This Story is works of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Chapter 2: Home Alone
I didn't know the nature of Mr Sheppard's problem. I had no idea what it was that was weighing so heavily on his mind. But he always looked so sad nowadays. It was a shame, I thought, because he was such a good teacher. In fact, he may not have been aware of it, but he was one of the most popular teachers in the school. He was certainly my favorite. And he had a good technique which made it fun to be in his lessons. He didn't make you copy stuff from the electronic whiteboard or stand at the front of the class dictating stuff like some of the other teachers. Instead he would shout out questions and get people involved and he actually encouraged his students to participate in the learning process. He stimulated debate and wanted to hear everyone's opinions, instead of just allowing them to passively absorb whatever was thrown at them during the course of the lesson. But for some reason Sheppard didn't seem to enjoy his work like he once did. I didn't know what tragedy might have befallen him, though I was very nearly tempted to ask. When I went to see him after school, I knew I had caught him pondering his predicament. I almost felt guilty for disturbing him. As always, he was very polite and considerate, although I did wonder what he must have thought of me hanging around after school. Before I left I almost stopped and asked him, "What is it sir? What's bothering you?" But I didn't. I couldn't. It was none of my business. And anyway, what on earth made me think that he would want to share the details of his life with me?
I thought it was very kind of Mr Sheppard to give me a lift home. It was a very nice gesture on his part, although I'm sure he suspected that I was not exactly keen to get home. He must have known something was up. Sheppard was very astute and he noticed a lot more than he let on. That's why I was mortified when my mom had appeared at the door and didn't even have the courtesy to acknowledge him. But that was typical of my mom. She ignored anybody who was of no value or was an inconvenience to her. I thought it was the height of rudeness. Sheppard had just done me an enormous favor and he left without even receiving a word of gratitude. That was why I ran back out to thank him, even with my mom heckling after me. God, he must have wondered what the hell kind of household this was. I was so embarrassed.
But it was just as well Mr Sheppard left straight away. I wouldn't have wanted him to see any more than was absolutely necessary of the sad and dysfunctional circumstances that I lived in. I wouldn't have wanted him to see the squalor of my apartment, to sniff the fetid atmosphere or observe the grime covered surfaces and the threadbare carpets and the sheer number of things that didn't work. Most especially I wouldn't have wanted him to see any more of my mom or her good-for-nothing boyfriend Alan.
As soon as I came back in from the rain, it was clear to me that all was not well in the house. No wonder my mom was in such a foul mood. The slob Alan was sitting in the family room in front of the TV, as usual engrossed in his newspaper, which he was reading intently over a big mug of coffee. The fact that he was holding up the newspaper, creating a little barrier around himself, rather than reading it flat on his lap, was a sure sign that there had been an argument. It was as though he wanted to cut himself off in his own little corner. He always pored over that paper, in the conscious effort to read to himself, studying the print so closely it was almost as though he was having trouble with his eyesight. I had observed Alan's behavior quite a bit and even now I could see him moving his lips. Furthermore, during the pauses on the TV, when there was silence between the commercials, if you listened carefully... yes, you could actually hear him whispering to himself as he was reading. Alan was a simpleton with virtually no social skills whatever. He was bald and overweight and just sat around watching TV and drinking coffee. He was so ineffectual. He never DID anything. In fact, he just sat around in his ridiculous string vest, beneath which the rolls of his fat were quite visible. He would pad around the house in his stupid carpet slippers. The only time he left the room was to spend half an hour in the toilet, for which he would take the newspaper with him.
My mom on the other hand, was seated in the armchair opposite watching the TV. Neither of them were talking, which was a sure sign that they had argued. She was watching one of those corny soaps, the type of mush where all the characters were larger than life, and where there was always lots of crying. I hated that kind of thing, where everybody was always saying "I love you" and hugging each other like their lives depended on it. It was all so phony. It was so false and contrived and about as far removed from the atmosphere of this house as you were ever likely to get.
As I came back in from the rain and spotted those two sitting there, I almost sighed with despair. They were always sitting in front of the TV watching stupid game shows or crass soap operas or getting heavily involved in some foreign film with subtitles which neither of them could ever understand. That was the atmosphere in which I lived. This was the environment I grew up in - a mom and her useless boyfriend who had nothing to do but watch TV all day. Sometimes I watched the two of them and it was almost comedic. Alan was always in possession of the TV remote. He always hung onto that. It was his way of showing he was master of the house, something he tried to make patently obvious since the first night my mom had brought him home. Nobody else ever had possession of that remote control, unless he had fallen asleep in one of the armchairs with his mouth open and the eternal newspaper spread over him like a makeshift blanket, looking like some unwashed hobo. In fact, if he ever got up to get himself a cup of coffee, he always took the TV remote with him. It was his own particular brand of tyranny: if all they ever did was watch TV, then it meant nobody could change the channel without his consent. He was able to influence events via that stupid contraption which he always had sticking out of his big paws like an oversized bar of chocolate. Then whenever a commercial break intervened, Alan would roll up a cigarette. He would fiddle for a while with his cigarette papers and little bits of stringy tobacco. That was another thing I had gotten used to - his incessant smoking. It was obviously doing him no good. On a bad day his coughing and spluttering was almost constant. You knew if he was approaching because you could hear his labored breathing. If he had climbed the stairwell up to the apartment, you could hear him come through the door puffing away like some ancient lumbering steam engine. My mom didn't fare any better. Her voice was already deep and raspy from all the cigarettes. Sometimes I could hear them both in the night, wheezing and gasping for breath. Alan would cough so violently that it was difficult to separate the retching from the coughing, almost as though he was being sick. As if that wasn't bad enough, they both made the whole apartment smell like a stale ashtray.
I just left them to it. I decided that the family room was far too claustrophobic. I could never quite feel at home when both of them were in the room, particularly in the aftermath of one of their arguments. The fallout of their quarrel was still heavy in the air. It seemed to cling to the walls, so tangible you could almost smell it. No sooner was I inside the apartment I always felt this strange irritation welling up inside me, like a feeling of being continually displaced, like I didn't belong here. That was why I never relished the prospect of going home after school. Perhaps it was the thought of coming home to this: a household where nothing good ever happened and everything always stayed the same. No wonder I took an unnatural interest in other people's lives; nothing good ever happened in mine. Certainly life at home was pretty uneventful. The intensity of the arguments may have fluctuated from time to time, but that was about all. Perhaps it was just the sight of my mother and especially Alan sitting there, both of them surviving on welfare, whiling their lives away, vegetating in front of the TV and putting on weight. Why did they never DO anything? Why didn't they work, or contribute something constructive? Why did they have to sit there, day in and day out, pottering about the apartment, nagging each other, bickering and getting on each other's nerves? It was already beginning to get me down. This was one of the many occasions when I wished I could be alone. Not just alone in my room, but totally alone. I craved solitude because it was the one thing I had never had. Those two were always languishing around at home, holed up in the family room or somewhere in the apartment. Perhaps that was why I had never bothered to make any friends: because I could never see myself inviting them home after school. And no wonder. Who would want to come around here?
My mom was in the process of getting ready to go out, as she always did on a Friday. This was the night that she and Alan went to their social club, where they played bingo and drank beer all evening, leaving me to look after Petey. Petey was my little brother. He was only seven, and still at elementary school. He was already home when I got in. I was still a little damp from the rain. I went into the back of the apartment where my room was - I say my room, it was the room I shared with Petey - and I dumped my laptop bag on my unmade bed. That was a depressing sight. There is something quite sad about an unmade bed, especially when it looked so cold and uninviting, having been left like that all day, still in the rumpled state that I had abandoned it in that morning when I was nearly late for school, the pillows scattered randomly and the covers all gathered up in uneven mounds.
I was still sodden from the rain, and my hair was ruffled and damp from where I had given it a cursory brush through with my fingers. I picked up a discarded t-shirt and used it to wipe off my face and neck. As I did so, I noticed that Petey was lying on his bed, still in his school togs and he was on his side, facing the wall.
"Hey Petey," I called out to him, with a bright, friendly tone.
He didn't answer.
"Hey? What's up buddy?"
When he still didn't answer, I stopped and watched him for a moment, suddenly very concerned. I saw his little shoulders shuddering, and I knew he was crying.
I put the t-shirt down and went over to sit on the edge of Petey's bed. I pulled his arm and tried to turn him towards me. He responded by rising up suddenly and throwing his arms around me with a loud, high-pitched wail.
"Benny!" he cried out, and buried his face into my shoulder.
He was sniffling.
"What is it Petey?"
He didn't answer, he just squealed into my shirt, muffling his cries against me, and his little body was trembling. He felt so lithe and frail in my arms.
"What happened Petey? Did mom hit you?"
He nodded into my shoulder, thus confirming what I feared. Mom must have hit him. She was always doing that. She instilled her own particular brand of tyranny around here, fancying herself as the disciplinarian. She wasn't averse to raising a hand to us at any time. That must have been what the argument was about. Either she had directed her rage at Petey, or Petey happened to have got in the middle of it. And Petey was always in the firing line. True, it didn't take much to incur mom's anger, but Petey was quite an impetuous boy, he was impatient and often did stuff without thinking, but then again he was only a seven-year-old kid, full of energy and curiosity. He had a real zest for life which sometimes I felt I lacked. I felt positively jaded compared with Petey. But he was a good kid at heart and I didn't understand how mom didn't make allowances for his tender age and reckless impetuosity. She was always lashing out at him, sometimes for the most minor transgressions. I wished someone would show her that his behavior was normal for a seven-year-old kid. It was no good relying on Alan to temper her violence. He was too ineffectual. He was just a henpecked shrinking violet who never expressed an opinion of his own. I wouldn't have been surprised if she smacked him about as well. Alan wasn't even a man. He was lazy, spineless and ineffectual, and if my mom wasn't stupid enough to grant him favor in this household, he would never amount to anything. In some ways I actually resented Alan for allowing this to go on. He could see very well how Petey and I were treated, but he never stood up for us. He colluded with my mom, which to me was as much of a betrayal as a mom who hit her own kids. In some ways it was worse because somewhere deep inside of me I had this idealistic belief that Alan should have been protective of us. If he was a real man, he would have stood up to her and lived up to his responsibilities as the man of the house. But he wasn't really the man of the house. He was certainly not the fatherly kind. He never made any conscious effort to interact with us. He was so distant and aloof that sometimes it felt like he was just a lodger. As if Alan could ever be a substitute father to us. It was a ridiculous notion. There were times when I felt a real absence of a father in my life, and I was pretty sure Petey felt the same. Petey and I were growing boys sorely in need of a father figure. What did we get instead? Alan.
"Where did she hit you Petey?"
Petey lifted his little head, his long black moptop hair all mussed up from my embrace, and he looked up at me with great fat tears in his gray-green eyes. He lifted his school polo shirt, exposing his hip, then slipped off the bed and hooked his finger over the elastic waist of his pants. Tugging his pants down, he showed me his smooth little butt. Sure enough, there was a big red mark on one of his butt cheeks. It must have been a hefty slap because there was almost a faint handprint on his tender young flesh. I couldn't help reaching out instinctively to soothe it with my hand, but Petey flinched. As he held his shirt up, I noticed the way the skin stretched across his little rib cage and his tummy tightened as he inhaled sharply.
"Oh, sorry Petey," I retracted, "Does it hurt?"
Petey looked up at me, his eyes still wet with tears and nodded disconsolately.
"Don't worry Petey, I'll make it better."
I went into the bathroom and got the aftershave balm from the cabinet. I didn't let Petey see what it was, I just told him it was magic cream that would take away the pain. In reality all it could do was cool the skin down. It was designed to ease razor burn. Most likely it had no healing properties whatsoever, but I couldn't leave Petey in pain.
Petey was already laid face down on his bed expectantly, with his shirt gathered up around his armpits, and his pants pulled halfway down his thighs. He was so unselfconscious about his body, he might just as well have been at the doctor's office. But the tears were still wet in his eyes. I sat down gently on the edge of the bed and he watched me studiously as I squeezed a little of the gel from the tube onto my finger.
"This is gonna feel real cold now okay?"
He nodded into the pillow. The fact that the gel was cool to the touch made it seem like it had some tangible benefit. Petey screwed up his eyelids as I gently massaged the greasy gel into the silky skin of his tiny butt.
I made sure that I covered the area of the handprint, going over the redness with my fingers, and Petey bravely bore my ministrations. Petey had a beautiful physique for such a small boy. His body was so much more attractive than mine. His arms and legs and torso had such good definition, whereas mine just looked weak and skinny. Although we looked somewhat alike, Petey was undoubtedly the cute one, and he seemed to have such good musculature for a boy of his age. There was no doubt he was going to grow into a very handsome young man. I suppose I was quite fond of him and I enjoyed doing stuff for Petey. Sometimes it felt like I was the only one who really looked after him, and that Petey and I were like secret allies against the tyranny that usually prevailed in the household. Naturally I felt very protective of him.
When I had finished, I put the gel aside and gently lowered Petey's polo shirt, covering up his little body once again. He rolled over, flashing me his hairless crotch for a brief moment. Then he pulled his pants back up.
"All done," I said brightly, "Does that feel better?"
He nodded meekly, though he had his sad little boy face on, the one where the corners of his mouth were turned down, imploring you to feel sorry for him.
"Good," I said, "You want something to eat now?"
"I'm not hungry," he said, in a low, dejected voice, and turned once again towards the wall.
I felt so sorry for him. I wondered how it was that someone could bring themselves to hit a little child like that. I took one look at him lying there, his earlier distress now gradually dissipating, and I saw how small and vulnerable he looked, and how cute and adorable he was, and I wondered how anyone could raise a hand to such a sweet, innocent kid like Petey.
By the time we were done, Alan and my mom had gone out. They simply slipped out without a word. It was quite normal for them to leave us alone like that. It was taken for granted that I would be responsible for looking after Petey, though I felt it was something of a liability at times. I didn't resent Petey, but sometimes I wished I was free to do the things that other boys my age could do, like spend some time on the computer, skulk around on the internet, play video games, read a book, or just maybe catch up on school work. Instead, I had to do household chores and look after Petey. I quite enjoyed the freedom when mom and Alan were out, because we could relax and enjoy free run of the apartment. But it was still a sad state of affairs . It had been apparent throughout my childhood that my mom really wasn't focused on us. I had given up expecting any proper input from her. In fact I still remembered the day when I had finally worked out in my own immature mind that the person on whom we most depended really didn't consider me or Petey to be her priority. She was too caught up with what was going on in her own life to be bothered about us. She really didn't know what it was to be a mother.
So it was that I spent the evening looking after Petey and getting some stuff done around the house. I sorted out some washing so we could have clean clothes for school on Monday. Luckily the washing machine was one of the very few things that still worked. I took out the trash, swept the kitchen and cooked some supper for Petey. He ate a little, but still didn't have much of an appetite. He never did when he was upset. Lastly I washed the dishes - we didn't have a dishwasher - and then I made sure that Petey had his bath and got ready for bed.
By around nine, Petey was already in bed and asleep, no doubt exhausted from the trauma of his day. I thought maybe I would have a little time for myself before bed. Mom and Alan wouldn't be back till late - they always stayed out late with their drinking buddies on a Friday. I had hoped that I might do some reading or writing. I had been toying with the notion of writing a play and I had so many ideas floating about in my head I wanted to get some of them down. I wasn't much good, but I enjoyed my writing. I liked making up stories and got a great deal of pleasure from escaping into my own imagination. But no sooner had I powered up the laptop, I found myself falling asleep in front of the screen and my head slumped over the keyboard. It had been a long day for me too. I thought I had better leave the writing to do over the weekend. I was simply too exhausted to think, yet alone produce anything coherent.
I smoothed over my rumpled bed and got in between the matted sheets and waited for sleep to overtake me, but as usual, once I was in bed, I was wide awake from so many thoughts running about my head. I started thinking about Mr Sheppard. I went over our earlier encounter in my mind, and wondered what he was doing right now. I didn't really know much about him, and I wondered whether he was perhaps married and maybe had a boy of his own to look after. He was not only a good teacher, but he seemed quite fatherly, like the sort of man you just knew would be a good dad. You could tell from the way he talked to you that he was benevolent and kind. He was so much more approachable than the other teachers. He didn't talk down to you or ridicule you in front of the rest of the class. He was never too busy to talk. He always made time for you. He was just a very pleasant person. I thought about how nice it was of him to give me a lift home. His gesture even made me smile to myself as I was lying there in my bed in the semi-darkness, because it reminded me that maybe there were good people out there, and a little act of kindness like that actually reinforced my faith in human nature. He had even agreed to call me Ben. No one at school ever bothered to call me by my proper name.
My thoughts were interrupted by Petey, whispering over to me in the darkness.
I had thought he was asleep.
"Can I come into bed with you?" he whispered.
He often came into my bed when he was upset or couldn't sleep. He had no doubt been asleep, but was now wide awake, and I wondered if perhaps I had disturbed him.
I raised a corner of my bedclothes, and I could see Petey's diminutive figure float across the room towards me like a little ghost in the semi-darkness. I always slept in the nude, and Petey knew that, but he didn't seem to mind. He slipped into bed beside me and I covered him. He shivered a little from the chill of the unheated room, and squirmed about for a bit in the bed next to me, trying to warm up. I laid my head down next to him on the pillow, turning onto my side so I could look at him, and I laid a protective arm across his tight little tummy. I could feel his little boy warmth through the thin fabric of his sleep shirt. His warmth and proximity was very comforting and reassuring.
"Okay Petey?" I asked him.
"Yeh," he whispered.
He carried on squirming about. He seemed to fidget for a really long time, rustling about under the bedclothes, unable to settle, and finally he turned over onto his side, with his back to me. I could just make out the contours of his pretty face in the half light. Then Petey spoke again, half in soft low tones, half in a strained whisper, still with his back to me.
It was a welcome invitation. I scooted closer to him and wrapped myself around him. I burrowed one hand under him and pulled him to me. His little body was very light and easy to maneuver. I spooned him in my arms and his clothed little frame was warm and slightly rough against my nakedness. Petey laid there, pressed into the mattress, his thick mop of hair nestled softly against my cheek, and I could smell the faint whiff of his little boy breath against the pillow, like warm milk. The combined heat of our bodies merged together under the thick comforter and pretty soon he was settled and calm.
"Is that better?"
I hunched up behind Petey as he lay there on his side. He had his knees drawn up slightly, so that his butt was digging into my tummy, and his pajama bottoms separated from the top of his sleep shirt, exposing a silky little sliver of smooth young skin on the small of his back. Snuggled under the bedclothes, I remembered Petey's earlier tears from the soreness of mom's smack, the pain of the blow now assuaged and his distress largely forgotten. I gently stroked his little body, soothing him and relaxing him.
"That feels good Benny," he said, in a low, throaty whisper.
"Good. Now go to sleep," I said.
After a short silence, Petey raised his head, half turning towards me, and I could just see him blinking against the line of his cheek.
"Will you watch me until I go to sleep?" he asked.
"Of course I will Petey. Go to sleep now."
"Thanks Benny," he said, resting his head back on the pillow.
"You're a good kid Petey," I said.
That was why I felt so close to him. Petey was important to me. He was one of the nicest things in my miserable little life, maybe the best thing of all. I loved Petey very much. He really was a good kid. That was why I liked taking care of him. I wanted to look after him, trying to fill the void of our absent father and feckless, uncaring mother. All he needed was someone there to watch over him, a little reassurance, perhaps just to feel that someone loved him, something which was sadly gravely lacking in this household. But I couldn't help wondering, whilst I was busy being a substitute parent to Petey, watching over him, who was going to watch over me?