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Chapter 2 - Isaac

I tense as I hear the key being turned in the lock, hoping that it won’t be another of those days. Whenever Mum is ill, Dad believes that the sickness is synonymous to ‘ineffectualness’. And thus the verbal abuse ensues, the slamming of doors and sobs of unhappiness.

I turn to the main door – an ironic bright, happy buttercup colour. My face is tight, body taut. Please not today, I wishfully think.

No divine soul grants my desire.

Dad walks in, silently removing his coat. He’s a big man, my dad; he has to duck his head to fit through the door. His face is a red ball of anger, his frowning mouth a tool of destruction. His large, size-fourteen feet sound loudly upon the brown floorboards as he walks over to the kitchen, looking for the evening meal that will not be there. I only arrived five minutes ago; there was no point trying to cook. Dad would find fault in something if I somehow managed to whip up a meal, anyway.

Our tormentor walks back into the living room with a puckered face. “No dinner, then?” he asks Mum. His voice is quiet and clipped. The calm before the storm.

Behind me, Mum hacks up something horrible. I don’t dare move my eyes from my father’s, but in my peripheral vision I can see her pallid face, stretched tight with pain as she rides the bout of coughing – no, not rides. She collapses as the waves mercilessly batter her.
Sarcastic answers to Dad’s question spring to my tongue, though I know it is best not to set him off. But he’s a bomb with a broken timer – he’s going to detonate anyway, and soon.

Nevertheless, I keep my mouth shut.

That is, until Dad begins a tirade. “Too lazy to cook a meal? Gonna sit on that sofa all day, feigning illness while I work to support you?”

I hear a whimper from behind me and am angry at the both of them – Dad for being so cruel, Mum for being near spineless.

“Explain to me this so-called ‘support’,” I snap. “Where’s the medicine?”

“Medicine!” Dad laughs mirthlessly. “For what? Time and time again I ask myself why I don’t just put the hopeless woman down.”

His words slice through my chest and hot, angry tears spring to my eyes as Mum starts to quietly cry behind me. I have an urge to beat the living daylights of the man I have to call my father. Watch and smile as he screams. But then there’s the other side that wants to hold Mum close and comfort her.

Dad is much closer to seven foot than six, and virtually as broad. I may or may not have been illegally learning fighting techniques, but I know I can’t take him down. I’ve often thought of it, but I’m not stupid enough to throw myself into a battle I know I’ll lose. Although, physical injuries will mean that he might be locked away for a while . . .

He’s many things, Dad. But not stupid. The pain he inflicts has, for the vast majority, been verbal.

“Look at her now,” Dad sneers, crossing his arms and setting his legs wide apart as he looks disdainfully down at his weeping wife. “Useless.”

I feel each insult as if it is directed to me. “Shut up!” I respond furiously.

His eyes – hard, callous dark orbs – shift to me again. “I’ll wash your mouth out with soap, filthy swine.”

That is not an empty threat – he has done it before. But I am no longer twelve. I remember rushing downstairs as I hear him screaming and Mum crying. Yelling desperately at my father and unsuccessfully trying to pull his twenty stones away.

Anger, so much anger. It’s stifling. I can’t think anything but hate: intense, burning loathing directed at that evil man. I’ve tried begging. Threatening. Shouting. Hitting. Crying. And they just don’t work.

I could report him, but Mum won’t let me. He’d get put away for a while, lectured on his misconduct, but out he’ll come again. Mum fears what might happen then, and to be honest, I do too.

“Just leave her alone,” I yell at him, leaping to my feet in indignation. “Have some compassion, you heartless, soulless –”

Gideon, my younger brother, suddenly bursts in. Younger, but taller. Stronger. Wider. And I admit: smarter. But even he cannot handle the beast that is our father.

“Can’t leave it for one day,” Gideon says, throwing his bag to his side as he immediately rounds on Dad.

“Go up to your room,” Dad orders. The two face each other, poised for any sudden movements. Dad never hits Mum – though he indulges in intimidating acts like stabbing a finger in her forehead – but often gets a few licks in when it comes to Gideon. Dad is powerful, but slow. Gideon is nimble and can easily fly into the bathroom and lock the door. When the fighting turns physical, he often camps out there until morning.

“It amazes me that you think I’ll listen to you,” Gideon says contemptuously.

Dad takes hold of Gideon’s right arm, his long, beefy fingers wrapping right round it, and begins to drag him. I am torn for a moment: stay with Mum, or pursue my brother and the tyrant? The sight of my mother, her thin, frail body curled up on the couch as it racks with sobs, wrenches my heart out.

Deliberately turning away, I move after Dad, hearing Gideon’s curses as he is propelled into the kitchen.

“I am sick to the back teeth of you thinking that you can say and do anything,” Dad rages, firmly gripping Gideon with one hand and picking up a plate with the other.

Stop it!” I scream so loud that my eyes pop.

Dad releases Gideon; pushing him back forcefully so the table-top digs into his back. Dad pulls his arm back, and throws the plate like a Frisbee. It misses Gideon’s unprotected head by about an inch – I can see Gideon’s hair ruffle slightly – and crashes into the window behind. The broken shards bounce off the glass, clatter in the metal sink, embed themselves in Gideon’s neck and shoulders.

A growl leaps out of my throat as I run straight to Dad like a bull. I don’t care if he beats me to a bloody pulp – so long he gets injured himself. Though I can’t hurt him as much as he hurts me, Gideon, Mum . . .

I shift Dad by maybe four centimetres: needless to say, I provide the smallest of distractions. Teeth bared in a feral snarl, he shoves me away with his heavily muscled arms. In the split-second before impact, I notice that I’ll hit the sharp edge of the door and rotate slightly. Just a small part of my head hits that dangerous area, but it is enough to create a supernova of pain. Two more plates crash and splinter before I shakily rise to my feet, feeling dizzy. I have learnt to tune out the needs of my body, and exercise this now. I catch a glass that comes hazardously close to me as Gideon comes to my side, trembling with fury. Blood, incredibly red against his pale skin, trickles down his neck as he chews a hole in his lip.

I carefully, deliberately set the cup down. “That is how you deal with crockery, you barbarian.”

Dad’s face twists in anger as he comes towards me.

I take off immediately, yelling at Gideon to look after Mum. I can’t stay in that house, I just can’t.

So I run right out of the place, ignoring the disgruntled glares my neighbours direct at me.

I break into a sprint, trying to get rid of my ever-increasing steam that way. It helps a little bit, but not enough. I force my limbs to move faster, so fast that if feels like I’m about to lose my balance; pitch myself forward. However, I manage to dodge staring people and buggies and whatever the hell not for the most part.

I do bump into a couple of pedestrians, but pay them no heed as I zoom past, trainers endlessly pounding on the white concrete slabs. I shouldn’t be running like this; I’m going to make myself ill, but I really don’t care.

What a crap world I live in. What’s all this whole, divine, completeness they blabber about? The supposed equality and happiness? Ah, yes, they’ll make it fair someday. But for now they must put their resources into hunting down the Antithetical, who don’t daily terrorise mothers and throw dishes at brothers and shove sons onto sharp edges. Who don’t always break down self-esteem and push people into the depths of despair.

Finally, I arrive at our forest. Funny how I use the word ‘our’. It’s not mine at all. It’s all Isolde’s. Content and my own space are things I will never grasp for more than a day at the least.

I grind to a halt after coming maybe half a kilometre into the forest, collapsing onto the leafy ground and rolling onto my back, breathing heavily, my lungs struggling to cope with the intense exertion.

“Isaac?” comes a familiar voice to my left.

It’s Isolde.

I work on trying to breathe and attempt to dampen the misdirected rage I’m feeling towards her. She didn’t do anything, really. She’s tried to help me before, only for me to refuse because of my stupid, non-existent dignity and extreme obstinacy.

I hear her soft but solid footsteps coming closer. The crushing of the leaves. The quiet swishing of the trees. The rustle of her clothes in the almost non-existent wind. All my senses amplified by my heavy sprint which slowly ebbs away from my memory. My eyes are shut, so I can’t see the expression on her face. I’m not sure if I want to, but I open my eyes anyway. Isolde crouches next to me, and says softly, “Hey.”

Strands of her raven-black hair fall in front of her face as she looks at me with the same curious look she has on ninety per cent of the time. No, not the same: this one is more . . . scrutinising than analysing. I look at her, silent. Her emerald eyes twinkle. “I wonder if it talks,” she says, cocking her head to the side.

I roll my eyes, but I feel an irresistible thread tugging my lips upwards. It feels like all the strength has been sapped out of me, but I make myself sit up and let out a sigh.

“Are you going to be mystery man again or tell me why you collapsed into a bunch of leaves?” Isolde says, earning an annoyed look from me.

I try to force the bad feelings away with light-heartedness when I say, “I ran. You should be proud of me.”

Her eyebrows raise. “Is it wishful thinking to want you not to have knocked anyone over?”

“It is. Can’t have everything, Isolde.” I stand up and stretch, and there are a few seconds of silence in which so much is told, but nothing said.

Quietly, Isolde asks, “Another argument?”

I bite my lip and stare at some ants crawling up a nearby tree. “Yes.”

“No talking?”

“No talking.” She knows that I detest discussing my troubles, so why does she always ask?

Isolde sighs. “You should really stop being so closed off.”

“You should really stop being so nosy.” I shake off her hand, which is resting on my shoulder, making sure I avoid her eyes.

“OK. No nosiness. We can sit here in silence and you can lock yourself up in your self-inflicted solitary confinement,” Isolde says, evidently irritated.

I sit on the branch of a tree. Isolde plonks herself down on the ground, and stares at me, her face set. I stubbornly look back at her. A minute passes. Five, which turns into ten. Fifteen. Twenty. Half an hour.

Eventually, I let out a huff. “Fine. You win. Let’s use our words.” I grip the tree branch tightly with both hands, the rough bark digging into my palms as I run past the whole damned thing, unable to get the image of Mum cowering out my mind. After I’ve spewed out my lovely afternoon, my mouth twists into a sneer as the sarcasm appears. “Then my father read me a bedtime story, and my mum brought me some hot chocolate, and my brother and I had a nice chat about elves and fairies,” I end, spitting out the words, and am met with a full minute of only the carefree birds chirping overhead.

I glare at Isolde. “So? You just going to sit there? No inspirational words for me?”
She stays calm. “You’ll just reject anything I do.”

I press my lips into a hard line in an effort to stop myself saying something I’ll regret, but I end up yelling at her anyway. “This is why I never want to talk. You just look me in that patronizing way and act like you know everything about me.”

Isolde has this habit of looking, at me, into me. There is an uncanny sense of myself being somewhat exposed – vulnerable – and that is my most hated feeling.

“Could you just admit to yourself that you can’t be alone forever?”

For goodness’ sake, could she just stop with this sentimentality? It’s pitiful. “That someone is not you.” I immediately regret the harsh words, but the damage has been done.

“Well, sorry for wasting your time,” Isolde snaps, and begins to walk off.

Guilt prickles in my chest. “Isolde, wait.” I get off the tree branch, almost tripping over the roots, and grab her arm. She slowly, deliberately turns round to face me, her eyes now like cold, green glass.

I release the awkward but sincere apology. “I’m sorry. I was just taking everything out on` you.”

Isolde studies me, then unexpectedly puts her slim arms round my waist. I’m thrown for a few seconds, but hug her back.

“Apology accepted,” she says, and I smile, but then it fades away.

I couldn’t do that. I can’t let go of any grudge.

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