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Coke can struck the bottom of the aluminium slide and cartwheeled against the playground’s metal railing. Ashley had kicked it so many times now that her big toe was numb. If things were any more boring, she might kill herself.
Maybe Iím already dead and this is Hell.
Jude was sitting on the park’s yellow-painted bench, icking a plastic coin into the air and catching it while watching her glumly. His mousy brown hair had grown long over the summer and was hanging in front of his face. “Can you stop doing that?” he asked.
“Stop doing what?”
“Kicking that can around. It’s giving me a headache.”
Ashley wound up for one last kick and blasted the can across
theplayground.Itstrucktheover owingbinnexttothegateand bounced through a gap in the railing. It felt like scoring a goal. The afternoon sun bounced o the playground’s many shiny metal surfaces and caused her to shield her eyes as she took a seat next to Jude on the bench and looked at him. “What’s up with you today?”
Ashley raised an eyebrow. “Liar. You’ve been having a
Ashley raised an eyebrow. “Liar. You’ve been having a mardy all day, barely said a word. What’s wrong?”
He laced his ngers together on the scu ed knees of his blue jeans and twiddled his thumbs. “I’m just bored. We’ve been dossing around for ve weeks straight, and it’s doing my head in. Least when my dad was around, we would go on holiday in the summer, or even just to Alton Towers.”
“You miss him? Is that why you’re down in the dumps?”
Jude shrugged. “Not really. Been too long now to give much of a shit. I’m bored, that’s all, but it makes me wonder what life would’ve been like if my dad were still around. Never thought I’d say it, but I miss school.”
Ashley got o the bench and moved in front of Jude with her hands on her hips. “I’ll never be that bored. This year is gunna suck. I’ve got Mrs Grainger for maths and science. I can’t stand that fat bitch.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, I used to have chemistry with her. Her breath stinks like shit.”
“I can’t wait to nish school so we can nally do what we want to do. Two more years and I am out of here. Roll on sixteenth birthday.”
Jude spoke in an old person’s voice. “And what do you want to be when you’re all grown up, young lady?”
She threw out an arm, wiggled it, and let the movement ow through her entire body until it ended in a fancy kick. “I wanna dance, bitch.”
Jude nodded in appreciation. “I have to admit it, you’re getting really good. Do you dance in front of the mirror in your underwear? You should lm it on your phone and send it to Britainís Got Talent.”
Ashley did a little twirl and icked another kick that missed Jude’s face by only two inches. “I’ll take your head o , you cheeky shit.” She collapsed back down on the bench. “Anyway, it’s you who’s gunna go up on Britainís Got ‘No’ Talent with all that magic crap you like. The ‘Amazing Jude’, that’s what they’ll
call you. You know girls aren’t into that shit, right? That plastic coin of yours ain’t getting any bitches wet.”
Jude shrugged. “Girls ain’t into me for a lot of reasons, so magic tricks won’t make things any worse.”
“God, you’re a proper Debbie Downer today, ain’t you? If you want to get laid, I’ll help you nd a lady. There’s gotta be a homeless crack addict around here somewhere.”
He rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Can we just get out of here, please? My ass is falling asleep.”
Ashley nodded. “Yeah, all right. Wanna go to the overpass?”
“Yeah, okay.” Jude stood up to join her and the two of them exited the playground through the swinging gate. They took the footpath and headed toward Redsow Woods, the small strip of nature reserve that separated the housing estate from the town’s golf course where Ashley’s dad used to take her as a child to hit balls. He was always too busy nowadays, but she still remembered how much she used to enjoy swinging a club. It was a good way to work through some anger.
I feel like whacking the shit out of some balls right now.
They kept to the footpath, heading alongside the woods on one side and passing around the playing elds on the other. Eventually, they made it to the overpass, where the footpath spanned a dual carriageway. A tall railing ran along both sides to keeppeoplefromthrowingthemselveso ,buttherewasenough space beneath to dangle their legs over the edge. It was some‐ thing they came to do sometimes to kill time and watch the world go by. It was one of their places.
Ashley shued onto the pavement and slid her legs under the metal barrier. She clutched the bars and pressed her face against the gap, peering at the rushing tra c below. It was a busy road, with cars driving back and forth along it constantly, even at night, even on a quiet Monday afternoon like this one.
Jude scrambled down next to her and threaded his own legs under the barrier. He looked at her and gave a thin-lipped smile.
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“Sorry, I’m in a mood today. Just got up on the wrong side. Forgive me?”
“Course, you dickhead. Want to play?”
Jude nodded. “First to ten, yeah?”
The two of them took turns gobbing at the passing cars. If
you timed it just right, you could hit the windscreens. There was nothing the drivers could do. They couldn’t stop on the carriage‐ way, and even if they could, they would have to climb a steep hill to get up onto the footpath. Ashley and Jude would be long gone by then. Sometimes, the drivers blasted their horns in anger but that only made Ashley and Jude cackle. Getting a driver to beep was worth double points.
Ashley spat a mouthful of phlegm at a passing BMW. “Ooh,” she said. “Just missed the bastard.”
Jude chuckled, then gobbed a mouthful of spit at a passing motorcyclist. He got the guy right on his bright red helmet.
“Good shot!” Ashley said, whistling. She let a line of saliva elongate and then break, almost hitting a green and white Mini.
“You’re useless,” said Jude. “I remember when you used to be a challenge. Maybe I need to get a new best friend.”
“Good luck. I’m the only person who can stand you. Oh, and your mum thinks you’re okay. How is Helen today? Drunk by breakfast?”
Jude rolled his eyes but couldn’t keep from smiling. “Shut your face, you nasty cow. She’s not that bad, and you know it. Anyway, it’s not like she’s got any other hobbies.”
Ashley pulled at her grubby, shoulder-length brown hair. “Actually, I need to ask her if she can t me in for a cut. My hair’s well minging.”
“She’s pretty busy at the moment. Everyone’s been getting ready for school.”
“Good thing I’m best friends with her son then, ain’t it?” “I’ll see what I can do.”
They sat for a while, watching the sun descend as the after‐ noon began its second half. The spitting contest turned out to be no contest at all. Jude got to ten before Ashley even got to ve. Three cars had beeped their horns after direct windscreen hits.
Jude cheered up a little, although he started plucking at his rubber bracelet, which was something he always did when he was anxious. “You okay?” she asked, nodding at the yellow band around his wrist. He was halfway through plucking it for a fourth time.
He loosened the bracelet and placed his hands back around the bars. “Just thinking. You know me.”
Ashley smiled. She’d been friends with Jude since nursery, where they had bonded over a mutual love of Lego and nger painting. Realising their bond, their mums had started arranging play dates, and they had become inseparable from then on. The problem was that they made no other friends. By the time they had started primary school they had been joined at the hip, and no di erent when they moved on to secondary. Instead of birthday parties, they went to theme parks together, or pigged outataChinesebu et.Theyspentalmosteveryafternoonafter school hanging out at one another’s houses. They were like brother and sister, which was strange seeing as Ashley wanted to fuck most lads her age.
“It’s getting chilly.” Jude rubbed at his shoulders. “Think I might head home and get something to eat.”
Ashley nodded. “Yeah, me too.”
The two of them pulled their legs back from beneath the barrier and stood up. Evening was still an hour or two away but it was time to call it a day. Five weeks into the six-week summer holidays, the nights were drawing in, which made it more accept‐ able to go home and chill in front of the TV. At summer’s start, after so long at school, it had felt like a crime to go home before ten o’clock.
They were about to get going when Jude groaned. Ashley turned to him. “What is it?”
6 IAIN ROB WRIGHT
Jude turned white as a sheet. He gave a small nod towards the other end of the overpass and Ashley saw what concerned him. She groaned too. “Oh, shit, that’s all we need. Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
The two of them started powerwalking, staring straight ahead and not speaking – trying to hide in plain sight. Lily, Ricky, and the twins were a good thirty metres behind, but it wouldn’t take them long to catch up. That would be bad news. Ricky Dalca and Lily Barnes were always bad news.
Ricky and his crew were always dossing around somewhere on the estate but usually near the school or the shopping centre. Ashley and Jude kept closer to home and managed to avoid the local troublemakers most days. Not today, it seemed.
Jude glanced sideways at her, and she could see the anxiety churning inside him. At school, on the few days when Ricky Dalca attended, he always had it in for Jude. Sometimes, Jude faked an upset tummy just so he wouldn’t have to go in and face the torture. It pissed Ashley right o .
Right fucking o.
She hated bullies, and Ricky Dalca was the absolute fucking worst. His friends, too.
“Are they following us?” Jude asked, his eyes unblinking.
Ashley dared to peek back, and what she saw made her yelp. Before she had a chance to warn Jude, Ricky rushed forward and shoved him in the back. They hadn’t even made it o of the overpass.
We shouldíve run. The bastards were never going to leave us alone. They never do.
Jude staggered and just avoided falling. He spun to face his attacker and summoned a rare display of anger. “What’s your goddamn problem, Ricky?”
Ricky was a good-looking lad, which gave Ashley mixed feel‐ ings, seeing as she hated his guts about as much as she wanted to snoghisfaceo .Ricky’sparentswereRomanian,whoAshley’sdad
said were a bunch of criminals, but he had no accent and didn’t look anydi erenttoanEnglishlad.Hewas,however,acriminal.Ifyou needed weed at school, Ricky was the lad to see. If somebody was walking around with a black eye, Ricky Dalca was usually the cause.
Ricky glared at Jude. “Youíre my problem, Judy. What ’ave I told you about being outside? I said I’d kick the shit out of you if you left your house, didn’t I!”
Jude sighed. He was trembling, but Ashley knew he was doing his best to hide it. “Sorry for needing to get some fresh air. Jesus!”
Ricky stepped up to Jude and glared right in his face. “You don’t deserve fresh air, you fucking weirdo. Your mum should make you live in the attic. Fuck, you can’t even look at me straight, you freak.”
Ricky’s friends laughed. The twins hooted in tandem. Lily cackled.
Jude took a step back. “I’m getting laser eye surgery next month, so my lazy eye can nally stop annoying you. Great news, seeing as you bring it up every time we meet. Your concern is heart-warming.”
Ashley chuckled internally. If Jude was getting laser eye surgery, he hadn’t told her about it.
Ricky scowled and lifted his shaved right eyebrow into a jagged arch. “You fucking cheeking me, mate?”
Jude shook his head and exhaled. “No, Ricky. I just don’t know why you have such a problem with me.”
Ricky appeared to think for a moment. Then he punched Jude in the stomach and laughed. “Must be yer face,” he said.
Ashley stepped in front of Jude to protect him. “Leave him the fuck alone, Ricky. Why you gotta be such a bastard?”
Ricky glared. “Why do you even hang around with this loser? Like, I would never fuck you in a million years, but you can still do better than him.”
“You reckon?” Her heart thudded against her ribs. Her sts
8 IAIN ROB WRIGHT
clenched in anger. “Because Jude has a massive dick and knows how to use it. In fact, his dick’s even bigger than Lily’s.”
Lily stepped forward. The pale, freckle-covered menace was several inches taller than Ashley, and her wild, frizzy ginger hair cascaded down to her waist like a nest of exotic snakes. She snarled at Ashley. “You fucking calling me a man?”
“Think she’s calling you a tranny, Lil,” said one of the twins, chuckling.
Ashley went to say something, realising she should try and defuse the situation, but before she got the chance, Lily spat right in her face. Ashley reeled backwards, wiping her left eye and cursing in repulsion. “You… you mental bitch.”
Jude grabbed her and pulled her back before Lily could do anything else. They tried to walk away, which was probably a smart choice, seeing as they were outnumbered and a mile from home, but Ricky grabbed Jude and shoved him up against the railing. “Where do you think you’re going, Judy?”
He hit Jude in the stomach again.
Jude doubled over and gasped. “P-Please, just leave me… leave me alone.”
Ricky straightened Jude up against the railing and shoved him back so hard that he struck his skull on the bars. “What if I don’t? What if I throw you o this bridge and put an end to your sad little life?”
Ashley wiped the last of the spit o her face and growled in defence of her friend. “I would say the railing is too high. So stop with this bullshit.”
Jude was silent. He shuddered and tried to catch his breath.
Lily and the twins cackled. “Fucking do him,” said Lily. “I reckon we can get him over the railing.”
Ashley saw the pain and fear on Jude’s face and could take no more. She threw a punch at Lily but missed, yet it was enough to send the other girl dodging back a step. When Ricky turned to see what was going on, she shoved him hard. He tripped over his own feet and crashed against the railing. The
resounding clonk of his head hitting the bars was satisfying, as was his pained tirade of curse words.
Ashley grabbed Jude and pulled him. “Move!”
The two of them took o along the overpass. The others didn’t pursue right away, waiting for Ricky to get back on his feet
rst. It bought Jude and Ashley a few seconds head start.
It had been a while since Ashley had sprinted at full pelt, and it made her realise now how much her breasts had grown. More and more lately, they got in her way, especially when she
Street dancers donít have ginormous tits. Why does my body hate me?
Jude was faster than Ashley, probably motivated by the fear of another beating, but he kept looking back and adjusting his pace. Sometimes she wished he would ght back against Ricky – throw a punch – but that just wasn’t who he was. Jude wasn’t a
Lily, Ricky, and the twins gave chase, yelling threats. Jude
and Ashley had a small lead. The problem was there was nowhere to go. The entire area was closed between Redsow Woods and the playing elds. There were no houses for half a mile.
“They’re… gunna catch… us,” said Jude, already out of breath. He clutched his ribs where Ricky had punched him. “We have to… lose them somehow.”
Ashley looked back at their pursuers. Ricky’s face was bright red. He was blowing air out of his cheeks like an angry bull. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it looked like he wanted to kill them.
Jude searched left and right. He pointed towards the woods on their left. “Let’s try to hide in the trees.”
“If they catch us in the woods, we’re fucked.”
Jude didn’t give her any choice. His panic caused him to leap into the ditch that ran alongside the path and head for the trees. The woods started with thorny bushes and spindly trees, but
10 IAIN ROB WRIGHT
things grew thicker after a few metres. Ashley and Jude often trudged through the lighter areas when they were looking for something to do, but she didn’t fancy getting cornered inside the woods. At least on the path, a passer-by might intervene on their behalf. Sometimes you could even nd the odd community policing o cer taking a stroll.
It was a bad idea entering the woods, but Ashley had no choice but to follow her friend.
Jude leapt up the other side of the ditch and dashed between the trees. Ashley hurried in behind him. The two of them dodged through some thick bushes and ducked past the remnants of an old fence.
Ricky leapt into the ditch behind them. “You two are dead,” he shouted. “I don’t like having to run.”
“I’m going to cut your fucking throats,” shouted Lily.
Ashley put a hand on Jude’s back as they dodged through the bushes. “Keep going!”
Jude dashed to his left. In the direction of the golf course, the woods would gradually thin out, but in the direction they were heading, things grew denser and more overgrown. Countless bushes, branches, and ancient trees intermingled to form a near- constant obstacle course.
“We can’t go this way,” said Ashley. “We’ll break our necks if we keep going.”
“What choice do we have? How else will we—” Jude tripped and stumbled forward, landing on his side amongst the thorny weeds. Ashley lifted him to his feet and tried to get him running again, but it was too late.
“Got you!” Ricky moved past them and planted his feet. His gang spread out around them.
Jude and Ashley back-pedalled to where the ground disap‐ peared into a massive drop that the local kids all called Devil’s Ditch. Thick bushes covered the ground all around them, but the slope was a steep drop comprising thick mud and hard stone. There was nowhere to go.
Ricky, Lily, and the twins closed in tighter like a pack of hyenas. Ricky glared at Jude, but Lily was grinning. She smirked at Ashley like a hungry serial killer. As much as people around the estate feared Ricky, Lily was the one who truly scared Ashley. The girl’s entire family was notorious for being a bunch of thugs – lunatics, really – and Lily’s dad was in prison more often than he was out. Both of her older brothers were psychos, and sometimes it seemed like Lily was determined to be even worse. While Ricky still attended school from time to time, Lily had been expelled a long time ago.
Ricky shook his head and chuckled, almost like he was admiring their spirit. “You made me run. I really hate having to run.”
Jude put his hands up. “Come on, man. Don’t do this.”
“Do what? Bury you in these fucking woods? Sorry, mate, but my mind’s already made up about that.”
Lily stepped up to Ashley, getting right in her face. “And don’t think Judy is the only one getting fucked up.” She reached into her jacket and pulled out a small length of black plastic. At
rst, Ashley didn’t know what it was, but then Lily pressed a button and a sharp blade icked out the end. With a malicious grin, she brought the blade up against Ashley’s face and pressed the at side against her cheek. “Maybe I should give you a messed-up eye like your boss-eyed boyfriend here.”
“Y-You’re not going to use that. Why would you do some‐ thing so crazy?”
A few steps back, the twins were laughing, but one of them – possibly Danny – said, “Come on, you two. Let’s leave these losers to it and go get some beers. We can grab some from our dad’s fridge. This shit ain’t worth the trouble.”
Ricky had moved closer to Jude, but he stepped back now. He looked at the twins. “For real? A’ight, let’s bounce and go get drunk. They’ll be plenty of time to beat on these losers later.”
A wave of relief washed through Ashley’s stomach. Perhaps
12 IAIN ROB WRIGHT
Ricky and his mates weren’t complete psychopaths. They’d had their fun, but enough was enough.
Lily pressed the knife harder against Ashley’s cheek. “Nah, I ain’t leaving till I see some blood.”
Ashley grunted as something bit into her cheek, and she realised Lily had turned the blade and cut her face. She hopped backwards, almost tumbling down the steep slope behind her, and ngered the wound. Her ngers came back bloody. Ashley saw red, literally and metaphorically. “You total fucking maniac. I’m gunna kill you.”
Ashley bunched her hands into sts and took a step towards Lily, which she knew was a stupid idea, seeing as Lily still held the knife, but she couldn’t stop herself. Rage seized her muscles and mind. She wanted to destroy Lily Barnes. But before Ashley got close enough to engage, Jude tackled her and knocked her backwards.
Then she was tumbling downwards.