'Don’t ask too many questions'
That was the principle Aloysius Fletcher had been expected to live by all his life-in fact, that was the principle everyone at the Shanty was expected to live by, really-but Aloysius especially.
‘Children should be seen; not heard’ his mother had told him when he was five years old, twisting his ear to get the message through. And not lightly either-she twisted his left ear to such an extent that it had turned a bright pink and stayed that way for several days afterward.
After that incident, Aloysius’s questions became sparse, not because he found them unnecessary, but because it hurt to be slapped or pinched. Of course, he did slip up every now and then, like the one time his father had guests over and he said, ‘What are ally-mentalists?’
The adults had been talking for a while, and the word “ally-mentalists” (that’s what it had sounded like to him) had been mentioned several times.
‘Never you mind, boy!’ his father had admonished, a scowl already forming on his face.
‘What a curious young thing’ Mrs. Orson-who had come over with her brother to share a cake she had made and gossip about everyone in the neighbourhood-said, her distaste evident on her face.
Aloysius’s father had said nothing at the time, and faked a smile, but later, after the guests had left, he had struck his son. The red streak had remained on Aloysius’s cheek long enough to remind him of what happened when he questioned too much.
As a result, Aloysius had shut up for good, speaking only when he was spoken to; doing as he was bid. By the time he turned thirteen, he was a good child to his parents, cleaning the house and helping with the cooking. He was also good with numbers, and, though his parents told him repeatedly that that was a useless skill to have, it was Aloysius who tallied up all their accounts at the end of every month.
There wasn’t much to do in the Shanty-the name of the locality in which he lived; it was a barren, dusty place which would remind one of a wasteland if it wasn’t for the dozens of houses every few meters.
As a boy, he made no friends in the neighbourhood. Of course, there were a few boys and girls who were around his age in the Shanty, but Aloysius didn’t get along with any of them. He found Eric Prior from the next house too dumb, and felt that Emmeline Storm from just down the road whined too much.
So, instead of running around outside and teasing each other like all the other kids, Aloysius spent his time reading.
Now books were not very common in the Shanty. In fact, the few books Aloysius owned, he had found in the attic of his house; perhaps they had belonged to the previous owners. He hadn’t told his parents about the books, and only ever dared to read them when they weren’t home. At other times, they were stowed away under a loose floorboard in his bedroom.
Aloysius found the books fascinating-he always envied the heroes of the stories and wished that he could be like them. But Aloysius wasn’t tall and dashing and strong. He was just the opposite in fact: short for his age, and scrawny and pale from sitting indoors all day.
He wasn’t clever either, or at least that’s what his parents told him frequently, jeering at him and calling him a dunce.
But despite all this, he was determined to make something of his life. He did not want to end up like his father: pot-bellied and usually drunk, sitting around and watching reruns on the old black-and-white television all day, or his mother: the biggest gossip in the Shanty, rivalled only by their neighbour, Mrs. Orson.
He made the mistake of saying this aloud once, in front of a couple of the neighbourhood children, whom he had been forced to meet when his parents had shooed him out of the house for the day. They had laughed at him and told him to get a grip on himself.
‘You?’ Nancy Colt-a plump twelve-year-old-had said, sounding like she was holding back laughter, ’You have as much chance leaving the Shanty as my grand mamma does, and she’s paralysed!’
Eric Prior hooted with laughter. ‘The little wimp wants to make something of himself. What a joke!’
‘There is nowhere we can go anyway’ little Ned Longhorn had mumbled.
So Aloysius added his ambitions to the long list of things he shouldn’t talk about. As for what Ned had said, Aloysius knew that he was mistaken. The Shanty wasn’t the only place in the world … it couldn’t be.
In any case, as time passed, Aloysius started to wonder if maybe everyone was right after all; that maybe things would never change and they were all destined to live and die in the Shanty. And then, one hot afternoon in July, a few days after his thirteenth birthday, odd things began to happen.
The day begun as routinely as any other day: Aloysius was shaken awake at five in the morning, following which he bathed and readied himself briskly. His first task that morning was to chop onions, tomatoes and capsicums; there were no carrots, for the market prices had skyrocketed, Mrs. Orson had complained when she last visited.
After that, he had fetched water from the sole well in the Shanty, which was a mile and a half away from his home. There had been a few more odd jobs remaining to be done around the house before his mother had sent him out to go and play with the neighbourhood brats (that’s what Aloysius called them in his head)
By eleven o’clock, he was itching to go back indoors and retire to his tiny bedroom with a book, but he knew his mother would be furious that he wasn’t even trying to make friends. He was something of an outcast as it was, and his parents were always grumbling about how it ruined their reputation. As though anyone had much of a reputation in the Shanty.
‘Why the long face, Fletcher?’ Eric Prior asked when Aloysius when he refused to take part in a game of hopscotch.
Aloysius shrugged, throwing a longing glance at his tiny house, which was just down the street.
‘Mumsy’s boy wants to go home, eh?’ teased Mick Beverly; he was big-built and flabby (though he claimed it was all muscle), and his front teeth that stuck out of his mouth like a rabbit’s. Numerous pimples dotted his face; you could see a bit of pus oozing out of them if he stepped too close to you-as he often did when he threatened Aloysius.
One thing Aloysius was not was a coward, despite the fact that everyone seemed to pick on him. ‘Take that back!’ he cried.
‘Oh, really, watcha gonna do if I don’t?’ Mick challenged, his lips curving into a sinister smile.
‘I-’ Aloysius wasn’t sure what to say; after all, it wasn’t like he actually could do anything to the bigger boy.
Mick only grinned wider, and continued to approach him, making Aloysius wish that he had just returned home, yelling mother or no. He was wondering what to do next when Mick punched his jaw.
‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’ the other kids began to chant, though everyone knew how unfair it was; barbarians the whole lot of them, Aloysius thought.
‘Come on wuss!’ Mick taunted, as Aloysius wiped a trickle of blood from the corner of his lips using his shirt.
‘Go away!’ he said, staggering backward; maybe he could make it to his house, he thought, before realizing that his path was blocked by a small band of boys and girls. They wouldn’t let him through, he knew.
‘Thinking of running away?’ Mick guessed in a moment of unusual brilliance for him. He then raised his arm to deliver another blow, and Aloysius could only close his eyes and wait for it, trying to think up an excuse to give to his parents this time for his injuries.
A moment later, he felt a vibrating sensation surge through him-but, unexpectedly, it wasn’t painful at all. His eyes fluttered open, and there in front of him he saw Mick, fist still raised, ready to pummel him, but he had stopped, only inches away from Aloysius.
‘What the-?’ the bully said, looking confused.
And the Aloysius saw it: the vines which had wrapped themselves around Mick’s legs. They were creeping upward slowly, pulling him to the ground. He seemed to be struggling to shake himself loose, but it clearly wasn’t working.
‘What did you do?’ yelled Mick to Aloysius, as though he had caused it.
‘I-I don’t know’ Aloysius retorted honestly, his eyes wide as he stared at the vines, which had, by now, reached Mick’s waist.
‘Get them off me!’
Several of his friends had jumped forward to try and detangle him, but to no avail. The vines stayed where they were. Aloysius only stared with some sort of perverse satisfaction as the roots climbed higher; there hadn’t been any form of vegetation in the Shanty for a long time. Aloysius found it ironic that the first sign of greenery in years should be found on Mick’s body, trying to strangle him.
Yet … I caused this, said a nagging voice at the back of Aloysius’ head.
As though he knew what Aloysius had been thinking, ‘You did this!’ Mick yelled at him.
Aloysius didn’t reply. He didn’t trust himself to say anything. Instead, with one last glance at Mick-whose face had by now turned purple-he spun around and raced towards his house; nobody tried to stop him now.