“Please stop!” Liam heard from a soft but shaky voice nearby.
He turned the corner to see that Hunter Everett and his group of caveman rugby players had knocked a freshman to the muddy ground. They circled around him, arms locked to fence him in and bar his retreat before they’d had their fill of fun. He lay prone, shaking like a plastic cup of vanilla pudding. Disgustingly, they were spitting on him, and all he could do was put up his hands to shield his face. Seniors all, they towered over the diminutive bespectacled kid. It was a classic bully move. Why pick on someone your own size? Liam wasn’t much larger himself at five foot, seven inches, just over one hundred and fifteen pounds in his sweat sodden, school issued, black and green striped gym clothes. He’d been wearing himself out for weeks just to encourage any muscle to form on his scrawny chicken frame. Hunter on the other hand was over six feet, and practically rippled with muscle all over. His group were all of a similar size, though certainly he was the largest, and thus the ringleader and bossman of them all.
“Why did I have to come in on a Sunday?” Liam said under his breath. He pulled his baseball cap down further over his unruly, wavy, chestnut hair and kept walking past them. They hadn’t seen him yet.
“Thwaaack, SMAACK.” Now the kid was whimpering. They had escalated to slapping him about. Liam chanced a quick look over his shoulder, his dark cocoa eyes hooded by thick eyelashes, still matted wet from his workout. The kid saw him then, made desperate eye contact, and mouthed a single word, “Help.”
Liam sighed deeply. “Crap, I’m going to be late for dinner,” he said quietly to no one in particular. He closed the distance to the ring of senior boys in seconds, throwing his bantamweight into a shove, knocking Hunter over and into the dirt beside the freshman. The other bullies were pushed to the side in surprise, but they quickly recovered. Hot anger furrowed their brows as they looked to their leader. Hunter pushed himself up slowly, wiping a big gob of sticky mud from his chin with a mostly clean sleeve.
They started to close in on Liam, but he waved them all back with one meaty arm. “I’m fine. Leave it!” The bully’s face was flush with embarrassment, on top of being smeared with mud. More brown streaks ran up and down his pressed white gym clothes. He fixed Liam with steely grey eyes, ready to cut right through him. The freshman seized his opportunity and was gone as quick as his legs could take him. Hunter noticed but didn’t lift a finger to stop him, a terrible grin formed on his lips. “Still haven’t learned your lesson yet, have you Liam?”
“What lesson is that?” he answered glibly.
“Oh, you are going to play it like that.” He smacked a blocky fist into his open palm. The sound sent a shiver down Liam’s back.
“I certainly don’t know what lesson you mean,” he said, tensing his thighs, when he came he’d come fast.
“You know exactly what I mean, and I’m going to be so happy to help you cram.”
“No thanks, I’m good on my own,” he responded, turning his back to walk away. He heard the gravel crunch as Hunter launched himself, but Liam was ready and he sprung away, leaving a space for the bully to crash into the gravel and mud once more with a loud squelch.
“After him!” Hunter growled out fiercely at the rest of the boys.
“Here we go,” Liam said, sprinting away as fast as his lean legs could pump.
He dodged around the gym and through the courtyard. Campus was eerily silent, even for a Sunday. The sound of his footsteps echoed oddly against the old brick and stone buildings. Rain had come and gone throughout the weekend, leaving everything soaking wet. There was nobody in sight. He looked over his shoulder to see the whole bully group hot on his heels. Hunter pounded the pavement in front, his long legs making up the difference. Good thing Liam had been running all his life, he’d actually gotten quite good at it. He put on a burst of speed, getting into the rhythm of it. Still, he had to dodge all the big puddles. His mother would kill him if he came home dirty. The bullies splashed right through them with abandon, soaking themselves further and adding to their fury.
Liam reached the edge of campus, tearing by the snoozing security guard and out the weighty iron gate. He pulled up just outside and looked back. One heavy breath, two, maybe they were done. He groaned as the whole group burst out of the gate. He’d really pissed Hunter off this time! Liam took off for Cobble Hill Mountain, he’d lose them in the twisted trails.
His breath was short and a little ragged by the time he’d scaled several hundred feet up the network of trails crisscrossing the east face of the mountain. He stopped for a second, forcing himself to breathe slowly. Dusk was coming on rapidly, the sun dipping amber and blood red behind the rib of mountains to the west that ran up the spine of Vancouver Island. Below him stretched twin towns and beyond them the black and blue of the Cowichan Bay lapping the shore. Pinpricks of light were coming on all over the coast. He climbed a rock outcrop, looking down at the steep slopes below him. He could not see the boys, but they could be hidden by the thick forest of pine and cedar. He let himself relax a bit, putting a hand out on a nearby tree to steady himself.
When he turned around, he was startled to see a fox a few feet away, something dead in her mouth and looking right at him. He suppressed the urge to back away. Her eyes glinted gold with the last of the sun’s light. She edged towards him, her gaze meeting his own. She wasn’t acting threatening, but those sharp teeth were fastened tightly around her prey. As she pawed forward to within a foot of him, he gently knelt down, keeping his hands at his side. She regarded him thoughtfully for another moment and then lay her catch at his feet. There was a crash from below and shouts from the bullies. The fox was gone in a flash. He looked down at the dead mouse and shook his head. “Why would she give that to me? Now she’ll be hungry!”
The shouting grew louder and much closer. He ducked into the brush and ferns, hurriedly finding a scattering of boulders worn smooth by centuries of wind and rain. He jammed himself between the two largest, wedging himself in as tightly as physically possible. It wasn’t long before his right arm started to pulse with a dull ache and one ankle objected loudly to its angle. He went totally still as he heard Hunter stop right on the other side, one of the other boys breathing hard behind him. It felt like his whole backside was sticking out. He just had to hope it was dark enough they couldn’t see him. Hunter angrily cracked a stick across the very stone that hid Liam, making him jump.
“Which way did he go?”
“I don’t know man, he’s probably halfway home already.”
“If that witch’s hovel counts as a home.”
“Whatever Hunter, he’s gone. We’re not going to find him.”
“I know he came up this way, and he has to answer to me. Nobody treats me like that.”
“Too right, but it’s almost full dark, we’re going to miss curfew.”
“Damn! Tomorrow first thing he’s mine.”
“Sure, whatever you say Hunter. Let’s just get back in time for the dinner bell.”
They had started to shuffle away when Liam heard an odd humming sound, almost too low to be detected. He shifted his body and it got measurably louder. It was coming from the ground below his feet.
“What’s that?” Hunter asked, coming back towards the rocks.
“I dunno, it sounds really weird dude, we need to get out of here.”
“Let’s see what it is. It’ll only take a second.”
Whatever it was, the vibration was shaking the very earth. He had the oddest feeling deep inside, like warm bubbles in his chest. Then the rocks shifted and he rolled out right in front of Hunter, who jumped back until he saw who it was. “Get him!”
Liam threw his weight into the roll and popped back to his feet and he was off before they could close their hands on him. The vibration had stopped just as suddenly as it had started, but he didn’t have time to think about it. He ran back down the mountain, with them hot on his heels again. Taking every side path, he skidded and slid in the shadows, colliding with a sticky spiderweb. He desperately wiped it off his face but didn’t stop for a second. Popping out from the side trail onto one of the paved paths he slipped on some leaves on the asphalt, going down right on his tailbone. Lightning crashed in his vision as he hit the ground, pain searing up his spine. Looking up, he saw the rest of the bullies coming up and Hunter and his buddy coming down the path. He tried to get up, but his vision swam, he could barely move. “This is bad, I need to get up. I need to get up!”
“Looks like the witch boy hurt himself,” Hunter taunted.
“I am not a witch. Why do you keep saying that?”
“Maybe you aren’t, but we all know your mother is a witch.”
“Shut up!” He groaned out through the pain. “My mother is not a witch.”
“Well then she’s one weird old hippie,” he laughed. “Too bad she had such a weakling for a son. If you were any skinnier I could see right through you.”
“Look if you are going to hit me, just get it over with.”
“Oh I’m going to, and I’m going to enjoy this one,” he said, stepping forward and cracking his knuckles.
A blazing white light filled the path, then the rumbling and clanging of construction equipment. Three men with hard hats strode into the little clearing. They were outlined by flood lights coming up on some kind of tractor behind them.
“Park closes at dark kids. You all need to get on home.”
“We’ll see you tomorrow Liam,” Hunter said through gritted teeth.
It was far past dark and getting cold when he limped in the door of the Róisín Dubh, the ‘Black Rose’, an antiquated wood shingled inn that he had called home his whole life. His father had fallen asleep with his glasses on at the cluttered front desk again. His hair was all grey, and his body a little over the hill with a beer belt around his waist. In the face, he still had sharp handsome features and a beard that always hovered on casual scruff without being unkempt. He was dressed in his jeans and an official inn button-down shirt, complete with ‘Joe, Innkeep’ embroidered under the outline of the rose on his breast.
He had been sorting through a pile of bills. Some of them were printed on yellow paper. Liam sighed and took his father’s square rimmed glasses off his face, gently placing them on the desk. He went through the service door into the darkened stone and brick kitchen. Everything had been put away from dinner, spotlessly clean. The chef had already retired to his little cottage down by the water. His stomach grumbled until he saw a single heat light lit on the line. “Booker you are the best,” he muttered to himself. He stepped over to see that he had indeed left him some sort of spinach pie from dinner service. Liam scoffed it down in a few quick bites, rich cheese and buttery crust warming him up from the inside. Wiping everything down and washing the dish in the sink, he turned out the remaining light and navigated in the blackness. He didn’t really need to see to find his way.
He went through the rear door of the kitchen into what served as their living room. It was narrow and fashioned of open wood beams interspersed with columns of field stone. A threadbare carpet laid over the old slate floor softened his steps. To one side were doors, leading to his parents’ room and their shared bathroom. To the other was a narrow set of steps that spiraled above to his loft.
The rear of the room was a glassed in porch filled with plants of many types tropical and succulent. Orchid, bromeliad and bird of paradise were mixed in with jade, aloe and agave. In the center was a long padded window bench where his mother lay asleep. propped up on some square pillows. She always looked younger than her forty-two years, long red and gold wavy hair and eyes that matched his own, dark and wild. Her face and arms were covered in a patchwork of freckles. She wore a white kitchen apron over a loose dress of sea green.
She had a glass of garnet coloured wine resting beside her and several beeswax candles lit menacingly close to her dress. He looked around to make sure he was alone, downed the rest of the wine and blew out the candles. Then, he pulled a blanket up to cover her and wearily climbed up to his tiny loft bedroom. It was going to be an early morning.