The whole world had rusted like a child’s bike, forgotten against a gate, left to the element’s mercy. Leaves like copper shavings fell in handfuls. The air felt like ice in your lungs and tasted metallic as it went in. You didn’t breath that air. You drank it in. You felt it buzz in your bloodstream for hours afterwards.
I was ten years old.
And I was running.
Toby Harris’ broken God.
These three thoughts skipped and jumped in my mind like a broken record.
It had been an iconic day in my childhood to say the least. It had left my mind condensed with emotional, evoking thought.
As I ran I reminisced.
With burning eyes and lungs, I recalled how it had begun.
* * * * *
Arlene Fortier maintained that she had taken the death of her younger sister very well. This was mainly due to her hardly ever seeing her. However, this minor detail didn't stop the tap on her shoulder as she left her sister's funeral.
That damn dooming tap.
When she turned she was faced with a solemn-looking man in a solemn-looking suit. Clutching to said suit was a scraggly looking child with wild hair and staring eyes.
A niece. How thoroughly unexpected.
One hushed conversation later, Arlene, much to her annoyance, found herself my legal guardian. As did her husband, Samuel. And even then, though I couldn’t have been a day over six as Arlene dragged me away from the church with a harshness I would come to know so well, the idea began to form.
Samuel and Arlene considered their marriage a machine. They knew they were merely cogs in a far more complex situation. The marriage was completely devoid of any romance, which suited them both well enough.
Samuel had grey hair, dark eyes that glinted pleasantly and hollow cheeks. He was in his early fifties, older than his wife by a decade, and nicer than her by a mile.
Arlene was an unnatural auburn, with squinting brown eyes that glared at everyone and everything over her cat-eye glasses. She never tried to hide the fact she hated me. Samuel, in turn, made it clear I was loved whenever he could. As impossible as it seemed, my presence divided the two even more so.
As I grew, it was evident I was the image of my mother. I had her dirty blonde curls, her mole-peppered, sallow skin, her wide hazel eyes. Whoever my father had been, he hadn’t left any trace of himself in me. Whenever people asked, Arlene simply said he had died in the war. She never had to say which war. It was a common enough story back then to be believable, and save me the shame of being illegitimate.
I grew to be a strange child. Everywhere I went I carried a moth-eaten hardback edition of the dictionary. I intended to learn the whole thing off by heart.
I never got to.
As I grew, so too did my idea. It bubbled in the back of my mind, always there. As I grew, it morphed itself into a plan, a childish contrivance that despite its clumsiness gave me much-needed hope.
I never told a soul.
Well, just the one soul.
Toby Harris was my best and only friend. He was a skinny boy, my age, with a face full of freckles and a mouth full of crooked teeth. His ears were far too large for him, and his smile was lopsided and clumsy. Toby, first and foremost, was a passionate astronomer.
He lived with his overtly religious aunt Cassie in a big grey house at the end of my street. His parents had died when he was five. One of war, the other of the heartache. Our friendship was mostly formed around a shared tragedy neither of us really understood. But the adults understood enough to look upon us both with a pity overridden by their animosity. Toby and I were not liked one bit.
Toby’s tendency to climb roofs (anyone’s roofs) in order to see the stars was enough to earn him broken limbs on two occasions and the contempt of our towns elders. If my association with Toby wasn’t enough as well as the rumours of illegitimacy, my appearance confirmed the adults’ opinion of me.
At the time I considered myself somewhat of a philosopher. I figured philosophy and wiseness were things more often than not born of tragedy or gained by introspection. The tragedy I had to begin with, the introspection I practised daily. The other children in the town came to me for advice on all subjects, which I gave enthusiastically. The only compensation I asked for in return for such life -alternating revelations was a ribbon.
A ribbon is a thing easily swiped from a sewing kit by small hands. I didn’t mind the looks my peers gave me as they handed over the ribbons. I didn’t even mind if they came more so for a source of comedy than advice. I loved ribbons and thought it important to have at least one defining trait if I were to succeed in the world. I wore them in my hair, and when my hair was full I wore them on my arms and ankles. Ribbons of all colours and patterns. I was quite the spectacle.
The adults had a favourite word for me.
Which in their eyes was no different from a troublemaker.
* * * * *
The previously mentioned idea was the scheme of my grand escape.
I was sick of the blatant hatred from Arlene, and the stares of the adults. As is only natural for a child , I wished desperately for somewhere I felt I could belong. I told Toby that I was going to leave as soon as I could, travel the world, and make a living as a philosopher.
Toby said there was no business in philosophy. I was better to set up a ribbon-selling business, since I had so many, and to be a philosopher part time.
This seemed like a foolproof plan. I just needed enough ribbons.
By autumn that year I had plenty.
And so I prepared to leave.
I woke early in order to sneak out without notice. There were no house alarms in those days, not in our little town at least, and thankfully no squeaking doors. Packing only my dictionary and ribbons in an old rucksack, I headed down the street to Toby’s house to say my goodbyes.
I met Toby at his front door and was promptly ushered inside. In a very proud, ten-year-old fashion I was shown into the living room, the walls of which were covered in framed pictures of God and his son. Toby felt the need to explain each one to me. Truth be told, I think he just buying time. He didn’t want me to go.
It was when Toby decided to get onto a stool to properly show off the largest picture of God the living room had to offer that disaster struck. He lost his balance and fell against the picture, dragging it back to the earth with him.
There was an awful, lingering crash. When I could bear to open my eyes again there was Toby, sitting dazed and nicked amongst a torn and shattered God.
He looked up at me as there was a rustling upstairs.
His fear was evident in the quietness of his voice.
“I’d leave now, if I were you”
* * * * *
I ran from that house faster than I’d ever run before.
My heart ached for Toby and his inevitable fate. As I ran, I contemplated who would be angrier, Aunt Cassie or God.
Both were intimidating in their omnipotence.
I kept on running. Heading to the river.
My knowledge of the area outside of my town was limited to say the least. However, I’d heard it said on more than one occasion that if you followed the river you’d eventually make it to the city. As I reached the banks I failed to notice just how muddy they were. With a yell I slipped, and found myself sliding towards the water. I rolled away and regained my balance, losing my rucksack in the process. I watched aghast as its contents tumbled into the river. My ribbons floated. My dictionary immediately sank.
I watched the words drown.
And suddenly, despite Arlene, despite the adults and the teasing, I was overcome with the most childlike and innocent of desires.
To go home.
I ran there.
* * * * *
Samuel was sitting on the porch when I arrived. He had a smile waiting for me.
I think he knew. I think he understood.
I fell into his arms and shut my eyes.
Though it hadn’t quite gone to plan, I felt very deeply then, and still do, that I managed to escape something that day.
The feeling made me smile back then.
You know, it still does.