Nicolas Henderson CC
He had to get back in time. This was why he left band practice before any of the others did. Still though, Ben swore steadily under his breath as he drove, turning the radio up to drown out the sound of his own worry. The dashboard clock clicked forward another minute and his mum would be waiting, dinner ready for the exact time given him. Pushing it a little more, Ben threw the car into the next corner, the headlights making kaleidoscope images of a white milestone, winter brambles, red confetti flashes of something shattered at the very edge of the road. He tightened his fingers on the wheel and felt the engine beneath him whine a protest as he accelerated away.
A car came the other way, the loop of its headlight beams turning towards him before the thing itself appeared. Then, just as the two vehicles aligned themselves, there was a flash of movement, of red-black flurry and, deer, Ben thought, his whole body spasming as he hit the brake. The car screeched. Fox, thought Ben, beneath a breathless, fuckohfuckohfuckohfuck. He came to a halt, pressing back against his seat and hearing beside him the low, protesting hum of his guitar in its case. The other car sped past, but Ben simply sat there, the bones of his hand stark in the almost-darkness and his eyes still stretched wide.
It took a minute, perhaps two, but eventually Ben twisted to peer over his shoulder and then opened the door. There was something in the road. His first thought was, It’s on the other side. It was them. And by that time he’d taken three reluctant steps out into the darkness. So his second thought was, Oh Christ. Because it was not a fox. It was a dog.
Ben knelt beside it, caught half-way between horrified reverence and an awareness of his own vulnerability, there in the dark road on his knees. He reached out a hand and hesitated before touching the fur of the dog’s neck. It was a smallish, reddish thing of no breed that Ben recognised, and it was so still. It was so completely still.
He was going to be late. The thought was removed from this moment, here, but it still had enough power to make him act. The dog’s eyes were open and dim, staring at nothing in particular with an oddly calm expression. A thin trickle of blood was already drying on its nose but when Ben slipped his hands beneath the small body, it was warm and soft as if it welcomed being held.
There was only one house on this bit of road, and a middle-aged man answered the door, his eyes falling on the dog immediately. It was his. That much was obvious, and Ben had no idea at all what to say.
‘Oh my God,’ the man said, reaching out both hands and then hesitating. ‘Benji. Oh Jesus, Benji.’
Ben started slightly at the name, but then tried to cover it by speaking in a mumbled, apologetic rush. ‘I’m really sorry. I saw it, there was this other car, I stopped, this is the only house so I thought … I’m sorry.’ He stretched out his arms and finally the man took the dog, Benji, from him, staring down at it with a faint, dazed frown.
‘You…’ the man began, looking up from his dead dog to Ben with a whole new expression forming on his face. ‘You … how fast were you driving?’
Ben couldn’t speak, glancing down into Benji’s wide, serene gaze as if the dog might offer him, support, advocacy.
‘This is what happens,’ the man said, gesturing with the dog’s limp form, ‘This is what happens when you stupid kids treat these roads like racetracks. This is what happens.’
Ben couldn’t meet the man’s glare, hunching his shoulders and ducking his head so that the shield of his hair fell forward into his eyes. Answers filled his mouth, denials that swung from apologetic, sad, understanding, to furious. But none of them would make the dog alive again, so he shrugged and said, ‘Whatever,’ beneath his breath and walked away. The man said something to his back but Ben didn’t listen, speeding up and already thinking, Fuck it. Poor bloody dog. Stupid bloody man. I’m going to be late. I’m going to be late. I’m going to be late.
He was late.
His mum did not say hello when he entered the kitchen, keeping her back to him as she loaded saucepans into the dishwasher.
‘I’m sorry, Mum,’ he said carefully, trying to read the line of her neck, the way that she bent at the waist. It was important to get the balance right, not too apologetic, but not careless. He tried again, ‘I would have been here on time, but…’
She turned to face him and Ben cut off the explanation. Her face was smoothed, like a puddle just about to freeze. ‘Your dinner is in the microwave. I imagine it will need heating.’
‘Mum,’ he tried again, slipping his guitar case off his shoulder and leaning it against the wall by the door.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I am not interested, Benjamin. Your father is upstairs working, so I do not want to discuss this.’
Right. She didn’t want to discuss it. Because Dad might hear if they did, and he did not like to hear their ‘discussions’. Ben heated his food and then sat at the kitchen table, pulling his plate towards him with the very tips of his fingers and then staring down at it so he did not have to look at her. She cleaned while he fiddled with his food and tried to make it look like he was eating. But his stomach was curdling and he had a ridiculous urge to sag forward onto the table, to tell his mum about the dog, and the man’s unfair accusation, about the weight of that soft, dead body in his arms and the fact that he could still feel it now. He imagined her touching his hair the way she had done when he was very, very young. Perhaps she would say something, perhaps she would just stroke his hair and listen.
‘Why are you wasting food?’
Ben flinched, his stupid imagined scene puffing out of existence and leaving a taint behind. A salt sad smell that made Ben’s fingers tighten then relax on his fork, tighten then relax. He bent lower over the plate and made himself eat. Potatoes, gravy, pie. Blood and dust and the urge to gag with every swallow.
‘Thank-you,’ he said when he gauged that he’d eaten enough to be acceptable. His mum watched as he rose and rinsed the plate, put all his things into the dishwasher and then refilled his glass of water. She leaned back against the counter with her arms folded over her ribs and her expression still so empty. He thought of the sweet, soft stillness of the dog’s face, and he shivered.
An hour later his dad came down the stairs and leaned into the lounge where Ben was watching something asinine on TV. ‘I’m off out for an hour. Down the pub with Ron.’
No-one answered but he left the house whistling faintly, and the sound of his car heading down the drive seemed vast in the confined space of the lounge. Ben wished that he could have gone with him. Wished that he could have said, Don’t go, Dad. But that was not how these things worked; so he waited. It might be okay, he told himself, staring unseeing at the screen and excruciatingly, minutely aware of his mother sitting in the armchair near the window, her book held before her like a challenge.
Two minutes. Ben could hear his own breathing. Ten minutes. Perhaps it would be okay this time. Twelve minutes.
‘Well then,’ his mum said, rising smoothly to her feet and setting her book down on her chair, carefully slipping a scrap of paper into the pages as she did so. ‘I did tell you, didn’t I, Benjamin?’
He felt sick. Angry and tired and sick. ‘It wasn’t my fault, Mum, I swear. There was this-’
‘Do you think I care about your excuses?’ she asked quietly, and then she left the room quietly, moving towards the kitchen. The utility door creaked a little as it opened and shut again. Ben frowned, braced for the shouting that should be coming next. He could almost write the script himself. She’d tell him what a waste he was, how he disappointed her, how he shamed her; he might get angry enough to answer back. He’d been doing that more and more, feverish and almost incoherent, and she did not like it at all, which was almost a victory, until it wasn’t. Until the point when he remembered that he always lost.
Ben jolted and stared in the direction of the noise. Crash. Crash. What was she… It sounded like splintering wood.
Splintering wood. Oh god. Ben rose to his feet, but could not move forward. He needed to see. He needed to be sure that he was wrong, but he couldn’t, because he wasn’t wrong. Horror made his skin hot and then cold and then hot again, and he couldn’t think at all. The sound stopped, the utility door squeaked again and his mother’s footsteps were quiet as they came into the corridor and paused in the doorway to the lounge. Ben could not move his eyes, staring just over her shoulder; he couldn’t look at her, but he heard her.
‘Now perhaps you’ll do as I tell you,’ she said, and then carried onwards, up the stairs and towards the bathroom. A minute later, the shower started.
His guitar was scattered across the floor of the utility room.
She’d used his dad’s hammer, Ben noticed distantly, and the way she’d left it lying in amongst the splinters, it looked like a threat. He knelt down and touched his fingertips to his dead thing. The neck was in two pieces, the body in a thousand, strings had come loose and curled wildly this way and that. Ben touched them, watching them give and sway like grasses, and something beneath his ribs broke free with a snap. He gasped at how much it hurt, pressing his hands over his chest, half-expecting to feel a difference, a wound or a gap or an entirely different body. She’d broken… Ben dropped his head. She’d broken everything.
‘Where’s your guitar, dickface?’ Ferg swung his own onto the back seat of the car and then threw himself into the passenger seat. Ben pulled back into the road without waiting for Ferg to strap himself in.
‘Not here,’ he said.
‘Duh.’ Ferg rolled his eyes and then added, for the benefit of idiots, ‘We’re supposed to be practising after school?’
Ben stared at the road with far more diligence than he usually did. He’d have to say something though, there was no way he could hide this one. Taking a breath, he concentrated on keeping his voice totally even. ‘I haven’t got it any more.’
‘The fuck you haven’t.’ Ferg turned so that he was looking directly at Ben. Ben carried on staring forwards fixedly. ‘What?’ Ferg said.
‘It broke. Just leave it, yeah?’
‘It…’ Ferg stared at Ben, and Ben could almost hear his slightly too-clever brain tickering away like a machine. If he said anything. If he asked outright. Ben’s fingers ached where they held the wheel.
‘Right,’ Ferg said finally, turning back to slump comfortably in his seat. ‘Okay then. You do your biology essay?’
Every single muscle in Ben’s shoulders relaxed and he took a quick breath to hide it. ‘Not yet,’ he said, then added quickly, ‘I’ll borrow one from Mrs McCall.’
But when he asked her, she said ‘no’.
‘I’m sorry, Ben,’ she said with a faint grimace, ‘but I’ve got to lock up early today so I can’t have instruments out. You’re welcome to borrow one tomorrow after school, if you like.’
Ben ducked his head and shrugged. ‘Right,’ he said.
‘What happened to yours?’ Mrs McCall asked.
There was no point going to practice then, there was no belonging with the others if he could not play. There was no music. Ben wanted to beg. ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘I dunno.’
In the end, he sat in his car in the school car-park like a loser. Listening to the radio and picturing his friends, band-mates, playing in the drama room. Hearing the songs they’d been working on, the way Ferg would laugh hugely when a run-through went well, the way Chris would hum as he drummed without quite realising it. God, there were sounds in his lungs that felt like howls, all teeth and loss. He’d never been so alone.
Passing the dog’s house on the way home, the hollow under his ribs filled up with an anger so hot that Ben could see it at the edges of his vision. Lava-red and incandescent and the power of it making him shake. If only the dog had not been loose, if only the other car had been slower, if only he, Ben, had not taken it upon himself to be kind. If only his mother was not such a fucking bitch. If only he had not pushed her too far, just one too many times. If only he’d managed to explain, or left his guitar in the car, or been more sorry, or been a different fucking son.
Thank-fully, a tiny mercy, the house was empty so Ben didn’t have to figure out how to speak to either of them, at least for a little longer. But the emptiness in his room was a totally different thing. The air tasted bitter and ashy on his tongue, the walls stared at him, pressing their weight against his skin and the sound of his Ipod did nothing at all to make it easier to bear. Fingers twitching and the callouses on his left hand catching at his clothes. Sitting on the edge of his bed with his spine curving over the space where his guitar should have been, Ben closed his eyes and tried not to cry. He did not cry. No matter what she said to him, no matter how his dad pretended deafness, Ben had stopped crying about it years ago. And no way was he going to give her that piece of him now.
But holy fuck, it hurt. Tension and anger and that feeling of being scraped raw, taut with new bruises that clamoured in his skull and the only way they ever went away was if he played. His fingers picking out harmonies and riffs and delicate chords, and all the things that battered at his insides would seep into the air until he was empty.
His hands felt broken and Ben didn’t know what to do about anything at all.
The dog’s dead gaze painted itself on his retinas, the way it had been beyond blood and dark roads. The way it had not cared any longer, about anything. Ben got to his feet and left the house. He carried on thinking about the dog in a remote, abstracted sort of way until the moment when he poured, for lack of anything better, his dad’s whisky onto the bonfire he’d built at the back of the garden. The flames leaped for his hand and he jerked back, laughing shortly as the heat and colour of it filled his vision. It was stark against the deepening sky and this was good, he thought. This was right. Flames for the anger, ashes for the grief.
He bent, picked up all the splintered wood at his feet and fed his guitar, piece by small, familiar piece into the fire. It made a sort of music as it burned, hissing cat-like as if full of wounds and hate, its shattered voice sibilant until Ben’s hands were empty. Finished, he thought. I’m finished. He was not quite sure what he meant.
Without realising that he’d been listening for it, the sound of her car on the drive made Ben step away from the blackening fire. It was done now, he thought. There was no hesitation in his movements when he swung himself over the back fence, nor when he strode across the wide field beyond. The off-licence was down there, so was Ferg’s house, so were the train tracks. Behind him, there was nothing left at all.
Having spent many years working in remote corners of the world, Lorraine now lives by the sea in Scotland and writes stories that are touched by folklore and the wilderness. She has had short stories published in anthologies and magazines, and tweets @raine_clouds about science, writing, cats and wierdnesses.
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