BENNY / Bristol, 4:15 p.m.
IT WAS AN ORDINARY WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON IN JUNE when the world came to kill Benny Millston.
It was his birthday. His fifteenth. Not that anyone would have noticed. He sat in the corner of the living room in the tiny box of a house that he’d called home ever since his parents had split up three years earlier. His mum lay on the sofa, idly picking foam out of the holes the dog had made in the ancient fabric. She was staring at the TV over her huge stomach and between two sets of freshly painted toenails, her mouth open in an expression of awe and wonder, as if she were watching the Rapture, not Deal or No Deal.
On the other side of the room, slouched in a wicker bucket chair, sat his sister Claire. She had once been his baby sister, until his actual baby sister, Alison, had arrived a year ago. The youngest Millston shuffled in her high chair in the door between the living room and the kitchen, smacking her dinner tray with a plastic spoon. Their dog, an elderly Jack Russell that he had named Crapper when he was a kid, sat under her, snapping halfheartedly at the spoon whenever it came close but too old and too lazy to make a proper effort.
Not one person had said happy birthday to him all day.
This wasn’t what was bugging Benny, though. What was really starting to scare him was that nobody had even spoken to him all day.
And it wasn’t just today, either. Strange things had been going on since last week. He couldn’t put his finger on it, exactly; he just knew that something was wrong. People had been treating him differently. He wasn’t the most popular kid at school, not by a long shot, but in the last couple of days even the guys he’d called friends—Declan, Ollie, Jamie—had been ignoring him. No, ignoring was the wrong word. They had talked to him, but it had almost been as if he wasn’t really there, as if they were looking through him. And the stuff they said—We don’t need any more players, Benny. We’re busy now, Benny. Goodbye, Benny—had been downright nasty. They’d been treating him like they hated him.
Things were no better at home, either. His mum’s vocabulary was usually limited to about twenty words, of which “Do it now,” “Don’t argue with me,” and “I’m busy” were the most common. But this week he’d heard worse. Much worse. Yesterday she’d actually told him to piss off, which had come so far out of left field that he’d almost burst into tears on the spot. Claire too was acting weird. She’d not said anything, but it was the way she glanced at him when she thought he wasn’t watching—the way kids looked at strangers, at people they thought might be dangerous.
She was doing it right now, he realized, staring at him, her eyes dark, lined with suspicion, or maybe fear. As soon as he met them she turned back to the television, pulling her legs up beneath her, crossing her arms across her chest. Benny felt the goose bumps erupt on his arms, his cheeks hot but a cold current running through him.
What the hell was going on?
Benny reached up and rubbed his temples. His head was banging. It hadn’t been right for a couple of days now, but what had started off as an irritating ringing in his ears now felt like somebody pounding the flesh of his brain with a meat tenderizer. And there was a definite rhythm to it, syncopated like a pulse: Thump-thump … Thump-thump … Thump-thump …
Only it wasn’t his pulse, it didn’t match. If anything, it reminded him of somebody banging at a door, demanding to be let in. He’d taken a couple of aspirin when he’d gotten home from school an hour ago, but they’d barely made a difference. It was literally doing his head in.
He realized Claire was glaring at him again. He pushed himself out of the armchair and his sister actually flinched, as if he’d been coming at her with a cricket bat. He opened his mouth to tell her it was okay, but nothing came out. The only sound in the room was that thumping pulse inside his head, like some giant turbine between his ears.
Benny walked toward the kitchen, Claire’s eyes on him. His mum was watching him too, her head still pointing at the TV but her eyes swiveled so far around that the red-flecked whites resembled crescent moons. He turned his back on them, squeezing past Alison’s high chair. His baby sister stopped banging her spoon, her face twisting up in alarm.
“Don’t cry,” Benny whispered, reaching out to her, and the way she pushed back against her seat, her chubby fingers blanched with effort, broke his heart. She wasn’t crying. She was too frightened to cry.
That’s when he felt it, something in his head, an instinctive command that cut through the thunder of his migraine—Get out of here!—surging up from a part of his brain that lay far beneath the surface. Run!
It was so powerful that he almost obeyed, his hand straying toward the back door. Then Crapper shuffled out from under Alison’s high chair and limped over to him. The dog peered up with such kindness and trust that Benny couldn’t help but smile. “There you go, boy,” Benny said, tickling the dog under his belly. “You don’t hate me, do you?”
And all of a sudden the voice in his head was gone, even the pounding roar slightly muted. Nothing was wrong. He was just having a bad week, that was all.
Benny poked Crapper tenderly on his wet nose then stood up, a head rush making the room cartwheel. He opened up the kitchen cabinet, searching the dusty shelf for a glass.
It wasn’t like normal was even a good thing, he thought as he filled the glass with water. Normal sucked. He took a deep swig, letting his eyes wander. Something on top of one the cupboards hooked them, a scrap of color peeking out from the shadows. Benny frowned and placed the glass on the counter. He scraped a chair across the floor and hoisted himself up, coming face-to-face with a rectangular box in crimson gift wrap. A ribbon had been carefully tied around it, topped with a bow.
With a soft laugh he reached out and scooped up the package. It was big, and it was heavy. About the same kind of heavy as an Xbox might have been. And that’s when the excitement really hit him, knotting up his guts. His mum had never, ever bought him a console—not a PlayStation, not a Wii, not even so much as a DS. But she’d always said he could have one when he was old enough. He’d never known just how old he’d have to be to be “old enough,” but now he did: fifteen!
He leaped down from the chair, bundling the box into the living room, almost knocking Alison out of her high chair in the process. So that’s what this had all been about: his mum and his sister teasing him, pretending they’d forgotten his birthday before surprising him with the sickest present ever, probably a 360 with Modern Warfare 3.
“Thanks, Mum!” Benny yelled, thumping back down in his chair with the box on his lap. There was a gift card under the loop of the bow, and he fumbled with it, his fingers numb with excitement. To Benny, at long last, maybe now you’ll stop nagging us about it! Wishing you a really happy birthday. Lots and lots of love, Mum, Claire, and Alison.
“This is so cool!” he said. “I knew you were just kidding.”
His headache had gone too, he realized, that generator pulse now silent, obliterated by the unexpected turn the afternoon had taken. He tore at the thin paper, one rip causing it to slough to the floor. Beneath was a green and white box, the Xbox logo plastered all over it, like some beautiful butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. His mum had hefted her bulk from the sofa and was waddling toward him, arms out, and he waited for the hug.
The slap made fireworks explode inside the living room, raging spots of color that seemed to burn through his vision. He was rocked back into the chair, so shocked that the box tumbled off his lap, crunching onto the carpet.
You’ll break it! was the first thought that rifled through his head. Then the pain caught up, a flash of heat as if he’d been standing too close to the fire. There was no time for anything else before the second slap caught him on the other cheek, setting off a high-pitched ringing in his ears and making it feel as though his whole face were alight. He looked up, tears turning the room liquid. His mum was there, at least a blurred silhouette the same shape as his mum, one arm held high, swooping down.
Crack! This time it wasn’t a slap, it was a punch. Benny’s mind went black, nothing there but the need to get away. He could taste something coppery and warm on his tongue.
Panic catapulted him from the chair, and he pushed past his mum hard enough to shunt her backward. She windmilled across the tiny patch of floor, striking the sofa, looking for a moment like she was about to do a top-heavy tumble, only just managing to catch herself. She grunted, the kind of noise a startled boar might make, and Benny looked into her piggy black eyes and saw absolutely nothing human there at all.
“Mum,” he tried to say, but the word wouldn’t fit in his throat. She teetered, her bare feet doing a weird, silent tap dance until she found her balance, then she threw herself at him. The air was full of noise, the heavy, wet rasps of his mum’s breathing and something else: a rising pitch, like a kettle coming to boil. It took Benny a split second to understand that his sister Claire was screaming. She climbed out of the chair so fast that he couldn’t get out of her way, her body flapping into his, skinny arms locked around his neck. Then his mum hit them both, her momentum knocking them to the floor.
Benny smacked his head on the carpet, seeing his mum falling on top of him, cutting out the light. Her weight was impossible, pinning him to the floor, refusing to let him breathe. He was enveloped in her smell—body odor and shampoo and the stench of nail polish. He lashed out, throwing everything at her, but he couldn’t get any force behind his blows. And she was hitting him back, fleshy fists bouncing off his temple, his neck, his forehead.
Something white-hot burrowed into his shoulder but he couldn’t turn his head to see what. This time the pain made him shriek, the cries muffled by the heft of his mother’s chest.
It isn’t real it isn’t real it isn’t real.
But he knew it was; he could see sparks flashing in the edges of his vision as his oxygen-starved brain misfired. And worse, so much worse, he could sense death here, his death, somewhere in the dark recesses of the shape on top of him.
The thought gave him strength, so much adrenaline flooding his system that this time when he punched upward he caught his mum in the jaw. Her head snapped back and she spat out a blood-soaked grunt, her body weight shifting to the side as she flopped off him. He pulled himself out like someone escaping quicksand, his nails gouging tracks in the carpet. Halfway out he saw that Claire’s teeth were lodged in his upper arm, a scrap of flesh caught between them. Then he saw her eyes, so full of rage, and his fist flew automatically, catching her on the nose. With a cry she let go, tumbling away.
Somehow, Benny made it to his feet, careening wildly. He saw that Crapper’s jaws were locked around his mum’s ankles, aware even in the chaos that his dog was trying to save his life. His mum was rolling like a beached whale, her groans ugly, awful. She was trying to get up, he could see the determination in her eyes as they burned into him. She was trying to get up so she could finish the job.
Claire was already on her feet, lurching at him like a zombie. Benny stabbed both hands in her direction, pushing her into the wall. She bounced off, came at him again, and this time it was Crapper who stopped her, leaping over the floundering body of his mum and latching onto Claire’s thigh, bringing her down like a snapped sapling.
Benny crossed the living room in two strides, the kitchen door right ahead of him, the back door visible beyond that. He could make it, get out into the light. He could make it.
He sensed a shape at his side and turned to the window in time to see it implode. A hail of glass blasted into the room and he ducked to his knees, his arms rising to protect his face. Something crashed into him and he almost went over again, slamming a hand down onto the carpet to stop himself toppling. He pushed himself up, a sprinter’s start, but a hand grabbed his ankle, yanking it hard, causing him to drop onto his face. He kicked out, turning to see his new attacker: a stranger dressed in jeans and a green T-shirt. He had both hands around Benny’s leg, and his face—bleeding heavily and flecked with sparkling shards of glass—was a mask of pure fury.
The man pulled again, reeling Benny in like a hooked fish. Claire had managed to prize Crapper loose and now the dog was running in circles howling, the whites of his eyes the brightest things in the room. His mum was on her feet again. There was someone else clambering in through the window as well—their neighbor, Mr. Porter, a man in his seventies, cataract-dulled eyes seething. His hands were balled into white-knuckled fists.
Benny tried to spin around, but the strange man was holding him too tight, his fingers like metal rods in his flesh. He hauled Benny closer, his fingers working their way up to his knees.
“Mum!” he screamed. “Stop it! Stop it!”
They threw themselves onto him, all of them, so heavy and so dark that he felt like a body being lowered into a grave. He thrashed, but he couldn’t move his legs, and now something heavy was sitting on his back. Fat fingers were tight around his neck, squeezing his windpipe so hard that his throat whistled every time he managed to snatch a breath. He snapped his head around, trying to shake them loose, seeing two more people climbing through the shattered window, nothing but silhouettes against the sun. They crowded into the tiny room, trying to punch, claw, kick, bite—no sound but their hoarse, ragged breathing and tinny laughter from the television.
Something too hard to be a fist made contact with the back of his head and a seed of darkness blossomed into full-blown night. He could still hear the sound of each blow, but he could no longer feel them. He closed his eyes, happy to let himself sink into this comforting numbness, happy to leave the pain and the confusion behind …
It stopped as suddenly as it had started. When Benny tried to breathe in he found that he couldn’t. In the last seconds before his life ended, Benny heard the back door opening and the wet patter of footsteps leaving the house, the crunch of the wicker chair as his sister sat back down, a soft whine from the dog.
Then, incredibly, he heard the sound of his mum filling the kettle in the kitchen.
And it was that noise, so familiar, one that he had heard every single day of his life, that ushered him out of the world. Then that too was erased by the immense, unfathomable cloud of cold darkness that had settled inside his head.
His heart juddered, stalled, and he felt something burn up from inside him, a surge of cold blue fire that burst free with a silent howl. Then Benny Millston died on his living-room carpet while his mum made herself tea.
copyright © 2013 by Alexander Gordon Smith