Chapter One: TINDER
The bedroom was empty, the sunlight of the late autumn
afternoon a pale wash across the crazy-paving pattern
of the duvet. A bookshelf stood next to the bed, cluttered
with comics, graphic novels, markers, sable brushes, jars
full of dirty water, and other assorted odds and ends.
The walls and ceiling were black,
but they were painted with a variety of bright cartoons,
all following the same motif: clocks. Grandfather clocks,
alarm clocks (digital and analog), watches, cuckoo clocks,
and more. Some had faces, some were melting in the style
of Dalí, and some were blank, with no hands or
numerals. Some smiled, some leered, some had teeth,
some winked. They floated in a starfield, and a few of
them had been captured as they drifted behind another,
giving the paintings a curious three-dimensional perspective.
On the wall above the bed hung
a clay effigy of a tribal wolf-mask, its flat snout
snarling emptily. A wardrobe and a chest of drawers
leaned against the other wall, groaning under the weight
of the junk that had accumulated on top of them. In
the center of the room was a mobile of little wooden
baby angels painted brightly with cutesy faces beaming,
or with their expressions scrunched up with the effort
of blowing their tiny horns. A poster of Larisa Oleynik
as Alex Mack was positioned in pride of place opposite
the window. A stereo system rested on the floor beside
an untidy stack of CDs.
The room was silent.
Then, dimly, there was the sound
of a key rattling in a lock downstairs. The latch thudded
back, and the front door opened, whining on its hinges.
There was a slam as it was closed behind the newcomer,
then the sound of footsteps hurrying up the stairs.
The door to the bedroom was flung open, and a boy of
about sixteen entered, ignoring the "BIOHAZARD" warning
sign on the outside. He threw the door closed behind
him and slumped down heavily on the edge of the red-and-white
bedspread, his head in his hands, breathing hard.
It was a small, thin figure
that sat there for a long while, unmoving. His baggy
jeans were scuffed and flecked with bright paint. He
wore a heavy-knit black sweater that dwarfed his bony
shoulders, and a blue T-shirt beneath. His brown hair
stuck out everywhere, an uncontrollable ragtag mop.
"SHIT!" he screamed suddenly,
his voice sounding raaw and high. He sprang off his
bed and kicked his chest of drawers hard, sending rolled-up
drawings and badges toppling off the edge. Unsatisfied,
he laid into it viciously, planting the sole of his
battered Converse on it again and again. Next he turned
his wrath on the blank face of his wardrobe. He swung
a punch into it, his fist driven by a desperate need
to hit something, anything, to vent the frustration
that seared through his veins.
The pain brought him back to
his senses. He near broke his knuckles with that first
punch, so just to spite himself he threw another one
with the same hand. At the last moment, he couldn't
help pulling the force out of it. His body was instinctively
trying to stop him from harming himself. But it still
connected, hard, and the blaze of agony that exploded
in his hand almost made him pass out.
His good hand clamped around
his wrist, he sat back down on the bed, his teeth clenched
while he fought back the urge to cry, ashamed of the
tears that pricked at his eyes. The pain in his hand
eventually began to subside; the turmoil in his head
It had been one of those
days. God, it was so humiliating. One of those
days when he couldn't look anyone in the eye, when he
had walked along the road to his house with his attention
fixed firmly on the ground in front of his feet, shuffling
meekly along so as not to draw attention to himself.
He had been doing alright all
day. And then just on the last stretch, the walk home
from the shops, it had all come crashing down on him.
He had seen a tall guy with a skinhead wearing tight
black jeans and cherry-red Doc Martens, walking along
the other side of the road. Mildly interested, he was
looking over at him when the guy turned round and met
his eye. He had experienced a sudden, unpleasant thrill
at being caught staring, and turned his eyes away.
But a moment later, the skinhead
had whistled at him, a short, sharp wheep through
pursed lips. He looked back, feeling a terrified nausea
creep into his belly, and the skinhead had flicked him
the finger, saying: "You wanna photo, mate? Last longer."
He felt it sweep over him like
a cloak. Hot blood flushed into his cheeks, prickling
heat across his face and the nape of his neck. His throat
tightened at the sides, his heart began to pound, he
was sweating, he felt sick. He turned away from the
skinhead, looking down, wishing he could disappear.
The skinhead didn't hassle him anymore. But the damage
The remainder of the journey
was a nightmare. Everyone on the street seemed to be
looking at him. It was as if his affliction marked him
out, making everyone stare at him. Like some kind of
freak. He was conscious of walking fast, but he couldn't
help it. He had to get off the street, away from the
piercing glares of the passersby.
When he had finally gained the
safety of his house, self-disgust had flooded through
him. Why? Why so afraid?
Afraid? No. Shy.
He snorted, smiling bitterly.
A sweet word. When people thought of shy, it was always
kind of cute. Nice. Coy girls in floral dresses, wide-eyed
cartoon squirrels. Not a crippling, awful sensation
that made your tongue too thick to speak and locked
up your brain. But that was what it meant to him. And
it unmanned him, made him pathetic and weak and ashamed.
Trembling, he got up and walked
unsteadily to the drawers that he had battered seconds
earlier. The clocks swam around him in the starfield
on the walls. With his good hand, he brought out a box
of Swan Vesta matches. Crossing the room, he closed
the thick blue curtains, shutting out the dull light,
plunging himself into darkness.
He sat back down on his bed
and pulled out a match. Slowly, speeding up as he got
to the end, he drew it along the sandpaper. It sparked
first try, flaring white as the phosphorous head caught,
then settling to a steady yellow flame. He watched it,
fascinated. Shadows flickered deep on his face in the
light of the match. The heat of it was comfort to him.
He stared into the heart of the flame, and felt some
of the frustration drain out of him. There was peace
there, at least.
He let the match burn down,
only blowing it out when the pain in his fingertips
became too much to bear. He sat there in the darkness
for a while, feeling better. Flame was such a calming
thing. Just a little match, and he felt okay again.
It was enough. For now.