Despite its four stories, Bramblebrae House was a stout building, with the structural integrity of a wet Victoria Sponge. It sat low on the horizon, flanked by the shadows of the two adjacent offices, cowering beneath them. It seemed to personify Monday’s feelings about the entire situation – utter dismay, that is.
This was Monday Starzyński’s new home.
Well, home was a strong word for it. ‘Temporary dwelling’ maybe. An interim address. Bramblebrae House was a six-week pit stop between one home and the next. And Monday would make do, like he’d always done, even if Aleksy wasn’t here this time to help.
“Is that it?”
Natalia did not sound impressed. She raised an arched brow, forehead crinkling with the movement. The last two years had aged her greatly, but not like fine wine or sharp cheese. Like an old loaf of bread, Natalia had crumbled until only a hard stodginess remained.
“Looks like it,” Monday said. He didn’t mean to sound impassive, but it was difficult muster up any sort of feeling these days. The eviction, and everything that followed, had rubbed his emotions raw.
“Do we live here now?” Dominika asked as the taxi slowed to a stop. “Like, properly live here?”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Natalia replied, clutching her suitcase firmly. “No child of mine is going to live here.”
Here, as it happened, was marginally more welcoming on the inside. After the Starzyńskis piled out of the taxi with all their worldly possessions in tow, a case worker ushered them inside and handed Natalia a flimsy red folder.
“So, there’s a shared kitchen down here, and a games room for the kids,” the case worker said. “There’s Wi-Fi in the communal area, but it’s a little hit and miss in the bedrooms. Speaking of which, you’re in room thirteen. It’s just up those stairs and to the –”
“There’s no internet in the rooms?” Natalia interrupted. The words crackled like thunder. “Is there a fridge? A microwave? How many keys do we get?”
Monday rolled his eyes. It was typical of his step-mother to hone in on the inadequacies. A bed and breakfast wasn’t the ideal home for a family of four, no, but what was the alternative? A cardboard box in an alley? Monday had a job, but a supermarket shelf-stacker’s wage couldn’t wipe out the thousands in debt they’d accumulated. Even Natalia going over his salary with a fine-toothed comb couldn’t stem the tide of interest and late fees that drowned them.
After Natalia’s questions eventually subsided, they made their way up to the room. Natalia gripped Martyn’s arm the entire journey, unused to walking such distances. Dominika meandered slowly behind, her headphones blasting. And Monday trailed after them, weighed down by the suitcases that contained everything in the world they had left.
Room thirteen had clearly belonged to a smoker before – a yellow tinge washed the cream walls and a musty smell still lingered. Natalia immediately swept over to shut the curtains, casting the room in a pomegranate glow. The curtains were too thin for total darkness, instead bathing the room in a dull red, like a dried wound.
“Do we all have to share a room?” Dominika said quietly. “It’s not like, a suite or anything?”
Monday looked around. Though large for a bedroom, the room was a poor replacement for a two-story house. A deep oak wardrobe lined the wall by the door, big enough for two but not a family. A small TV sat across from the main double bed, and a smaller single had been squeezed alongside it. There was a table and chair by the window that Martyn sat in heavily, and across from that a sad, flat mattress.
“Not for long, darling.” Natalia sank into the double bed. “I’m going to appeal my rejection for employment support benefit, and Monday,” – she cast a hard glare in his direction – “is going to get a haircut and a proper job.”
“Retail is a proper job,” he muttered, tucking a flyaway strand of lilac hair back into his ponytail. It had once been purple but had faded to lilac as luxuries like hair dye were put on the backburner for necessities like food. Dyeing his hair was a habit that belonged to the boy with two working parents, and a three-bedroom house, and a brother who helped clean the purple from the bathroom tiles before they were caught.
“You did so well in secondary school!” Natalia continued. “If you put some effort into looking more professional, you could easily get a job in a bank, or an office. I don’t know why you gave up school when you did, honestly. You only had another year.”
Because dad was sacked, and you were made redundant? he thought. Because Aleksy left too, and what would be the point in school without him?
Monday swallowed the words. They stuck in his throat, rough like a peach pit. “I’m going to look around,” he said instead.
The door slammed shut behind him
Monday hadn’t seen much of the rest of Bramblebrae upon arrival, but what he had glimpsed didn’t inspire much hope. So far the B and B was deserted, Monday wandering the corridors as a lonely ghost. When Natalia had first come home, grim-faced, and announced that the local authority was putting them up in a bed and breakfast, it had conjured up images of thatched roofs and quilted curtains. Monday knew that these were idle fantasies, but still he’d expected something less… sterile? ‘Bramblebrae House’ sounded deceptively quaint. Perhaps this was what happened to buildings that never became homes – after decades as a stopgap, Bramblebrae had flickered out of reality and become a liminal space.
At least it was quiet.
The kitchen didn’t offer much in the way of distraction, but it did have a round pot of coffee with a ‘help yourself’ sign. After three months on night shift, Monday was essentially nocturnal, so he gratefully poured himself a mug. The coffee was lukewarm, but he drank it anyway.
He took his phone out of his pocket, rubbing his thumb over the numpad. The Starzyńskis had never been rich, but before all this Monday had owned a smartphone. It was blue, with silver trimmings. Natalia had sold it to buy Dominika new school shoes. Monday didn’t mind exactly, knew that shoes were more important than his Snake high score, but he missed having a distraction in his pocket.
When the mug was empty, Monday gave it a quick rinse and sat it back down next to the pot. There was no dish soap in the sink – what else did Bramblebrae not provide? He made a mental note to check to shared bathroom for necessities before he went to work.
He eventually had his first encounter with another resident in the games room. It was a cold room, with white brick walls and a squeaky wooden floor. His breath lingered in the air like a cobweb, and he suspected that it was one of many here. Despite the name and the side-lines on the floor, there was neither a game nor a ball in sight.
The resident in question was a small boy, a little older than Dominika but younger than Monday. Fourteen maybe? Fifteen? He hunched over an air hockey table as he swatted at nothing, intermittently cheering and whooping as he played against an imaginary opponent.
“And that’s another goal for Sweetnam!” the boy cheered, curling a non-existent bicep. “He’s really pulled out all the stops this season! He’s on track for a clean sheet, don’t you think so Brad?”
A smile tugged at the corner of Monday’s mouth, and he felt compelled to say something before the boy embarrassed himself further.
“Well his offense is good, but I’m not so sure about his defence.”
The boy startled, brown eyes snapping up to meet Monday’s blue ones. “Hi! I’m Maximus! Who’re you?”
Monday hesitated – he’d expected the boy to be embarrassed that he’d been caught playing pretend, not to engage him in a conversation. And now the conversation would inevitably turn to his unusual name: yes, Monday was his real name; no, he didn’t choose it; yes, no one likes Monday, he was well aware, thank you.
“I’m Monday,” he said eventually.
“Cool! I’m Maximus.” The boy flashed him an awkward smile and pointed two lopsided finger guns at him. Apparently, he wasn’t interested in Monday’s name at all.
Absurdly, Monday began to laugh. The sound tumbled out of him, and as soon as it started he found he couldn’t stop. Maximus stared at him, hands still poised as little guns.
“Are you okay?” Maximus asked. “You’re kind of weird.”
Monday wheezed, feeling lighter than he had in weeks. Here he was, in the middle of the bed and breakfast that he now lived in, and some fifteen-year-old kid who talked to himself was calling him weird?
This was not where he’d expected his life to go.
“I’m good,” he said at last. “You know you need to put money in to get the puck, right?”
Maximus burned scarlet. “Yeah, I know that,” he said hotly. “I found two pounds in the corridor, but nobody will play with me.”
Monday couldn’t help but feel like this was a hint. “Do you want a game?”
“I’m the red one!” Maximus exclaimed, reaching for the coloured striker. He rolled a coin into the slot, and after it clinked into place the table roared to life. Monday grabbed the other striker and positioned himself at the opposite end of the table.
“Can we adjust the height at all? I don’t think this was designed for people taller than six foot… Hey!”
The puck whizzed across the table, chinking off the metal edges. Maximus had left the blush behind and was now sporting a wide, competitive smirk.
“Score one for Sweetnam!” he hollered, raising his arms in victory. Monday narrowed his eyes.
“Don’t get cocky too early,” he said evenly, shooting the puck straight back into Maximus’s goal. For a moment Maximus could only gape at him, but he quickly recovered and began thwacking the puck back.
“I’m glad there’s another young person here,” Maximus said. “I’m so fed up with adults. And there’s literally nothing to do around this place.”
Monday frowned. “How long have you been here?”
The puck zipped straight into Monday’s unguarded goal.
Maximus scratched his neck casually, leaning on the edge of the table. “Yeah, me and my mum have been here a while. I was in another B and B before, but Bramblebrae’s much better. The last place you had to leave everyday between nine and five.”
Monday’s throat went dry, stiff as old Papier-mâché. Eight weeks? The legal limit was six. He wasn’t exactly thrilled about their situation, but he’d at least been able to comfort himself with the promise that it was only temporary, a month and a half at most. Yet here was Maximus, two months into his sentence and without an end in sight.
He sent the puck back to Maximus carefully. “Isn’t that illegal? To keep you here for so long?”
“I guess.” Maximus shrugged as he hit the puck back. “We don’t have anywhere else to go though.”
He spoke with an air of finality that Monday thought was best left as is. It was time to move the conversation to more neutral topics.
“Do you go to school around here?” Monday asked, grasping around for something else to say. He was only nineteen, but his fifteen-year-old self seemed eons ago. He couldn’t remember the kind of things he cared about at fifteen.
“Yeah, but I’m off sick this week.”
“You don’t look sick,” Monday said sceptically. The temperature in the room dropped sharply. School seemed to be a touchier topic than their mutual homelessness.
Maximus avoided his gaze. “My mum lets me stay off whenever I want. There’s these guys that keep… hassling me, I guess.”
Now this Monday was more familiar with. As an eight-year-old Polish immigrant with a funny name and not a lick of English, he had plentiful experience with playground cruelty. And if not for Aleksy’s protection, Monday knew that it would have been much, much worse.
“They’re a bunch of assholes, basically,” Maximus continued sourly. His next shot at the puck was a lot more venomous than the last. “They try and wind me up about everything. My mum, my clothes, my name…”
The last item on the list elicited a small laugh from Monday. He could relate that. “Maximus isn’t that bad. Could be a lot worse.” He knocked the puck over to Maximus. “You could even shorten yours to Max if you had to.”
“No,” Maximus snarled. “I hate that name. And anyway, it’s not my real name they’re making fun of. It’s my hero name.”
Another goal for Maximus. He began to cheer, but Monday raised an incredulous hand to stop him
“No, hold up. Your what name?”
“My hero name,” Maximus said. Monday’s disbelief hadn’t ruffled him at all, or perhaps it simply hadn’t registered. “I’m writing this comic, right, and it’s about my life as a superhero, Maximum Starstrike! And I have super strength and stuff. So I brought it in for my English talk and asked people to start calling me that instead of Maximus.”
“Why,” Monday began faintly, “would you bring that in to school?”
“Because it’s cool!” Maximus exploded. “I’ll show you it sometime, it’s so awesome. I’m a normal high schooler by day, but by night I’m a vigilante. Also, I have x-ray vision and I can melt things with my eyes. I bring it into school all the time.”
Maximus Sweetnam was decidedly weird. Not only was he proud of the fact that he had devised himself a superhero alter ego, he actively drew attention to it. Maybe it was because Monday had spent the last decade keeping as low a profile as possible, but every alarm bell in his head was shrieking that this was a Bad Idea. The second-hand cringe was physically palpable. As a young teenager he’d have given anything to have a normal name, even a normal Polish one like Aleksy or Martyn, and here was this idiot going around insisting people call him by his ‘hero name’?
No wonder the other kids were giving him grief.
“Oh,” said Monday. “Have you tried… not doing that?”
Maximus did meet eyes now. “No? Heroes should always be true to themselves, even when it’s hard. That’s like, the foundations of being a good guy, you know?”
Monday did not know, but opted to keep that to himself.
As if bored by the lull in conversation, the air hockey table abruptly came to a halt. Monday hadn’t been aware of it while they were playing, but without the hiss of the table the games room was deathly quiet.
“Time’s up,” Monday said.
“Rematch?” Maximus was already slipping another coin into the machine. Monday shook his head.
“Nah, I better head back to my room. Got to take a nap before work.”
Maximus looked crestfallen, his dark hair flopping into his sad eyes. “Oh, okay.”
But as Monday walked back up to room thirteen, he suspected that Maximus wouldn’t give up on the rematch that easily.