the ground.

“Yeah, for sure. You know I will. Today is just a weird day. I totally forgot what I had to do.” He hugged her and kissed her head. He felt nothing: no connection.

“Okay, I’ll find Sandy. I don’t think she’s left yet.” Kate shuffled away leaving Daniel standing by himself. Why couldn’t she just hate me? It’d be so much easier.

“So you’ve got it right?” Urgency crept into Daniel’s voice.

“My good man, when have I ever not? I just wanted to go to a new place today.”

“A new place, why? What’s wrong with the park?”

Milton feigned a hurt expression. “Well pardon me for liking a little ambiance.” In an exaggerated girlish voice he continued, “I swear it’s like you just don’t care about us doing anything special together anymore.”

“Oh fuck off.” Daniel shoved Milton, feeling stupid for appearing needy. “So where’s this new place?”

“All in good time, my man, we aren’t far now.”

Much as he didn’t want to show it, Daniel was disappointed. He loved the park. Milton had introduced him to afternoons spent doing nothing more than wandering within its green borders. Walking on its paths where no one could see him, he felt a rare kind of peace. All he needed to do was step off the set trails and walk for a few feet then suddenly the city and all its constructs were gone: no businesses, schools or any other institution of memory reminding you of your place within, insisting on it.

“You want one?” Milton was lighting another cigarette.

“No, I’m alright. I don’t smoke.”

Milton made a sound. “Picky picky, bit of a double standard you got there.”

“That’s different,” Daniel defended.

“Suit yourself.” Milton took a long drag making overly contented sounds, like a restaurant patron who wanted everyone to know how expensive their dinner was.

“We gonna arrive soon?” Daniel tried to steer the conversation.

“You don’t recognize where we are… I thought you might?” Milton flicked the half smoked cigarette to the street and ground its smoldering ember with the heel of his shoe.

“Oh shit,” said Daniel, seeing the large structure rearing up in front of him. Lost in visions of the park he’d mentally pruned his awareness to a few feet in front of him.

“Yeah, pretty cool eh? I figured for what I got rolled up for us today we ought to head somewhere special. What do you think?”

“Of the church?” Daniel sputtered, “it’s cool, but there’s no way in. I’ve been by here dozens of times. The place is locked down.”

“Oh is it?” Milton gave a crooked smile. “Wait till you see, man. I know a way in and at the top is a view you wouldn’t believe. Come on. Let’s go.” Milton led them down the 7-Eleven’s alley adjacent to the church. Reaching a cross in the alleys they took a right which would led them behind the church.

“I’m telling you, it’s just a fence. I’ve been back here. You don’t think I wanted to climb up that construction work before?” Milton did not seem like he was listening. As they continued on their path his features tightened with intense concentration. “Even if you want to climb it, there’s razor wire at the top. I don’t care how good the view is, I’m not getting my wrists slit over it.”

“Would you shut-up,” Milton hissed. “I’m trying to focus.”

“Yeah sure… sorry.” Daniel quieted, not so much out of respect for his friend’s wishes, but surprise. Since they’d started to hang out Milton may have joked around with him, but never had he been rude.

“I’m looking for something. It was here the other day.” The boys walked next to the fence behind the church and Milton walked with his hand brushing the links. After a few more feet his eyes which had become slits popped open. “Ah yes, found it.” He smiled in satisfaction and gripped the fence.

“Found what?” asked Daniel.

“The door to Narnia. You’re lucky though—I’m not a satyr with pedophilic tendencies.” Daniel’s face told just how far the reference had sailed over his head. “Oh come on.” Milton waited a while longer for Daniel’s revelation. “Nothing—oh forget it, check this out.” Milton pulled a square section of the fence up and outwards. Someone had cut the fence with wire cutters and made an effort to conceal the opening.

Daniel’s eyes widened. “Would you look at that. This has been here for long?”

“Nope, I’ve come by often and it’s never been here. It was just the other day by chance I spotted it. Whoever made it had left it slightly ajar so I could tell it was there. Can’t be much older than a couple days, lucky us eh?” Milton hunched down and started to crawl through the open space, but Daniel grabbed at the back of his shirt.

“Hold on a second, aren’t you a little worried by that? I’ve met one of the weirdos who runs this place. What if they did this on purpose to catch people sneaking onto the grounds?”

Milton flopped over onto his back-side and sat on the other side of the fence. “Am I worried—if a church cut a hole in its fence—to catch teenagers who want to sneak into their non active construction site. No, Daniel, I’m not. That’s ridiculous.”

Daniel was already down on his knees crawling through the hole before Milton could finish. “Just seems suspicious,” he grumbled. Milton had a way of making Daniel feel many times younger than the two years that separated them.

Up and up they climbed, higher and higher, at first easily. The beginning levels of construction which Daniel had observed all those weeks ago with his sister were well established. Two-by-fours of wood laid across interlocked shells of rectangular girders all positioned against the side of the church provided comfortable walkways. Blue tarps shielded them from the wind. Steel ladders fastened at different intervals along each section allowed them to continue ascending. It was after the seventh or eighth that climbing became more difficult. Whatever they were doing to the side of the church, the work crews had only progressed up so far. The sections above the established areas were incomplete. Sometimes only half a level’s floor boards were put in place, and as they progressed further, sometimes one. It did not prevent them from reaching their destination: as high as they could go.

From above Daniel’s head on the ladder came Milton’s whistle. “Oh man, wait until you see this.”

“I’m sure it looks a hell of a lot better than your ass,” said Daniel, shielding his eyes from the falling flakes of particulate that Milton knocked loose from above.

“You love it.” Milton shook his buttocks.

The ladder rocked unsteadily, knocking even more rust flakes and wood dust into Daniel’s eyes. Suddenly it let out a groan and shifted positions, screeching as it scraped along the top bar that connected it to the next section. The boys’ banter abruptly ended in dead silence. After enough time passed to assure them they would not die, the two laughed nervously.

“Maybe I should just climb?” Milton joked.

“Maybe,” Daniel responded through clenched teeth, still hugging the ladder. Much good that it would have done him: if it fell, he’d have fallen with it. Shaken and elated by an energy that comes after a close call, the boys clambered up the last rungs of the ladder. They took a seat with their backs against the church on a single two-by-four that comprised the uppermost level.

“We did it!” Sitting next to Daniel, Milton raised a hand for a high-five. Daniel just looked at it. “You’re right, not that kind of moment.” He let the arm fall to his side. They sat silent and took in the city that stretched out before them.

It had rained earlier and now an unseasonal late day sun heated the air around them, evaporating the moisture. Sitting as high as they were the steam rose up to just below their dangling feet. Skyscrapers and radio towers poked out at various heights from the blanket. Their metal trim still beaded with condensation reflected back the light, glittering like gold-veined mountaintops. Looking out from their vantage point, Daniel mused, almost worth dying for—almost.

Daniel relaxed. He pulled the smoke deep into his lungs, then with another short inhalation deeper still. Holding it there he relished the feeling slowly diffusing throughout his physical extremities and mind. Bringing them to a singular center of focus and sensation. Or maybe feel was the wrong word. He enjoyed more what it stopped him from feeling: guilt, anger, frustration, in all their infinite forms. He blew out the long plume of smoke, thick and heavy. It drifted downwards, joining the swirling vapor below.

“You gonna pass that, you greedy bastard?” Milton made a gesture.

Daniel paused with the joint halfway between himself and Milton’s outstretched hand. “What’s your family like?” he asked. Since becoming friends they’d reached an unspoken consensus on discussing personal matters: they didn’t. It was enough that they liked each other, had common interests. But some compulsion in Daniel asked the question. He did not know why.

Milton sat thinking for a moment before he answered. “What, like brothers and sisters? I don’t have any.”

“Sure, but what about your mom and dad, what’s that like?”

Milton pushed out air, bulging his cheeks. “Typical I guess. They’re separated. I never met my mom. The way I remember my dad talking about her… I think he just didn’t like women. I hate him. He booted me out of the house early enough that I don’t remember much, just how angry he always was. I live in a foster home now.”

“That’s typical?” Daniel rubbed his eyes then patted his arms. The sun was beginning to set.

Finishing another rip on the joint, Milton passed it back. “In this world … I think so.”

“If you were so young, what ended up happening to you?”

“Oh stupid shit, typical again. I got into trouble and sent to a sort of detention center for rebellious children. Pretty brutal place, if I’m being honest.”

“Sounds like Hell.” Daniel was sympathetic.

Milton shook his head vehemently. “Not really, you learn pretty fast what it takes to survive in a place like that.”

“Which is?”

Milton pointed at his head. “That’s all, man. That’s all.”

Daniel laughed. “Oh yeah? Well I think you might be the exception, not the rule. Most kids aren’t like that.” He shook his head. “Man, I thought living with my dad was bad. Don’t know how I would handle something like that.”

“And you never will.” Milton’s voice hardened. “Can we talk about something else?” Milton looked at Daniel with an ironic smile. “You trying to depress me? Cuz you’re succeeding. That shit’s fucking depressing.”

“No, course not.” Daniel put up his hands in surrender. “Don’t even know why I asked.”

“Thank you…” Milton gazed out over the city. Minutes passed. “I scored us something special, if you want to see?”

Glad to be clear of the darker subject of family, annoyed he’d even brought it up, Daniel endorsed the distraction. “Yeah sure, what is it?” When Milton pulled from his backpack the increasingly worn pack of cigarettes, Daniel’s enthusiasm disappeared. “Dude, you know I don’t sm-”

Milton put up a hand. “Wait … please.” Popping open the pack he tapped it on his palm until four nondescript round pills bounced out. “Good things to those who wait, my friend.” Pinching one between his thumb and middle finger he raised it up in front of his eye, like a jeweler enjoying the beauty of a diamond.

“What’s it called?” Daniel asked curiously.

“My man, it does not matter so much what it’s called, but what it does. You’re asking the wrong question.”

“So what’s it do then?”

“Any of that depressing shit we just talked about, have one of these babies and it all goes bye-bye.”

Milton stretched out his hand. Daniel put out his own to catch the pill as Milton dropped it. Examining it revealed nothing exceptional. It could have been an aspirin.

“So?” said Milton.

“So what?” returned Daniel.

“You gonna try it or what? They’re free.”

“What’s it called? I want to know what it’s called.”

“Well it’s pretty new so it has a couple names, but the guys at school were saying it treats you like a fine lady. So, everybody just started calling it Lucy.

“That’s weird.” Daniel’s stomach did a back-flip. He handed it back to a surprised Milton. “I don’t want it.”

Milton looked at Daniel with a flat smile and raised inquiring brows. “Your choice, man, your choice.” Milton threw back his head and popped two.

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Chapter.4 Hiding in plain Sight

In the first weeks of his new school Daniel developed a routine. He would wake long before anyone in the house. After wishing the farm on his wall a good day, careful not to make any noise, he would rush a barely warm shower and get dressed. Then, tiptoeing lightly down the hall past his parent’s bedroom, he’d descend the old wooden stairs that led to the kitchen and receive there the warmest greeting he’d ever known. Lincoln waited for him each morning, in a bed they’d set up next to their ghoulishly coloured yellow refrigerator. Always awake, standing at attention. When Daniel entered, his tail would begin to wag in a steady beat—thump, thump, thump—hitting the side of the fridge, like a drum-beat summoning soldiers to war. Daniel would then invoke the ritualistic question which preceded all their walks: “Who’s a good boy?” Lincoln’s joyous reaction, wherein he leapt up on his owner nuzzling and licking his face affectionately, predicated the truism, he—most certainly was.

They’d lap the block once or twice, depending on Lincoln’s energy level, then return to the house to meet Kate sitting on the steps of their home, usually shaking her head in disbelief.

“You’re crazy,” yawned Kate.

Daniel ceased twirling Lincoln’s leash. A game which left the dog comically walking in a diagonal line at his side. “You know,” he said solemnly, stopping to strike a pose, chest puffed out like a Saturday-morning-hero from the nineties, “they say love is crazy.”

Kate rolled her eyes. “Well then, you’re madly in love.”

“Oh, I am, dear sister,” said Daniel. Pulling back Lincoln’s ears, he planted a kiss on the adoring animal’s head. Kate had a special name for this particular canine expression: bliss in a slipstream. “It’s alright though, I don’t expect you to perfectly understand what it’s like to love a beast.”

“I love you, don’t I?”

“You’re hilarious.” Daniel gave his sister a lop-sided grin. “Just wait a moment. I’ll be back. I’m gonna top off Lincoln’s food bowl before we leave.” Their morning ritual replete, critical banter and all complete, the two set off for school.

Bam!

Daniel jolted upright, hand pressed to his stinging forehead. The students were giggling; everyone turned in his direction. On the verge of sleep when he’d lost consciousness, his face had slid from its precariously balanced position on his palm to smack into his desk. Judging by his teacher’s sigh and head shake of resigned indifference, it might not have been the first time. He glowered round darkly at those who laughed. That was, until a gooey spit ball wetly smacked the side of his head.

“Don’t be so glum, chum. Trouble in paradise?” said Milton, a twice failed older classmate. In the first weeks of Daniel’s arrival Milton had tried unsuccessfully to acquaint himself. He’d mistakenly approached the friendship in a traditional way: too kindly and without expectations. Daniel never trusted those who offered kindness without weighing return on investment. That’s not how kindness worked.

“I’m fine, you dick, just bored.” Daniel peeled the sticky wad of paper off his cheek and flicked it back at his classmate who made a show of dodging the projectile.

Milton jabbed a confident thumb towards himself. “Well, you wouldn’t be bored if you’d hang out with me. If there’s one thing I understand, it’s a good time.”

“Right…” said Daniel cupping his face, this time in both hands. Daniel turned from the moronically beatific smile of Milton, attempting to take something from the lecture. It never did any good. The harder he focused, the more his teachers words became a blur. The more he just felt like going to sleep. He sighed. what’s wrong with me?

Bam!

Daniel’s face smashed against his locker.

“How’d that taste, loser?”

Daniel turned, the warm coppery tang of iron filling his mouth. With one arm he clutched his textbooks. The free hand he pressed against the backside of his weeping lip. Drawing it away slowly, examining the ruby-red that smeared it, he licked his lips. “Delicious,” he laconically answered the three boys standing over him at his locker. His unnerving reply caused their leader to screw his face up in disgust.

“You’re a freak, you know that right?” He shoved Daniel back into the lockers with a loud clang. Other students in the hall hurried past, heads down; hate and cruelty are always hidden in plain sight.

“I do,” came Daniel’s answer, equally terse.

“That’s good.” The leader made a show of nodding around at his compatriots, keeping up the bravado. But, Daniel could tell he’d rattled their hollow confidence.“Just here to remind you, it’s the usual deal.”

Daniel simply nodded. The boys departed giving Daniel a final shove. It sent him sprawling and the books taken from his locker skidding across the floor.

 

————————–

 

“I don’t get it?” Kate whined. “Why do we always have to take separate paths home?”

“Because, we have separate paths to walk in this life, young one.” Daniel deepened his voice and pretended to pull a cape in front of his body.

“You are a brutal nerd—seriously…” Kate bobbed along next to her brother laughing. “I hate walking home by myself, it’s dangerous; you’re failing to protect me.”

Daniel kept his voice deep and the cape held in front of him as he walked. “You—are an idiot, young one; you do not walk home alone; you walk with Sandy.”

“Stop talking like that!” Kate batted his arm down, destroying the imagined cape. “I do, but I would rather walk with you. Promise me one of these days we will walk together.”

Daniel acquiesced. “Sure, just not today, Okay?

“Okay,” said Kate.

The exit of the school was barely that, just a road that met another road. Its only semi-significant characteristic was a middling sized leafless maple tree. Before the two parted ways under its barren branches, Daniel gave his sister a kiss on the head, hugging her and wishing her well. Watching her leave he took a seat at the base of the tree on a serpentine thick root. One of many that emerged from the earth, like the coils of a sea monster. Resting his back against its ridged trunk, he waved perfunctorily at his sister in the distance as she met with her new friend, Sandy.

The girl wore an intractable smile plastered to her face at all times, like the personae of Greek theater. But her sad eyes belied that smile, and told the truth that lay behind them. Daniel wondered what drew his sister to a person like that—but perhaps not—he knew of nothing more seductive than a lie.

His sister and Sandy soon disappeared out of sight around the corner of the block. Daniel took that as his cue to stand up. He brushed off the dust and debris of the ground and grabbed his backpack. He’d lain it next to the tree. Throwing it over his shoulder he took from his pocket his Swiss army knife. When sitting next to the tree he’d noticed inscriptions carved into its trunk. Like any prophet of the school, he wanted to forge his own. Between the timeless wisdom of “Claires a slut!!!”—incorrectly punctuated he noted—and, “Brandon and Josh forever”, he added, “Daniel was here”, an epitaph worthy of a king. Finishing his work he blew on it, removing any last clinging wood-chips. A stubborn sliver of bark resisted his breath and disrupted the proper reading of “here”. To correct the offending chunk of wood, he dug in and leaned hard on the blade. It cut loose with a twang, but the sudden release of pressure popped the blade out of his hand. It fell bouncing down the tree trunk coming to land in the dirt with a plop. He bent over to pick it up; doing so brought his eyes level with an inscription unseen from any other angle: “What matter where if I be still the same”. He read it multiple times. Deep, he decided. Whoever said that had their shit figured out. Standing up to stretch, he pressed his knuckles into the small of his back. He groaned, enjoying the release of pressure. It was time to go.

Except for the main street entrance, the playground was waiting for him penned in on all sides by low-cost cement-grey residential towers. No one was playing on its grounds when Daniel arrived: no one ever was. The small area hosted several physical distractions: a rusting jungle gym for kids to climb and practice breaking limbs on; a set of drooping spring-loaded sea-animals with their paint flaking off for night-time drunks to ride, bend and wear out; and the feature Daniel most enjoyed using, a three-seater swing set. Whistling to himself Daniel took a seat on the middle swing and set his bag on the ground. He built up an arc pumping his legs. As he gained height, with each pass of the parabola’s bottom, he’d kick up a spray of bark mulch on his way to the sky. At the top, he’d smile.

As the three boys entered the park he slowed the swing to a stop by digging in his heels. Thommy Humphreys was an angry-faced, straight-haired, pear-shaped boy. His waist— grotesquely ballooning at such an early age—foreshadowed opponents to come; opponents he could not beat with fists.

Loping along at Thommy’s heels came Dean Beakman. A gangly, tall, back-woods boy with straw blond hair, moved from a place named after an animal’s body part to the city; Dean exemplified willful ignorance. He was fond of telling childhood stories, wherein inter-species relations passed for rites-of-passage. Born with a tin of chew in his cradle, Dean had developed a mild celebrity around the school for his digestive tract’s capabilities. His esophagus and bowels, inured by years of use, allowed the boy to munch on the acrid cud without spitting. Instead, he swallowed the acidic juice, like bitter medicine.

Rounding out the wayward trio was one of the school’s rich elite. Chris Branch, a neurotic tick ridden boy who, in another time, might have been referred to as “prosperously plump”. Not so fat as his companion, he lacked the certainty of a cardiac ward in his future. But soft easy living had molded the boy in its image: fragile and temperamental. All three boys belonged to a different social strata, and formed an uncommon alliance; anger, with its power to bind those of like-mind in common-cause, had brought them together. Surrounded by all three, sitting still on his swing. Daniel found himself the object of their inimical attention.

“Why do you always come here?” Thommy asked. He breathed heavily while gazing round the empty play-ground. “Looking for kids to fondle?”

“Ya disappointed, D? No kiddies today?” chirped Branch, snickering. He wore a glossy red chromatic t-shirt with the word “What” emblazoned across its front. Looking from Daniel and back to Thommy he itched at the exposed skin of his arms while shifting his weight nervously from foot to foot. Beakman on the opposite flank of Thommy stood silent and expressionless as a cow, the only audible impression of his presence, the constant grinding of teeth as he worked away at the protrusion of tobacco held in his cheek.

Daniel kicked his legs, causing the swing to sway slightly. “Maybe I enjoy irony?” he spoke to the blurred ground rushing under his feet. Wasting words on people who wished him harm was exhausting. Digging pointed toes into the mulch he stopped the rocking of the swing. Hopping off his seat he then picked up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. He kept a level eye on all the boys aside from Beakman who stood taller than himself. Taking his back-pack from his shoulders he held it in front of his chest with both hands and looked at it quizzically. The odd gesture drew everyone’s attention to its matte black shape. “You know, I never thought this brand was ever any good, but my sister kept insisting, it’s the best. Costs three times more than the no-name version that looks similar—did you know that?” Daniel looked round at the trio, holding out the bag.

Thommy’s brow furrowed. “The hell are you on about?”

“No really, it is,” said Daniel, holding out the bag with a salesman’s can-you-believe-it expression and tone, “and you know the dumbest thing?”

Branch’s eyes shifted from Daniel to Thommy and back. “Seriously the fuck are you on about? We don’t give a shit about-”

Daniel interrupted, “The dumbest thing is, I’m such a huge nerd, I checked up on the manufacturer, and would you believe—it’s actually the same bag? Here look.” Daniel lobbed the bag at Branch. Instinctively the boy raised his hands to catch the thrown object. With his hands up and his guard down, Daniel kicked, hard as he could, into the boy’s unprotected groin, sending his nuts—Daniel hoped—somewhere up near the back of his throat. The boy went down making a sound akin to a pinched balloon releasing air. Shaken by their fallen comrade’s demise the two standing boys looked at his curled form. Daniel just shook his head. “I know… It’s ridiculous…”

The sudden ferocity of Daniel’s attack had momentarily pacified his assailants, but once the initial shock had worn off, rage replaced complacency, and they pounced.

The blows fell and Daniel reflected on what had brought him here. It was strange how violence could—at times—make perfect sense. He didn’t blame them.

He’d fought Thommy but the boy had knocked him down and his excessive weight kept him pinned to the ground. This allowed Beakman to beat away at his unprotected face. Without needing to look, he could tell the mounting damage was something he wouldn’t be able to hide from his sister—this time. Another fist connected with the crown of his skull and it rebounded off the ground behind his head. Pain blossomed behind his eyes and he saw stars: flashes of light. With his vision blurring, he fully expected a final concussive impact. Daniel kept open his swollen eyes and waited for the final strike. He wanted to see the end coming. Wished for it to release him from misery, into black nothingness. But Dean paused, fist raised, his face overcome with an idea.

“I think our boy looks thirsty.” Humphreys grunted in acknowledgment from atop Daniel. “I think he needs a drink.”

“You’re sick!” spat Daniel. New fear sobered his mind and he thrashed and flailed under his heavier opponent’s rolls of flesh, but Thommy was immovable. He achieved nothing.

“Pinch his nose, Thommy,” Beakman commanded in his woodsy drawl. Humphrey’s fat fingers stinking of onions clamped Daniel’s nose. Beakman started making sounds at the back of his throat like a clogged sink draining the last of its water. “Hold him still,” said Beakman, through a mouth half of equal parts spit and chew juice.

The last burst of resistance had drained what little energy Daniel had left. Accepting the situation’s futility, he chose to lie still as possible extending how long he could hold his breath, but the urge to breathe became overwhelming. A fire soon burned in his lungs, desperate for air. Anticipating Daniel’s breaking point, a leering Beakman positioned over Daniel’s head drew one final disgusting pull of air through his nostrils.

“I got your drink ready, D, say-”

He never did finish his sentence. Daniel was just able to register in his vision’s periphery the swinging fist. It slammed hard into Beakman’s temple. The blow connected so fiercely Beakman’s head cranked to the side and the boy dropped unconscious. The light in his eyes extinguished. His head landed next to Daniel face down. No longer in control of his jaw the vile liquid intended for Daniel began to pool around his face, draining slowly from his mouth like an oil spill, soaking the mulch he’d passed out in and leaking into his blond hair. Thommy who’d until this point focused solely on keeping Daniel pinned, looked up.

“What the fu-” He was the second to not finish his sentence. The boot connected flat with his face. Daniel could hear the wet snapping of cartilage and breaking bone, watched as the boy’s nose exploded, felt the spray of blood sting his eyes. Thommy went tumbling backwards off him, clutching his ruined face. “Here little pig pig piggy pig, come ere boy.” Daniel identified the taunting voice of his savior. Milton. Stepping over Daniel he leapt on Thommy, who’d fallen on his back. Descending into a crouched position with a foot on either side of his victim, Milton grabbed a fistful of Thommy’s shirt, using it to pull the disoriented boy off the ground. He began swinging. Thommy feebly attempted to block the onslaught with an arm but Milton easily passed the guard and punched through it, again… and again… and again…

Daniel watched from propped elbows in disbelief as the older boy turned the other’s face into a horror show. Watching the carnage Daniel’s stomach churned. In no version of his desired revenge was there ever this level of ultra violence.

“Pu… Pu… Please,” a battered Thommy pleaded through blood and spittle. Milton’s face, which had remained chillingly impassive during the course of the beating, split into a wide toothy grin.

“You’ll have to speak up—what was that?” Milton took the boy’s stained shirt in both hands and pulled him upright. Cocking his head to the left he brought Thommy’s lips in line with his ear. “Again please, did you need something?” In a heart-beat Milton had transformed: remorseless reaper became attentive angel. Allowed enough time to catch his ragged intermittent breath, Thommy wept.

“We didn’t know,” he began to sob, “We’re-”

Milton savagely backhanded the boy, cutting him off. He then drew their faces closer still—nearly touching—and screamed.

Cringing, Daniel slammed his hands over his ears. The loss he felt when Milton cried out was terrible, like dreams, still-born. Overwhelmed, Thommy’s eyes bugged in their sockets and rolled back; he went limp. Holding the boy for a moment, no longer screaming, Milton then let the dead-weight slip from his fingers. The body hit the ground with a loud thwump.

The sound managed to pierce a paralyzing fog that had rendered Daniel’s brain a mute observer. He sharply inhaled, having forgotten to breathe somewhere amidst the madness. With his hands flopping from his ears to his sides, on his knees he took in the playground around him: Beakman face down, black tar oozing around him. Branch curled in a ball moaning, grasping his genitals. And Thommy, looking like several stacked bags of flour laid out on his back, blood running freely from his broken nose and ruined features.

“Need a hand? You look like hell.”

“Huh… what…?” Dazed, Daniel looked at the outstretched hand in front of him.

“Your face man, those bastards really laid a whooping on you before I showed up.”

“I… Yes, thank you.” Daniel touched a hand to his face and pulled it away fast. It hurt, badly. He took the bloodied slick hand of Milton and stood up. He felt strange, light-headed, grateful, horrified. A wave of nausea tossed his stomach and he pressed both hands to his knees. Hunched over he closed his eyes to stop the spinning. He did not wish to join the others on the ground. Speaking sideways he asked, “Why did you help me?”

Milton cracked another famous grin and smacked Daniel on his hunched over back. “Well, I’m just your guardian angel, buddy.”

Daniel raised his head, looked into Milton’s radiant smile—and threw up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter.3 Sins of the Father

The door slammed shut and the two siblings bounced down the steps. Books shifting in their backpacks, smacking their shoulders as they descended. Rushing away from the front door of the Victorian-style manor house, Daniel’s body shook with adrenaline. He would have stayed and defied Grant’s threat if not for the pleading of his mother that they go. The pair walked in hurried silence for three blocks before Kate spoke.

“That was brave of you.” She looked at Daniel intently and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder before speaking again. “To stand up to him.”

Daniel rubbed at his throat. “Lincoln better be there when we get back.”

“I have a feeling he will. Grant won’t want to go through the effort of returning him himself and Mom will refuse to do it.”

“Yeah,” said Daniel, “he’ll just be a pain about it the whole time now won’t he?”

“Is he ever not?” said Kate, looking down at her shoes as they walked.

That made him smile. “No, he isn’t.” Kate could be such a comfort. Like him, melancholy struck her, but she always managed to somehow handle it better; she wore it like an accomplishment around her neck instead of added weight.

No matter how far back he went, in every memory the black cloud of Grant hung over the family, like a specter that clung to happiness, staining it. Grant, at his most harmless, had always enjoyed spouting tired profundities, with an awareness of his own failures absent. If Kate, their mom, or himself, committed the slightest error, he’d shake a finger in their face saying, “You reap what you sow. Gotta put in one hundred ten percent.” Daniel could bear the harassment personally, but not watching him inflict it on the rest of the family. Even before the wealth came and went, Grant’s rotten behavior stunk to the heavens.

Years ago, when Grant returned home triumphantly to declare that one of his anti-depressants had finally passed clinical studies, Daniel had thought maybe he would get better. They’d be rich after all. What ever went wrong for rich people? Money however, like any other horrible disease, infected the family. Prior to Grant’s monetary success, he had at least a sort of forced humbleness, brought about by many unsuccessful attempts to create something capable of passing testing. He’d even had a partner he’d worked with, a kind man: Sam.

Daniel had liked Sam, he represented a counterbalance. Sam could deflate Grant’s overblown ego like no one else. He would visit sometimes; he and Grant were drinking mates. After a few, Grant would call Daniel or Kate into the kitchen, eager to reprimand them for whatever fault, but Sam wouldn’t allow it. Instead, on these singular occasions, Sam would turn the criticism around. He’d cajole and tease, in a self-deprecating fashion, he and Grant’s impotent forays into pharmaceuticals. Sam was able to split the blame between the two of them; his humour cut just deep enough that Grant would yield, leaving the target of his cruel affections free to leave. After Grant’s drug got approved, Sam disappeared, and along with him any sense of humility—forced or otherwise—Grant ever had. After that, he had as much confidence as he did money; the prosperity’s bolstering effect on his warped self-worth redoubled his criticism of the family. The best way Daniel could describe his father was a frenzied drowning man; he could only ever breathe if someone were below him. Suffering in his place.

Human existence, so often referred to as—life, a funny delineation Daniel always thought, considering so much of it is death—would eventually take its karmic revenge. Grant had just enough time for a meteoric rise. Soon after, many people prescribed his wonder-cure for depression—ironically—started killing themselves. In the tragedy’s aftermath it wasn’t Grant’s company that was going to go under, it was him. The resulting backlash against Grant was severe: loss of his job, humiliation in the public sphere, fighting off jail-time, and all accumulated wealth consumed by legal fees. The trauma on Grant’s psyche evolved his base meanness. A predilection for bullying his wife and children became something more sinister, something violent.

 

——

 

“Well that’s an eye-opener.” Kate pointed at a building they approached at the end of the block. Large at a distance, it took a closer look to fully appreciate just how immense it was. Gothic and ancient looking, it stood anachronistically at odds with the tiny 7-eleven and dry cleaning shop huddled insignificantly next to it in the shadow of its western corner. A mess of construction scaffolding and support lines held up sail sized blue safety tarps. Ostensibly erected for renovations, they blocked much of its eastern side from view. The project’s scale reached many meters up and off the side of the building. Through a high fence running parallel along the side of the block, the siblings could see a lone rectangular temporary portable, set back from Escher like labourer paths. Likely a headquarters for engineers to coordinate the work crews efforts. It sat atop cinder blocks, above the mud and muck of the winter construction yard.

Daniel stepped up to the fence lacing his fingers through its links. “Shut down for the winter.”

“What do you think they’re actually doing?” said Kate.

“Just what it looks like I’m sure. Old buildings need repairs. Probably just taking longer than they thought it would. Sure would be fun to explore though. Look at that stuff. It’s a maze up there.”

Kate looked at her brother. “I won’t tell you not to get any stupid ideas—I know that’s impossible—please just try not to act on them.” Kate’s gaze was serious.

Daniel laughed. “No promises.”

“Are you kids alright?”

Kate and Daniel both jumped in surprise, turning to find a man stood behind them, hands crossed in front, resting at his waist, dressed in grey robes. While they’d spoken he’d walked up behind them after descending the white stone steps of the religious building.

“Christ, mister, you scared us.” Daniel put an arm around his sister pulling her to stand next to him. The man raised his arms, palms upwards, as if indicating he had nothing to hide.

“Terribly sorry, not my intention, did you two have any questions about our humble grounds? You seemed to have an interest in them?”

“Hell. Damn.” Daniel paused. “Well let me think.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. His sister cocked an eyebrow watching him bemusedly. “Now that you mention it, yes. What’s going on with all this construction? Looks like this project has gone on for a while.”

“Renovations, old building,” said the man in grey flatly. “We’d hoped to have it complete before the winter, but alas, the plans of mice and men.” He smiled invitingly.

“Of who?” Daniel looked confused.

“It’s from a book, oh wise brother.” Kate jabbed her brother’s ribs playfully causing him to keel over, loosing his protective grip on her shoulder. Kate stepped forward and looked up at the man who stood many heads taller than herself. “So what do you worship here?”

“The one true God of course,” replied the man.

“Which one?” Kate’s words cut quickly, she barely allowed the man time to finish speaking.

The man frowned, perturbed. “His name does not so much matter, young lady, as what he does.”

“And that is?”

“Why, free you from pain, from sorrow, all the sadness that this world heaps on you. Release from all those feelings, in a word, absolution.”

“I like my sorrow, it keeps me warm at night,” said Kate, crossing her arms.

“You’ve been hurt very badly, young one.” He put a hand on his heart. “I can see th-”

“You see nothing,” said Kate angrily. She did not let the man in grey continue. “Daniel, let’s go.” She tugged on the sleeve of his jacket.

“I didn’t mean to offend you, young lady.” The man gave a slight bow. “Please consider coming by to see us if you ever have more questions.”

Ignoring the offer, Kate pulled her protesting brother further down the block. The man in grey left waving pleasantly in their wake. Moved out of earshot, Daniel spoke, “What’s crawled up your ass and died, Kate? That was fun. How many more times do you think we could’ve blasphemed before he lost it?”

Kate never stopped looking straight ahead and walked with quick determined short strides. “I don’t think that’s the team he cheers for, Daniel.”

“Huh, what are you talking about? He’s some kind of Christian.” Kate did not respond. “Not a big deal anyways, he seemed nice enough.”

“Hitler was kind to dogs,” Kate mumbled.

“He really got to you eh? You’re usually a rock round people like that.”

“No one gets to say to they know me; they have no idea.”

Taking the hint, Daniel shut up. Three blocks later he and Kate arrived at their new school. As they did, the sun lifted high enough for its beams to flood down the city’s skyscraper lined corridors, unfurling like a blood-red carpet under their feet; they walked on light.

 

 

 

Chapter.2 Family Reunion

Daniel watched as the window’s cold early light crept across his bed covers. He imagined it as some hungry beast, consuming his body. First his legs, then his chest. Given time, it would devour him completely. Kate stirred in the bed that sat next to him, rolled over, but never woke. She could always sleep longer than him. Sharing the room with her irked him. He hated giving up his privacy. In their previous home, before the court case, he’d had all the necessities: walk in closet, walk in shower and king sized bed. A home so big he could actually go the whole day without ever having to see anyone. Although he only ever avoided Grant.

Tossing off the covers, he grimaced as his bare feet touched the cold wooden floor boards. Add another thing to the list of past comforts gone. No more heated floors. On his parents list of prerequisites for their new place they’d written only two: cheap and can we move in now? Looking around his room, he was sure they’d succeeded in checking off both. The previous tenants, swiftly ejected for defaulting on rent, must have dreamt of turning this room into a nursery, but they’d succeeded in only half accomplishing the project. One wall showcased an amateurish collage of farm animals. A happy smiling cow stood next to a tree in a green field. At its feet, a family of six happy smiling yellow blobs marched in a line. Or, chicks maybe, he couldn’t tell. Above, in a too blue sky, a happy smiling bird with no eyes flew over their heads. Everything happy. The other three walls they’d not even started. They retained the colour chosen by the tenants before them. Black.

He remembered standing in the room with his mom when they’d first come to look at it with the building manager. Daniel was certain, listening to the two women talk, he’d never heard the word potential used so many times. At least it came with the two steel frame beds and a large dresser with a mirror. They needed anything they could get after Grant had sold all the furnishings in their last home to cover as much of the debt as possible. He hated how Grant always called it that, the debt. As though he, his mom and Kate had all together racked up the additional costs that sank them so badly after people first started getting sick. He’d bought it all: fancy cars, business trips to warm places, endless designer clothing, and always for the same reason. Grant would say there was a certain lifestyle expected of him. He had to keep up appearances. From a young age Daniel always wondered, how when he grew up, would he afford all the appearances? Turned out the answer to that question is most people can’t, unless by fraud.

After an insufferable shower where the water took two minutes before it heated up, Daniel got dressed and made his way downstairs. In the kitchen, Kate, his mom and Grant, all sat around a square table with round metal legs. A plastic stapled-on table-cloth decorated with oranges covered its surface. Leftovers again from the previous tenants, the table and the cloth.

“Hi, honey, did you sleep well?” His mom beamed with a smile that put the farm animals to shame.

“Still a little tired actually.” He pulled out the last remaining chair next to his sister and sat down.

“What’s for breakfast?”

“Just the basics I’m afraid: toast and fruit,” she chimed, pushing her chair back on her way to the kitchen. “But I can go shopping today. I want to take a look around the neighbourhood anyways.”

“It’s alright, Mom. I like toast.”

“Liar,” said Kate. She’d spoken with her head down. Eyebrows furrowed, focused on her e-reader. Swiping intermittently from right to left to turn the page.

“What are you talking about? I’ve always loved toast.”

“You love toast so long as it provides a medium for peanut butter. You love peanut butter, not toast.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” After a pregnant silence, Daniel added, “Do we have any peanut butter…?”

His mother, slicing an apple, answered from the kitchen. “Well no, honey, that’s on the list for today. We have butter though. You like that don’t you?”

“Oh, yeah sure, no problem.” Daniel smiled at his mom, crushing the despondent feelings welling up that would prove his sister right. He attempted to ignore the smug expression she now wore while reading her book. “I really don’t mind you kn-” The doorbell rang.

Dropping off Daniel’s plate of toast and sliced apple in front of him, his mom stepped lightly by the kitchen table. “I wonder who that could be?” she said, her voice irritatingly coloured with a timbre that hinted she already knew the answer.

The door opened inwards and blocked Daniel from seeing who his mother spoke with. Grant, who’d been muttering angrily behind his newspaper, lowered it. Even Kate, whose attention could be no more ripped from a book than a sword from a stone, looked up in curiosity. It wasn’t possible. Daniel’s heart raced. Grant had told him it was necessary. He’d even said goodbye. But there was no mistaking that hopeful jingle of metal. That happy panting behind the door. He ran from his seat nearly knocking his mother over. “Lincoln!” he exclaimed, elated. The black lab stood outside the door. Upon seeing Daniel he wagged his tail so hard it bowed his whole body back and forth. Taking the leash from his mother as she scratched a signature on the delivery man’s paper, he led the dog inside. “Can you believe it?” he said, wrestling the dog to the floor behind the door while it licked his face and nipped him affectionately.

“No, I can’t,” said his sister, sounding worried, looking at Grant.

“That makes two of us.” The anger evident in Grant’s voice was barely contained. The happy reunion ended as soon as the door closed. “Beth, what the fuck did you do!” The pleased-with-herself expression slid from her face as though she’d never known it.

“I thought we could afford it, Grant? Lincoln’s a part of the family. We kept the Lexus. I thought we could keep Lincoln,” she offered with wounded hope, “for the children?”

“I need the Lexus, Beth, for appearances. That dog is useless. It’s just gonna cost us money we don’t have.”

“Lincoln’s more useful than you,” said Daniel, jumping up to stand protectively in front of his pet. The dog cowered behind him, confused and worried by the raised voices.

Grant stood up. He slammed his hand on the table, rocking the glasses set out for breakfast. “You spoiled little shit. I got that dog for you.”

“So you could give him away, because you got caught for approving bad drugs. That’s crueler than ever having him.”

“How dare you. I put food on this table. You owe everything you’ve ever had to me.”

“Grant, please.” Beth stepped between the two. “We can make it work.”

Grant moved threateningly from the table towards the door. Standing in front of his wife he held up his index finger inches from her face. “No, we can’t, Beth. We can’t make it work. You’ve fucked us. Now we’re even more screwed if I don’t find a job this month. Get out of my way.” Beth stood aside, back to the door with her head down, hands clasped in front of her. “Now I’m going to get changed and go out to look for a job, so this family can continue to eat. When I get back downstairs you kids better be gone for school. It’s enough you’re ungrateful; I’m not gonna raise idiots.”

Daniel stepped forward confronting Grant’s anger. Blocking his way up the stairs. “You think you’re tough, because you yell, because you can make people feel horrible.” He jabbed a finger into his face, as Grant had to his mother. “You’re just a coward, a coward with a loud-”

Grant slapped the hand out of his face and grabbed Daniel by his neck slamming him backwards into the wall.

Beth screamed.

“No, you little idiot,” said Grant, choking his son and forcing him down the wall. “I’m tough, because I’m bigger and stronger than you. You better be gone when I get downstairs.” Grant released his grip and stood up. “Or I swear to God…” With his path clear, he stomped up the stairs.

“Excited for school?” asked Kate from the table.

Daniel, rubbing his raw neck, hunched over on the floor, looked at Kate. She sat with her face propped between balled fists. The ghost of a wan smile on her lips.

Chapter.1 Killing Dinosaurs

charlesjameson

Also available on Wattpad and Figment

Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…

Charlie Chaplin, “The Dictator”

 

Rain smacked the windshield with fat heavy blobs. It fell in a constant dull thrumming rhythm. Thunk, thunk, thunk. No matter what speed the wiper blades passed, the view of their outside surroundings only ever lasted a second. The briefest glimpse, then all the shapes and colours would melt, bleeding into each other, washed away again in the next wave of downpour.

Not that it bothered Daniel. He had no interest in what was outside. They’d been driving through the city for hours. Boredom and resentment painfully stretched his patience, like a balloon ready to burst. Making up his mind long ago that he would hate it here, block after block of interminable grey cement had done steady work to ensure that opinion became a fact. He’d grown accustomed to the sylvan surroundings of their forfeited home, beautiful and priced to make you bleed. Here, he found the over-bright colours of storefronts garish by comparison, ostensibly designed to sucker those too world-weary to care if the advertising was false.

An old friend had suggested guided meditations on YouTube might work when he felt like this. He’d practiced a few, liked them. Even if they only seemed effective when he was already happy. He tried to imagine one now. Okay. First step. Think of your breathing, that felt good. Okay. Second step. Fuck the second step. His mom wouldn’t shut up. She prattled away in the front seat. Her words shaded with an optimism her voice didn’t believe.

“You’re thinking too much.”

His sister’s voice floated across to him in the back seat of the car. All around, boxes filled with items took up the available space, artifacts from a life left behind on their way to the next. “How can you say that? You can’t even see me through all this shit.”

“Daniel, don’t swear.” His mother scolded from the front of the car.

“I can barely breathe back here, Mom. You expect me to be all happy go fucking lucky when I’m gonna die from lack of oxygen.”

His father added to the chorus. “Shut-up, Daniel. We’re almost there. You’re being dramatic. What you’re referring to as shit back there, is everything for the kitchen. So unless you want to eat off a newspaper, stop complaining.” Continuing he muttered to himself. “This whole thing would have gone smoother if we could’ve afforded a moving van.” Daniel could see enough of the front seat to watch his mom fretting and wringing her hands.

“Grant, you know I’ve been trying to get a job while you’re between yours.”

“I’m not between anything, Beth. Those fuck-ups at Balanced Life threw me under the bus.”

“I just wish you’d try to relax. We are doing the best we can.”

“Yeah and we’re doing great aren’t we? Chewing through my savings and renting when we were on our way to owning. Everything is fucking great.”

Daniel let the arguing of his parents become a buzz in the background and occupied himself by tunneling a path through the boxes to his sister in the seat opposite. Finally, shifting enough out of his way, he spied her small form, curled up next to the window, reading from an e-reader. “I can’t believe you like that thing so much. What ever happened to books? People just appreciating paper pages?”

Kate looked up from her reading with a smile on her face. “When’s the last time you read one, Daniel?”

He chuckled. “Good call. Well whatever, they’re a fad.”

“Like social media?” she offered, still smiling.

“You’re a smart-ass. You know that, Kate?”

“Better than a dumb-ass.” Kate went back to her reading, leaving Daniel glaring through the tunnel at her.

Sighing resignedly he sat back in the seat, crossing his arms, and went back to looking out the window. Kids could be so mouthy sometimes.

 

———

 

Daniel woke up groggily; the vehicle had stopped moving. He didn’t know when. The rain still pounded down outside but at a short distance from the car. They’d parked under a small roof’s cover which created a dry patch.

“We’re not there yet are we?” he said to no one in particular. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes he tried to make out where they’d stopped.

“No, but almost,” Kate answered.

His senses returning, Daniel could see his sister with her back to him on her knees looking out the window.

“We just stopped for gas and Grant had to go to the bathroom. Mom says we are about ten blocks away. This is actually where our new school is. You can see it out there.” She pressed a finger against the fogged glass of the window.

Uninterested in the school, mention of the bathroom called attention to his bursting bladder. He really had to piss. “Wait here okay. I’m just gonna take a leak.” He stumbled out of the car, not realizing how numb and cramped his legs had become from sitting too long. Stopped, rubbing and slapping his thighs to bring back the feeling, he scanned the parking lot.

The school sat across from the gas station. It took up the adjacent two blocks with its unimpressive single story of conjoined rectangles. Its walls were a standard dirty cream with orange trim, endowed with just enough windows to keep construction costs down; every inch of glass desperately needed blasting with a power-washer to remove the build-up of winter gunk and mold. At one end of the school a basketball court sat vacant. Its puddle-pocked uneven cement and torn nets provided a meager space for recreation. At the other, a parking stretch filled with tacky, leased for life cars. The highest achievement of mid-life mediocrity. Pretty much what he’d come to expect from an inner-city high-school. On the other side of their aging black Lexus his mom stood, pumping the gas.

“Honey, did we wake you up? We were trying to be quiet so you could sleep.”

Daniel waved a hand. “It’s fine, Mom. Where’s the bathroom?”

She pointed at a metal door on the side of the gas station, its bottom half green with algae. “Just over there, your father should be coming out soon.”

Daniel loped over to the side of the building, stamping out the last pins and needles from his feet. Before he could grasp the handle, the door swung open nearly knocking him over. His father, standing in the open frame, frowned down at him.

“Watch where you’re going, Daniel.”

Ignoring him Daniel pushed past, letting the door slam shut behind while his father’s disapproving eyes drilled into his back. With the door closed, he pinched his nose, hating the smell. Always, in a public washroom’s air he could taste it: that sickly sour lingering scent of chemical cleaning products, never quite doing their job. Sidling up to the nearest urinal, he made an effort to touch nothing. He never did believe those checklists assuring you the staff cleaned the place every hour. Releasing his pinched nose to unbutton his pants he breathed a contented sigh, able to relieve himself.

A lone goofy poster above his chosen urinal caused him to smirk. It colourfully advertised the gas-station’s two for one deals on super mega slurpo slushies, great to beat that hot summer heat. Now he knew they never cleaned in here. Advertising always took precedent over cleanliness, and if that wasn’t up to date, well. Doing up his pants, laughing at the sign with its cartoon dinosaur riding down a wave clutching a diabetes inducing sugar drink in its hand, he noticed a curious detail jutting out from behind one of its curling brown edges. A portion of carved writing with thick deep lines, as though someone had dug into the wall with an index-finger-sized nail. He could make out three jaggedly carved capital letters: ART.

He would have walked out there and then but burning foolish curiosity got the better of him. He could not resist taking a quick peek at what lay behind. What if it were a code for some millionaire’s bank account with enough money to make him rich? He could hire someone to kill his deadbeat dad and live happily ever after. He wished that thought weren’t so appealing. After throwing a quick check over his shoulder at the door to make sure no one had come in, he went to pull the poster off the wall. Gripping the edge nearest to the letters and pulling lightly, he’d expected it to peel off easily. Instead, only the corner’s brown flakes came away, crumbling to dust in his hand.

Why had someone fastened this to the wall? He took from his jeans pocket his trusty Swiss army knife. A gift two years prior from his father for his twelfth birthday. He knew accepting it meant accepting the constant reminders of Grant’s bottomless beneficence, but he didn’t mind. It was worth it to cut stuff. Selecting its blade, he tried again. This time edging the corner of the blade where the brown flakes had fallen away. The paper wouldn’t budge. What the hell is this thing stuck on with? He tried at the opposing corner where the curling brown paper still folded over intact. Eureka. Jimmying the blade behind the paper, this section, unlike the other, peeled away with some effort. More letters dug into the wall revealed themselves. An S, then an E, and finally a T—SET. Interesting enough to warrant more work. After a few more minutes of scratching and scraping he managed to reveal two more letters. An M and an E—SETME. What was that supposed to mean? Brown coloured stale paper continued to gather at his feet until another set of letters became viewable. He could now read: SETMEFREE. Well it’s more interesting than the usual dick jokes. It sounds more like a rock song, but no bank account. He sighed.

His progress had scraped off the top quarter of the poster, leaving a strangely macabre looking decapitated dinosaur riding a wave. The next section proved more difficult than the first. But, with determination, he could pry off little by little the paper so strangely affixed to the wall.

The door burst in loudly behind him. “You little shit!” his father raged, forming a black silhouette as grey white light poured in behind him. Standing on the shredded remnants of a now extinct smiling dinosaur, Daniel knew how he must look. “We’ve been sitting in the car waiting for you for over fifteen minutes, and you’re in here, vandalizing the bathroom!”

Daniel had no reply. Had he really been doing this for that long? “Sorry, Grant, I just had to pee and-” Not letting him finish his father crossed the bathroom and smacked him upside the head. Hard. He grabbed hold of him by the neck of his shirt and yanked. Cursing and choking as his feet slid across the floor, dragged out of the bathroom, Daniel read the last letters of his work. IAM.