Eight Years Old
They were on their way home from school, laughing hysterically as they created the greatest cartoon series the world would ever see. It would follow the adventures of a globe-trotting private detective as he unmasked aliens who disguised themselves as teachers. Best of all, the detective was an obscenely large ogre. The only problem was giving him a name.
“It should be ‘Fuck You,’” whispered Josh, quiet enough so no one else could hear him swear. “That way, when he meets the alien teacher at the end, he can say: ‘My name is Fuck You,’ and the aliens won’t ever know if he’s just messing with them or if that’s actually his name. And! And, when they say his name back to him he can punch them across the room because they keep saying Fuck You to him.”
Anthony howled with laughter, so much so that even his own volume surprised him. He glanced over his shoulder and caught sight of the ten year olds, Zoe and Claire, scowling at the boys. “But he’ll need a secret name or we’ll get in trouble. Something his friends can call him without them getting thumped around.”
“Leroy?” suggested the tall, dark-haired Josh.
“Maybe that’s his last name. Fuck You Leroy?” The boys fell into hysterics once again.
Behind them, Zoe dug her fingernails so deep into the palms of her hands that she almost drew blood. “I swear to God I will slap them both if they come near Charlie again.”
Claire watched Anthony swing his hands wildly into the air, missing the chain-link fence to his side by an inch. His other wrist was wrapped in a brace after tumbling off his bike. Claire could only imagine what their mother would say if simply walking home from school required another trip to the doctor.
“I mean it.”
“It’s not like they go out to find him,” said Claire. “They just play by themselves and Charlie comes to them.”
“He comes home crying,” growled Zoe. She cast her eyes over the back of the boys’ heads and willed them to drop to their knees right there on the pavement so they would beg for her mercy.
Usually Josh and Anthony paid Zoe’s brother no attention. Literally, no attention, as though he was a non-entity screaming to be acknowledged. Josh and Anthony were well versed in maintaining their conversation despite whatever chaos brewed around them. They had recently added the ability to never break eye contact to their arsenal of skills. Charlie’s mum still had to explain that sometimes the older boys were just too busy to play with six year olds. But Charlie always returned, looking for more.
Josh and Anthony lived next door to each other on Fielding Street. Two houses away was Dapper Crescent, home to Zoe and Charlie. It was a fifteen minute walk to and from Banyew Primary School at an eight year olds’ pace.
They lived in Luxford, north east of London. Every street snaked against all common sense of city planning. The houses were a mix of contemporary and conservative facades. Rows of cottages looked over acres of green fields and hedges. Double storey homes ran from street to street, mostly with a red brick ground floor under an overgrown Tudor white-wash finish that was perched on top. To complete the style the upper floor was criss-crossed with black wooden beams. Nestled between the throwback to Shakespeare was a smattering of shops and restaurants, staffed mostly by nineteen year olds who had fallen between the cracks, going to university or developing a trade.
In September Claire and Zoe would start at St. Bart’s, a twenty minute walk in the other direction from the primary school. One delight was leaving behind the dull grey uniform of Banyew and moving on to the white blouses and kilts for girls. That joy would last until the first drops of rain, which would turn their blouses into chest-hugging exhibitions for all the boys could gawk at.
Moving to a new school also meant leaving Charlie in the hands of Josh and Anthony. In September he would be allowed to walk on his own with Josh and Anthony in the lead. Zoe had just one summer holiday to smack some sense into them.
“Fuck You Leroy!” Anthony bellowed, causing the boys to cripple over with laughter.
Zoe turned her glare from the short, mousy-haired boy and focussed it on Claire. “See?”
Claire almost breathed in relief as a distraction came from behind. A young boy, sickly thin and out of school uniform, scuffed along the pavement just two metres away from the girls. His shoes were held together with duct tape, his clothes were frayed hand-me-downs, and his raven hair was covered in clumps of dandruff. He carried with him a battered white shoe box, held as carefully as he could so as not to disturb the contents inside. His arrival was so sudden that Claire all but forgot about the danger Zoe’s right hand posed to her brother. Something about the kid was unsettling, alien even, like his sole purpose was to draw her attention so someone else could run a wet finger down her shoulder blades. She turned to get away from him as quickly as she could, only to find that luck was against her.
They all stopped at the only set of traffic lights on their way home. Everyone’s conversation dropped off until they could regain some sense of privacy while walking. Zoe gave a fleeting glance to the dishevelled boy behind them, before focussing instead on the back of Josh and Anthony’s heads, daring them to make eye contact with her.
Something tugged on the back of Claire’s skirt.
“Hey!” Claire spun around and slapped the scruffy kid’s hand away. He had lifted her skirt up past her waist and was still leaning over from studying her patterned underwear. “What the fuck are you doing?!”
“What?” The boy leaned back like a chastised stray who couldn’t understand why he was being scolded for doing something perfectly reasonable.
“Don’t give me ‘what’! What the hell do you think you were you doing back there?”
The boy stared at Claire blankly as she kept her hands pressed against the back of her skirt. Josh and Anthony watched the spectacle unfold, completely forgetting about the adventures of their alien-thumping ogre. The dumbfounded look on the kid’s face forced Claire to pad herself down again.
“Fucking little creep.”
“Go away or we’ll tell you on,” said Zoe, hoping to see the boy retreat. Really though, it would be best if no-one found out that her best friend just swore in public. Again.
Josh and Anthony took note of the air-holes punched into the boy’s shoebox. They were also sure that he should’ve stepped back towards safety, especially from Claire’s height and Zoe’s well-practiced glare, but the boy didn’t. Instead, it seemed like he was desperately trying to figure out why everyone’s eyes were fixed upon him.
“I’m serious,” said Zoe. “We’ll tell on you.”
“What for?” the kid asked.
“You were staring up my skirt!” said Claire. She ran her fingers against her skirt to double check that she wasn’t flashing Josh and her brother.
“The light’s green,” said Anthony. He and Josh waited to see what Claire and Zoe would do next.
Zoe pulled on Claire’s arm. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Little snot,” said Claire. The girls started across the road.
Josh and Anthony took one last look at the scruffy kid before darting past the girls to regain their lead.
“What do you think was in the box?” Josh asked.
“I dunno,” said Anthony. “You think it was alive?”
“Maybe it was a rat.”
“You’re not allowed real rats.”
“Maybe he found it,” said Josh.
Claire kept checking her skirt. Every wisp of a breeze felt like someone else was trying to take a peek at her thighs. The boy waited half a minute before following.
“Do you know who he is?” Claire asked.
Zoe shook her head. “Maybe he just moved here.”
“Why wasn’t he at school?”
“Maybe he’s too young.”
“Oi, you two,” Claire called, summoning Josh and Anthony’s attention. “Do you know who he is?”
“No,” the boys said.
“How about where he lives?”
Anthony puffed on his inhaler. He and Josh increased their lead so the girls couldn’t overhear them. Their backpacks, almost as large as them, nearly somersaulted over their heads as they hustled forward. They turned onto Fielding Street and ran past the low numbered houses at the end. Claire glanced back to keep track of their follower. She stopped and stared as the boy waited on the corner, watching the foursome walk away from him.
“What the hell is he staring at?” Claire asked.
Zoe looked over. “Us.”
He held his shoebox carefully against his side and never shifted his attention from Claire.
Zoe did her best to leave the kid behind. “Do you want to come over for a bit?” As soon as she said it she grimaced, given that Claire was already on thin ice with her Catholic parents for an outburst of, ‘Jesus Christ!’
“Yeah, okay,” Claire said.
Zoe slowed her pace as she led her friend to Dapper Crescent. Josh and Anthony ran across the road to Anthony’s house. Claire took one last look at the unkempt boy as a warning from her parents flashed at her; that she must always be careful of strangers following her home. When she first heard it she had the sense it was meant for anyone older than her. And if she did see anyone then she should tell her parents straight away.
The battered shoebox jostled to the side as its prisoner tried to break free. The boy cooed at it gently. He kept his eyes locked onto Josh and Anthony as they headed into the third house from the end. Then he watched as Claire locked eyes with him before Zoe pulled her to relative safety.
Amanda peered over the rear wall and found Josh and Anthony playing with glass jars in the back of Anthony’s garden. She hoisted herself up onto the wall, swung one leg over, and joined them.
“What are we doing?” Amanda asked, as she crouched onto the ground between the boys.
“Playing with jars,” said Josh.
Amanda pulled an elastic band off her wrist and wrapped her chestnut hair into a ponytail. “Duhhh. Why?”
“Because they are secret jars,” said Josh, as he tapped one enigmatically with his finger.
“Oh yeah?” Amanda said. “Can I have one?”
Anthony cast his attention over the mismatched collection his mum had acquired over the years, from tall Kilner jars to the comically small ones served in hotels. He picked out the largest, one that used to hold spaghetti. It was almost half the size of Amanda.
“Be careful with that one,” Anthony said.
“Because each jar has a secret and a wish.” Anthony winked at her in an all-knowing manner. “The bigger the jar, the bigger the wish.” He and Josh held onto theirs as though they had just discovered their purpose in life.
Amanda stared through the glass and was tempted to see what the inside smelled like. “What’s in yours?”
“The future,” said Anthony.
Amanda glanced at his fat marmalade jar. “The whole future?”
“No, just whatever you’re looking for.”
“How does that work?”
Anthony raised his jar up and whispered to it. “What will Amanda do when she grows up?” He pulled the jar in against his ear and listened. “Uh huh. Really? What kind of truck?”
Amanda sat up straight and shot Anthony with some well-honed attitude. “What do you mean, ‘what kind of truck?’”
Anthony closed his eyes and serenely answered back. “It says you’re going to drive a truck when you grow up. And if you’re quiet for a bit maybe I can find out what kind it will be.”
“You better not say pink,” Amanda said.
“I’ve never seen a pink monster truck before,” said Josh, as a jolt of laughter got the better of him.
“Do you mind?” said Anthony. “Listening to the future is serious. People pay good money for that and you’re getting it for free.”
“You’re talking to a jar,” said Amanda.
“And it speaks the truth,” said Anthony, giving them all a solemn nod. “It told me I’m going to be a private eye.”
“What’s that?” asked Amanda.
“A detective, like Sherlock Holmes,” said Anthony.
“Who’s that?” Amanda asked.
“A detective!” said Anthony. “With the hat and the magnifying glass.”
“Dusting for prints,” said Josh.
Amanda shook her head. “What prints?”
Josh and Anthony pushed their thumbs at her. “These kind of prints,” Josh said.
“Ohhhh. We did that in school ages ago,” said Amanda.
“You did?” Anthony asked, now looking a little disappointed.
“How?” asked Josh, as a plan started to take shape for the rest of the afternoon.
“They put black ink on our hands and feet,” Amanda said. “And then squish them onto paper. They put your name on it.”
“For the police?” Anthony asked.
“Maybe. Didn’t you do it?”
“Not at our school,” said Josh.
Amanda looked back over her heavy jar as she considered its potential for wish making. She was a slim girl with freckles who had been told on more than one occasion that if she knew the answer in class then it wouldn’t hurt to speak up instead of sitting there quietly. On the other hand, if Josh and Anthony were ever quiet it was only in that split second before looking up like a deer in headlights at having been caught red-handed. Josh was always the first to shift back into a cherub-faced angel.
While he would always remain tall for his age, the trade off came a few years later with a stampeding race towards early grey hairs. The first would be pointed out to him by girls when he was sixteen. By twenty two he would need to dye his hair every month to avoid hearing the word ‘distinguished’ being thrown around with undue regularity.
Anthony would keep his light brown hair for decades. His faux pas in his early twenties would be a soul patch just under his bottom lip. For now, though, his claim to fame was the frequent mileage to the doctor’s office. The brace around his wrist came about when his bike skidded out from under him. Josh skidded out as well but the worst that happened to him was a punctured tyre.
Last weekend Josh’s mother was at the kitchen window when six words nearly made her heart stop:
“Bet you can’t.”
“Bet I can.”
They had built a ramp pointing at Anthony’s family car. His mum got there just in time.
Amanda raised the spaghetti jar to her lips and whispered.
“What’d you wish for?” asked Josh.
“It’s a secret.”
“You can tell us.”
“But then it wouldn’t be a secret,” said Amanda.
Josh had an easy fix for that. He picked up a random jar and called out to the gods of the future. “I wish to find out what Amanda wished for.”
“You can’t do that!” She grabbed another jar in response. “I wish for Josh’s jar to lie.”
Anthony grabbed a jar of his own. “I wish for Josh’s jar to tell the truth.”
“Tell us,” said Josh.
“Tell us!” said Anthony.
Amanda looked from one face to the other before casting her eyes down at the two jars in her hands.
“And you have to tell the truth,” said Josh.
In barely above a whisper, and without lifting her eyes, Amanda sank into the truth. “I wished for us not to move.”
Josh and Anthony shared a perplexed look. “Huh?”
Amanda gently nodded. “I heard my dad say the commute to London is too long. He wants to move closer to work.”
A silence fell over the threesome. It ended only when Josh handed his jar to Amanda. “Wish it again.”
Anthony raised his to his lips and whispered. “I wish Amanda stays.”
“Me too,” said Josh, over every jar in their collection.
Amanda smiled weakly as she fought back a lump in her throat. Maybe the powers that be would answer, maybe they wouldn’t. Either way, a quiet voice in the deepest recess of her soul reminded her she was simply playing with empty jars in the back of a friend’s garden.
There came a quick double beep from a car horn. Josh sprang to his feet. “My mum’s home. You wanna come over? We can do finger prints.”
“Okay,” said Amanda, perking up.
Anthony sighed and stared back at the collection of empty jars. “I can’t. My Auntie Peta’s coming over and I’m not supposed to leave the house or garden.”
“Peter’s a boy’s name,” said Amanda.
“We can stay here for a little while,” said Josh.
“All right,” said Amanda.
They continued reading the future for another fifteen minutes. Josh’s mum came out and told him to get undercover before the rain started.
Josh bounced to his feet again. “Who’s coming over? I’ve got some new comics.”
Amanda broke into another smile. “Which ones?”
“Well, really, they’re old, but I just got them. They’re from my uncle. He says he got them from my dad.”
Anthony strained himself as he tried to figure out what Josh was talking about. “You mean really old comics?”
Josh shrugged. “Beano stuff. And Mad Magazine. Some Batman as well. I haven’t seen them all yet.”
“Your dad read comics?” Amanda asked, as she stared in disbelief.
“That’s what my uncle said. My dad made me promise not to throw them out.”
“Is he going to read them too?”
“But he’s a grown up.”
“I know,” said Josh. “You want to see them?”
“Yes!” said Amanda, now desperate to see what kind of bizarro world Josh’s family lived in.
Anthony, meanwhile, slumped back on the grass. “I can’t. I have to clean my room for Auntie Peta.”
“You can come over later,” said Josh, offering his friend a consoling look as though this evening would be the greatest test of hardship in all of Anthony’s life.
“I’ll try,” said Anthony.
His mum, though, wasn’t buying any of it. First Anthony had to put away his toys, then he had to learn how to be a good host by greeting his aunt warmly and taking her jacket, something which his mum made him practice over and over again. Then he had to tell his aunt all about what he did in school. ‘Nothing’ was not a good enough answer.
Peta was onto her second bottle of wine when Anthony went to bed.
A park separated two suburbs within Luxford. To the east was Portal Close, home to a thousand houses packed with roommates and young couples. To the west was Banyew, where the focus shifted to extra bedrooms and backyards. Most of the children in Banyew had the whole park to themselves. The rest had parents who refused to let their little darlings out of sight even for half an hour.
Claire and Zoe sat on the bench next to the undercover barbecue pit. Josh, Anthony, and Amanda were on the roundabout with Charlie who held on for dear life. Josh and Anthony took turns spinning everyone around. As soon as the roundabout came to an abrupt halt they all had to run to the swing post and back without falling over.
“Practice makes you better!” insisted Josh.
Zoe saw her brother take a couple of tumbles but at least Amanda was there to help him up.
“Janelle’s a bitch,” Claire said.
“Claire,” Zoe said. She had discovered that adults had the uncanny ability to hear entire conversations even though they were nowhere in sight.
“Well, she is, and she shouldn’t be lying to everyone she sees.”
Zoe braced herself for the speech that was about to come, that Claire and Janelle used to be friends until Janelle found a new best friend and now won’t talk to anyone she considers to be beneath her.
Meanwhile, with one hand on the roundabout and ready to spin them all around again, Anthony looked to the end of the park and blew out a sharp breath of air. “The weirdo is back.”
Amanda glanced across. A scruffy boy in clothes that were far too big for him was walking towards them. In his hands was a battered white shoebox. “Who’s that?”
“Don’t know,” said Anthony. “We saw him the other day.”
“He lifted up Claire’s skirt,” said Josh.
“Why’d he do that?”
“Dunno,” said Josh. He grumbled louder when the boy came closer. “No, don’t go over!”
It was too late. Amanda sauntered forward, or as forward as she could manage while fighting the effects of being flung around on a roundabout all afternoon. She stopped in front of the dandruff-ridden boy and glanced at the shoebox. “Hey. I’m Amanda.”
The boy seemed to look right through her and made no effort to respond.
“Do you go to school here?” Amanda asked.
“No,” the boy said, so quietly that Amanda wasn’t entirely sure if he said anything at all. All he did was simply stare through her chest.
“So where do you go?”
“I don’t,” the boy said.
Amanda caught a whiff of the boy’s breath. His clothes smelled as well.
Josh wandered over to provide some kind of protection. After all, he had seen a kung-fu movie over the weekend. “You don’t go to school?”
The boy forced a blink, commanding himself to pay more attention.
Anthony came over. Charlie hurried after him.
“How old are you?” asked Amanda.
The boy shook his head.
“You don’t know?” Josh said. The boy was halfway in height between Anthony and Charlie, so Josh assumed he was seven. Or a tall six year old.
“When’s your birthday?” Anthony asked.
“Myurfday?” the boy said, slurring everything into one word.
Anthony nodded to Amanda. “Told you. He’s weird.”
Charlie glanced at the shoebox and edged closer to Amanda.
“Maybe you’re asking the wrong things,” said Amanda, glaring at her friends for being impolite. She turned back to the boy. “Do you want to play?”
His eyes widened in surprise. “Okay.” He then stared at them, waiting for further instructions.
“You can put your box over there by the swings,” Amanda said.
The boy did as he was told.
“Don’t let him play with us,” moaned Anthony.
“Be nice,” said Amanda. “My cousin is challenged and he needs clear instructions. Maybe he’s the same.”
“Or he’s Welsh,” said Josh.
“Don’t be rude,” said Amanda.
“They shag sheep.”
“No they don’t,” Amanda said.
“And what did he say? Myurfday?” Anthony asked.
“If he doesn’t go to school then maybe he actually is challenged, so be nice to him.”
Josh and Anthony felt the sting of guilt as Amanda was probably right. The boy put his box down near the swings and walked back to them. Charlie pulled away from the new arrival and decided to wander over to his sister.
Amanda led them all back to the middle of the playground. “Now then, we take turns on the roundabout, spin around, then run over there and back again. First person back wins.”
The boy nodded. “Like before?”
“Yeah,” said Amanda, “like we were playing before.”
Josh and Anthony didn’t hold back on showing a grimace.
The boy looked across to the swings. “What about my frog?”
A moment of unease hit Amanda. Things that jumped around unexpectedly often caused her to leap about herself.
“He’s nice. He doesn’t bite.”
“What’s his name?”
“Frog? You named a frog, Frog?”
“I have a cat named Bilby,” said Josh, hoping to get any kind of reaction out of the boy other than a spaced-out stare. Unfortunately, the weirdo simply shifted his attention onto Josh and kept it there like he was only capable of looking at the last person to speak and would remain looking at them until someone else piped in.
Amanda studied the boy carefully. Her cousin had once hit her without provocation. She was careful to avoid a repeat of that event. This one had yet to even smile. He simply stared at everyone dead in the eye without shifting his gaze, nor did he seem to fully understand what was happening around him.
“Come on Amanda,” Anthony moaned, as he climbed back to the roundabout.
Charlie had just been turned away from his sister and was on his way back, sucking on two fingers of his left hand.
Claire was off in girl-world, complaining about Janelle stealing all of the boys and revealing secrets that the girls told each other while on a sleepover. The problem was, Janelle wasn’t at that sleepover, so someone else in their group was the snitch.
Claire craned her head over to see why everything had gone quiet. Then she found the culprit. “That little shit.”
“Ewwww! That’s gross!” Amanda bellowed, as she looked like she was trying to rid herself of what must have been an Amanda-sized spider web. Even Josh and Anthony were backing away. Charlie, though, stayed with the dishevelled boy and stared into the box.
Zoe narrowed her eyes into a deep focus. It was time to get involved. Claire followed.
“What’s going on?” Zoe called out. The boy looked up from a spaced out stare while Charlie shied away in guilt.
“Make him go away!” Amanda shouted.
Zoe raised herself up and was ready to go into full blown adult mode. If Amanda had decided it was too much then Zoe was going to force that little punk to leave. She and Claire stopped behind Charlie and stared into the shoebox.
“That’s a toad,” Zoe said, in complete surprise. Then it clicked; the boy had adopted a disease-ridden slime-covered creature.
“Oh god, really?” Claire said. Her stomach contorted in disgust. She peered into the shoebox. Zoe was right. A fat toad was breathing in the corner, surrounded by paper towels and cotton wool.
“His name is Frog,” said Charlie, in the hope that Zoe would warm up to the animal.
“No, seriously, that’s a toad, not a frog,” said Zoe. “And get away, they’re covered in disease.”
“He’s no disease, he’s my friend,” said the boy.
“Oh yeah?” asked Claire. “Did you buy him in a pet store or did you find him on the ground?”
“I saved him from the railway,” the boy said.
Claire shook her head. “Then it’s a toad and not a pet and they’re covered in the Bubonic plague. Get rid of it now before–” she reeled around and shrieked. “Zoe! Charlie! ” Claire pointed in fright as Charlie started sucking on his fingers again.
Zoe slapped her brother’s hand and pulled it out of his mouth as quickly as possible, which startled Charlie to the point where he nearly burst into tears.
“Charlie, did you touch that thing?” Zoe asked.
“... No ...”
“Charlie, I’m serious, did you touch it?”
Charlie sniffed. His sister knew the truth.
“He likes to smile,” said the boy, now holding the toad in both hands and pointing it up at Claire and Zoe like they were expected to kiss it.
“Ewww! Piss off!” shouted Claire. She slapped the boy’s hands as hard as she could and saw the toad leap to the ground.
“No! Catch him!” screeched the boy. The toad bounded away, desperate to avoid the boy chasing it. “Don’t let him get away!”
The toad headed towards Amanda. She yelped through another full body shiver and ran out of the way.
At least for Josh and Anthony it was certain that no one liked the scruffy boy anymore, regardless of how challenged he was. They watched him dive after the toad but it slipped through his fingers and leaped towards freedom.
Zoe had to slap Charlie’s hand out of his mouth again, causing him to lose his usual preventive measure against crying. “I have to take him home.”
Claire looked over to Anthony. “Come on, we’re going as well.”
“I didn’t even touch it!”
“Anthony! I said we’re going!”
Anthony sulked forward. Things were a lot better when there was no Charlie and no ... whatever his name was.
Josh and Amanda followed. As they left the park Josh looked over his shoulder. The little twerp was busy picking up his empty shoebox before turning to stare at the people leaving him.
Charlie spent the next few days with his head in a bucket and running a fever. His mother threw a fit when Zoe told her about the toad and she demanded to know who this kid was so she could give an earful to his parents. She called around but no one knew who the boy was, nor had they even seen him walking about.
Charlie played up his illness for all it was worth. Zoe worried herself to death for not being fast enough to get her brother out of danger. One day she shouted at Charlie for faking a still upset stomach. Then she demanded the return of one of her prized ponies that had gone missing. She didn’t play with it anymore but she still cherished the porcelain animal she got from her grandma when she was two. She shouted at Charlie for taking it. He swore an oath that he had no idea what she was talking about.
The day before school started again, Josh, Anthony, and Amanda were exploring the creek near the train tracks. As before, Josh and Anthony would stay on at Banyew Primary School while Amanda was returning to Aubrey’s. Josh was still itchy from the barber’s. His mum told him he could grow his hair however he liked once he was eighteen and had joined the circus. Until then, it was the school-boy side part all the way.
Josh looked up from his SAS survival guide. “Okay, we’ve set two rabbit catches and a bird trap. What next?”
Anthony and Amanda peered at the book Josh had found on his dad’s bookshelf.
“Bow and arrow?” Anthony asked.
“Don’t you dare,” said Amanda.
“Do you remember shooting yourself with that potato gun?”
Anthony stood up straighter, now bordering on being offended. “Yeah?”
“Well that was a potato. And it was this big.” Amanda squeezed her fingers down to an infinitesimally small point.
“What of it?” Anthony asked.
Amanda fired back towards Josh. “No bows and arrows. Ever.”
“How about we build a compass?” Josh suggested.
After half an hour of trekking through the trees and swinging sticks around like they were swords, the threesome came to a halt.
“Hey, check it out,” Anthony said, with a quick point of his stick. Nestled at the base of a tree was a white shoebox, soaked and beaten from enduring a month’s worth of rain and sun. Like before, air holes had been punched through the lid.
“Oh no,” said Amanda, backing away immediately. “Noooo, no, no, no, no. That thing better not still be in there.”
“Would it be worse if it was out here?” Josh asked. That made Amanda look all around for an escaped toad.
“It’s been there for ages,” Anthony said. The box broke apart the moment he poked it with his stick.
Amanda checked over her shoulder to see if the owner of the box was watching them. “Do you think he’s nearby?”
“Nah. He never left this thing if he could help it,” said Josh.
Anthony flicked the stick against box and popped the lid off. Then, like he had descended through an asylum of screams and horrors, he fell silent.
“Is it gone?” Amanda asked, as she hid behind Josh. “Please tell me it’s gone.”
The stick in Anthony’s hand slipped to his side and shuddered against the ground. There was suddenly not enough air in the world for him to breathe. Josh peered over to see just how bad it was.
“What is it?” Amanda asked. “Is it dead? I’m not looking if it’s dead.”
Josh looked back at her. Every ounce of humour disappeared in an instant. “It’s time to go.”
Josh slapped Anthony across the shoulder, breaking his horrified stare. Anthony winced and rubbed his shoulder. “That hurt.”
“We should go home,” said Josh.
Amanda kept an eye out in case whatever was by the creek was going to come and chase them through the trees and eat them before they made it back home. She tried not to believe any of that was real, but it certainly felt real when one of her friends stumbled along in an almost catatonic state while the other was trying to talk some sense back into him.
“I thought we were going to the bridge,” Anthony mumbled.
“We’ve been to the bridge,” Josh said.
“Don’t you remember?” asked Amanda.
“Wasn’t that why we came out here?” Anthony asked.
“Yeah, we did it an hour ago,” Amanda said.
Josh shot Amanda a look. It was definitely time to get Anthony to an adult.
Amanda pulled back on a sniff. A girl from her class last year had diabetes. Sometimes she blanked out and couldn’t remember things. Even worse, she was forbidden to go to anyone else’s house as she would stuff herself full of chocolate and eat what she had been denied at home. All she did was stay indoors so she could be supervised at all times. Anthony better not have diabetes as well.
“What was it?” Amanda asked.
Josh shook his head at her.
They brought Anthony back home and left him in front of the TV. He had regained most of his colour but he was still a little foggy on the details of their afternoon.
“You want to come over later?” asked Josh.
“Fuck You Leroy.”
No one laughed.
Amanda followed Josh back to his house and to his bedroom. She no longer wanted to know what was inside the shoebox. Instead, Josh showed her some of his new comics and was pretty sure she would like Wonder Woman. Perhaps his uncle would send him some more Archie’s or Beano.
It certainly ignited an old flame of wonder from Josh’s dad as he flipped through his old comics. It was a bizarre feeling indeed to look back to when he first got them from Tim’s Things in Lincoln with his own pocket money, and at a fraction of the price they would cost now. They were his friends long before he had to get a full time job, even longer before meeting Liz and getting married and certainly long before dealing with the heartbreak of trying to get pregnant. After a twenty year absence his old friends were back, only now they were in his son’s bedroom with his kid taking care of them.
…They hadn’t really stood up as well as he remembered them. Still, it was paramount that Josh understood that he was only borrowing them and that they shouldn’t be given away to just anyone, not unless it was to a best friend who would give it back immediately upon request.
Josh held onto the shelf rack in the garage and peered along the top. “They’re not here,” he mumbled.
“So where are they?” asked Amanda.
A heavy weight pulled on Josh’s stomach. He had put the comics there for safe keeping. They were in a clearly labelled box on the top shelf and everyone knew that they weren’t to be touched because they were among his most prized possessions.
They were gone.
Zoe’s mum tapped on the bedroom door and stuck her head inside. Zoe looked up, dazed from her lengthy session of staring into space.
“I thought you’d be changed by now,” said Louise.
Zoe glanced down at her St. Bart’s uniform, with her black tights a new cruelty that she would have to get used to.
“You better hurry before all the sweet and sour pork is gone.”
“I’m not that hungry,” murmured Zoe.
Louise paused at the door and looked over her daughter. “Is everything okay?”
“Nervous about tomorrow?”
‘Overcome with dread’ was closer to the truth, but Zoe answered with an automatic, “Not really.”
Louise gave her daughter a sympathetic smile, based on decades of adult awareness that things are generally not as bad as they first appear. “You’ll be okay. Plenty of people will be nervous as well but there will also be a lot of faces you’ll recognise. You’ll see your friends well before lunchtime and by this time next week you’ll have a bunch of new friends as well. Trust me on that.”
Zoe nodded absentmindedly, willing her mother to leave her alone.
“Don’t stay up here too long. Come down for dinner.” Louise offered one last smile, closed the door, and went downstairs, keeping a plate out for Zoe.
All it took was one comment.
“Maybe she should lay off the cake and ice cream for a while,” her uncle had said, during the great unveiling of the uniform.
Zoe remained on the end of her bed. Five years later, she would try her hand at bulimia.
A few weeks later, Amanda found out what was in that shoebox by the creek.
Maureen Wozniak came into the living room while her daughter was slumped along the sofa, watching TV. “Honey, can I talk to you?”
Amanda froze. The tone in her mother’s voice held equal parts anger and sadness. It was the same tone she had been using all summer with Amanda’s dad. This would be the first time she used it on her daughter.
Maureen muted the TV and sat on the arm of the sofa. “Honey, I got a call from Anthony’s mum. She said something that’s troubled me. He has been having nightmares because he found a box of dead toads. Is that right?”
Amanda pulled a face like she had just sucked on a lemon. “Ew.”
Maureen could see that Amanda was trying to remember, but she was still just eight and sometimes had a memory like a sieve. “Just before you went back to school you were down by the creek.”
It was possible. Amanda had been to the creek several times with Josh and Anthony, even though she wasn’t supposed to go there because it was too close to the train tracks.
“There was a shoe …” before Maureen even finished the word Amanda’s eyes flashed with recognition. Maureen paused for a moment, confirming that Anthony’s story had some truth behind it after all. “You all looked inside. There were disec ... toads that were cut up like a science project.”
“Ew, Mum!” Amanda clamped her hands over her ears. Now that was going to give her nightmares.
“You weren’t there?” Maureen asked, as she picked out several tell-tale signs of lying.
Amanda shook her head. “No.”
“You don’t remember a shoebox by the creek?”
Maureen drew in a weighted breath. It was almost impossible for Anthony to be out on his own. If he was down by the creek then Josh would have been as well. If the two boys were out and about then Amanda was just as likely to be with them. Either that or Anthony was lying; that was more of a trait belonging to Josh, though. For what it was worth, Maureen was willing to give Anthony the benefit of the doubt and assume he wasn’t lying.
“Honey, I want you to be careful with those two boys. I know they’re your friends but maybe some girl friends would be nice once in a while.”
Amanda’s eyes glazed over while her arms remained firmly by her side. “I have girl friends.”
“Good. You know, maybe this weekend you could have a tea party with some of the girls from your new class.”
Amanda shifted her attention back to the muted TV.
“Wouldn’t you like that?” Maureen asked, dropping her harsh tone to something more hopeful. “I can call their mums and invite a few of the girls over. Who’s in your class this year?”
“I don’t want a tea party,” said Amanda.
“Come on honey, it’ll be fun. How about Jess? You two get along.”
Jess had begun spreading rumours that Amanda wanted to kiss their teacher on the mouth.
“Or, I know, we could go and see a movie, bring a few of the girls along and make a day of it.”
Amanda remained quiet. Hopefully her mum would get the hint and admit defeat. But, once a Wozniak settled on an idea it was almost impossible to derail it.
“We can invite anyone from your class. Or maybe I’ll just surprise you and call them anyway.” Maureen smiled. She got no response from her daughter. None.
Maureen pursed her lips forward, daring her daughter to provoke a reminder about how dangerous it was at the creek, that she could be killed if she stumbled onto the train tracks just beyond it. Then she had a better idea.
She returned twenty minutes later, this time looking uneasy. “I’m sorry honey, this weekend isn’t doable. I called a few of the mums and maybe another weekend is better.”
Amanda nodded in feigned sympathy, hoping to get her mum to move along and not make a big deal about it. It’s just the kitchen was hardly soundproof and Amanda’s memory was less sieve-like these days than she was given credit for.
“Well, tell Sarah that Amanda wishes her a big Happy Birthday for yesterday.”
“I …don’t actually know what’s showing. We have some movies here, though.”
“Would it be okay if Amanda went along?”
It had taken Maureen a while to gather herself together before coming to tell her daughter that her classmates were a little busy this week.
Something had to change. Maureen would have to keep an eye out for when the next Disney movie was released. Or maybe there was an all-girls hockey group Amanda could join. Or ice-skating. She would force her daughter to make more friends even if it killed her.
It was time to meddle.