On the day they were to return from their honeymoon, I found myself glued to the lounge window, reminding myself of my first days in the house. When I had been the new boy, angry and resentful, glaring through the dusty glass as Michael and the boys circled their battered bikes around the close. I smiled a little at the memory, as here I was, doing the same thing now. Clinging limply to the net curtains, my forehead pressed against the window, as my eyes scanned the road for a sign of their taxi. She had phoned from the airport to let me know what time to expect them, so now here I was, waiting, waiting for it all to start again, and a hot sweat had already broken out across my neck and shoulders. I scratched at it irritably. I wanted to scratch off all of my skin.
They had been gone for a fortnight. She had sent me three bright and exuberant postcards, detailing every part of their Florida honeymoon. We are having the time of our lives, she said, we are browner than ever! The words stuck in my throat when I read them. Each and every postcard was ripped into pieces and thrown into the bin. For me, the last two weeks had been a lull. A torturous period of waiting and reflecting, and scratching. And now, as I watched for the taxi, I wondered if I ought to go and hide. I had spent the two weeks under the watchful eye of Jack Freeman, who ended up passed out on the sofa most nights. He was no bother to me. He didn’t give a shit about hoovering and washing. He threw money at me when I asked for it, and didn’t bat an eyelid if I stayed out late. He always had whiskey and grass and other things, and he never said no.
With my face pressed against the glass, I let my body go limp when the taxi finally rolled in. It was them, and my chest began to tighten instantly, painfully. I breathed in, and then out again, noting how difficult it seemed already. The taxi parked, and Howard and my mother climbed out from the back, their tanned faces grinning broadly. I squinted and then frowned at their matching Mickey Mouse t-shirts. Fucking idiots, I thought to myself, shaking my head in bemusement. Howard was chatting casually to the taxi driver as he helped them hoist their luggage from the boot. My eyes followed my mother, striking in her skin tight jeans, her sun kissed hair loose and bouncing from shoulder to shoulder. She looked like a movie star, I thought wonderingly. Howard, my stepfather. Just running the word around my mouth made me want to spit, or vomit. His t-shirt fitted him snugly, his muscles rippling smoothly beneath it, as he hauled out the last case and paid the driver.
I remained at the window, too nervous now to run, or hide, as the familiar feeling of inevitability washed over me. I imagined how a man on death row might feel, with his life and his fate held in someone else’s hands, helpless and resigned. I stayed near the window as they entered the house, dragging their cases and laughing and chatting. My mother strolled into the kitchen, calling out my name. I stayed where I was, shrunk back a little further, and already an idea was forming in my mind, as I asked myself why the hell I was going to put up with all this again? I should have gone while they were away, I realized then. I should have done it.
Howard stepped brashly into the room, all six foot four of him filling the doorway, his small eyes immediately picking me out. I saw his slow smile, and the way his tongue flicked out across his upper lip and I thought stepfather and felt sick. “There you are,” he said, his tone dull and flat, whilst his eyes shone. “Aren’t you going to say hello?” I could only stare back at him, my voice stuck at the back of my throat, as I remembered the last time I had seen him, and wondered what the payback would be. He tilted his head to one side and his eyes narrowed down to slits. “And have you been good while we’ve been away? That’s the main thing isn’t it? Have you been a good boy?”
I nodded in reply, just as my mother squeezed past him to reach me. I saw the look that crossed Howards face as she did; the brief lip curl, the jealous sneer before it died again, and his smile broke out. She threw her arms around me and pulled me close. “Oh missed you so much!” she squealed, which was obviously bullshit. I patted her back rather coldly and she pulled back and her teeth seemed to be gleaming white in the middle of her tanned face. “Have you been good for Jack?” she asked me, to which I nodded dutifully. “Oh good, that’s good. I knew he would call us anyway, if anything happened. Oh we’ve got so much to tell you! Lots and lots of photos! It was amazing, wasn’t it Lee? Once in a lifetime stuff. We even went swimming with dolphins Danny, with dolphins!”
She took my hand then and dragged me into kitchen. I nodded and smiled and made polite remarks in all the right places. I sat in the kitchen and flicked through three envelopes of photographs I didn’t give a shit about. I made excuses as soon as it felt safe to do so. I said I had homework to do, and shot back up to my room. Once I was there, I sat on my bed and pressed my hands tightly together between my knees. I stared down at the carpet and noticed that it needed vacuuming, that in the absence of daily room inspections I had neglected to bother with it, and Howard would notice right away. I looked up and registered the clutter of mess on my desk, plates and cups and school books and tapes. None of it in the right place. None of it as it should be. There was a hooded jumper on the back of my chair and some discarded socks on the floor. Now, I started to shake, and I could not control it. I shook from my neck to my toes, as I got up and started to do what I could to sort it out. That awful clenching feeling was back in my stomach, the one that made it impossible to eat anything, and so I sat back down, my hands pressed into it, willing it to go away. I knew what my body was doing; telling me to be careful, to be wary, and it was right.
Less than fifteen minutes later, Howard tapped softly on my door and I had no choice but to get up and let him in. The first thing he did was peer closely at my lock. “Hmm,” he said. “I don’t like that there. Think we’re going to have to remove that at some point.” He closed the door behind him, and I watched his eyes scanning the room. “Your mum had to go out to the shop,” he said. “You didn’t bother to get bread or milk in. She needs a rest, but she’s had to go back out.”
“Oh sorry,” I said. “I would have gone.”
“Sorry won’t cut it and you know that, and look at the state of this!” He lifted his arms, gestured in frustration and dropped them again. “Jesus Christ, I see Jack did a good job of keeping things in line! Right well, now we’ve got a moment or two together young man, it’s time we got a few things straight isn’t it?”
“What things?” I asked, sitting back on my bed. He glowered down at me.
“Stand up when I’m talking to you.”
So I got back up and I thought, so it begins, it begins, and I didn’t think I would be able to take it this time. I should have run when I had the chance to. I’d had two weeks of freedom, coming and going as I pleased, fairly decent sleep and a stomach relaxed enough to tolerate food. Two weeks, I thought, without fear. As I stood up, he dropped one hand onto the back of my neck, and pointed a finger into my face. “You,” he said. “Have got a lot of making up to do to me.”
“Why?” he laughed at me. “Why? The wedding of course you little shit stain. Did you think I’d forgotten about that? Did you think you’d get away with it? Threatening me? Making your mother cry on her own wedding day? Damn near ruined it for her, you did, and that is fucking unacceptable.”
I didn’t know what I was supposed to say, so I said nothing. I knew that anything I did say in my defence would more than likely lead me into trouble, and so I kept my mouth shut and my eyes down. He tightened his grip on my neck, shaking me a little. “Eh? I’m talking to you! Lost your tongue already have you Danny? Well that’s probably a good thing seeing as how nothing comes out of your mouth except crap and lies! Now I’m gonna’ take a minute to explain things to you, seeing as how you’re so thick and everything, seeing as how I always have to fucking spell things out for you! So here’s how it goes right? You know what I am now, right? Your step-dad. Yeah. Thought you’d like that. I’m your dad now Danny. Your dad.” I bit down on my lower lip, hard enough to taste blood, and my eyes burned down into the carpet, as he laughed his head off and rocked back on his heels in delight. “Oh yeah, I knew you’d like that! But it’s true mate, so you might as well get used to it. I’m here to stay, in case you hadn’t got your head around that yet. You’re my stepson now, you know, you’re my family whether you like it or not. So that means every time you get it wrong, every time you misbehave, or fuck up, whatever stupid little dramas you get yourself into, it reflects back on me! Right?” I nodded, and his hand loosened on my neck finally. “Okay then,” he said. “So when I tell you now to behave and be a good boy, it’s even more important, you understand? Now that you’re my stepson, it’s even more important, alright?”
I nodded again, and he dropped his hand from my neck and I rubbed at it slowly. “Good enough,” he told me. “Hope you mean it this time. Seems like I’ve given you more than enough chances lately. Because I’m here to stay now, aren’t I? Believe it or not, I would really like to just get on with you, just be one happy family. I was thinking about it a lot while we were away. I’m going to try to be a decent dad to you. I won’t be clearing off anywhere like your real old man did. You’d like that wouldn’t you eh? Us all just to get along?”
“Okay,” I nodded and whispered. “I get it.”
“Good,” he grinned and clapped his hands together loudly. “Now get this tidied up properly, you know the way I like it, everything in its place and I’ll come and check on it later. The plan is I buy this house pretty soon buddy, and I don’t want you messing it up all the time. A place for everything, remember?”
“I get it,” I told him.
When he had gone, I fell to my knees and peered under my bed. There it was, the holdall, the big one. I dragged it out by the strap, and before I could think twice about what I was doing, I pulled open my top drawer and started to fling pants and socks into it. I snatched up the clothes from the chair and floor and stuffed them in too. I looked around the room almost desperately. The mess on the desk, tapes and books and magazine. I swept them all into the bag. Then I grabbed my sock of money, my tin, my little bottle of whiskey and chucked them all in too. When it was full, I zipped it up and kicked it under the bed, and sat down, my head in hands, my heart going crazy. Should have done this fucking ages ago I was thinking.
Later in the evening, Howard came back up to check the room. He ducked his head around the door and nodded. “Good enough. Come on. Your mum’s pretty jetlagged and off to bed soon, but we just ordered a ton of pizza. Come on.” It was an order, not a request, so I left my room and hurried down the stairs in front of him. On the last step I looked back over my shoulder, expecting to see him right behind me, but he wasn’t there. Gone to the toilet, I assumed, and went into the lounge.
We sat together in front of the TV, eating pepperoni pizza and washing it down with cans of coke. They were watching Noels House Party and chortling away wearily, as they sat entwined together on the bigger sofa. My mother started dozing off after a while, her head drooping, her eyes flickering, until she would jerk herself awake again and laugh self-consciously. In the end she gave in to it and rose from the sofa. “How long does jetlag last anyway?” she joked, with a tired laugh. Howard got up quickly and scooped her up into his arms, making her squeal and giggle. “Ah yes, you didn’t carry me over the threshold earlier! You forgot!”
“Well now I shall carry you all the way to bed,” he grinned, rubbing his nose gently against hers. “Night Danny,” he said to me. “Finish the rest of that off if you like. Think us old folk are done in.” He carried her out of the room, and she waved a slow and dreamy hand back at me, and when they were gone, I sat up instantly, fear and adrenaline coursing through me like electricity. Once they were gone, I could barely sit still. I could not eat another thing. My stomach was tied up in knots. I did not know what to do. How long to wait. Where to go.
I needed to calm down. One step at a time, I told myself. One step at a time. I turned the TV down and listened for their noises upstairs. The shower, and the toilet, and the creak of floorboards. The groan of bedsprings. Low murmured talking, which eventually faded to nothing. I turned the TV even lower and sat on my hands, squirming and waiting. When I could stand it no more, when I thought my booming heart was in serious danger of erupting through my chest, I got to my feet and took several deep and steadying breaths. “Do it now,” I whispered to the silent room. “If you’re gonna’ do it, do it now.” I stepped out into the hallway and stopped to listen. Nothing. I took the stairs slowly, carefully, avoiding the ones that creaked, and again on the landing, I paused and listened. I tiptoed into my room and dragged out my bag. I looked around in a panic, wondering what else I should take, what else I might need. I tried to calm down, tried not to chicken out. My breathing was getting fast and ragged and I realized that what I was about to do terrified me. I knew that I was in danger of changing my mind, as I had done so many times before, so I forced myself to think about the man sleeping in the other room. The monster. My stepfather, and all the years that lay ahead. All the years waiting to be filled with bullying and fear, and I nodded at myself, and told myself to be fucking brave for once, to just get the hell out of there and figure the rest out later.
I padded softly back down the stairs, the bag on my shoulder. I grabbed my denim jacket from the hook in the hallway and shrugged it quickly on. I looked over my shoulder once, then opened the door, slipped out and closed it quietly behind me. I walked quickly, fear building up in my veins, quickening my pace and my breath. I crossed the neighbours lawns and rounded the corner. I hesitated when I saw Michael’s house, and all of my instincts told me to go there, to go to him and explain everything. There was still this massive wall between us, this thing that made our smiles tense and our eyes wary. But I knew it would be the first place Howard would look for me. It was too dangerous. Too much to ask. I had already wrecked his life enough. So I hurried on. It was nearly dark. With the bag on my shoulder I reached the end of The Meadows.
It was then that I heard his gleeful shout. It echoed out into the darkness, bouncing off the houses, and I spun around, and it was full of excitement and knowing, and there he was, back on the corner, staring right at me. “Oi!” he bellowed again in case I had not heard him the first time. “Where the fuck are you going?”
I turned around and ran.
I tore blindly through the streets and the alleys. I disappeared into the darkness of the estate. I hoped he would get lost in seconds, not knowing the shortcuts like I did. The bag weighed me down, banging from one shoulder to the other as I ran, but I did not let it slow me down. My hair whipped back behind me as my legs pumped up and down, and I felt my throat stripped raw as I devoured the evening air which hit my face. I just ran and ran, and tried not to think about whether I could hear footsteps behind me or not. There were no more shouts. My heart was pounding, thud, thud, thud, booming through my ears, as I tore through the gate at the park and raced up the grassy hill. I looked back over my shoulder once more, and there was nothing, no one, but I did not dare slow down, I kept running and running, not daring to believe in it. I ran faster than I knew I was able to. Faster and faster, as tears of panic streamed down my face and the screams piled up behind my lips.
When I reached the woods I crashed on. Through the brambles and the thorns, stumbling and tripping, but never slowing down. Finally I glimpsed the old caravan glinting through the trees and I raced on to it, my breath hitching, my stomach cramped up. My eyes were growing wider by the second as I battled through the undergrowth, and peered into every shadow, every dark space, my hands gripping the strap of my bag. I strained my ears to listen, but all I could hear was my own ragged, panicked breathing, and the crunch of the foliage under my feet. I reached the caravan weakly, and leaned against the old door for a second or two, my eyes swivelling around at the dark woods that surrounded me. “Fuck,” I hissed, “fuck, fuck fuck!” The woods did not feel safe. They did not give the impression that they would shield or hide me well. They were a terrifying mix of noise and silence. Eerie drawn out nothingness broken up by sudden, unexplained crashing or squawking. Wildlife, I told myself with a nod, opening the door. Foxes and rabbits, and owls. I slipped inside and closed the door behind me.