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Kevin Brooke writes fiction for adults and children. He’s previously published a book entitled ‘The Roman Citizens from Class 6B’ aimed at 6-10 year olds, which is available on Amazon. He’s had a number of short stories published in anthologies including ‘Short Stories from Black Pear’, a couple in Graffiti Magazine and in various anthologies as a member of Worcester Writers' Circle. In September this year his book ‘Jimmy Cricket,’ this time aimed at early teens, was published by Black Pear Press and is available at both Amazon and http://blackpear.net/2014/09/20/cricket-is-the-answer
Kevin is a regular on the Worcester spoken-word scene
WINNING STORY Running Away by Kevin Brooke
OPEN SHORT STORY COMPETITION 2014
‘Troubled’ some people called him, ‘complicated’ was another word used by certain teachers at our school. To me however, he was just plain Adam and most importantly, he was my best mate.
Twenty years is a long time but I can still remember the way he hugged me in the street as though it was yesterday. The tightness of his hands in the small of my back and the glistening in his eyes as he said goodbye will stay with me always. I remember pushing him away for the second time in less than an hour - calling him a poof and telling him I’d see him in the morning, but only if he was lucky.
I set off earlier than usual the next day in a deliberate attempt to avoid him. I even went down a different road, used a separate route to make sure our paths didn’t cross but I needn’t have bothered. Adam didn’t show up at school.
It seemed odd when I was called out of class. It was History, the second lesson of the day and I was escorted to the headmaster’s office by the school nurse. My parents were there - sitting opposite the headmaster. My mum was edged forward in her seat, her hands closed together in a ball. She had a look on her face, kind of sad and yet comforting at the same time. I was convinced I was in big trouble over what had happened the previous day, but then she said some words that even now are impossible to fully comprehend.
‘We have some terrible news, about your friend Adam I mean,’ mum said, her eyes appearing to reach out to mine in an effort to share the burden she was about to place on my shoulders. ‘He’s been involved in an accident and died last night at his home.’
He was fourteen.
Accidental death was the official reason, strangled by his own belt as he exercised doing pull-ups at the top of his bedroom door. The fact that I know otherwise has haunted me ever since. There was no way this was an accident – Adam’s death was down to me.
The funeral was incredibly difficult. Both of his parents spoke in the church, as did his older brother - all of them somehow able to get through their personal set of heartfelt words without breaking down. There’s no way I could’ve done the same and even now I’m still unable to look any of them in the eye - convinced they’d see through me and recognise my guilt.
Life moved on, a much lonelier life than before and I tried to put it behind me or at least that’s what I told myself. Instead of going into the sixth form at my school I went to a separate college to do my ‘A’ levels. Not that I’d have stayed at the school anyway. Even without Adam’s death, there was far too much pain embroiled in that place for me to deal with. I went to University at the other side of the country, got a job in the same town, got married and settled down. When I came home to visit family, I did just that and nothing else and made sure that any contact with anybody from school or anybody I might know from that time in my life was kept to an absolute minimum.
Last week I finally decided to stop running away. I don’t blame myself like I used to, or at least not as much as I used to but even so it felt like the right thing to do. To use a modern phrase, I guess I was looking for closure.
There was a place we’d go to sometimes about a mile away from school. Adam would call it his safe haven, a refuge from the world. The truth is, he was a good judge - it was a special place for me too.
I parked near the school, in the same street we’d walked down together to and from school and then headed to the area of ancient woodland. There was an Iron Gate at the entrance and I pushed through it, the familiar sway and the sound of metal scraping against the stone wall evoking memories from the past – the sound of voices, the smell of the wood in springtime and the escape from the nightmare of my teenage years.
I tried to visualise the routes we’d go down together but the trouble was it all looked so different. The trails were overgrown and one of the areas I recognised had been cordoned off by the National Trust with the sign NO PUBLIC ACCESS. I didn’t care for signs. I wasn’t in the mood and ignoring the padlock, I jumped over the metal five bar gate.
As I went deeper into the trees the canopy became dense and reducing the light to a gloom. Low branches clawed at my arms as I pushed my way forward until at last I found a path I’d definitely been down before. I paused for a moment and took a deep breath. The familiarity triggered something inside, a feeling of anxiety that made me feel sick. It was as though I was fourteen again and my life had returned once more to the horror of my schooldays.
I covered my ears and shut my eyes as my head filled with the memory of kids in the corridor sneering at Adam and calling him the kind of names only teenagers would consider using. In my mind his face appeared. It was Adam on one of his better days when he would simply smile at the bullies, not letting them win.
As it always did, the perspective of the memory changed and my heart sank with shame. Instead of seeing Adam I’d see the scared boy walking beside him, his terrified best mate. My head was bowed towards the floor, too frightened to speak in case they directed their bullying towards me instead.
It never worked, of course it didn’t – life in a school full of boys, each fighting to preserve their pecking order, doesn’t work like that. I should have fought back but I was scared, terrified and they could sense the weakness of my spirit which only seemed to increase their aggression towards me.
I’d try to get out of their way, lower my eyes and wish they’d just leave me alone. The pushing would come first, then the shoving and spitting and the threats about what they’d do to us next time they saw us.
They made our lives hell.
Most days Adam would do the same as me. Walk away, take the abuse and not say anything in case it got worse but then one day, one fateful day, he changed his approach. He told them to mind their own business and at the same time demonstrated the kind of bravery I could only dream of possessing. For a second or two they stopped, stepped back as though they were shocked at his reaction but then the punches started and the kicks as they set upon us like a pack of wolves.
Looking back I still can’t understand how no-one in authority seemed to notice the bruises, the fat lips and the blood on our shirts. Maybe they noticed but didn’t care enough to do anything to help a couple of kids like us – the weak and insignificant who should have been able to stand up for themselves. It felt at the time as though we’d been abandoned by everybody.
My eyes blinked open and I was back in the wood. The leaves were rustling in the afternoon breeze and a blackbird was singing in the background. Sweet pockets of pollen wafted gently into my nose and I walked just a little further.
I soon came to a hollow tree stump, the sight of which made my heart skip a beat as a recollection sent my mind into a whirl. I reached inside not daring to believe, almost hoping it was the wrong place after all. Deeper my hand searched, amongst the dampness of the fungi on the inside of the trunk until my fingers grasped at the coldness of glass.
I tugged at the bottle and lifted it from what was left of the tree. The label had disintegrated but it was definitely the one. Our last drink together - a bottle of single malt whisky Adam had stolen from his dad’s drinks cabinet a couple of days after the attack in the corridor.
I remember the burning in my throat as I drank and then the coughing and choking but most of all I remember the laughter we shared together as we let go of our fears, if only for one incredible moment. It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed like that. Then the mood changed completely and he told me that he loved me. I tried to ignore his words and the way he was looking at me. I said I liked him too, that he was a good mate and from now on we’d stick together and show the world what we were made of.
In response I remember how he came towards me, standing close enough for me to feel his breath, his eyes searching into mine. I felt my heart begin to race as he took hold of both of my hands and started to kiss me. At first I kissed him back but then I stopped, disgust and revulsion at what was happening swelling inside.
I shoved him away, my hands beating into his chest.
‘What are you doing?’ I shouted, rubbing the back of my hand across my lips, desperate to remove any trace of our kiss.
Adam suggested we put the whisky back into the tree stump and finish it another day. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know whether I wanted to punch him or grab hold of him and finish our kiss but instead I did neither.
We left this place and made our way out of the forest in silence, me at the front and unable to look back at his face. All I could think about was what would happen if anybody ever found out - I’d never live it down. The bullying would increase; give our enemies an even bigger excuse. I was confused, frightened and angry but even so that’s no justification. The fact is I should never have told him that I wished he was dead. The next day, I was sitting in the headmaster’s office and my wish had come true.
I’ve never been back to this place until today. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve thought about our moment in this forest. Of course I wish I’d done things differently. Of course I wish I’d not called him that name when I spoke to him for the last time and instead been able to think things through like an adult but I couldn’t. I was only fourteen and simply unable to cope with the possibility that I could be different to everybody else. The truth is, I still can’t.
I unscrewed the cap. ‘To Adam,’ I said, taking a swig from the whisky that had been hidden in the tree stump for twenty years. It tasted rank of course, and I spat it out in an explosion of release as my legs began to buckle and I sank to my knees.
With each tear came pain, with every sob of anguish came a searing ache of interminable sadness. It was as though my body was cleansing itself, emptying itself of almost twenty years of suffering.
I wept at the memory of my schooldays, I wept at my eternal weakness but most of all I wept for the loss of the kind of soul mate that I’ll only get the chance to meet just once in my lifetime.
Bio for Anne Wilson - second placed winning story
I grew up on the west coast of Britain and also lived on the Balearic island of Mallorca. On my return to the UK I was employed to deliver the Government initiative of Additional Literacy Support in schools, while gaining a BA in Advanced Creative Writing. My short fiction appears in a number of anthologies and my first novel, Here Be Dragons: A Tale of Mortals, Myths and Mystery, is available in print and e-format. I am attempting a sequel as people seem to want to know what happened next. I am currently halfway through a second novel entitled, A Bundle of Bones.
Me and DG was written as the result of having been challenged to write a ghost story in which no-one has actually died.
Bio for Julie Swan - third placed winning story
Julie’s background is as an electronics engineer and mathematician. She has been writing fiction for about eight years and has had a few stories and articles published in various places. She is now semi‑retired, writes when she can, tutors Maths and occasionally helps a friend make theatrical costumes, a varied and interesting combination. She lives with her husband and teenaged twin daughters on the southern edge of the New Forest close to the sea — the best of both worlds.