Short story by Michael Botur
from Hell of a Thing (The Sager Group, 2020)
A dissatisfied father seeks a more exciting heir – and finds it in the kid who is bullying his son at school.
Published in Halfway Down the Stairs, 2019
The fat little razorback tries to shake his minder off so he can beat up your son. The kid is a tornado of ugly meat – a black mullet, thick eyebrows, a face puffy and bloated. He’s enraged, bellowing, spitting, swinging wild overarms. The minder follows, sidestepping stray fists from the boy he has lost control of. The minder is a big 30-something giant dressed in a childish backwards cap and basketball shorts, chasing the stroppy pig-boy across the netball courts. You’re half-stunned, trailing belatedly in the wake while your boy cops a beating. You’ve seen dogs fight like this.
Ainsley is on his back in the sandpit by the time you catch up with him. Your delicate little ten year old is traumatized, looking up at his attacker to see when it’s going to end, his cheeks hot, his mouth black with fear. Neither your boy nor the bully should be in this junior section of Ribboncreek Primary School. From the jungle gym where it started, the fight has spilled eighty metres across the school.
Your son’s no fighter, nor are you. You stand behind the razorback-boy, unsure of the law around restraining the bully, looking for an opportunity to intervene while he batters your shrieking son. As he bombards Ainsley with fistfuls of sand and knuckle, the bully’s shirt lifts and you get glimpses of pink scars on a mottled belly. Burns and blotches.
Finally the minder knots his hands around the crazed kid’s head and under his elbows, lifts the crazed hog out of the sandpit and marches him away.
The minder notes your aghast expression as he leaves.
‘Sall good, he does this,’ the minder calls, hitching up his silken shorts with a spare hand, ‘We cool.’
You are anything but cool. Bursting into your house and locking the door behind, you give Ainsley a bath to wash off the shame. Stalactites of snotty sand hang out of your son’s nose. On his back are purple and pink splotches where he’s been pummelled. It’s mere minutes before the boy’s mother, Philippa, is due home from work. You have sixty seconds to extrude for your wife an explanation as to why your boy was singled out by the brute. She’ll scold you, Philippa will, plus you’re already in trouble with your team leader for taking the afternoon off to clean up this godforsaken mess.
The bully – Legion is the little shit’s name – had been lunging like a leashed dog at the seniors from the high school who take their daily shortcut through Ribboncreek, Ainsley explains, sitting in his tub of sandy water, sniffling. This Legion child was transferred from some other school just last week, dumped like a brick into a serene pond. Angry after a day of being sent to the principal’s office and back by Ms. Marshall, the boy had been nipping like a stray dog, confident no teenager would fight him. Legion had picked fights with at least four teens before your angel suggested he stop, confident his Big Safe Daddy was coming to dignify the playground in just a moment or two. You really fumbled that one. Shouldn’t have pulled over to respond to that email from your team leader. It cost fifty valuable seconds, and at the rate of one punch per second… Christmas crackers.
You dry your boy with a fluffy yellow towel with a hood stylized to look like a gosling, make a mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows and lay your boy on the couch under a blanket. He drops into sleep watching Toy Story, sucking his thumb.
Philippa comes in the front door, drops her groceries on the mat in the hall, calling out questions about the trail of sandy footprints and the dot of blood on Ainsley’s gumboot. Within a minute, she’s shrieking and shaking Ainsley awake, rattling his story out. Ainsley cost $30,000 of invitro fertilisation therapy to produce. He’s precious, one-of-a-kind. No one has a right to touch him but God Above. She aims her angry eyes and demands to know what you’re going to do.
Of course the bully’s mother doesn’t show up to the meeting at which Legion is supposed to apologize to Ainsley. No father shows up, and no child, either. Everyone in the office is scrambling to locate him. The minder stands outside the office vaping, not bothering to pursue his charge, occasionally calling out ‘Leeee-jaaaaarn?’ in his monotonous oaf-voice. It’s pointless – out the window you can all see the child off scrounging in the garbage tip on the edge of the woods where the school ends. Hundreds of metres away. As far from this so-called Restorative Mediation and Healing Conference as one could get.
Mediator Ms. Meadows peers at her written notes about the so-called fight. Her lips slip like kelp in an ocean of jowls as she formulates some words about honesty and openness and forgiveness. It’s all ludicrous, of course. The perpetrator’s a free man. There’s no justice here.
Ms. Meadows says she’d like to proceed to the final page of notes: the compromise. Compromise? COMpromise?! You shake your head at the sickening obsequiousness of it all. Philippa will be unimpressed, to say the least; Elizabeth at work will demand a stronger result as to why you have taken time off. Ainsley, sinking in a bean bag in the corner, isn’t even invited to participate. Sullen, he plays Python Code Quest on his tablet.
What stands out from Ms. Meadows’ compromise document is the Legion child will be returned to class because there is some school values policy about “not stigmatizing” children, apparently, and by law he cannot be expelled without the Board of Trustees voting for the child to be removed, which would ultimately cost the school funding, which, Sir, we are not here to do.
‘We are here to heal, as we agreed at the start,’ Ms. Meadows says, smiling down at Ainsley.
You can hear the minder outside on the deck bellowing LeeeJAAAARN towards the woods.
Utterly dysfunctional, all of it. Sickening complacency. Borderline corrupt, actually.
You haul your creaking body off your chair and prepare to return to the office to work through your lunch break to make up missed time while Ms. Meadows protests about waiting for Legion “So everyone’s on the same spiritual page.” You close your ears, pause Ainsley at the door as you leave, putting your fingers on Ainsley’s throat, fastening that top button he’s always neglecting.
On the deck outside, you fume and frown. The minder shuffles over and attempts to stand beside you supportively. He points his vaporizer at a distant blob on the corner of the sports field where the school ends.
‘Can’t wait to clock off,’ the oaf laments, shaking his head, his childish shorts swaying. ‘Least the lil’ clown goes to Residential in six hours, let them handle it, know what I’m sayin? Lucky it’s payday on Thursday.’
You think of Ainsley trembling. You think of your team leader’s frown. This society is falling apart. It’s time transgressors had some sense slapped into them.
Past the playground, through the final goal posts and into the weeds you stomp. Fear rises from your toes into your groin. It’s unsafe out here. Civilisation has receded. The school dissolves into wild woods, rusty washing machines, a small mountain of junk mail, a little stream, gravel, mosquitoes.
The trees close behind you. The sun hides. You’re alone in the boondocks, now, two hundred yards from safety. The child appears, snapping something, building, constructing. Making a nest.
The boy pauses, gives you a quick assessment with black raisin eyes in his potato-face. He’s peering around your body, checking to see if you have backup.
He’s building – it’s hard to tell at first – no, not building anything, digging a pit, a pit with a commotion in it, a muddy pit with – with a duck’s head sticking out?
The boy has buried a – for Christ’s sake, surely not – a duck?! Several ducklings are nipping around it in a panic.
‘LEAVE MY BOY ALONE.’ Your words are missiles which approach the boy but fall to earth. He’s barely listening.
‘YOU HEARD ME. MY SON: NO MORE BULLYING. He’s delicate. Y’hear me?’
Legion tips his head sideways.
‘What one’s your boy, mista?’
The feral boy shunts more mud around his repulsive buried duck.
Your hands are in your pocket so he can’t see them quivering.
‘YOU WILL LEAVE THIS SCHOOL AT ONCE.’
‘School says I hafta go. They make me. Sure you don’t wanna play wiv me?’
He plops a dollop of mud on the mother duck’s head and it disappears. He picks the ducklings up easily, rearranges some matches in his pocket and tucks the ducklings in instead.
Play with you? PLAY WITH YOU?
You pin vicious words with your teeth, count to 13 as the counsellor at Marriage Matters encouraged last month. You pull the poor duck out of the earth, turn and walk away, armpits black with worried sweat.
Though you try to go through the usual shower, shave, coffee and yoghurt routine and do your buttons and tie responsibly, you can’t get into the right headspace for a normal day. Your nemesis invades your headspace. It begins in the Ribboncreek Report newsletter which welcomes the school’s newest brat, a certain Year 5 named Legion Jones. The school is attempting to exorcize the child’s demons with lashings of kindness. Straightaway you’re seeing the little prick’s name everywhere. They have a name for it, you recall from that Dr. Robert Sapolsky tome you read last Christmas: it’s called the Baader-Meinhof Effect. Encounter a significant name once and you’ll begin to see it everywhere.
The obese little fucker returns to your consciousness later in the week with another newsletter update: he’s been given a so-called ‘Wonderful Wednesday’ certificate. It’s a desperate piece of appeasement, like when Hitler was granted the Sudetenland in the hope his violence would subside. In the newsletter is the Baader-Meinhof boy’s ridiculous mugshot, certificate in hand against a trophy cabinet, as if the kid is normal.
You crumple the newsletter and biff it at the bin, missing of course. You were always useless at sports. More of a reader. Forbidden by Mother to so much as snap flowers off stems or buy yourself a hot pastry on a foggy day.
Ainsley walks into the kitchen hunting for his Minecraft cap and sees the crumpled newsletter. His face crumples accordingly.
You ask him if the Baader-Meinhof Bastard is still a bother. Ainsley asks what bastard means, and what Baader-Meinhof means. It means something you’ll never be, Softy, you think with a snort. If you would just stand up for yourself once in a while, you’d save me a tonne of trouble.
Dropping Ainsley at the gates with an extra-special lunch in his backpack, you spy none other than Legion and his so-called minder marching the school grounds in the company of Silvia Meadows. They’re picking up rubbish or lecturing the boy or somesuch. The child lags behind the minder, head swinging side to side in search of mischief. He’s a big’un, you note, tall as the grownups’ elbows. The child’s eyes penetrate through the school fence and through your windscreen and nearly lock on you and your son. You take the long way round to the far gate, ignoring Ainsley’s questions in that weak squeaky voice of his. You guide him to class, give him instructions on how to keep safe during the day and leave him with a special kiss on his fluffy eyelashes.
Thirty thousand bucks to brew this kid. What was that phrase from the Dan Ariely economics book? Opportunity cost, yes, that’s it. He cost you opportunities.
Five hours later in the office, you’re preparing to endure a one-on-one in the Fern Room with your team leader Elizabeth when a Seesaw alert interrupts your phone. Something about people marking themselves safe. Ribboncreek had been placed into lockdown while the firefighters put out a blaze. Traffic is backed up right into the centre of town. Elizabeth fumes as you ask permission to postpone today’s meeting. You’ll have the report in her inbox tomorrow, you swear.
You park 600 metres from Ribboncreek. You’re nearly hit by that bloody real estate woman coming out of her driveway. A bus honks as you sprint in front of it. Finally your toes touch Ribboncreek’s asphalt and you’re amongst emergency services, their flashing reds and blues, the hi-vis vests, and a firehose which snakes for fifty metres.
Ainsleyyyy! Ainsley? AINZ?
Hundreds of children are gathered on the grass, a sea of yellow and blue uniforms, obedient little faces. You can hear Ms. Meadows and the teachers fussing. Something about hats.
The firefighters look unhappy. They are gathering up a firehose. Just as you’re beginning to think the alert has misled you, your nose catches the sharp tang of petrol. A firefighter is holding a yellow Ribboncreek shirt far away from his chest, wincing. The school shirt, evidently, has been doused with petrol. Another firefighter follows, this time holding a saturated Teen Titans backpack.
You spot your freckled ten-year-old in the ocean of colorful children lined up obediently on the grass. You wade into the kids, pick Ainsley up and paint him with kisses and hugs. His pockets crunch – they’re filled with chess pieces and he has a little game going on the grass. He’s safe – deliriously happy to have a spare few minutes to enjoy his passion, actually.
A teacher gently asks you to fetch Ainsley’s bag. The kids will be free to go home soon.
You go in search of Ainsley’s backpack in the central corridor, several blocks of coat hooks and benches and lockers. In the hall are two police crouched in front of a fat, hunched, shirtless blob of trouble. He’s trying to push through their legs; they’re nudging the black-eyed boy back and ordering him to stay put.
Matches are sprinkled through the hall. To your right, a red plastic gas can is on its side, still hiccoughing a dribble of fuel.
Between the knees of the grownups, Legion’s eyes catch yours.
Light it up, mista, says a rubbery little voice in your head. Play wiv me.
Philippa insists on doing school drop offs for the next month, though she can’t get away from court for pickups so she supposes you’re competent to handle the 3 o’clock shift. It’s about his safety, Poopsie, she tells you. Really it’s Philippa reminding you you need to stay powerless. You’ll need to communicate better with his teacher if you want to give him a good future, she tells you as an aside, and that starts with effective communication. You understand, Silly-billy?
It’s not your fault, Philippa adds, not really. She squeezes your shoulder. God didn’t mix bravery evenly when he was baking each of us, did he now.
At work Elizabeth confronts you before you’ve even taken your seat. There’s no way your numbers are going to stack up for her report. Also, missing that meeting two days ago really fucked her week, Elizabeth tells you. Salary review? Forget it. She got Timothy from Communications to take care of your report for you. He can handle legions of responsibility.
You heard me, she snaps.
You begin to ask her if she’s ever heard of that Baader-Meinhof thing by which a person can’t tell a coincidence from an omen then cut yourself off with a silent snigger. Elizabeth hasn’t read half the books you have. Stooping to her level is pointless.
Hello? HellOOOOooo? She’s snapping her fingers in front of your eyelids. If you’re not going to engage professionally, you may as well just go home. She stares you down and you accept the defeat, blinking, though maybe not next time.
Nothing to do but hover outside Ribboncreek Primary so there’s zero chance of being late. You crash down the emergency stairs, get into your car, honk at aggravating drivers, pull over near the school.
He’s – he out?!
Legion steps in front of your car, tilting his head sideways like an owl. Amused.
‘YOU!’ you tell him, getting out, ready to throttle a neck as thick as your thigh, ‘This is all your fault. QUIT BULLYING MY SON.’
‘I already done that, mista.’
‘You’re a menace.’
‘How come you’re not in school, mista?’
Legion rests the object he’s holding, some sort of club – a table leg – a TABLE LEG?! With a bolt protruding from it? – and waddles around some cars, disappearing momentarily.
Then he opens your passenger door and hops in.
‘What in God’s name are you doing?’
‘Let’s do fun stuff.’
‘I have to do some work from home.’
‘You like your work, mista?’
‘I do not.’
‘Don’t go, then.’
You glare at the boy, order him not to touch anything, take the handbrake off, reverse out and creep slowly up the street.
Legion points west, far away from school. Fine. You can dump him on the outskirts of town like a sackful of kittens. Until then, you suppose you’d better comply with the law. You pull a seatbelt over the boy’s breasts and plug it in.
You take Streamscape Drive. The street just keeps on giving. Generous lights pointing north, then you veer towards the river where a dozen small, identical buildings with gleaming windows are lined up amongst the oaks. The Shelter Independent Living Village, it’s called. There is a parking lot outside the perfect houses with their red roofs and brown bricks. Legion spots a corner of the parking lot where the security cameras are blind. Okay: deposit the child there. You ease the car slowly into a space under a low branch, set the handbrake. Legion is out of the car and scuttling into the village. Legion’s a lot more energetic than his blubber would indicate. You help the boy haul a garage door open. There’s a loading dock where trucks deliver to the village’s kitchen. Bag after bag of flour, onions, instant pudding. Racks of soft white bread.
Taking his time, calmly brushing his fingers across the bulk bags of food, Legion selects a sack of potatoes and drags it out. You ease the roller door back down, covering for the boy. What on earth is this? What’s his plan? Surely school is missing him. Surely the police are following. In the thirty seconds you waste pondering what to do, Legion makes swift, efficient progress.
He plants a single potato on the asphalt behind each of the shiny hatchback cars. The boy budgets exactly 32 potatoes then once they’re each lain out and prepped, he goes back to the first potato and crams one after another up the exhaust pipes moving right to left.
You don’t want to enable a child to do such a thing, of course, so you shove the last dozen potatoes up exhaust pipes yourself, squatting so you can’t be seen behind the cars. Your work pants strain and you make a mental note to wear something less restrictive. You dash back to your car and rev the engine impatiently, urging the boy to retreat to safety.
Soon as Legion has plugged the exhaust pipes with potatoes and jumped back in the passenger seat, the car screams out from its leafy den and you take several detours before resting on a grassy hill overlooking the village. Heart knocking, you watch through a pair of binoculars taken from Ainsley’s Scout kit. Nothing happens for a few minutes, then the first family leaves the Reception building, waving goodbye to nana, strapping their seatbelts, driving to the Give Way, preparing to roll onto the road… and BANG!
You and your little accomplice can’t hold the binoculars up, you’re laughing too much, an apish, caveman chortle which you pass back and forth, exciting one another.
God, you haven’t laughed like this since you were a kid. Your blood warms. Your eyes sparkle. You wipe a tear from your cheek. You drive a curve back towards the city through a boulevard in a wealthy part of town with wide berms and cherry blossoms and high walls.
Legion says he needs to go toilet. Right now? Right now, mista. You’re on a street of mansions, four storey fortresses set back from their walls. Palms and fig trees on the lawns, sculptures, fountains. At 1005 Pallisades Parkway you keep the engine running while Legion hops out, pulls down his shorts and blasts shit onto the perfectly shorn Bermuda grass. His faeces resembles brown scrambled eggs. The boy’s diet must be all grease and candy. He needs someone to feed him properly. Working together, you scoop the shit onto a fig leaf and guide the shit inside the mouth of the mailbox of mansion number 1007, trying to breathe around your laughter. You’re sure to get busted any moment now! Never have you had such a thrill!
You’re creeping away, desperate to flee, when Legion says Oi, check this out, and adds the cherry on top: he moves the red flag on the mailbox from down to up.
‘You got mail!’ he bellows over and over, and you’re clutching your guts in exquisite amusement. Of course the boy deserves a chocolate shake from Burger King for his effort. Of course Legion takes the shake as it’s handed to him by the girl in the red cap and bowtie, takes the lid off, enjoys a quick slurp and then tosses brown goo all over the girl. Of course he takes the wheel while you try to dry your laughing eyes. You can barely see the road.
It’s almost 3 o’clock by the time you’ve splashed and smashed and sprayed and shat your way through the city. Your jaw aches with permagrin; you think you might need Deep Heat to cool the pain in your ribs from laughing all day. You’ve stopped at the supermarket, picked up a packet of marshmallows and crackers and a barbecue lighter and melted delicious Smores in a car park looking out over the river. The taste brought back memories of sitting round a camp fire with your Scout troupe, tossing fistfuls of pine needles into the orange and feeling thrilled, back when you used to get chased by caretakers, caned by nuns who rammed your face into the newspaper. You want to end up like this Carlos the Jackal brute? Eh? EH? Detention. Firecrackers, pipe bombs. Rocks and windows. Freedom. Adrenaline. Pure glee. Squashed by the academy, business school, the grey internship. Sensations you’ve buried and dragged a rock over.
You leave the boy at the gates, spitting on your handerchief, wiping chocolate from Legion’s sticky cheeks.
The bell rings. A tsunami of grinning children yeeee across the plaza.
You extend your hand to shake Legion’s.
It’s not the end, mista, Legion tells you. No need to shake on nothin.
Philippa swirls her Gewürztraminer in a huge glass and remarks on its notes of mandarin and sandalwood. She slides her glass along the breakfast bar. You can smell that, surely? What’s wrong with you? You need your nose checked, that’s what. She’s been taking a night class in wine appreciation and wishes you’d join her. Our Lord and Saviour wants us to appreciate the gifts he’s bestowed upon us. How can you not be appreciative?
From your barstool, you nod so much it’s hard to bring your head back up.
Listen, Poopsie, she says, rubbing your back, gargling her wine, I know. About the little secret rendezvous.
Your blood cools. There is a wine knife on the counter. You smuggle it inside your fingers, store it on your lap. Might need it if a fight breaks out.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of, she continues. You’re doing a wonderful thing for that child. A Christian thing. We both know his guardian’s useless. Just do it by the books, eh? You have to let the school know if you’re giving one of their children a lift home. Get it on paper. Authorized. Besides, Ainsley’s jealous.
You aim your fist towards her. The wine knife is poking your palm, eager to escape. Tell me who the hell narked.
Who squealed on me?
She recoils, says she doesn’t like that street language. It’s vulgar. Your son’s just concerned about his father, that’s all. Plus, you can’t be taking any more hours off work.
Motherfuckin Ainsley. You fume all night and catch him next morning.
Ever heard of blinders, boy? Blinders are the things you strap on a horse’s head when you want to keep its vision focused. Keep your eyes where they oughta be or you’re gonna get hurt.
You clench his shoulder until he promises to keep his God damn eyes to himself.
You’re 40 minutes late to work and Elizabeth’s flapping her arms, waving you into a meeting room where she’s got Australia on speakerphone and a couple secretaries behind her, recording minutes.
She tells you, with her molars glued together and her lips barely moving, that you need to SRRT. YOUR BRRRT. DWWWN.
You give her a hard shove in the chest and brace yourself. How a person reacts in the first second after a shove determines how a fight finishes, Legion taught you.
C’mon lady. Gimme one reason.
She backs down, of course, and flees to another room. A secretary follows her, rubbing her back.
You get stood down for a week, with pay. Perfect: the pressure cooker’s been boiling over anyway. Time to work on mindfulness. Reconnect with your inner child.
You spend the morning in the woods on the edge of the school, showing the boy how to mix epoxy resin, which until now Legion has only been pouring into a sock and sniffing. Epoxy resin, when mixed correctly, is strong enough to glue razor blades discretely behind every door handle of every class. Ms. Meadows puts her fingers on her door handle, slicey-slicey nicey-nicey, so long as you mix the correct proportions of epoxy. The boy is way behind on his units of measurement and you know he’s not understanding how milli means one thousandth, as in it takes three thousandths of a litre of epoxy resin to glue each blade to each door handle. Still, he demonstrates some tactile learning and you get the blades glued to all of the handles around 5 as the sun is setting. Ainsley has been waiting patiently and he wants a lift home but you tell him to harden up and walk. You could’ve walked home already, son! The hell’s wrong with you? He’s interrupting your lesson. The little sniveller pleads, cries, moans about the rottweiler’s snout sticking out the gate at house number 88. Finally he walks away and you resume working with your boy.
As you read Thursday’s Ribboncreek Report at the breakfast bar, laughter squeezes your ribs. Oh, mercy: the first line of Principal Mohammed’s editorial literally says “Looking over the list of terrorism conducted against my school, its buildings and its people over the past month brought a tear to my eye.”
The big baby’s been crying! You can’t wait to tell Legion. Like these idiots can’t fight back! Pathetic. These babies need to harden the fuck up.
The principal apparently can’t handle a few dead rats planted in pencil cases, concrete poured into a toilet, plus that hole covered with cardboard you dug into the sandpit. Kids walk over the hole, they fall in, sand falls on ’em: comedy gold.
What Principal Mohammed has his knickers in a twist about is paramedics had to be called to gently lift some little Korean girl out cause her leg got all twisted and her dad’s a diplomat and the family are thinking of suing. The school may have to ask for extra donations to cover this unanticipated cost, the editorial tells you. As for the Case of the Deadly Doorknobs, several teachers have had to have tetanus vaccinations after their nasty cuts. All children must urgently update their immunisation records with the school. It’ll cost hundreds of hours of admin.
Your abdominal muscles pulsate with laughter. Your cheeks ache. As Philippa heads for the door, dolled up in heels and a short skirt, looking more fuckable than she has in years, she asks you to load the dishwasher, please. You throw a ripe juicy tomato at her which spatters on her $1800 Dalbergia wood door and trickles down onto her stupid fuckin imported Etruscan tiles. While she’s stunned, you put your arms on either side of her and tell her who’s boss. Her thighs quiver. You tug her into the bedroom. She works for you then spreads herself, holding you inside her with her fingers, stroking you afterward, gushing gratitude.
Later, you pull on flip flops and a singlet and trudge down to school. It’s a good day to walk. You even pick up a pack of cigarettes from the dairy. The first smoke brings a dizzy rush to your head and sparks a suppressed memory of sneaking smokes in an orchard. Pressing chests with a girl at a disco. Running from a taxi driver.
You tell the piece of skirt at the school reception that you’re Legion’s lawyer and the child needs to be called out of class for an urgent meeting. The receptionist obeys and summons the child. His suspicious black squint spreads into a smile when he walks into the office and realizes it’s you, here to spend a day together in your war corner.
You trudge over to the boondocks, carrying two milk bottles filled with gas and show the boy how you can dissolve polystyrene into the petroleum, each chunk turning into a blob until the bottle is full of a sticky cream colored sludge. That’s napalm, son. You position yourself around Legion’s back, wrap your arms over his as you prepare a second batch, tearing off chunks of polystyrene, guiding his fingers as he pushes the white tufts inside the snout of the milk bottle. There. The two of you stand back and admire what you’ve created together.
Later, Ainsley limps over and finds the two of you as you’re scraping a battleplan into the mud. Legion has stolen the keys to a steamroller parked round the corner on that site where they’re putting up the new special ed prefab classes. You’re going to flatten the school’s fence, maybe the whole damn school. It’s just a matter of timing. You’ll chain the Minder to the fence and flatten him as well. Ms. Meadows and the principal, too. You’ll flatten anyone who’s ever questioned you. The firemen. Philippa. That nark at work. Your boy –
He says your name with a lilt at the end. A question.
As in, Dad, is that you? Are you still in there?
Legion walks straight at Ainsley, ready to smash him.
He stops, looks over his shoulder, awaiting instructions.
It’s black tonight. There’s steam in the air. The orange letters glowing on the digital noticeboard spell BOARD MTNG 730.
The Board of Trustees has had Legion Jones enrolled for the legal minimum of 60 days and they’re now permitted to expel the boy provided everyone votes Aye. The Board has gathered in the middle of the school hall, dragging together four trestle tables to form a wagon-circle. In the middle the secretary sits on a revolving office chair, giving instructions. All families “victimized” by the boy are invited. You can’t not attend. He’s jumped out the window of Residential especially to be with you tonight. The boy’s fate is sealed, Board-wise. If one fails to show up, one gets moved to Juvenile Detention Facility.
You’re not surrendering the boy. No, he’s safe in your car.
Legion, half-leaned back in his seat, tells you what you must do tonight.
You keep the engine running until you spot the Minder in the parking lot, resting his bulk against the boot of the car, pulling back the cuff of the sleeve of his billowing FUBU sweatshirt, looking at the watch on his wrist in frustration.
Now, Legion tells you as your car eases into the school, Hit ’im.
The Minder cranes his head forward, trying to peer through the dark and see who’s that thumping over the speed bumps, coming right towards him.
The Minder steps forward.
‘FASTER,’ Legion instructs, and there’s a crunch as your windscreen shatters and you’re slamming on the brakes and the body on the bonnet rolls onto the ground where it splats like a watermelon.
You get out of the car. The hall is right ahead, the Board, the wagon circle, so many targets. There’s a groan from the sack of meat on the asphalt. He’s not dead, just down.
Fuck. Change of plan. You leave the car in the middle of the school and walk briskly away. The napalm will still be in the boot when you get back, don’t worry. It’s bright, the car is – the moon catches the corners of every cube of glass. The broken windscreen glows.
Glowing, too, is the illustrious McDonald’s sign just up the road. You feel a hard fat warm little bun placed in your palm. It’s Legion’s hand, his chubby callouses clutching yours.
You park the upsetting thought and try to enjoy the safe, warm reliable family restaurant. McDonald’s has a playground with a yellow plastic slide and a climbing wall and – look, son – somebody’s even left you a balloon. Here.
The boy’s favorite food turns out to be hot, sweet, sticky apple pie. The pies are just a dollar ninety nine; you buy him five. The way he carries his tray delicately, held up beneath his fat little chin, warms your core.
You find a booth in the play area where you can keep your backs to the wall. One of your favorite hacks when you were a kid, the one that earned you that two day Time Out, was to eat 9/10 of the pie then pick a dead wasp from the glass walls, stick the wasp in the remnant pie and take it to the counter to get compensation – free milkshakes, burgers, toys.
He’s scared of wasps, your boy. Legion studies you with wide appreciative eyes as you inject the delicate corpse of a windowsill wasp into half a pie then send him over to the counter to hustle, patting his cute wee bottom. It’s okay, son. There’s a lot to be scared of in this world. The red and blue lights licking the walls, the whoop of a siren, the crackle of a police radio outside. Approaching the counter he looks over his shoulder at you, his eyebrows bending in appeal. Poor little fella’s frightened he might get told off.
He hesitates in front of the counter, nervous.
You ease out of the booth, put your hand on his back and walk with him.