Your fear is their entertainment
Series: Damienverse, Book 2
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“Those trouble-makers are hanging around outside again. Must be ten of them now. Should we call the police?”
Andrew turned to his wife, Penelope. She was peeking out of the living room window through a gap in the curtains. “They’re just harmless kids,” he told her. “We were young too, once upon a time. Not that I can remember that far back anymore.”
Pen dragged herself away from the curtain and allowed herself to crack a smile. It was a rarity these days, which made the gesture all the more attractive. “You’re thirty-eight, Andrew,” she told him, inflecting her words with a sarcastic tone. “I don’t think your memory is going just yet.”
“Exactly, and I can remember being a sixteen-year-old with nothing to do. Me and my brother used to get up to all kinds of mischief. Didn’t mean we were out to hurt anyone. Just ignore them and they’ll ignore you.”
“Isn’t that what they say about wasps?” Pen spoke without turning around, too busy resuming her spying through the curtains. She’d been doing it now, on and off, for the last ten minutes and didn’t seem able to pry herself away. Outside, the streetlamps had turned on with the arrival of dusk and were casting angular shadows over her face. She looked like a private detective out of one of those old Film Noirs.
Andrew couldn’t help but giggle. “Wasps, snakes, rabid-dogs, whatever. I think it makes pretty good sense in most situations. In other words, stop being such a nosey-parker.”
Pen let go of the curtain and let it sweep back into place. She padded towards him, barefoot, across the beige carpet of the living room and let out a deep sigh. “I know, I know. They just make me uncomfortable. Where’ve they come from all a sudden? Why do they have to be right outside my house?”
Andrew wrapped his arms around his wife, enjoying the warm feeling of her hips through her blouse. The flesh there was softer now than it had been ten years ago when they’d married, but still trim for a woman of forty. Pen worked the rowing machine every Wednesday and Friday, and it showed. Andrew was a lucky man. He kissed her forehead.
“I think you mean our house,” he told her. “Anyway, will you just stop worrying? The kids outside haven’t done anything wrong, have they?”
Pen shook her head against his chest. “You’re right, I’m just being silly.”
“Don’t worry, I’m used to it. Now what’s for dinner, woman?”
Pen slapped him on the arm with a stinging backhand. “You’ll get put to bed on an empty stomach if you call me woman again, cheeky sod.”
“Did I hear someone mention dinner?”
Andrew spotted his daughter coming down the stairs in nothing but a plump white towel. Her shoulder-length brown hair was a wet and tangled mess around her glistening shoulders.
Andrew sighed. “You’re not a little girl anymore, Bex. I really wish you wouldn’t walk around half-naked.”
She rolled her eyes. “I just got out of the shower. Anyway, back to my earlier question: did I hear someone mention dinner?”
“Sit down, sweetheart.” Pen dumped herself down on the room’s bulbous cream sofa and patted the cushion beside her. “Let me get those knots out of your hair. You look like something out of a horror movie.”
Bex walked across the living room with her arms outstretched like a badly acted mummy. Then she collapsed on the sofa like a make-believe bullet had hit her in the forehead. Finally, she sat still long enough for her mother to run her fingers through the tangled bunches of her hair. She winced every time a knot was yanked.
Andrew glanced at his fourteen-year old daughter’s naked legs and wished once more that she would cover them up. She doesn’t realise how much of a woman she’s becoming. Time she started being a little more aware of herself.
Bex caught his stares and frowned at him, pulling down the hem of the towel so that it was closer to her knees. She knew him well enough by now to recognise his looks of disapproval. She raised her eyebrows at him. “Can we have chippy?”
Andrew looked at Pen for approval, not particularly fussed himself. He wasn’t a big eater most nights.
Pen shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t mind chips.”
Bex clapped her hands excitedly. “Cod and chips, please, Dad. Salt, no vinegar.”
Andrew laughed. “Don’t you think I know that? Been feeding you fourteen bloody years.”
“And if you don’t feed me again soon, I might not make it to fifteen.” Becky sucked in her cheeks so that she looked like a starving ghoul. Add the chaotic mess of her hair and the impression was quite convincing.
Andrew let out his breath in a whistle. “Alright, drama queen, I’ll get going right away; don’t want you to starve. I’m going to walk, though–save the petrol–but then the three of us can settle down and watch a movie together. Isn’t there a Stephen King film on tonight, Bex?”
“Yeah,” she replied eagerly, pulling away from her mother’s hair-straightening fingers and flopping back on the sofa. Her hair was now sufficiently straightened to pass for human. “Don’t think it’s for you, though, Dad; has monsters and stuff. You don’t like blood and violence.”
“Perhaps I’ll make an exception if it means spending some time with my increasingly-absent daughter. You never have any time for me anymore.”
“It’s because you smell so bad.”
“Charming. I suppose you’re too good for a bit of BO now that you’re a teenager.
Pen interrupted the exchange. “Can we save the banter for after we’ve all eaten? You’re as bad as she is sometimes, Andrew.”
Andrew put his hands up in defence. “I’m going.”
He left the warmth of the living room and stepped into the chillier hallway, heading to his right. His shoes were in the front porch, and he went to retrieve them, whistling a made-up tune as he went. He saw the group of youths through the glass window of the PVC front door. Pen had been right: there were about ten of them in total, mostly boys–but not all. Andrew counted at least two young girls about Rebecca’s age.
He still stood by what he had said earlier: they were just bored kids with nothing better to do. It wasn’t like there was a cinema to go to, or a bowling alley. In fact, there wasn’t anything for the kids to do in town during the evenings. They needed to venture into Birmingham for anything beyond a scrappy game of football. The kids outside were just trying to entertain themselves. No reason to be frightened of them. In fact, it would likely make things worse. If you treated young people like thugs all the time, then that’s probably how they’d end up behaving.
Kick a dog and it’ll bite.
Andrew pushed aside his shoes and decided on a pair of trainers instead. The Nike running shoes were new and a little uncomfortable, but he wanted to try and wear them in quickly. He tied the laces loosely to reduce the pinching on his toes, then stood up and pulled his brown-leather wallet from his jeans to check he had cash. He did–just over twenty-pounds in notes and change. The final thing he did was pull on his long, black overcoat from the stand in the corner. Even from inside the porch, it was clear that the weather outside was nippy. A tough winter was on its way.
Andrew fastened the final button on his jacket and was ready to leave. He unlocked the front door and stepped out into the bitter, grey dusk of the evening. The frosty air immediately gravitated towards him and he gave his shoulders a quick, yet vigorous rub as he started down the pathway. The dozen-or-so teenagers across the road noticed Andrew’s presence as he left his property, but they paid him hardly any attention. Just like he’d told Pen, there was nothing to worry about. In fact, he was going to walk right by them on his way to the shops. He was willing to bet that they wouldn’t make so much as a peep at him.
Andrew stopped in his tracks and frowned. Obviously he was wrong. No matter.
“Oi, mate, you fuckin’ deaf?”
Andrew turned to the youths, who were a few feet down the road. Sets of gleaming eyeballs stared back at him, scrutinising him from beneath the glow of the streetlights. He cleared his throat and tried to speak calmly. “Excuse me?”
One of the youths stepped away from the others: a tightly-muscled teenager in a red woollen hat pulled low over his forehead. The lad had a thin scar across his lower lip and seemed to twitch periodically.
“Got a cigarette, mate?” the lad asked, twitching.
“I’m afraid I don’t smoke,” Andrew replied honestly.
The lad just stared at him, almost as if he recognised Andrew somehow, the spark of familiarity glinting in his eyes. It wasn’t possible though. Andrew had never set eyes on the boy before.
“I said I don’t smoke. I don’t have a cigarette to give you.”
The lad continued staring. His nervous twitch seemed to have increased its intensity.
“Okay then,” he eventually said. “No worries.”
Andrew resumed his journey towards the shops. See, no problem at all. A slight lack of manners, admittedly, but no worse than that.
“Get us some fags from the shop then.”
Andrew stopped again and wondered if he’d just heard correctly. He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, thinking what to say in reply to such an audacious demand. It was probably best not let it get to him and to just remain courteous.
“Okay,” Andrew said. “I’m on my way to the shops anyway. You want to give me the money now or when I get back?”
The whole gang laughed like a pack of hyenas, but the twitching teenager in the red woollen hat did not find anything amusing. He marched forward, closing in enough that he was almost nose-to-nose with Andrew. The stench of stale beer permeated the young man’s every breath as he spoke. “Don’t think you understand, mate. You’re going to buy me some fags because you like me.”
Andrew took a step backwards, reclaiming some of his personal space. He attempted a laugh, but it came out as an asphyxiated splutter. “I-I… I don’t think so, son. Get your own bloody cigarettes, okay?”
The teenager took another step forward and this time snarled right in Andrew’s face. The stench of beer was nauseating. “Listen, cunt. If you get back from that shop without my fucking cigarettes, your head is going to hit this cement. You get me?”
Andrew tumbled backwards under what he could only describe as utter shock. Such threats and brutish behaviour were beyond his comprehension. He was furious. He was livid that this wretched little thug felt he had any right to threaten him this way…
Yet, for some reason, all he did was walk away with his head down, his mouth closed. He heard the word ‘prick’ muttered by a female voice behind him, but he did not turn back. A numb kind of disbelief had washed over Andrew, and the feeling in the pit of his stomach was like a white-hot poker thudding against his ribs.
It was a good five minutes before he regained control over his thoughts enough that he could begin to process what had just happened, but by that time he was already several hundred yards away from the gang and almost at the small row of shops that marked his destination. The chip shop was just up ahead.
He shook his head in disbelief. I can’t believe that… that thug… spoke to me like that. How dare he threaten me! Who does he think he is? To think I was sticking up for those bloody kids not thirty minutes ago…
Andrew scratched at the stubble on his chin and hissed at the night. Pen had been right. They were all a bunch of troublemakers. He crossed the road and headed into the chip shop, determined not to let the nasty little exchange affect him a minute more than it already had. Inside was a member of staff he recognised–a young blond girl who’d served him several times before. They’d never spoken in a personal way, but she always had a warm smile to greet him with. Tonight was no exception, and he felt a little less angry as the girl showed her usual politeness by welcoming him in from the cold. Not all teenagers were bad.
He quickly placed his order for his and Penelope’s food, as well as Bex’s–salt, no vinegar–before standing aside and warming himself on the chip shop’s hot metal counter. His entire body seemed to unload its weight onto his elbows as he leaned, like he’d been fighting off the urge to fall down this whole time without realising it. The amount of anger he felt was worrying, yet he felt strangely vacant at the same time. It was as if the encounter with the gang had sent him into some sort of daze.
He still had to walk back past them to get home.
What the hell should he do? He wasn’t going to let them scare him into not walking the street outside his own home. He sighed and rubbed at his eyes. He should have said something–stood up to them. They were probably a bunch of cowards faced with a responsible adult. If they were still there on the way back, Andrew decided he was going to say something. He couldn’t let this stand.
“-ful they’re hot.”
Andrew looked up from the counter. “Huh?”
The blond girl nodded to a plastic bag in front of him. “I said, careful they’re hot.”
Andrew took the bag full of food and thanked her, then paid her. He wandered towards the door, but before he got there, the girl called after him.
“Are you okay?”
Andrew turned back around, wondering what it was about him that had caused the girl concern. Was it so obvious that he was rattled?
“I’m fine,” he said. “Just had a run in with a gang of youths. Haven’t quite calmed down about it yet.”
The girl’s face dropped. “You don’t mean Frankie Walker, do you?”
Andrew shrugged. “Don’t know their names.”
“Red beanie hat? Has a twitch?”
The girl shook her head and wore a grim expression. “I’d be careful if I were you. He just got out of a young offender’s home and he’s been messed up ever since–in fact, he was pretty messed up before.”
Andrew huffed. “He’s just a boy. I’m not going to let him intimidate me.”
“Just watch yourself, okay? I mean it. He’s a nasty-piece of work.”
Andrew stood in the doorway and thought for a moment. It felt wrong to let a teenaged boy frighten him. This was a country where everyone had the right to be free, safe, and happy. No one had the right to take those things away from him. He wouldn’t allow it.
“What’s your name?” Andrew asked the girl behind the counter.
“Well, Charlie,” he did his best to smile, “thanks for the advice, but I think I’ll be just fine. You take care, okay?” He pulled open the door and stepped back out into the cold. The night had arrived fully since he’d been inside the chip shop, and the world had gone dark beyond the streetlights that lit the small shopping area with their narrow cones of light.
As he started his walk down the road, the warming aroma of hot chips and acrid vinegar made his mouth water, and suddenly he couldn’t wait to get home. It was a greasy, unhealthy dinner, but he could stand to put a few pounds on his slender frame anyway. A bit of junk food never hurt anybody. He picked up speed, hunger encouraging him onwards. Rounding the final corner before home, he thought about the youths again. It was surprising that his mind had briefly turned to other things, but it’d been easier once he’d decided that this Frankie and his followers were not going to intimidate him. Despite that, it was a relief when it turned out the group of youths had gone, moved on from their previous spot. The corner was free of their presence and the cones of light from the streetlights illuminated nothing now but the cracked and worn pavement of the road.
The cowards didn’t have the courage to stay and go through with their threats.
Andrew was just about to smile with satisfaction when he heard voices. He strained his eyes, seeking out bodies in the darkness, but ended up having to use his ears to hone in on the appropriate direction. The noise was coming from several yards ahead.
The youths were loitering around a Mercedes sitting on the curb in front of Andrew’s house–it was his Mercedes. Frankie was sat on the bonnet, leaning back on his elbows and laughing loudly.
“Cretin!” Andrew almost spat the word as he headed across the street.
Frankie saw him coming and waved happily.
Andrew gritted his teeth. Don’t you wave at me, you insolent little shit.
“Hey, mate,” Frankie said, his eyes narrowed beneath the brow of his beanie hat. “You got my cigarettes?”
Andrew rushed over to the group and this time felt none of the shock or anxiety that had plagued him during his earlier encounter. This time he was angry. “No, I haven’t got your goddamn cigarettes! Get the hell off my car.”
Frankie did as he was told. He slid off the bright red bonnet of Andrew’s car and then looked back behind him, admiring the vehicle. “Nice motor, mate. What is it, an SLK, yeah?”
“Yes,” said Andrew. Impatience now enveloped every word that came out of his mouth. “Just step away from it, please. It’s brand new.”
Frankie nodded his head and whistled. “You hear that everyone? Brand new Mercedes. Nice.”
“Yeah,” said a young girl beside him. Her unkind face was caked in gaudy make-up and framed by streaky-blonde hair. Her breasts were practically hanging out of her top despite the chilly weather. “Thinks he’s well bling, innit,” she said, “with his flash motor.”
Andrew stared at the girl and shook his head. “Do you know how stupid you sound, young lady?”
“Thinks his shit don’t stink,” added a Black youth, identical to the lad standing next to him. They were obviously twins, matching in both genetics and clothing–they wore the exact same blue jeans and non-descript white t-shirts.
“I don’t think anything like that,” said Andrew. “I just think you should respect other people’s property, and that pretty young girls should be home this time of night.”
Andrew didn’t know why he used the word ‘pretty’, as she was anything but. It was meant only as a placating gesture to try and stem the animosity. It seemed to do the opposite, though, and the girl scowled and spat right at him.
“Fucking Perv,” she said. “You’re a pedo, innit? A kiddie-fiddler!”
Andrew’s temper broke its bonds. “How dare you. Show some bloody respect to your elders, you spiteful brat.”
Frankie shot forward and shoved Andrew in the shoulder, jarring the plastic bag from his hand and spilling the chips all over the road. Then he poked Andrew hard in the chest, repeating the stabbing gesture with each word that came out of his mouth. “I… think… you… need… to… respect… me…”
The sudden fright flooded Andrew’s system with adrenaline, and his stomach turned over so violently that he was almost sick over the teenager’s shoes.
But he wasn’t going to allow himself to be intimidated by this hooligan again. No way in hell.
Andrew snarled. “Why the hell would I respect an idiot like you? You’re nothing but a pathetic bully trying to show off in front of his friends.”
Frankie seemed to enjoy Andrew’s reaction. He turned and looked over his shoulder at his cronies. They were all laughing, and their loose circle tightened around what they no doubt considered to be light entertainment.
“Now, now,” said Frankie in a voice so patronising it sounded like he was trying to talk to a child. “No need to get upset, mate. We’re just talking. In fact, it’s me what should be upset.”
Andrew huffed. “Why, exactly, is that?”
Frankie punched Andrew in the stomach. The sudden pain was excruciating and took away his breath so completely that it felt like he no longer had lungs. He fell to his knees, clutching at the air desperately for help.
Frankie crouched down beside him and whispered in his ear. “I asked you for a pack of cigarettes and you just mugged me off–not to mention perving at my girlfriend. I thought we understood each other, mate, but you hurt my feelings.”
Andrew couldn’t speak. The tightness in his chest and stomach seemed like it would never let up, like he’d never manage to take another breath again. Mortal panic took control of every cell in his body as he struggled to suck in even the tiniest morsel of oxygen.
Frankie straightened up and kissed his boney fist like a trophy. Then he chuckled. “Come on, gangsters,” he said to his giggling cronies. “Let’s leave this piece of shit to eat his chips up off the floor. We’ll carry this on another day. Nice trainers by the way, mate. Got to get me a pair of those.”
Andrew rolled onto his side and groaned as the youths left him. Gradually–very gradually–his breath came back to him in great heaving gasps. Part of him wished for his family to run out and comfort him, but another part–a bigger part–made the thought of them seeing him like this intolerable. He tried to get to his feet, using his palms against the floor to steady him. He was shaken and sick, but his stomach just about managed to control itself. When he looked down at the scattered chips and mashed-up cod on the floor Andrew realised he was crying. Several lonely tears crept down his cheeks and left freezing-cold trails behind them. He didn’t know if they’d been caused by pain and fear, or shame and humiliation. The fact that someone had frightened him to such a point made him pathetic. The fact that it was a child made him feel even more worthless.
He shot forward and heaved up the meagre contents of his near-empty stomach, coating the discarded chips on the floor in a hot broth of undigested coffee and biscuits he’d eaten earlier. Three minutes later, he wiped his mouth and started the long, lonely journey up the path to his house. It no longer felt like home.