The bigger boy shoved Patrick hard enough that he staggered backwards and tripped, spilling to the ground. There was a burst of harsh laughter from above him, and he frowned at his feet, as if to blame them for getting him into this mess. It was raining, and he could feel water seeping into his jeans. Worse, he knew he was being watched.
The boy that had pushed him reached down and grabbed his backpack, pulling it away even though he tried to cling to the straps. The boy aimed a kick at him, and Patrick flinched, hands coming up to protect himself.
“You just stay down there, rat boy.”
Patrick could feel hot, sour fury in his belly and burning at the back of his throat, but what was he meant to do? The boys were all older than him, bigger than him, and they’d found him in the park. There was no one to help, no authority to appeal to. They’d already torn his notebook to shreds, stomping the pages into the muddy grass and tearing the covers from the spine.
They pulled his backpack open and tipped it up, spilling the meagre contents onto the ground – an empty lunchbox, his pencil case (now stomped on too, and he could see ink bleeding through the fabric like the blood of some small wounded creature), his library books, muddied and torn. He’d have to replace them. He closed his eyes and turned his head away, feeling sick and small and miserable, and wished he were anywhere but here.
“Hey, rat boy. Where’s your money?”
Patrick opened his eyes and looked up at the boy standing over him. From here, he seemed enormous, almost adult, although he knew the boy was only in the class above him at school. Of course, he thought, with a curl of disdain, he’s stupid. He was in that class last year too. Probably he’s had to doevery year twice. Stupid.
“Hey! Money. Or you want me to find it myself?” The boy loomed over Patrick, hands on his hips, his breath smelling of old meat and sweets. Early acne blossomed across his chin, but he had high cheekbones and wide-set dark eyes. Patrick hated him for that, as well. He should be as ugly on the outside as on the in. Ugly and stupid.
“It’s in my pocket.”
“Hand it over, then.” The boy held out a hand, palm up, and for one confused moment Patrick thought he was going to help him up. Then he slapped the younger boy sharply across one cheek. “Now, dimwit.”
Patrick dug into his pocket wearily and pulled out a pound coin and a couple of twenty pence pieces, and dropped them into the boy’s outstretched hand. He stared at them in disbelief.
“It’s all I’ve got.” Patrick pulled his legs in instinctively, making himself into a smaller target.
“No way. I know where you live – you’re rich! Where’s the rest?”
“There isn’t any more,” Patrick insisted, and yelped as the boy kicked him sharply in the thigh. It wasn’t a hard kick, not yet – it was a warning. “I’m telling the truth!”
“Sean, leave it,” one of the other boys said. He was standing nervously near the edge of the park path, his hood pulled up against the cold. “Someone’s gonna come.”
“So? We’re just hanging out with our buddy here.” Sean grabbed Patrick’s arm, painfully tight, and pulled him to his feet, giving him a quick, hard shake. “You’re not gonna say any different, are you?”
“No,” Patrick mumbled, and the older boy took hold of his hair with his free hand, twisting it in his fingers until Patrick could feel it beginning to tear from the roots, bringing tears to his eyes even as he tried keep his face expressionless.
“You crying, little boy? You crying?”
It’s an involuntary reaction to having my hair ripped out by an idiot who probably can’t even read without mouthing the words, was what he wanted to say, but he settled for, “No.” With any luck they’d check his pockets and then they’d leave him alone. Why did this always happen? The only people that ever seemed to even notice he was there were the ones he’d rather not be noticed by – bullies and weirdos and – and other things. He looked sideways into the bushes. Yeah. Cats, among other things. Like those two there, sitting neatly to attention and watching with curious eyes, as if it was the best entertainment they’d had all week. He scowled at them.
A hard slap to his cheek brought his attention back to the more immediate situation. Sean still had hold of his hair, and the slap rocked his head enough that it felt like a good section of his scalp had just come loose from his skull. “Whatcha looking at, freak? You should be looking at me. You need to pay good attention, boy.”
Patrick tasted hot, bitter fury again, and said without thinking, “Like your mother should’ve before she dropped you on your head.” He heard the words come out and had a horrified, delighted moment of satisfaction at the stunned look on the older boy’s face, before it contorted into a snarl. It was a fist rather than a slap this time, and he felt his lip split, tasting blood in his mouth as he tumbled to the ground, head and face on fire, dizzy with the blow and utterly astonished at his own words.
He rolled instinctively, and Sean’s boot caught him a glancing blow in the shoulder rather than colliding with his face. The boy was roaring – roaring,like some wounded, infuriated beast, and Patrick could make out something about not talking about his mother, and ripping heads off, and other less palatable things. It all seemed a little distant and abstract, far more so that the scent of crushed grass, and the salty taste of his own blood, and the soft touch of the rain on his bruised cheek. He rolled again, but this time towards Sean, hearing other shouts – maybe the boy’s friends, maybe someone else entirely – and grabbed hold of the older boy’s leg as it came towards him, absorbing the blow of the kick in his own stiffened arms, and rolling away once more, taking the foot with him, hearing the yelp and the thud as the boy hit the floor. He scrambled to his feet – small and muddy, his own growth spurt still a few years away – and flung himself on top of the bigger boy without any real idea of what he was going to do, flailing away with his fists in a fury of motion, all energy and no accuracy at all. A few blows landed, and he felt a surge of ugly delight at the flat wet sensation of flesh against flesh, heard Sean grunt in astonishment. Then a fist hit the side of his head so solidly he was flung sideways and onto the ground, where he flopped onto his back, gasping and puffing in surprise. The world roared back around him in sudden focus, and the distant shouts resolved into boys’ voices, and pain jumped on him hungrily.
Fists grabbed the front of his jacket, and Sean was leaning over him, that beast-mask back on his face, shaking Patrick so hard his teeth clicked together painfully and he bit his tongue, adding a new wave of hurt to his already battered body. “You freak!” the boy bellowed, and spit flew from his lips, making Patrick turn his face away with a little moue of disgust, which earned him another teeth-shattering shake. “You dare! You dare try and fight me!” Patrick thought vaguely that adults lied about bullies, as they did so many things – they didn’t go away if you stood up to them. They just beat the crap out of you. This struck him as funny, and he grinned, baring bloodstained teeth, a giggle escaping. Sean pulled back, but didn’t let him go. “You – what the hell’s wrong with you?” In his surprise, he sounded disgusted, like a maiden aunt finding a pubic hair in her cucumber sandwich, and Patrick’s giggle bubbled into laughter. What the hell, he thought. He can only hit me again. Somehow, this also seemed funny, and he took a deep hitching breath and bellowed with laughter, the sort of laughter that only ever seems to belong to eight-year-olds, in the years before they start worrying about what other people think. He was hanging in the older boy’s hands, not even trying to support himself, and Sean gave him another rough, angry shake. “Shut up!”
“Jesus, leave him. The kid’s freaking out.” In truth, the other boy thought Sean might have shaken something loose in the kid’s head – there was blood everywhere, smearing his small face, running from his nose and his mouth, and all the time he kept laughing, as if he were at the best amusement park in the world and all the rides were free.
Sean must have thought something similar, because the anger had faded from his face, replaced with an unfamiliar look of concern. He gave the boy another shake, but it was half-hearted, and he lowered him to the ground rather than dropping him. The boy was still laughing, and he stayed where he was put, folding his hands over his chest contentedly, his eyes closed and tears seeping from the corners. Sean wiped his mouth and looked at his sidekicks. “Anyone around?”
“Nah, man, but let’s get out of here,” the boy by the path said. He hadn’t ventured any closer, although the other three had gone to try and pull Sean away. He bounced on the balls of his feet, ready to run, trying not to look at the little bloodied body and wishing like hell he’d never made friends with the older boy.
“Yeah. Yeah, okay.” Sean threw a final, bemused look at the kid on the ground and pulled his hood up. “He’s done, anyway. Teach him to hold out on us.” His voice sounded almost normal as he swaggered away. Almost.
Patrick stayed where he was, letting the rain wash the blood off his face, the laughter giving way to giggles and finally to an exhausted silence, punctuated by the odd hiccough of a chuckle that still crept its way out. He was wet through, his jeans clinging to his legs, and cold, but it all seemed oddly unimportant. He was thinking of the way the world had retreated around him, the way he had seemed to exist quite separate from it, and he wondered if that was how it would always be. He was always a little odd, a little separate, the last one to be served in a shop, the last one to be chosen in class, always as a sort of default – if there was no one else there then he must be the one talking. He thought of going home, explaining his muddy clothes and swollen face to his mother – also a chipped tooth by the feel of things – and realised he likely wouldn’t have to. Even she seemed to notice him less and less these days. He’d just put his clothes in the washing machine and make himself a snack, and hope they remembered to lay him a plate at dinner. There were days they forgot that, too. He supposed it wasn’t so bad. Plenty of kids had it worse. He’d seen some of them. He thought he’d probably just been beaten up by one of them. He considered this and decided that he felt bad for Sean. Likely his main joy in life came from beating up kids, and he’d laughed at him. On the other hand – he sat up and investigated his face with gentle hands – he’d still got the beating up part done pretty well. He got to his feet and went to collect his wounded belongings.
“Well, that was – unexpected,” Anna said, and looked at the cat sat next to her. He was a ginger and white tom, his fur patchy with age, and he nodded thoughtfully.
“Not entirely? Rupert, the kid just got the crap kicked out of him and laughed right through it.”
“I think it’s the best evidence we’ve seen that he’s no halfer.”
“What, because he’s prone to hysterics?”
Rupert softly huffed his amusement. “No, my lovely Anna. Because peacekeepers, even before they know they’re peacekeepers, have a knack for getting themselves out of situations. Unusual, I admit, but he’d be in a lot worse shape otherwise.”
“He’d be in better shape if he hadn’t made that crack about the boy’s mother.”
“Likely, yes. This time. But somehow I think this whole little dynamic is done now – there won’t be a next time. He broke it without even knowing he did.”
Anna looked out into the rain-streaked day and watched the boy empty his pencil case onto the grass, going through the pens methodically and discarding the broken ones. The rain had become heavier, and he was shivering a little, but there was still a smile curving the corners of his lips. “Gods, Rupert, he’s so small. He’s a kitten still.”
“And yet he’s fading. Even he knows it. He shouldn’t be alone with that, thinking he’s slipping through the cracks in the world, and no one to catch him.”
Anna snorted. “I’m no one’s mother, Rupe. I’m not kitten-sitting. I need a peacekeeper.”
“And there you have one, all young and ready for the teaching. He’s off the teat, Anna. He needs guidance, not mothering.”
The boy had collected the sodden sheets of paper, ferrying them to the bin along with the broken pens, and now he stood with his hands on his hips, surveying the scene of his first fight (that thought gave him an unexpected little twist of pride and anxiety) for anything that he’d left behind. He saw the cats and executed a surprisingly graceful bow, then picked up his bag, saluted, and pattered off down the path. His face already looked painfully swollen.
Anna looked at the old cat. “It’s not like I have a choice, do I?”
“No. He’s the one. The old peacekeeper said it, and you can see it as well as I can.”
“Ben was a screw-up. He was a disaster.”
“But that was because you didn’t train him.” Rupert looked pointedly after the boy, already vanishing out the park gates. “And, thank the Way, he’ll never get his hands on that one.”
Anna sighed, her shoulders slumping. “Alright. You’re right. I know it. Just – not today. I need to figure out how to do this, where to take him. He still needs a home of some sort. Human young are so hopeless – he won’t even be able to feed himself.”
“Not today,” Rupert agreed, “But soon. And let him keep his rat, would you? He needs someone familiar.”
“Fricking rats and baby peacekeepers,” Anna grumbled, getting to her feet. “Yes, fine. He can keep the rat. But you’re helping me.”
“For as long as I’m around,” Rupert said, getting to his feet stiffly.
“And in your next life, too,” Anna replied. “You don’t get off that easy.”
Rupert chuckled, and a moment later the small dry space beneath the bushes was bare once more, the park still and grey in the rain.
Hopefully you enjoyed reading this little snippet of back story from the BBN (because I certainly enjoyed writing it). You can keep updated when new stories are published by signing up to the blog at the bottom of the page or joining me on social media). Please feel free to comment and share!