“You’re watching that loser again, aren’t you, Mae?” Adam slammed his school bag down on the grass beside her, his face scowling. “Christ’s sake, just leave the little fucker to his own pathetic little world! He’s got no interest in you, has he? Just those stupid comics, and fighting, and bunking off school ‘cos he’s too thick to keep up –“
Mae rolled on to her stomach, and tsked at her older brother. “Don’t swear so much. Adam! And he’s not thick. He doesn’t bunk off. He just – can’t get into school sometimes. Y’know?”
Adam thought he knew only too fucking well. He dropped down beside the girl, resigned to waiting a while before he could see her home. Didn’t know why he had to babysit her anyway! She was twelve already – couldn’t she walk home on her own? He had people to see – places to go. He was fifteen now, nearly sixteen – he was a young man, not a kid! His mates were hanging around in the town most nights, but he couldn’t get out to join them until late, after his parents had – laughingly – seen him to bed, and he’d dressed again, and crept out the back kitchen door. There was this girl he liked, Kitty, and she’d given him so many come-ons that the other guys were laughing at him, calling him chicken, because he never seemed to get it together with her. It scared him, the thought of – doing it, whatever! – but he was excited at the same time.
Think what Father would say if he knew!
But then – when was he gonna get the chance? He stared down at Mae, wanting to be angry with the way she dominated his life. But he couldn’t. She was slim and short for her age, with wispy, soot-black hair, and grey eyes that looked too large for her face. They called her ‘owl’ at school, and his mates all thought her very plain – though he suspected she’d be a stunner when she was older. Their Mother was the same. Her box of childhood pictures showed a girl in old-fashioned clothes with thin, fine hair and uneven features. But when they got to the pictures of her older, like when she was with Father – well, she looked fabulous! Even in her Sunday best; even in her very respectably buttoned clothing that Father had always picked out for her from the catalogue.
Mae had her looks; Mae had
her delicacy. Father and Mother adored
adored her. And it was his job to
They both looked over at the boy on the fence whom Mae had been watching. He sat there, on his own, chewing half of a pencil. Thin; wiry; hair that was as black as Mae’s, but in no way as good a condition, and always too long, curling on his collar. His school uniform was too small, the trousers round his ankles and the shirt never staying tucked in. His school bag was tied with a piece of string on one handle. He didn’t rush off home the minute the bell went, like the rest of them. He’d wait, as if he had nowhere to go.
Adam knew that he waited for Mae. She always talked to him at the end of the day, if they were both in school; talked about their homework, talked about the classes that day. But he was nearly two years older than her, too old for his class – he was pretty good at numeracy and science, so the rumour went, but he’d been kept down several school years because of poor literacy skills, and so he was nearer Mae’s standard than Adam’s. He took a lot of ridicule for that – he was despised by the others in her class.
But what the fuck else did they talk about? Adam thought
fiercely. He was proud of his
uninhibited swearing! Uninhibited
amongst his friends, of course – not at home, where Father called it the
language of the devil, and had been known to beat him for using it. He stared at the kid on the fence. The boy was wild, they all knew that! He shouldn’t have anything to do with his
quiet, smart little sister. He was wild,
and weird. He spent days away from
school, and then when he came back in, he fought anyone who had a go at
him. He wouldn’t do sports; never joined
any clubs. He was in detention more
often than not for cheek and aggression.
Yet he always managed to keep himself at school; always managed somehow to
charm himself back into the classroom, back into the curriculum. Some teachers liked his spirit – some seemed
to have an overblown opinion of his intelligence in other subjects.
“I give him the comics,” said Mae, quietly. She unfolded herself up from the grass, ready to go over and talk to the boy. “It helps him catch up his reading. He’s getting much better.”
“You shouldn’t talk to him at all,” said Adam, bluntly. “What would Father say? He’d say he’s a rotten kid.”
“He’s not rotten at all,” replied Mae, and she turned suddenly to Adam with the wide, toothy grin that always disarmed his teenage bad moods. “And he’s not a kid, he’s got a name. His name is Reven.”
The two young people sat together, on another day, under the trees at the edge of the school grounds.
“You were in detention again,” said Mae, quietly.
The black-haired boy laughed; a short, sharp sound. “I told Horny Hardman that the maths book was wrong – that the numbers in brackets must always be done first. He called me a rude, illiterate little shit, and I was put down for an hour of English tonight. He made me write an essay on some guy called Macbeth, and why what he did was so wrong. Fucked if I know anything about it; did all of a page about stupid names for guys in books, then I got up and left.”
Mae winced slightly. Their form teacher was notorious for his bad temper. “We did a couple of classes on Shakespeare’s stories last term. You missed them.”
“Like he knew that,” said Reven, sullenly. “I try, Mae, but the words look crooked to me when I write! I can’t get ahead of myself. The numbers, now – I love ‘em! Have no trouble there. I’ll keep my distance from Hardman for a day or so. He’ll forget about it.”
He won’t, thought the girl, but she’d learned not to say such things to her friend. She kept a lot of things trapped in her head, for that matter. Speaking your mind wasn’t a virtue that was encouraged much, in her opinion. At home or school.
She knew Reven was bright, and sharp and loyal. It upset her that others didn’t see him the same way; that he seemed to let himself down so often. She’d never heard of dyslexia, of course.
“I got you some trousers,” she said, scrabbling in her bag. “Adam’s grown taller again. Mother was putting them out for the church, so I said I’d take them along for her. Brought them here instead. They’ll be better than the ones you’re in now.”
Reven flinched at her mention of her brother. Yeah, he knew Adam. Had known him as long as he’d known Mae, though the guy despised him like the rest of them; he tried to ignore the friendship Reven had with his sister. Adam was popular – he was respected. He was one of the brightest in his class; he’d never struggled with his native tongue. Reven fought down feelings of jealousy and admiration, mixed in equally indigestible parts. Adam was handsome – he was pretty well-built, too…
Reven hated the confused thoughts he had about Mae’s brother. He found it easier to remember that the guy hated him.
He scowled. “Don’t want his damned cast-offs, Mae.”
She wasn’t offended. He always said that. “You need them,” she said, pragmatically. “You look like a scarecrow.”
“Thanks!” he growled.
She tilted her head to the side. “No, perhaps you look like the crow itself, perching on the fence every night like you do, and that black hair, just like mine, or just like a raven. That’s why I call you that, isn’t it? Reven – it sounds like the bird.”
“You’re mad,” he said, but he was starting to grin.
“You’re rude,” she retorted.
“You’re too skinny!”
“You’re growing too fast!”
They laughed together. She gazed at him; he had a lovely laugh! It was really infectious – it was like music, and it filled her head with pleasure, so that she could forget about all the other stuff.
“You’re not,” he said, suddenly. His face was flushed.
“Not too skinny. I know they call you scrawny, but you’re not. You’re lovely.”
“I don’t care what they call me,” she said, bravely. “We’re two birds together, right? Reven – and Mae, the owl.”
“No, you’re like a Princess,” he said, grinning self-consciously. She was, too! Such deep eyes; such a smile, always ready to cheer him up, to talk to him. She never had a bad word to say about anyone. She hugged him, too, like he couldn’t remember anyone ever doing. She cared for him, and she wasn’t afraid for anyone to see that she did. No-one else even gave him the time of day.
It hadn’t always been that way; but that was way too long ago for him to remember.
Mae blushed. She was still of an age when being called a Princess was all she wanted. Her Father never used such fanciful language, even though she knew he loved her. To him, she was good; she was obedient; she was modest.
But to Reven, she was a Princess!
“So…” she said, slyly. “Reven – like a raven. A prince of birds. Dark and sleek and handsome. You can be my Prince!”
He laughed outright then. “Daft girl! I’m not handsome. I’m no fuc- I’m not your Prince!” Mae was gazing at him, her brows slightly raised, her mouth twitching with amusement. And with what looked like complete adoration in her eyes.
“No,” he laughed, a little unsettled, but not knowing why. “Don’t say it again! You’re something better than that to me, Mae, anyway. You’re my friend. There’s nothing better than that.
You’re my friend.”
The room was in darkness as usual, cold and with a musty dampness, deeply ingrained within the coverings on the tattered furniture. Reven felt his heart sink, as usual; he wondered whether he could just turn around and go back out. There was the smell of smoke and stale oil, that made him want to retch. He dropped his school bag in the doorway and stepped in from the small hallway.
He knew immediately that there were two people in the room, and he tensed. One was his father – but then, where else did he ever go? A shadowed bulk sat in an old armchair, huddled in front of a fireplace where a fire was never lit. There was a soft, wheezing breath from the body that told Reven his father was asleep. Whilst that filled him with some relief, it scared him that he was alone with the intruder.
Who appeared very suddenly and silently, materialising out of the shadows over by the window, where the curtains were already closed. Or maybe Dad had never bothered opening them that morning at all.
“Who are you?” Reven asked, bravely. The man was tall and thin – almost emaciated, rather than naturally slender. His arms were disproportionately long, and the fingers of his left hand twitched slightly, spasmodically. His clothes were of good quality, but somehow shabby, like he’d worn them for too long. He had a thin beanie pulled on to his head. Reven wondered if he were a tramp, snuck into the building when Dad left the door open, as he so often did. But the man turned to him, and Reven saw no vagrant in his eyes – he saw dark, black pits full of guile and greed and a very sharp awareness.
“You a dealer?” he asked, his heart sinking. “He doesn’t want you and whatever filth you bring him –“
The man laughed then – a long, thin, sharp sound. “This is no longer a matter of want, boy. Let’s use the word need, shall we, and then we can move forward.” His voice was hollow in the cold, bleak room, but Reven felt it claw at his toes and move upwards. There was an unmistakable sense of foulness around it.
“My name is Keone,” he said. For a horrible moment, Reven thought he might hold his hand out to be shaken. He would have spat on it! “You must be the son. You must be Ray. He talks of you a lot, you know. What a good son you are. How you bring him gifts and keep him supplied with everything he needs…”
Reven felt the stolen wallet burning a hole in his jacket. Was this where the money went, each time? The money he begged and stole for food and heat; the goods he pocketed? Was it all going on Dad’s stinking habit?
“That’s a fucking lie to start with,” he growled. Dad had never said such a thing in all his life. He’d never said Reven was any kind of a good son at all. Hell, he knew Dad was close to being an addict – he knew how it had brought him to where they were today. Didn’t mean he had to agree with it! Didn’t mean he had to stop fighting to keep the stupid ass in the land of the living, to try to get them something better -!
“So what do you do for him, boy?” Reven didn’t like the way the man’s eyes ran up and down his body; didn’t like the soft wheedle of his voice. “You wash him, feed him? Sounds like the work of a good son to me. He’s a sick man, boy. I can give him the medicine – I can keep him going for you. We just need your little – gifts – to oil the wheels of commerce, so to speak. Hand it over, boy. No such thing as a free lunch, y’know?”
“Get out,” said Reven, teeth clenched.
The man smile, completely unperturbed. “A cute thing like you – a sweet ass like yours – and such hostile crap coming out of your mouth. What do they teach kids in school nowadays? You do go to school, don’t you?”
Reven refused to answer him. He sidled back towards the wall – the man was holding up the twitching hand, as if knowing what Reven had brought home today. As if requesting it. Reven slid his hand into his jacket and brought out the wallet. If it’d get rid of this shitbag…
The man took the wallet as Reven thrust it at him; he didn’t look at it, but he seemed to relax a little. He still stared at Reven, assessing him. His eyes ran over the slim body, the distinctive black hair; the wide, dark eyes. “Yeah, I bet you’re good at school. A very pretty boy like you. And the uniform is cool! Suits a sweet ass like yours. It’d be very popular in the places I go. You ever interested in doing some extra jobs, I’m the man to see –“
“Get out!” repeated Reven. His voice sounded rather high. “Fuck off out of here and leave us alone!”
“Don’t upset me, boy. That’s definitely not wise.” The man reached out suddenly and grabbed at Reven’s arm – Reven winced and bit his lip to prevent crying out. The man frowned – there was a flash of calculation in his expression. “So that’s the way of it, is it? Hurts you, does he? That’s what he gives in return for your care, sweet ass. That’s how he repays you. Come with me sometime, come find some real fun. Let me appreciate you properly – let me show you how you can spend that care somewhere more rewarding…”
Reven wrenched his arm away and thrust a hand to his mouth, trying to hold back the bile. Keone just laughed, and as Reven glared at him, he adjusted the front of his pants almost casually – almost as a challenge to the disgusted boy.
“That’s the pattern of life, sweet ass. That’s how we all make our way – you’re just learning a little earlier than some.” He stepped back, though, and fiddled with his jacket as if to confirm he was leaving now. “I’ll have you, boy. Make no mistake.”
“No you won’t!” snarled Reven.
Keone smiled carelessly. “Oh, but I will. He’ll give you to me. Just you wait and see.”