Benji was stood in front of the rotting wooden gate, blocking the short pathway up to his front door. He’d been stood there for a solid twenty minutes now, just staring and staring and staring. He wanted to rush in and lock his Mum in the tightest hug imaginable. But he also wanted to stay outside forever, because if he entered hell’s waiting room, he wasn’t sure he’d return alive.
With trembling fingers, he reached forward and wrapped his fingers around the rusting metal hatch.
He sighed in relief — he had a real excuse not to go inside. It was his neighbour, a wispy, ageing old lady in her late seventies. She was in her signature tatty slippers and frayed dressing gown, a newspaper clutched under her arm. Benji had always seen her as a parental figure, or the cooky old grandma who understands you more than your parents do. “Afternoon, Ms Paterson.” He smiled warmly.
“You’re not going to give your nan a hug?” She pressed jokingly, and Benji complied without a second thought. Once they pulled away, she held him at arms length, examining him up and down. “Look how much weight you’ve lost. I’ll whip you something up — fancy a cheese toasty?”
He smiled again, but shook his head, “No, thank you, Ms Paterson. I should probably go home first.”
“Well, don’t forget about me. And Benji, sweetheart, I’m so sorry to hear about your Mum. You know that if you need anything at all, I’m here.”
Benji’s brows furrowed in confusion, “M-My Mum?” He stammered, waves of panic washing over him. He’s killed her. She’s dead.
“I’m sure she’s safe, she was a tough woman.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I haven’t got my facts wrong, have I? I’m getting old, son, you’ll have to forgive me. But I heard it from Margaret who heard it from Cheryl, who’s son is great friends with the post man—”
“Ms Paterson, what have you heard about my Mum?” Benji asked, practically shaking with nerves.
The frail old lady froze, her cloudy eyes focussing intently on Benji, “She’s done a runner.”
The world collapsed around him as everything turned to dust. He frantically turned back to the gate and frustratedly fiddled with the lock until it cracked open and he pushed his way through, paying no mind to Ms Paterson. He banged on the door with no reservations, he wasn’t scared anymore. His Dad could do whatever he wanted to him, as long as his Mum was safe. Please be safe.
Three seconds later and the door swung open, and Benji hated what he saw. A scruffy beard, a stained shirt and those eerily familiar blue eyes. But they were darker than those of his son’s, more corrupt, more polluted. He looked genuinely surprised to see Benji, as if Oakleaf was expected to foster him forever.
“What’re you doing here?” He grunted.
“Where is she?” Benji demanded, “Where’s Mum?”
“You home now, or what—?”
Benji shoved past him mercilessly, “Mum? Mum!” He shouted into the shadowed house. He vaguely registered the sound of his Father’s shutting the front door behind them, the bolt sliding into place, the chain clinking and rattling.
The house was darker and dustier than he’d remembered. Shadows seemed to cling to every corner and haunt every inch of the house. He could see through the living room into the kitchen, where empty beer cans and dirty ash trays littered every surface, the sink stacked high with forgotten plates and cutlery. But the worst sight was that of Benji’s Dad. Beer stained his shirt, cigarette smoke lingered in his beard and a glint of insanity haunted his eyes.
“Where is she?” Benji growled, his back to his Father, refusing to even look at him.
“The bitch left us.”
“You! She left you!” Benji screamed, spinning around and charging forward. Tears were starting to build up in his eyes, blurring his vision and obscuring his view of the man who haunted every dream and turned them into nightmares. “Where the fuck is she?”
“Not entirely sure. I’m pretty sure she’s in Chicago.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “I guess she didn’t want a gay son who would stab his own father.”
“Hey, fuck you!” Benji screamed. “She didn’t give a fuck that I was gay and you know that! I stabbed you because you’re disgusting and repulsive and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I wish I never called you a fucking ambulance, you ruined my life—!”
He was cut off by a blinding pain radiating through his jaw. Mr Cooper had punched his son, knocking him to the floor with a single blow. It’s almost too easy, he thought with a smirk. With his wife gone, he needed someone smaller and weaker to assert his power over. Benji couldn’t be any more perfect to fill that role.
Benji groaned in shock and pain, shuffling as far away from his father as he could, his back hitting the wall behind him. Any ounce of bravery had completely disintegrated, he was as weak and defenceless as ever. But this time, he wasn’t scared. He knew what was coming, and he knew he couldn’t even dream of fighting back. All he could do was take it and try not to cry.
When Benji’s Father finally got bored, or at least too exhausted to continue, he retired to the living room, leaving his son a bloody mess on the ground. Benji was covered from head to toe in bruises, his lip spilling blood, as well as the deep gash on his arm. He just about managed to drag his mangled and broken body up the creaky stairs and into his familiar bedroom.
It was completely wrecked. Drawers were open and spilling, posters were strewn across the floor and his things were scattered everywhere. It was clear his Father had ransacked his room in search for cash to fuel his various addictions. Benji didn’t pay much mind to the mess, merely crawled into bed and squeezed his eyes shut, his throbbing body screaming for help.
He was woken up by a pounding headache, as if his brain was repeatedly throwing itself against the interior of his skull. He winced in pain and tried to shuffle into a sitting position, wondering how long he was out for. He noticed a tray of food sitting by the door, probably stone cold by now.
He was reluctant to accept it, but his stomach was begging for something edible, he couldn’t even remember the last time he’d eaten. So, he carefully carried his fragile body across the room and retrieved the plate of pasta.
He was only halfway through the meal when he started to feel dizzy and distant, as if he was underwater or a million miles away from his body. Benji tried to keep his eyes open, but it was as if the lightbulb in his brain was flickering on and off continuously.
He was drugged.
Everything felt blurry and distorted, he knew what he needed to. He had to throw up and get it out of his system. But then what? Drugged or not, his Father would find a way to take full advantage of his son and leave him weeping and begging for help. At least if he was drugged, he wouldn’t feel it as bad.
He shook these thoughts off and reached for the phone he kept hidden beneath the floorboards — the one place his Dad was too stupid to look. It was only a cheap burner, but that was all he needed. He fished out the scrap of paper in his back pocket, wincing as he did so.
He barely managed to key in the numbers correctly, he was constantly backtracking and mumbling curses in frustration. He was feeling dizzier by the second, his mind clouding over as he tried to fight the affects of the drugs.
“It’s me.” Benji replied softly. “I-I need help. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, I should have listened to you. I-I really need help. And I’m sorry—”
“Woah, Benji, what’s up? Are you hurt? Are you in danger? Call the police, Pup—”
“N-No, Lucky, please. He’s drugged me, I think I’m gonna pass out. Please...please...”
Lucky nearly dropped the phone in shock, “Shit, okay, okay, um...fuck. Okay, Benji I need your address, we’re gonna come and get you, okay? Just...hang on, yeah? Is there a neighbour or someone you can go to?”
“I can’t...” Benji’s eyes fell close, his grip on the phone loosening. “Please.” He whispered.
“Benji, I need your address.” Lucky pressured urgently.
“S-Sixteen Church Street.” Benji yawned.
“Okay, do you know the post code?”
Then line fell dead, and Lucky cursed loudly. As desperate as he was to help Benji, he couldn’t help but feel angry. If he’d only listened to him and stayed with his family, this never would have happened. Now he’s hurt and terrified and drugged. Lucky wasn’t certain about what to expect — would he be bruised and bloodied? Or would the damage be entirely psychological? He assumed both.
“Mum!” He screamed frantically, stumbling out of his room and descending the stairs at a rapid pace. His parents were in the kitchen, helping his sister with her holiday homework, “We need to go to London! Like right now, my friend’s in trouble.”
“Felix, what’re you talking about?”
“Please! We have to go right now! His Dad is hurting him, we need to leave.”
“Okay, okay, Felix, calm down—”
“Where’re your keys?” He frantically searched the kitchen, “Get your coat, Mama. Mum, stay here with Penny.”
He grabbed his Mum’s wrist and dragged her out of the house without hesitation, shoving the keys into her hand, “How much over the speed limit can you go without getting in trouble?”