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Short Story Competition: Shame Leaves a Mark

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Callum looked at the key in his open hand. The metal loop used for accessorising was still attached, but the bunch it had been pulled from in his sister’s bag was no less heavy without it.

‘I won’t be back until late tonight, microwave something and don’t buy crap on the way home.’ Their parents had been gone less than a day and she had started to nag him in the same tone that her own mother used when badgering her about her upcoming exams, or when her school skirt came home full of hay.

‘But mam said for us to come home together and phone for pizza.’ But she was already half way across the street heading towards Andy’s Clio.

‘There’s a frozen one in the freezer, don’t burn yourself!’ Callum tried not to watch as Andy poked his head out of a tinted window to plant one on his sister. He disliked everything about Andy, from the ever-thumping bass of his tricked out Clio, to the cigarettes he smoked with a picture of a stallion on the pack, which made his sister smell musky and stale when she came home late.

He dragged his feet on the way to school. From what he could tell about the secret meetings held in his sister’s room, his parents didn’t like Andy either. The meetings were always discreet, but on the occasions when tempers did flare, he could always make out the same commentary; ‘What’s wrong with the boys your own age?’ - That’s his mother’s favourite. ‘You’ve got your whole life ahead of you!’ – Being another classic.

Today he wished Andy’s smelly cigarettes and returning to an empty house after school were his only concerns. Gripping his new key through his school trousers he picked up the pace, but only a little. He was in no hurry to fight.

An extensive group of boys, along with some of the more curious girls, were waiting for him outside the corner shop opposite the school entrance. Andy’s Clio had beaten him there. His sister hopped out of the car, adjusting her skirt with both hands. He thought about calling out to her as a way of avoiding the gang, but she merged with some girls from her class and disappeared. The Clio disappeared too, although he didn’t imagine Andy would spare much of a thought for him taking a beating. His sister was only four years older than him, but he envied the way the kids her age had found their place. The school year was only a few months old, and the throng of eleven-year-old boys in his class were still fighting for supremacy. Callum had floated between all of the cliques, and had so far avoided forming enemies. That is until yesterday lunchtime, when he had sent a right-footed volley wide of the rucksack goalposts, and into the face of Ricky, one of the more popular boys with something to prove.

He exhaled and shuffled forward towards Ricky and his supporters outside the corner shop. He gripped the key through his pocket once more and thought about threading one of his fingers through the loop to create a weapon. Maybe he’d get lucky with a sucker punch from a makeshift knuckle-duster, and put Ricky down before the fight could gain momentum. His hand unclenched with the key still in his pocket. Best not to risk his parents getting a phone call on holiday to tell them their son has blinded a schoolmate. It would be easier to take a beating in the long run.

‘Didn’t think you had the balls to show.’ Ricky announced from the crowd. A circle formed naturally around the two boys - an innate crowding trait common to children and ants.

‘You know it was an accident, Ricky.’ The words were futile; Ricky had drawn blood on the school ground thanks to a ball that had last touched his foot. There was no coming back from that.

‘Well now you can watch me accidentally beat your face in.’ Ricky stepped forward, fists raised. Chants of ‘hit him!’ and ‘yeah, fuck ‘im up!’ arose in response to Ricky’s posturing. Callum lifted his fists too, he was no fighter, but he refused to cower and piss himself like a boy had done the last time a circle was formed. He’s seen enough fights to know that bruises fade, but shame; that leaves a mark.

Ricky found the bottle for a tentative first jab. He made contact with the forearm covering Callum’s left cheek. It stung all the same. ‘Come on, fight back you gay!’ - Came from the back of the circle.That stung too, but not enough to provoke Callum into opening himself up with a rushed attack. The next swing hit Callum’s left temple and his knees wobbled. The pain made the fight real. His shaky knees sent him stumbling into the circumference of surrounding school kids. They buffered him back into the arena with force, and Callum found himself crashing into his opponent. Ricky dropped his hands in shock at the unexpected charge, and Callum’s bowed head collided with his jaw. When Callum’s eyes opened he was standing over a stunned Ricky. Capitalising on his unexpected advantage he brought his fist down hard into Ricky’s stomach, knocking even more wind out of the little shit. Cheering rang out, but soon the school buzzer for morning class sent the circle scattering. A few boys helped Ricky to his knees and Callum scampered away. Victory was never really an option, all he had done was swap his morning punch up for a lunchtime beat down, and this time Ricky would have backup.

That morning was a long one for Callum, but lunchtime came all too soon. Once out in the school grounds Callum searched for a spot to hide, but Ricky’s spies spotted him before he could think of running. He stood waiting for the bruises to come after all, as Ricky and three other boys advanced on him.

‘Good fight.’ An outstretched hand came with the compliment.

‘Really?’ He stuttered in response to Ricky’s hand.

‘Yeah, you fronted up and stood your ground. Didn’t flop like a poof.’ Callum accepted the handshake, half waiting for an ambush.

‘I’m not a poof.’ He added when none came.

‘Yeah, we know that now. See you in English.’ Ricky left with the members of his crew still loyal after the morning’s defeat.

The rest of Callum’s day was more than pleasant: he’d gained the respect of one of the cooler kids in his year, and a delicious rumour had spread that he had won the morning bout thanks to a well-timed roundhouse kick. The only person not on his side was his sister, who suggested that his newfound group of friends were not the kind he should be hanging around with. He ignored her, still angry that she’d be off with Andy when he was home alone later that night. What did she know about the boys in his year anyway?

When the buzzer sounded again for the end of school, Ricky and his buddies called Callum over before he could reach the gates.

‘Hey, we’re heading over to the old barn across the dual carriageway to smash shit up and smoke a few of these.’ Ricky held out a pack of cigarettes printed with the same stallion responsible for stinking out his sister’s clothes. ‘You coming?’ His gut reaction was to shake his head and return home to his frozen pizza, but a little adventure with some new friends seemed like a better way to cement his popularity.

After crossing the dual carriageway in the most dangerous spot available, they trekked across farmland towards the old barn. Not being the reckless sort, the crossing had already provided enough adventure for Callum, but keen to impress his new comrades he pulled off his tie and marched along with them. The land was vast, with the only sound coming from the whirring din of the duel carriageway. Callum didn’t relish crossing back on the return journey, but the barn up ahead was no more inviting.

‘Have you been here before?’ He asked in a deeper voice than usual, designed to mask his nerves.

‘No, but my brother says he comes here all the time,’ Ricky offered the cigarettes around mid-sentence; only Callum declined. ‘He doesn’t shut up about the place.’ One of the boys coughed into his palm at this.

Callum was impressed with the way Ricky had taken his defeat. Not only had he forfeited revenge, but he had welcomed Callum as one of his own. He felt ashamed for once categorising Ricky as one of the bad guys, a schoolyard thug marking his territory before the other boys had a growth spurt and challenged his authority. The boys hushed up as they arrived at the barn. Callum needed no explanation; he had heard plenty of stories about druggies using places like these to bed down. Ricky grabbed an empty milk crate and placed it against the side of the barn just below one of the windows.

‘There you go.’ It took Callum a while to realise they were waiting for him.

‘What, why me?’

‘Well someone needs to check if the coast’s clear, we can’t just walk in if its full of junkies.’ Callum remained where he was, unsure why he had been chosen to put his neck on the line. ‘Come on,’ Ricky offered in response to his hesitation, ‘you showed us how hard you are this morning, this should be a piece of piss for a nutter like you.’ Callum quite enjoyed being called a nutter, and imagined he could probably outrun a few druggies even if he did get spotted.

‘Ok, yeah, give us a lift.’ They nudged him onto the crate, bringing his nose level to the window, just high enough to peer through on tiptoes. The glass was milky. Only shapes were visible through the marred window. Soon something stirred in the old barn. A form moved in a slow fluid motion that at first seemed like a trick of the light. But as his vision adapted to the milky film in front of him, he managed to trace a rough outline of the shape. It seemed to be salmon coloured. A groan came from inside and Callum focused his eyes. He was captivated by the exotic figure. The salmon smudge shifted its weight. Its movements were strangely sporadic, but Callum noticed a definite rhythm. The rhythmic form was like nothing he had ever seen before, making him wonder if they had found some kind of deformed animal. The constant shifting and groaning provoked only more intrigue in Callum. In the corner of his eye he found a crack in the milky glass. Shifting his body along, still on tiptoes, he closed his left eye and pressed a bruised temple courtesy of the morning’s fight against the glass.  His eye found the opening and the true form of the salmon shape was revealed. In reality the shape was comprised of two entities, both entwined to make up the rhythmic motion Callum had glimpsed through the glass. The two bodies shuddered and meshed in the centre of the barn, cushioned by the padding of a rotting haystack, on top of which the school skirt belonging to his sister had been tossed.

The boys behind him had already begun to snigger. But Callum was unaware; he was too busy searching his trouser pocket. He slipped a shaking finger through the cold loop attached to his sister’s key. Bruises would be too good for Ricky, this time he would have to leave a mark.

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This is an entry to The National Student's short story competition. The text has been edited for grammar and punctuation only. 

The National Student's short story competition is in association with the Home Entertainment release of Mistress America. Mistress America is available on Digital HD in the UK on 7th December, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Watch the trailer below: 

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