Ethan visualised the jump. The gap between the bank and the bakery would offer a faster stretch of rooftop home, but it was dangerous. He peered over the edge and wondered if he would survive should he fall. Roof shingle crunched as he jogged back for the distance. With another deep breath of car fumes and kabab grease, he turned, loosened his shoulders, and kicked off. The ledge pulled closer. This time, he’d make it.
A pigeon fluttered from the void between the two buildings. Startled and unable to stop, Ethan slipped and fell, his feet whacking the edge’s lip. Both elbows took the sharp brunt of the roof gravel, and he cursed hard. Nevertheless, the dumb bird was not the issue. Fear had stopped him, really.
He looked to the sky once the irritation passed. So vast above… so small below. The pigeon pecked at nothing as pigeons did. Still, he thought. Everything must be easier with wings.
Perhaps that was why he loved the rooftops. They offered something the lower world couldn’t, like an abundance of seclusion and unique paths only he could conquer. There was the rush, too. Excitement and adrenaline were the escapisms he needed. Starting with an alley, he’d leap onto a wall, vault atop some shop, and use a drainpipe or two for higher ascension. Then emerged that glorious rooftop clutter. Ladders, railings, and ventilation pipes to slide or soar over.
Some nights he would sit for hours, bringing with him a little food whilst watching the world pass by and catching the sunset. The perfect place to imagine his future, what he’d do and where he’d go. Somewhere warm, he thought. Somewhere exotic and full of life, a far cry from the blandness of Iviton, with its roads of abandoned shops, overpriced coffeehouses, and littered streets.
Ethan jogged home, relieved to find his father Malcolm upstairs taking a shower. This way, he could eat without interruption: a quick bowl of baked beans whilst watching the news. The report this time concerned a wave of disappearances. He tossed his food aside and increased the television’s volume.
‘Scotland Yard has confirmed another twelve incidences from the London area, but they cannot clarify whether these are abductions or decisions of free-will. Experts claim the rise in off-the-grid lifestyles and even cults may play a role.’
‘You can turn that off. And go upstairs, she’ll be here soon.’ Brutish but calm, Malcolm ambled in from the kitchen.
‘I’m just watching this, hang on.’ Ethan regretted saying this at once. It resulted in the familiar slap of newspaper to face.
‘You bloody listen to me when I talk to you. Turn it off. I ain’t gonna tell you again.’ He struck Ethan a second time, then muttered something inaudible.
Ethan obeyed, massaging the affected cheek. It didn’t hurt, but it stoked an ever-burning fire. He bit his tongue. He’d likely draw blood if it weren’t for the doorbell distracting him.
Malcolm slumped to the kitchen for his cigarettes. ‘Can you at least get the door?’
Ethan rose, dreading the thing requesting entry. Say hello and leave.
Life had dealt an unfortunate hand to Beverly Porcher. Pleasant enough. Though she was lacking somewhat in the culture department. ‘Ah, there he is!’ And with a half empty wine bottle in fist she shoved the front door wide, planted a smoky kiss on Ethan’s cheek, banged into walls, yelled her presence, and collapsed in a chair, her chin now in Malcolm’s grip, a cigarette inserted between her lips.
Malcolm ignited a flame, leering. ‘I asked you to go upstairs.’
Ethan shrugged. ‘I don’t go to school anymore. Why should I need an early night?’
‘You hear this one?’ He snapped the lighter shut, Beverly’s greasy hair between his fingers. ‘Says he wants to be a student.’ The sarcastic smirk vanished. ‘But you’re too bloody thick, aren’t you?’
Ethan said nothing. Malcolm was right, however. A lack of trying, Ethan admitted, but little opportunity ever arose. If only he were older and richer? He could escape Iviton and abscond to a beach somewhere. Learn to surf, perhaps? He thought about going out again. Sleep on the rooftop, maybe?
‘I don’t suppose you’ll be getting a job, either?’ Malcolm sat beside his mistress, slamming his feet on the coffee table Ethan polished the previous afternoon.
This statement stole Beverly from her stupor. ‘Oh, I know. Come work with me at Muffinwigs?’ Pleased with herself, she angled to Malcolm. ‘Yeah, he’d be good at that. They need someone on bed linens.’
Ethan pulled his sleeve, unnerved by this horrible recommendation. He detested the mere thought of working a sales job, least of all in a store likely named by a toddler. He pictured the slow, brainwashed interest of all those miserable customers, filling their baskets with crap they didn’t need. No! If he were to work, he’d rather work outdoors. A marine biologist plunging the oceans, maybe? Or an archaeologist unearthing the world’s secrets?
‘I’ll get a job soon,’ said Ethan.
Malcolm looked at Ethan and sneered. ‘Nah you won’t.’ Then he lit another cigarette.
Ethan gazed at his shoes. He twisted his fingers behind his back to a dreaded flash of the future. He would find employment, Malcolm would guilt him into additional overtime, increment the rent, and before Ethan knew it, he’d be indefinitely beholden to repay Malcolm for all his past fatherly successes.
Malcolm produced an irritable smoke puff. ‘Yeah, that’s right. Stand there, expect me to do everything. I’ll pay for your food and toilet roll. You bugger off to do god knows what. Waste your life. Make me look like a crappy dad.’
Beverly said nothing in either of their defences.
‘You want to be a man, Ethan? Open your bloody mouth. Don’t hang around like some statue like you’re better than everyone else.’ He stubbed the butt as though the tray were his son’s skin — the cigarette finished fast during the reprimand. He leant forward, shocked, and eager to see Ethan’s lips attempt words. ‘Oh, about to speak, are you? Or you just mumbling like a stupid child?’
‘I ain’t stupid!’
‘Fine, you ain’t stupid. Just ungrateful.’ Both voice and height rose. ‘You don’t know how bloody hard it is being your dad. I get bugger all respect. A thankless waste of space you are — don’t you dare laugh at me, Ethan.’ He seized the ashtray.
Face turned in time, the glass dish shattered mere inches from Ethan’s head. He looked at Malcolm, unable to breathe or fathom.
‘As long as you’re under my roof, you do as you’re told. You hear me, Ethan?’ He brushed his sandpapery stubble. ‘Do you hear me?’ The room remained still.
‘Yes,’ mouthed Ethan, fists fortifying his face.
‘I can’t hear you, son!’
‘yes! I hear you.’
‘Good! Now go to bed, little boy.’
Beverly lulled with chin in palm: cigarette shrinking amid gradual lip-locked puffs.
Ethan saw no need to push it. He grabbed his rucksack, spun on the banister post, and leaped two at a time to his attic. The walls were thin. He could put a fist through one. Instead, he snatched his phone and dialled a number.
‘Daniel? Hi… yeah, it’s Ethan. So, I’ll, I’ll do it… yeah, yeah, let’s do this… by the Iviton Green? Three in the morning… okay. See you soon.’ He hung up, shaky-fingered. On his damp mattress he waited out the hours, aided by a laptop and a web search for possible cheap flats.
But he revisited something he vowed never again to watch. It was a video of him jogging beside a river, filmed from a shrub, starring someone Ethan once endured the entirety of high school with.
Tyrone Hopkinson, a large meaty head of a boy, leapt from the bushes. Athletic like a kangaroo, he jump kicked Ethan in the stomach and sent him tumbling from sight. After some shaky camerawork and pubescent cackles, the shot ended with Ethan spluttering in the river’s murky water.
He knew it was stupid to dig up the past like this. Why watch a video with thousands of views? It only served his humiliation. But for the evening planned, a quick reminder of Hopkinson’s immoralism helped with Ethan’s fierce hatred.
The pickup was close, and the vulgar heaving drones of Malcolm and Beverly had devolved to snores. Ethan thought of using the stairs and the front door, though he feared the accidental peak of the naked pair — a whisky bottle sandwiched between them.
The skylight would be safer. Pulling it open, he hoisted onto the roof and slid down with ease. He snagged the drainpipe, dropped halfway, took to the neighbour’s brick wall with impressive stability, skipped atop the flimsy shed, and dropped into the alley at the rear of the garden.
The three o’clock pickup was soon. Though confident, the timing was uncomfortably close. He dashed into the morning mist, both clean and sweet. He ran the corner, but in his haste he collided with an elderly woman, so small and round she resembled a pile of black bin bags. Bouncing off her, he lost balance and hit a fence.
‘Oh god, I’m sorry.’ But before chasing her to show genuine apology, a smoky hotness prickled his chest. He grabbed his hoody and flapped it to usher out what must have been her cigarette ash.
She scurried out of sight. What was she doing? She wasn’t a neighbour. Lost, possibly? Embarrassed too, having bumped into him?
He pushed away the thought and resumed jogging. He spotted the van and tapped for admission.
The doors swung open. ‘Ah, mate, cutting it fine, eh?’ Daniel Dickinson was the epitome of a bully’s wet dream. He was large, awkward, and red-headed. Ethan knew him from Iviton Comprehensive. Not a friend exactly, but together they shared a mutual animosity for the Hopkinson clan.
Daniel waddled to the van’s front, throwing apologies to the knees of those he scraped.
Ethan perched on the bench’s end, recognising the others only by their passing faces.
Plastered with matchless elation, Daniel clapped and brandished his thumbs. ‘All right, guys. Hope you’re all excited. Yep? Good. Righto! I got these so we don’t get caught.’ From under the bench, he retrieved an old gym bag. Unzipped, it revealed a variety of cartoon-like animal masks.
Once making it to Ethan, his choice was between a toad, a chimp, or — more to his taste — a white-feathered hawk. He took it and passed the duffle on. A straightforward decision. It was another breadcrumb of a reoccurring image: the gargantuan white bird from his dreams.
He spoke nothing of it, for he did not understand it. Occasionally, once falling asleep following a strenuous day, he’d find himself in a stark nameless world. No wind, scent, or sound, just him and the bird, so enormous he would have to crank his head to meet its leer.
‘Here I am, Ethan. Look up!’
Ethan obliged always, seeing himself in its eyes, of which spewed great buckets of fire, engulfing them together and catapulting Ethan back to a sweaty reality.
Daniel broke the reverie by dropping a weighted pillowcase on Ethan’s lap. ‘Balaclava in there too, mate. For your hair.’
Ethan checked the contents: super glue, a hammer, nails, silly string, spray-paint, permanent markers, and a ski mask. Clever Daniel. Ethan’s hair — dark blonde with a white streak from forehead to crown — irritated him since the day he got it.
‘It’s your poofter’s lick,’ Malcolm would say, a similar insult thrown by his school peers. Once, Ethan shaved it clean. The unsightly scar on which the white tuft sprouted left a harsh feeling. He was glad once it grew back.
With all following suit, Daniel donned his balaclava and a lion mask. ‘We’ll park by these trees and cut through the grounds. Remember, no stealing, but smash as much crap up as you like.’
Pillowcases in hand, the eager group followed Daniel’s lead. Each of them — akin to masked ninjas — skulked the obnoxious lawns of the Hopkinson estate. Once reaching the mansion’s patio, a boy in the ghost mask picked the lock. It clicked.
The doors slid wide, and the plush, snobbish spoils of forced entry greeted them.
Daniel hissed his venomous disapproval. ‘Off you go, you lot! Give them what they deserve.’
At once, the group upended furniture and toppled ornaments. They pulled up the carpets and unhinged doors. In Ethan’s eyes it was the usual wrecking, but soon this followed with more adventurous vandalism. They poured red dye in the swimming pool, plugged the chimneys with cushions, and even threw lightbulbs in toilets. Though it didn’t stop there. Minutes later, they began nailing chairs to walls, and throwing perishable food under floorboards for some strange reason.
‘Gets a good pong going,’ said the one with the horse mask. ‘They’ll never find it.’
But all Ethan did was watch. He kept to the room’s edge as an observer. Maybe pull those books off that wall? Instead, he edged aside for a group carrying a washing machine, and bumped into a side table featuring an antique vase. He lunged for it before it fell and shattered.
Behind his lion mask, Daniel strode over. ‘You get we’re here to make Tyrone angry, right?’ He plucked the pot from Ethan, pulled back, and flung it across the room, garnering cheers from his fellow bully haters. ‘Don’t have to feel guilty, mate. Think of all the crap he’s put us through.’
Ethan understood what Daniel meant, but since arriving, tagging along with criminal intruders — done on impulse — now felt morally misguided. ‘Well… you guys look like you know what you’re doing. I can keep an eye out, though.’
Daniel threw an arm around Ethan’s shoulder, poked him in the chest, and led him to the central staircase. ‘You should find the git’s bedroom and spray something threatening on his door. Oh, and we’re leaving in fifteen, all right?’
Hesitant but curious, Ethan fished out the paint can on his ascent. He fumbled with the nozzle. A wet, runny splodge of black hit the first-floor wall. He sprayed again, harder and longer. A wavy line now ran from one end of the landing to the other. The joy it brought surprised him.
Ethan identified Tyrone’s bedroom, almost purely by its stench. Inside lay an unmade bed and a crude tower of beer cans. Above the headboard hung a hunting rifle and a coarse collage of pornographic posters. But in the corner stood a cabinet stuffed with tarnished cups and sporting photos. Ethan inspected it, not surprised to find one of Tyrone himself, leant against a blue 1960s Ford Mustang. How unfortunate and devastating. Such garbage driving such calibre.
Realisation slapped Ethan hard. Whatever jealous hatred he or the others had, it didn’t matter. The guy had won. No manner of destruction could negate what Hopkinson had left internally. You’re a stupid fool for coming, Ethan. Just go home, little boy.
Furious at his envy, Ethan, intent on leaving early, had reached the lobby, though halted mid-walk. A fluttering sound — neither of his fellow intruders nor a stereo — demanded investigation. Before he knew it, he was in the basement. Why had such a noise attracted him? He approached the double doors ahead.
A stench proceeded the sound. On entry, Ethan tripped the light sensors. A powdery humid stink knocked him back, for inside, perched within cage upon cage, sat an array of exotic birds: all captive, varying in colour and shape, and caked in their own filth. It had to be some strange, ugly hobby. Why, with their surplus space, had the Hopkinsons kept them like this?
He approached to release them when his phone rang. It was Daniel.
‘Where the hell are you, man? The police’ve spotted us! Get out!’
Ethan choked. Yes, but the birds! He unlatched each cage and ushered the occupants with shakes and claps, relieved they had the energy to take flight upstairs. But the flock’s slender, white-feathered prize still needed freedom. And to Ethan, this creature was another coincidental breadcrumb.
Teeth clamped and fingers fumbling, he tugged the cage latch. The boomy voices above impeded his focus. Furious too, for forgetting he had a crowbar in his pillowcase. He lodged it, pulling this way and that, bending the enclosure’s walls in his struggle. The clasp snapped, swung wide, and the bird broke free, its wings outstretched further than its prison ever allowed. It took off, its song of thanks fading.
Both chest and head pounded. Ethan tiptoed back upstairs. The police hadn’t ventured his way yet — confused and busy with an additional threat of exotic birds to distract them — but he couldn’t just make a run for it. Eyes speeding, he homed in on a side cabinet with a glass paperweight. He took hold and hurled the solid orb at a far window.
Diversion successful. The scoping officers made for the shattering impact and allowed Ethan to dart for the mansion’s east wing. He had not found the exit he had intended, though. Instead, he’d stumbled upon Hopkinson’s pride and joy: the blue 1968 Ford Mustang, a silver scripted logo polished on the side panel, a neighbour to its other stunning collectables.
Ethan’s swallow was pinecone rough. Would he consider it? He would never get this chance again. He would drive nothing more exceptional in his life, and Tyrone would realise his highly collectable baby had another’s bum in it. It was the perfect revenge.
Screw it. He spun for the wall cabinet and flung it wide to an arrangement of hooked keys — all ideal for such a getaway — and grabbed the one he needed latched to a key chain shaped like a pair of breasts.
He leapt into the Mustang via its open top. Oh, the awesomeness. He imagined it was all his: the brushed steel accents, integrated armrests, and plush blue seats good enough to die in.
The garage doors permitted escape. The car’s engine ignited with a growling purr and garnered the startled attention of the ground-combing officers. It was now or never. The coolest car in the world, owned by the biggest moron in Surrey. That would not do.
Lights on, seatbelt fastened and set to drive, Ethan floored the acceleration. He rocketed from the garage, immediately off course from the gravel driveway and over the lawns and flowerbeds. He gave it more gas, propelling towards a hedgerow, hoping to god a stone wall didn’t lie behind it. Relieved, the muscle car tore through like a pencil through paper, taking to the back road of the estate with cushioned, bouncy ease.
But things were not fast enough for Ethan’s adrenaline. It was as though someone more assertive and devious had heightened his confidence. It brought his speedy crusade passed the point where their van was, onto the pristine lawns of St Albert’s Hill, and finally to the main roads of Iviton.
For a second, Ethan lost control of the Mustang’s need for multiple steering wheel turns. He exploded through a bus stop and showered the streets with glass and metal. It was no surprise either having the fleet of police on his tail, the blue flash of their lights in the mirrors. He swerved through early morning traffic, knocking down the odd dustbin and scattering a group of benched chavs. But his pursuers had blocked the end of each street, diverting him down road after road, until the only option was Iviton Lake.
Speed so intense he thought he might propel into space, he slewed the path between darkened trees, relishing the moment. Screw you, Hopkinson! Screw you, dad! Screw you, Iviton!
Ribcage bashed by internal ping-ponging, Ethan approached the lake pier. The Mustang’s wheels thudded across the wooden deck, the water seconds away.
Let’s go to Embra!
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