The instant the engine spluttered silent, Paul threw himself from the passenger seat.
Don’t speak. Don’t engage. Don’t look up.
Monstrous clouds soaked up the sky, so black and harsh they could have been smoke. The stagnant air Paul breathed was near as thick with moisture, though the earth was sucked dry, two years of drought tanning the adjacent school oval brown, blades sharper than a field of thumbtacks. According to the most recent dam levels update, Wivenhoe lingered at a distressing eighteen per cent. Paul had long since gnawed his nails down to ten tiny, stinging nubs.
Don’t look up.
Parents and friends congregating in the car park peered skyward with such expectation. Several optimists even carried umbrellas. Paul threaded through them, knowing better. Heaven wouldn’t spare a drop.
He shouldn’t be here. He wouldn’t last. Not with the clouds bearing down on him. Not with the itch of his knuckles, each larger than a quail egg. His fists were solid enough to collide with brick, a truckload of angst and hard teenage muscle behind the blow, and retract un-shattered. That was fact. He’d seen for himself only two days ago. Five times in a row.
‘Paul! Hang on, love!’
Mum at last disentangled from her seatbelt.
‘You should really think about getting your learners,’ she said, gliding across the bitumen in her slip-on sandals.
Both dust-choked vehicles flanking theirs had large red Ls stuck in both windscreens.
‘How can we give you the old ute if you never get your licence?’
‘Don’t want to drive,’ Paul muttered, edging away from her.
Operating a malfunctioning machine gun under urgent orders to cease fire. That was the sorry disaster Paul likened his driving to.
‘You could change your mind,’ Mum countered cajolingly. Beneath the car park floodlights, Paul’s looming mass cast her elfin form entirely in shadow.
You could break her… You should…
Paul’s breath shuddered in his chest.
Big Bill got her pretty good…
Rain had bucketed horizontally that day, distorting the sirens. In his mind, Paul saw Mum splayed on cold tiles, shattered like a lobbed porcelain doll’s delicate face. Dad was crumpled beside her, bawling. Paul had been forced to leave his rugby club once Dad’s arrest hit the news. The managers would have no connection with the disgraced forward.
‘Lucky it wasn’t worse. And lucky it was me,’ Mum had said fervently to a newly-subdued Paul once she’d been discharged from the local hospital, ‘not you or Deano.’
You’re bigger than Bill… You could do more…
Mum reached to touch Paul’s arm fondly.
‘It’ll be hard to get around without a car, once you’re on your own.’
Paul’s giant’s hand smashed Mum’s skull into the bitumen with a nauseating crunch, splintering her nose, riddling her bleeding brain with bone shards…
Break her… Do it…
‘Don’t touch me!’ he hissed wildly. Mum’s chipped pink fingertips stilled, just brushing his T-shirt sleeve.
‘Don’t want the ute,’ Paul mumbled, despising himself. ‘Save it for Deano.’
Leaving Mum behind, Paul ducked into the auditorium, passing near the diminutive principal. He remembered her from his own elementary school years.
The principal’s forearm shattered in his grip…
Paul shook his head violently.
Don’t be so choosy… What about him…?
He slammed that cheery kid collecting gold coin donations into the wall, fists buried in each kidney…
Paul groaned, mashing his face into his palms.
The principal studied him, mildly alarmed.
‘Is something wrong?’
Paul’s fingers twitched.
‘Nothing,’ he muttered, sure he’d almost grabbed her. Evading her gaze, he escaped to an isolated seat in the second-to-back row. He’d barely hunched down when satin rustled, and chair legs scraped by his.
‘Can’t you sit someplace else?’ Paul growled as Mum arranged her skirts to sit beside him.
‘Paul, love…’ Mum began hesitantly as Paul knotted and drove his fists into his thighs, hard.
Voices meshing in child- and traffic-related banter, three mums and a grandma filed into the seats beside Mum, commanding her attention.
‘Bloody ridiculous—roadwork at six, Jenny!’ exclaimed the grandma. ‘On a Friday! We almost didn’t make it!’
One hit… That’s all it’d take…
Paul snapped that old hag’s collarbone…
He moaned as a beefy dad dropped heavily into the seat on his right.
Paul’s fists pummelled relentlessly into his bloated gut…
How long can we last like this…? Stop being selfish…
‘No,’ Paul whispered as the principal stepped under spotlight in the darkened hall, audience hushing compliantly.
Yanking a scratched MP3 player from his pocket as they were welcomed to the end-of-year performance, Paul muffled the principal with his soundproofing earbuds, turning up the volume. Satisfied, he tucked his chin into his chest, and closed his eyes.
You can’t ignore it forever…
But there was no blood. No pain.
Paul began to unwind, near-permanent state of distress waning.
Clueless as to what passed onstage, Paul coped well until the intermission. The vibrations of hundreds of unseen soles scuffling to buy drinks and queue outside the bathrooms were hard to endure.
Anyone… Choose anyone…
Paul stayed glued to his seat. He nearly sprang, a startled predator, when a petite hand brushed his shoulder. Overwound and near snapping point, Paul snatched the water Mum offered, gulping down half the bottle as his heart galloped.
Settling down as the lights dimmed once more, Paul was half asleep when Mum prodded him gently. He groggily opened his eyes. Red curtains were closing.
‘No, grade three’s next. Deano will be looking out for us. It’ll upset him if you’re not watching.’
‘Can’t watch,’ Paul protested as Mum pulled out his earbuds.
‘You never talk to him anymore,’ Mum whispered as the curtains re-opened on scraggly lines of eight-year-olds in rat ears and whiskers. ‘I know you’re still having a rough time with Dad and all…’
‘But how’s he meant to take it when you leave every time he enters a room?’
Onstage, Deano sported a magnificent handlebar moustache, presiding over the townsfolk as mayor. He’d probably been cast due to his bulk. Paul had been chubby at eight, too.
Little worshipful Deano… He’d more than do…
Paul’s hands were at his brother’s throat, slowly squeezing, strangling…
‘Mum…’ he breathed, petrified.
Unwillingly, Paul watched Deano hire a spritely piper girl in coloured tights to lure the rats away.
There’s suffering all over… You can ease it… Break him…
Deano refused to pay up in the next scene, crossing his arms pompously across his chest. The finale saw him weeping noisily as the tiny classmate playing his son danced away to a lively, pre-recorded tune.
Imagine if you killed him… That would fix everything…
‘No!’ Paul frantically denied as proud applause swept through the auditorium. Mum nudged him, and he mechanically brought his trembling hands together.
Deano found his family quickly amid the hubbub outside. Nothing but a burning lighthouse on a night-shrouded hill would stand out more than Paul.
‘Deano! You were fantastic, love!’
Mum flung her arms about her younger son, hugging enthusiastically.
‘How was I?’ Deano looked to his brother, scratching beneath his itchy moustache before pulling it off. ‘Paul?’
‘You were… great,’ Paul managed to say. ‘Just great.’
Alight with glee, Deano lunged, fastening his loving arms around Paul’s middle.
Unstoppable headlights glared.
Snap his neck…! Use those gruesomely engorged fingers and kill him…!
‘Deano…’ Paul choked, fighting for control. ‘That’s enough…’
But Deano wouldn’t let go, burrowing his grinning face into Paul’s chest.
KILL HIM NOW!
With a wild cry, Paul violently shoved his brother away. Surprised, Deano nearly hit the concrete, Mum just managing to snag him before he toppled. Deano sniffled, skinny lips rippling with heartbreaking hurt.
‘Paul, what the hell?!’
But Paul hurtled drunkenly to the side, heedless of Mum’s exclamation. Every scrap of his impressive weight and power summoned, Paul hurled himself into the auditorium’s solid stonework wall, elbow first.
The hideous crunch split the festive atmosphere. Paul howled. Savagely, he gritted his teeth, forcing his anguish behind them.
Mum rushed forward, aghast, as Paul slumped down the wall. Tears stoppered by shock, Deano trailed after her.
‘Paul… oh, love, why would you…? All right, come on.’
Mum swiftly gathered her wits.
‘Let’s get you out of here.’
Every witness stared, shaken by the violent conclusion to the night’s events. So enthralled by his pained gasps as a pair of burly fathers gingerly raised Big Bill’s son to his feet, it took the first thunderous rumble and a few excited children’s cries of “it’s raining!” for onlookers to notice they were already drenched.
It’ll do for now… But it won’t be long before you’ll have to break another one…
Rain pelted from heaven, drops larger than bombshells. Beneath the deafening tumult that hammered the car roof, Paul gulped brokenly as Mum snapped the wipers on full-blast, and sped out onto the road.
Next time, don’t wuss out… Deano might’ve bought even more than your mum did… He’s worth a La Niña, to you…