At the first sign of sunlight, I was awake. My eyes stung with fatigue, having hardly slept a wink. The deep rumbling snores coming from my parent's room were enough to tell me that Dad was still here. That meant that Mom was somewhat stable or so I hoped.
After throwing back my sheets and dangling my legs out of bed, I sat up, rubbing my eyes. Tomorrow was Saturday. I just had to get through today and then I could hang out with Jaxton.
He was the one friend I had besides Mrs. Bennett. Jax was home-schooled and our dads were mutual friends. It was during the illegal fight when we first met at the cage. That was the name of the underground club where all the shady dealings took place.
It took me no time at all to shower and change, not wanting to spend a moment longer in the grubby bathroom. Brown scorch marks stained the edge of the tub from where Mom would prepare her next fix. I could still smell it faintly in the air, even after I opened the window to let out the steam.
The house was calm when I crept down the stairs. Cigarette smoke curled through the kitchen doorway in soft wisps. I peeped through and saw Mom sitting at the small wooden table, that was littered with crushed beer cans. She flicked her cigarette ash in one of the empty cans, using it as an ashtray.
"Morning," I acknowledged her sitting there. She groaned in response, scrubbing a hand over her pallid face.
Her brown eyes were heavy, sunken and gaunt. I had seen pictures of her in her younger years, long before she met Dad and had me. She used to be beautiful. She had long brown hair with bouncy curls. Her cheeks used to be full with dimples on either side of her full lips. Her teeth weren't blackened and her bones weren't protruding through her skin like sticks beneath rags. The drugs that Mom pumped into her veins had robbed her of vitality. She looked back at me with empty eyes, her fingers trembling as she brought her cigarette back up to her lips.
"You're going to school early today, what gives?" She asked, with vague curiosity. Her face was momentarily distorted under a cloud full of exhaled smoke.
I could sense what her problem was. She was all out of gear and she was hoping to catch me early, so she could try and persuade me to go get her some. It was more than my life was worth. Dad would tan my hide if he caught me doing that.
"I didn't do my homework, so I have to make up for it," I shrugged, coming up with an excuse, not wanting to tell her about Mrs. Bennett looking out for me.
"I already told you." Mom narrowed her eyes as her tone turned sour. "Schoolwork should be done at school."
"I know Mom," I added quickly, "but my teacher asked if everything was alright at home."
Mom's cursing caused me to recoil, scared that it'd wake up Dad. "Fuck, Kian, what did you tell her?"
"I didn't say anything, I ran home. I heard you and Dad fighting so I stayed and ate dinner with Mrs. B, next door," I told the truth, hoping to placate her.
Mom huffed, agitated as if stressed. "So that's who called last night," she muttered under her breath.
Dad's heavy footsteps thundered down the stairs, then he entered the kitchen, brushing past me on his way over to the fridge. "Problem?" He asked in his gruff tone.
"No," Mom spoke with a sigh. "Just school, poking their noses into our business."
Dad dragged a can of beer from the shelf, then let the door fall shut. Using one finger, he cracked the ring pull, which then made a hissing sound as the gasses were released.
"It's simple, we'll just pull him out." He shrugged as if it was as simple as that.
Panic froze me, scared shitless of the future I dreamed about, being ripped away. "But I wanna go to school!" I squeaked, fearfully.
Dad chugged his beer, unaffected by my distress.
"Why, Kian? Don't you wanna do something more useful with your time?" Mom asked me, then looked to Dad for some backup.
Dad let out a silent belch, before answering. "Tomorrow morning, you're coming down to the cage with me. You're gonna get your first taste of what it feels like to be a man."
"But I promised Jaxton that I'd hang out with him, tomorrow," I told him, disappointed.
Dad rolled his eyes. "You'll both be there. It has all been prearranged. You and Jax are of age now. It's about time we begin training you, boys."
I frowned in confusion. "Training? But we have training lessons at school," I told him, referring to the compulsory classes which involved shifting, combat and survival skills.
Dad scoffed as if he thought that was a load of baloney. "Not the crap that they've been teaching you. You wanna end up stuck in a deadbeat ranger's job, like me?" He gestured at himself and then all around the grubby kitchen space. "Take a look at this place. Is this what you want, Kian?" He made a face and cocked his head to suggest that he didn't think so.
"No, sir," I agreed with him, too scared to say anything else.
"Good, then it's decided. You'll start learning how to handle yourself in the cage, first thing tomorrow." Dad's words were final.
I grabbed my school bag and skulked over to Mrs. Bennett's shack, next door.
She fed me a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausages, and toast, then sent me off to school with a brown paper bag that contained my lunch.
By the time I arrived at school, the gates were just getting unlocked. Kids piled through, after waving goodbye to their parents and hurried towards their classrooms. Any anxiety I harbored was squashed under a satisfied stomach. I was full of energy, climbing the stone steps that led up to the entrance, at two at a time.
"Hey, Axel!" One of the moms yelled from the edge of the schoolyard. "You forgot your lunch bag!"
I turned to see a kid a few years younger than me hurry back to where his mom was holding out a Power Rangers snack pack. I recognized the lady as Dr. Thorne.
She had made quite a few house calls to Mom over the last few months. She noticed me looking and smiled. Her son, Axel, was a little shorter than me and had blond hair that refused to be tamed. He was the sort of kid who dressed smartly and looked cared for.
He hadn't the faintest idea how much he was envied by me. His momma took care of everyone. Yet, she still made sure he went to school with a full belly and his lunch bag. That was one lucky kid. Even if he did take it all for granted.
He rolled his eyes as she pulled him back, smushing his face between her hands as she kissed him goodbye. I would've traded a vital organ just to have my momma care about me like that.
Bodies bustled around the halls, forming a single file outside each classroom door along the walls. Colorful pictures decorated either side where some of our best work took pride of place. I was third in line today, which was a new record for me. Usually, I wandered in last.
Miss Halloway noticed me enter the room, raising her brows with surprise. I guess she figured that I'd be a 'no show' after yesterday's fiasco, not show up early. The teaching assistant she was speaking with, turned her head in my direction and gawked.
I knew that they meant well but if they really wanted to help me then they'd drop it. Sometimes, it was better not to shake the bee's nest, if you didn't want to get yourself stung. Back home, there was a two-hundred-pound grizzly who was just itching for an excuse to pull me out of school. I came here wanting to keep my head down and maybe I would finish school with a fighting chance of a future, instead of earning a future by fighting.
They watched me with analyzing eyes as I placed my lunch bag down on the wheeled trolley, along with everyone else's. The lunch ladies would collect them up later and wheel them away to the kitchens.
I then took a seat at my desk, waiting patiently for the roll call. I could be a real golden boy when I wanted to be. My mask of angelic innocence had been rehearsed to perfection. That came in handy for a kid like me. Most of the time I could blend in, just like everyone else.
The scent of Miss Halloway's oriental perfume wafted past me as she made her way over towards her desk. She smoothed out her plaited skirt before taking a seat.
I cast my eyes down, fiddling with a loose strand of thread from the cuff of my shirt. Much to my relief, her attention turned to the task at hand. Miss Halloway began calling out our names one by one.
"Kian Jones," she eventually got to my name, somewhere near the end of the list.
"Here, miss," I answered, in response.
There was a momentary pause where she hesitated, trying to summarize what was different about me. I sat up straight, focusing on looking nonchalant. Whatever I did worked because she moved on to the next name on the list. Nothing more was brought up about yesterday. If anything, it was one of the best days I'd had in a long while.
After school, I ate dinner with Mrs. Bennett again, and together, we washed my laundry ready for school on Monday.
"I want you to take some of Charlie's old clothes. Jeans are jeans, they never go out of fashion, nor do those round neck sweatshirts. At least you'll have plenty of clean clothes to see you through the winter," she insisted, folding the freshly laundered garments into a neat pile.
"Thank you, Mrs. B," I expressed, with gratitude.
She chuckled at being called 'Mrs. B' saying it made her feel twenty-years younger.
"Where's your daddy taking you tomorrow?" She asked, genuinely interested.
"He's taking me down to the cage with Jaxton," I told her, knowing that she would probably disapprove.
And I was right. The look of horror etched across her face. "What kind of father takes a child to a place like that?" She commented, with disgust. Her expression faltered and was immediately replaced with compassion. "Oh, I'm sorry, Kian. I didn't mean to bad mouth your father. It's just that the cage is no place for children."
I understood that her intentions were good. She meant well and I knew that she would never say or do anything that would upset me intentionally.
"That's OK, Mrs. B. I would rather go fishing down at High Lake with Jax, but Dad said thinks we ought to be training."
She made a disapproving snort. "Yeah, fighting more like."
"Dad's sticking around more because he wants to teach me how to fight. If this is the only way that I can get him to spend time with me, then I'll do whatever it takes. Mom doesn't use as much crap when Dad stays at home," I reasoned, hoping that she would see things my way. "He thinks I need to learn to be a real man."
Dad was looking forward to tomorrow. I heard him talking to Mom when I collected my dirty laundry from home. He was in a good mood and was even fixing the washing machine. He said he felt it in his bones, that I would be magnificent. As long as I applied myself. He's never spoken that way about me before and I want to make him proud.
"Kian," Mrs. Bennett sounded worried as she spoke my name. "A real man doesn't need to settle his quarrels with his fists. You'd do well to remember that."
"What do you mean? Men are supposed to be strong, right? We're supposed to be protectors as well as providers, aren't we?" I asked, not understanding how else we were supposed to deal with our problems.
Mrs. Bennett let out a breathy chuckle. "Oh, Kian, use your noodle." She tapped my forehead, gently. "One saying springs to mind: the power of the mind is infinite whilst the power of brawn is limited. We must always use our brains before we engage our fists."
"Oh, I get it," I replied, having taken on board the meaning. "So you're saying that we should fight as a last resort, and not just to get what we want?"
An accomplished smile curved her lips and she ruffled my hair. I huffed, hating that it would be clipped short tomorrow. As much as my dark hair was messy and fell across my eyes, I had grown rather used to it.
"My hair's getting shaved off tomorrow," I prewarned her, knowing how much she loved my full head of hair.
"Oh no," she grumbled, smoothing it down with her fingers. "What a shame."
My lips twitched to one side in agreement.
"Kian, I want to show you something, come with me." She beckoned me into her room, where she took an old wooden music box from her dresser. We sat on the edge of her bed as she opened the lid to the sound of a pretty melody. A tiny ballerina rotated on the spot and I was mesmerized, having never seen anything like that before.
She took out a white gold diamond ring and held it between her finger and thumb. "This will belong to you when I'm gone."
Her words triggered off a wave of panic inside me at the thought of her dying someday. I knew it was bound to happen sooner or later, with her being in her eighties but I tried not to think about that. I guess I took it for granted that she'd always be around. Shifters generally lived to the ripe old age of one-hundred and fifty. But that was only if they took care of themselves.
"Don't look so terrified, I'm not picking out a coffin, just yet," she chuckled. "Charlie knows about this, and he thinks it's a wonderful idea. That fancy mate of his from Stonevale wanted to pick out her own ring. This once belonged to my late husband's mother, who then passed it to him to give to me. I want you to have it and for you to give it to your mate when that time comes."
I was too overwhelmed to form words. This was huge. The sentimental meaning alone was worth more than any monetary value.
"Thank you, so much, Mrs. B, it's beautiful," I replied, humbled.
"I'll keep it safe, inside this box. So now you know, this is yours," she commented, placing it back on her dresser.
I had always been fond of Mrs. Bennett, but it was at this moment, I knew that I loved her. The way her soft fingertips brushed along the sides of my cheek as she cupped my face in her hands, I felt that same love returned. She cherished me as if I was her own son, showing me just how much I mattered to her. That feeling of being wanted, needed, and being of great importance, made my heart swell, spreading pride throughout my chest. It made me question the choices I was making, afraid of disappointing the wrong person.
My heart and head were conflicted, torn between what I was told was right and what I felt was right. My father wanting to spend time with me was all I had ever wished for. Although, I'd much rather he take me fishing or play ball with me out on the field. I had to reside myself with the fact that Dad just wasn't made that way. I just hoped that by indulging his wishes, it would give him a reason to stick around.
That night I went to bed restless, anxious about what tomorrow would bring. My mind was unable to switch off, keeping me awake for hours. My eyes followed the streak of moonlight that spilled in through the gap in the curtains. Shadows clung to the corners of my room, bracing themselves against the walls. You never know what monsters are lurking in the dark. Although, it does seem like a rather peaceful place to hide.