One of those ones I just don’t know about. I used to just delete stories if I didn’t think they’d turned out well but I’ve learned to just keep going, finish and put them up anyway, because I’m wrong about my stories just as often as not. Enjoy!
By Ben Pienaar
The forest was Mickey’s escape, and he spent a lot of his time there. All his spare time, really, and when they put the curfew on it made no difference. He’d stay until he knew dinner was being served and then he’d tear up the hill and home to keep from being late. Being late was a hittable offence.
It was rare that Mickey skipped school, but that first winter Monday was one of those days. He had homework due he hadn’t done. He’d built a new slingshot he wanted to test out, and a little photograph of his father he wanted to test it out on. To hell with school, today was his day.
So when his father dropped him off he hung his head and walked in, as soon as the car turned the corner he was off. He hadn’t packed any textbooks that day, but fresh clothes and lunchbox and the slingshot. He changed quickly and then left the gravel path so he could be sure he wouldn’t pass anyone else.
He found a clearing after a half hour of hacking through undergrowth and branches and thorns, and it was there he set up his target practice. He pinned the photograph of his father to a leaning tree and shot rocks at it until it was tatters. He turned his aim to birds, but they always seemed to fly away before he could hit them.
That was when he caught sight of the hunter, standing in the clearing and watching him with a big half smile on his face. He looked ragged and dirty. ‘You’re a good shot,’ he said.
Mickey lowered the slingshot and loaded another rock. He didn’t smile. If the guy tried anything he’d let off the rock and sprint as hard as he could.
‘Don’t worry, lad. I’m no danger. I’ll stay where I am. Don’t want to be on the wrong side of your sling, eh?’ he winked.
‘Who are you?’ Mickey said.
‘The name’s Harry. I’m a sort of ranger around here, you know? Keep the forest in order, pick up pollution, look after the animals.’
‘Live in here, actually.’
That piqued his interest. ‘Really?’
‘Aye. I like to live in the wild as much as possible. Gives you a real perspective on life, you know. Or maybe ye’r too young for that.’
‘Oh? Who’re you shooting at, there?’
‘That’s my dad.’
‘I don’t like him – he beats me. Mean bastard.’
The man laughed hard at that, slapping his knee and looking around as if to find someone who could share the joke with him.
‘You’re lively! Bastard! How old are you?’
They looked at each other for a while longer. Mickey kept his sling lowered but the stone stayed in the pocket. The man – Harry – held his gaze, the smile fading slowly and leaving a thoughtful expression. After a while, he said, ‘How’d ye like to learn how to lay a trap?’
Mickey showed up for school less and less after that. It would have been not at all, but Harry made him go. ‘You start going missing it’ll be the worse for you. Yer old man for one, and they’ll start putting restrictions on you for another. Watching you. So you better go just enough to keep em off your back, right?’
At first it was mostly training, not always riveting stuff but plenty more interesting than school. He’d rather shoot an arrow at a tree trunk a hundred hours a day than do one hour of school. At least arrow shooting was something you could use. And there were other useful things, too, like knot tying and trap laying and camouflage and moving in dead silence over leaves and twigs.
He was wary of Harry, but he soon realised there was nothing sinister about the man. He was a bit crazy, but harmless in the end – too nice to hurt a fly. They caught a rabbit in a trap, but it had babies and so instead of eating it Harry made Mickey let it go. ‘You don’t kill women or children, lad. It ain’t right. The very very old, maybe – that’s just nature, mercy killin.’
‘So who d’you go for, then?’ Mickey asked, watching his first catch go bounding off into the undergrowth.
‘You want to go for the strong males, the ones in their prime. They’re the ones that fight and cause trouble, anyway. ‘Course, with animals, a lot of the females hunt, but usually the males are the source of the violence, fighting over territory and women. That’s all an aside, though. Main reason is, it’s the best game. When you’re up against something in its prime, really thinking and on the ball – that’s the real challenge.’
He didn’t catch anything the first time they went proper hunting, or the second, or the third. Mickey couldn’t believe how hard it was to hit a moving target, especially when it was darting in and out of the tree trunks, getting further all the while.
‘You draw the bow back all the way, you breathe in and out nice and slow, right, take aim and remember to lead, relax, let the arrow go. You don’t shoot the arrow, you let the arrow go, know what I mean?’
For a year this went on. Games and talking by the fire and, when Mickey’s dad didn’t give him enough to eat for some punishment or out of neglect, he’d sneak down to the forest, rain or hail, and he’d always’ find Harry, soon enough, like as not roasting up some rabbits or a wild pig on the spit.
Harry said he’d lived in the forest for years. ‘Since I was a boy. Ran away from home because my ma went mad after my little sister died. Went right crazy, you wouldn’t believe half what I could tell you.’ He would always look somewhere else when he told stories about his past: into the fire, or up at the stars, or nowhere at all but the dark.
‘What happened to her? Your sister I mean.’ Mickey was tentative, sensing if he said the wrong word Harry might never talk of it again.
‘Killed.’ Was all he said. ‘By another who’d gone mad. Lot of madness around, when you think about it.’ And the way he grinned, with the moon and firelight casting weird shadows across his face, Mickey could believe it, alright.
‘What did you do about it?’ he said.
‘Hunted him,’ came the answer, almost too quiet to hear.
One of the days he had gone to school, Mickey’s father was waiting for him at home, with a report card in his hand. He wasn’t a big man, Mickey’s da, but he was hard as steel and always wired to explode, full of tension and electricity. He’d sit without moving, staring at the television in the dark for hours on end, but in a temper he could erupt in a flurry of blows so quick they’d hit you before you realised he was out of the chair.
Soon as Mickey walked in the front door he knew he was trapped. It was like being close to a lion – if it chose to attack, there was nothing you could do to stop it, and the only sure way to get it to attack in the first place was to run. All you could do was stand your ground and hope.
‘Not a step more, son.’ He growled. He had dark hair that hung over his face and a three day old beard. Neither of them had slept much since Mickey’s mother died, but now his father’s sleep came from a bottle.
‘What’s this I see on here? Eh?’ His voice always started quiet and then got loud as it went on. Mickey knew better than to interrupt, or speak at all for that matter. He gritted his teeth and poised to run.
‘D maths. B English. C art. D science. And what’s this here, down at the bottom? Sixty percent attendance, it says. Teacher’s concerned for child’s numerous absences throughout the term. Eh? JUST WHAT THE BLAZING HELL IS THIS?’
Mickey closed his eyes just in time, and opened them with the left side of his face half numb and half stinging, his ear ringing. The floor had somehow come up on his right side, but his father was still sitting where he had been, at the foot of the stairs, as if he hadn’t moved at all.
‘Your next one,’ he said, quiet again, ‘has attendance every class, and a lowest grade B, or you’ll suffer the worse for it. Understand?’ Mickey nodded.
‘What happened to yer face, ye stupid prick?’ Mark Reid approached him with this on the oval. He had five with him – he’d learned to do that after he realised Mickey was prone to fighting back.
‘Leave off, I’ve nothing on me.’ He was heading to the cricket pitches at the far end. He liked to sit there and read at lunch time, in the shade of the oaks where no one could see him. He was hunched over with his hands in his pockets, but now he took them out and straightened up a little. He still had a headache from the day before.
‘Dunno about that. We want to play some cricket, only we don’t have a ball. Maybe we’ll just take one of yours.’
‘Maybe you should grow some yourself.’ He replied, with a surge of pride. He’d thought that one up right there, on the fly. He threw a fist right at Mark’s surprised face, but it was the first and last of that quick fight.
‘Bloody Christ, who done that to you?’
‘Ah, no one. Let’s play tree tag a bit, can’t we?’
Harry squinted down at him, concerned.
‘Ah, no,’ he said, after a while. ‘This month I’m going to teach you how to fight.’
Sometimes at night they’d sit and tell each other stories. Mickey wasn’t that good though, so most times it would just be him sitting and Harry doing the telling. He’d go on about years he’d spent travelling through cities and then going to live out in the wilderness. He’d lived most of his life without ever earning or spending so much as a penny, he said. Everything he had came from using his own two hands.
‘Where’d you get that wicked knife, then?’
‘Stole it,’ he said, grinning.
‘What about your bow, and all the arrows?’
‘Ah, them I made.’
After more than a year escaping his life into the forest, Mickey learned that he could live in the wild, too. He’d always thought he had no choice but to have what his father called a ‘proper job’: an accountant or a banker, but now here was this tall, strong, cheerful man, more of a father than his real one had ever been, telling him he was born to live in nature.
‘You’re an animal,’ Harry told him, walking down to the lake where they would sometimes catch fish and filter water for drinking.
‘Fuck off!’ Mickey said, and received a smack on the back of the head.
‘No, idiot. Think about it. We’re all meant to be animals, cavemen, living off the land, hunting for our meat and sleeping in trees. Tell me you don’t feel it, walking through a wild place like this, full of animals and trees and lakes, tell me you don’t feel like you belong.’
In truth, Mickey was thinking of one of the time he’d camped out overnight in the forest with Harry, sleeping on a blanket of leaves and falling asleep with starlight on his face, but the feeling was the same. He nodded.
‘Tell me you don’t feel it when we’re on the hunt.’ He nudged him, and this time Mickey nodded without hesitation. Once he’d got good with the bow, the spear and the knife, hunting had become his favourite past time.
‘And that’s not even the best of it,’ Harry said, looking up at the sky. ‘Just wait till we start hunting a man.’
His father got him border collie puppy half way through his fourteenth year. There was no reason for it, to Mickey’s eyes. Nothing he’d done that deserved reward. His father gave him no clues: one day he got Mickey came home and the puppy ran up and licked him right in the face and pushed him up against the wall. His father was watching the rugby in the main room, expressionless. ‘Its name’s Finny,’ he said, without looking around.
Finny was hyperactive and loyal. He would fetch sticks and listen earnestly to everything Mickey told him. When Mickey took him into the forest to meet Harry they were instant friends, and within a week he was coming on hunts with them and doing a hundred tricks Mickey’d never have been able to teach him on his own.
For the first time in his life, Mickey felt a wave of gratitude to his father. Who knew why he’d done it – maybe he felt bad for hitting him so bad sometimes, or he thought Mickey’d been doing well lately. Whatever it was, Finny was the best thing that had ever happened.
He gathered up his courage one day – and it took courage all right, to talk to his father unbidden – and said thanks. His da gave him a funny look and then laughed, and that was the end of it. Almost. While he never played with the dog or did anything but feed it, now and again Mickey caught his father looking at Finny in a strange way. A mean, sly way that he’d never seen before. Finny didn’t mind, though – he just wagged his tail and whined.
‘Dunno if I want to, though. It’s murder, isn’t it?’ He asked Harry, on the eve of his first man hunt.
‘No, no. I mean it is, sure, but the men I go after, I always make sure they deserve it, first. I do my research, see, and always make sure that one or this one has something evil in his past. I hunted one who’d been touchin little boys, and another that’d killed his wife.’
‘The law doesn’t like it, of course. You can’t have just anyone doing this sort of thing. But you and me, Mickey, we’re highly trained professionals. And besides, I’ve taught you not to waste a scrap, haven’t I? Wasting is the real tragedy.’
‘You mean… We’ll eat him?’
Harry chuckled and ruffled his hair. ‘Not all of him, lad. We’ll give the bad bits to Finny, here.’
The man Harry had chosen was a dusk jogger. Harry hunted for potential pray by sneaking through the streets late at night and spying through windows, and he’d seen this one beating his girlfriend with a hockey stick the week before. ‘Damaged as she was, no tellin if she were even alive or not. Just imagine, eh, Mickey? A defenceless woman, probably some nice lady like one of your teachers, like that Miss Brien you like so much? Takin a beating from this bastard.’
Mickey did imagine it – Miss Brien with her nice eyes holding up her slender arms to some hulking enraged man. He tightened his grip on the bow.
‘There he is, now, see?’ Harry’s face was brightly lit. He dropped lower behind the bush and drew his hunting knife from his belt. It was just in case Mickey missed. Mickey peeked around a thick trunk and saw him, a well muscled man with a tattoo on his shoulder. Harry had taught him to immediately judge a person on sight. This one was about six one and weight around eighty kilogrammes. He was jogging with purpose, sweat dripping from his forehead and determination in his eyes.
‘Remember what I taught you, lad.’ Harry whispered.
Two weeks ago Harry had given him a demonstration. His strict orders were to stand back and take it all in. ‘You’ll get a moment where you want to run,’ Harry warned him. ‘Your mind will tell you it’s all wrong, and make you sick, and that you should run, but just resist it, it’ll pass.’ The prey then had been a wiry looking morning walker who beat his dogs until they died and bought a new one every other month.
He’d come walking down the path, the only walker at such an early hour, and Harry had stepped out in front of him with the knife out at his side and said loud and clear. ‘I’m here to kill you, ye dog murdering arsehole.’
The man had frozen mid stride and stared at him. He fumbled for his wallet and then the words hit home and he realised, as Harry came for him, what was going on. He sprinted, Harry sprinted, Mickey sprinted. It was all over in a few seconds. Harry caught up, tripped him, got on his back, slit his throat, and dragged him away. Without saying a word, he ran back to the path and covered the blood spatter and tracks with sand, mud and leaves.
‘You always tell them first, that you’re going to kill them,’ he told Mickey, still breathless with excitement. ‘To give them a chance. That one ran, but some of them fight, and you have to be ready.’
‘What if they win?’
He shrugged. ‘Then they were the hunter. You want to be the hunter, you better win.’
Nothing too bad had happened for a while, but one of the days he turned up to school they were on to him. It had been a while, maybe they were bored. He knew they were after him before they did, the way the grouped together when lunch bell sounded, glancing at him in the corner of their eyes now and then. He remembered Harry’s lessons.
He headed for the cricket pitches, like usual, book hanging in one hand and the other loose by his side. They were following him at a distance, closing in now. He waited for Mark’s first call. The taunts he always liked to get out before they really laid into him.
What they expect, do the opposite. Mickey spun around on the spot and stopped in his tracks. His eyes were wide, his mouth hanging open in an obscene smile like a circus clown. They all stopped. No one had ever seen a smile on Mickey, let alone this monstrosity. He spread his arms wide and laughed, loud and crazy.
Attack at the first sign of hesitation, surprise, or fear. They hesitated.
Every fight is a fight to the death. He came forward, reaching into his pocket. There was a little stick in there no longer than his index finger, sharpened to a razor end.
You’re an animal. Act like one. And always attack the leader. He slit Mark’s throat, not deep, but deep enough to draw lots of blood. He kicked him in the balls and pushed him back. The others were almost on him, already moving forward to attack – and then they saw what he’d done.
One of them cried out as Mark fell back into his arms, spraying blood into his face. The others backed away as if it was poison, and a couple looked at Mickey, who was still screaming laughter as he crushed the weapon under his foot (don’t leave evidence if you can).
He expected them to come for him, to try to kill him even, but they didn’t. It was all over. They were looking at him with something he’d never seen in their eyes before: real fear. And blood was still spurting from Mark’s neck. It wasn’t a deep enough cut to kill him, but that was fine.
‘Crazy, man.’ One of them muttered, eyeing him.
He laughed again, and then found he couldn’t stop. He laughed and laughed, and they dragged Mark away and called for help.
He stood in the middle of the path and called out to this man who had almost a foot and twenty kilos on him: ‘I’m going to kill you, for beating your girlfriend. Bastard.’
The man saw him, kept jogging, and then skidded to a stop when he raised the bow. Harry usually waited three seconds, because surprise was such a big advantage and it was important to be fair, but he said that since it was Mickey’s first hunt it was alright. Mickey took a deep breath in and out, saw his hands were suddenly steady, and let the arrow go. It went straight in with a thick sound, burying about half the shaft, the back end wobbling.
The man kept skidding on his knees in the gravel, and then stood up and came for Mickey, his eyes wide. Mickey had his knife out and was crouching, ready, but Harry got there first, ramming him against a tree just long enough for Mickey to plant two more arrows in his heart.
The next few minutes were wild activity, Harry dragging the body further out into the forest while Mickey covered the tracks with dirt and rocks. They made sure to keep well away from the area while the police searched the man’s jogging route, briefly. They didn’t find anything.
That evening, they ate some of him and buried the rest, giving the eyeballs and brain to Finny, who slurped it all down like it was a Christmas treat.
Mickey felt sick for days afterwards. Harry told him he’d feel sick at first, but when Mickey told him how he hadn’t been able to sleep for a week Harry just looked at him funny. ‘You’ve got to sleep,’ he said. ‘You need to stay aware.’
‘I just keep thinking of the guy, being dead. It’s all over for him, isn’t it? I mean, he doesn’t get to eat or breathe again, go on holiday or go jogging or…’
‘Or beat his girlfriend, eh?’ Harry was smiling but Mickey had seen the report on the missing jogger, and his girlfriend hadn’t looked too happy to be free of him at all. She’d been crying like her own mother was dead, it seemed to Mickey. It made him wonder if that black pool in his stomach wasn’t justified. It made him wonder a bit why Harry didn’t have a black pool in his stomach, too.
His report card was almost good enough. Almost. All As and Bs and even an A plus! But then there was that lonely D at the end, under the column marked ‘Mathematics’. He braced himself for attack, still the victim when his father was concerned, still afraid… but nothing came. His father sat at the kitchen table and looked at the card for a long time, saying nothing. Eventually, he muttered something and pointed at the stairs. Mickey didn’t eat dinner that night, nor breakfast the next morning, and that was it. No further mention.
He came home from school starting to feel almost as though he’d gotten away with it. He felt that way all the way home, right through the front gates and halfway up the drive to the front door. Then he looked up.
Finny was looking at him, right at him, with eyes that were once brown and now only white and red. Ragged, muddy fur. He ended at the neck, and where his body should be was only a splintery piece of wood jammed solidly in the unkempt weeds next to the front door. The wood was stained with blood right down to the ground, as thoroughly as if it had been painted.
Mickey stared at the head for a long time, his breath caught in this throat and his thoughts stopped in his head, so completely he wondered if he’d just stay that way forever: in pause. But time goes on, and soon his breaths came in quick gasps and his thoughts emerged as blind flashes of rage. Here, at last, was his punishment.
He pushed through the front door, glanced at his father who was sitting in the dark watching Television with a glass of scotch on the rocks like nothing had happened. He didn’t look around. Mickey headed upstairs, his mind a blank screen dyed red. His whole body was riveted with twitching energy, wanting to explode, destroy something.
He didn’t keep his bow in his room where his father might see it but in the broom cupboard, on a top shelf that held nothing else but darkness and cobwebs. He grabbed it along with a single arrow and headed back downstairs.
‘Stop stomping around everywhere, boy! You’ll bring the house down.’ His father called over his shoulder as he descended, already drawing back the tight string. He stepped up, three feet away now, aiming straight down at the back of his father’s head. Someone made a hard tackle on the screen and his father lifted both arms in the air, the ice clinking in the glass in his right hand, a whispery cry of delight escaping him.
Mickey’s hands didn’t shake; the arrow went just where it was supposed to, right through the centre of his father’s neck. It didn’t pass completely through, but the feathers on the back were touching his skin. Most of the shaft stuck right out from the front of his neck.
His hands went right to it, the glass shattering on the floor. The cry of delight was cut short into a rough gurgling. He rolled onto the floor and kicked his legs as if the arrow was something he could get away from. Mickey lowered the bow to his side and watched. A flash of bloodshot eyes, a mouth leaking blood, hands gripping the shaft of the arrow but not entirely sure what to do with it. It took two minutes for him to die.
Afterwards, Mickey went back upstairs and took the rest of his arrows, and then went into his room to pack. He didn’t have many things, but that was fine. He knew enough to live down in the forest by himself, even if Harry hadn’t been there to help him.
He left the house and headed down, but first he took Finny’s head under one arm. He realised for the first time his face was wet with tears, and took care to wipe them off before he headed for the trees. Harry saw his face, and then his eyes dropped down to the dog. ‘Jaysus. What happened?’ he said.
He gave Mickey a tin of hot water and sat him down on a tree stump by the fire where dinner was cooking. Mickey told him everything and he listened with a dark expression. He helped him bury Finney’s head nearby. ‘A loyal friend, so you were, rest in piece,’ he said. ‘I got him back, Finney. He’s cold an’ dead now,’ said Mickey.
They ate most of the roast animal – it tasted like venison – and drank the water in silence, until eventually Harry asked the crucial question. ‘So, what are you going to do now?’
He shook his head. ‘Dunno. Live with you I guess. I’ll find something.’
Harry nodded seriously. ‘Aye. Y’know, in a way, and hear me out, right – in a way it was a good thing. Finny dying gave you the strength to kill your old man, and sounds like he deserved it, eh? Finny gave you the strength to stand up and be a man. And now you’re your own man, you can do what you like. You can hunt down more like your father and kill them, too, sort of like I do.’
‘I kill them that’s like the one killed my sister. You have your cause, both of us do good in our own ways, because of what’s happened to them. Point is, like, in a way your old man did you a favour, killing that dog. He made you an enemy of all the bastards like him.’
He gave him a pat on the back and a half hearted smile. Something churned in Mickey’s stomach, but he didn’t know why. Harry kept talking, still serious but starting to get to his old cheerful self already, saying how they were going to do so much together, clean up the human race.
‘Not that it’s possible, that, really. But we can make a start, can’t we, we can make a difference, no matter how small it is it’s still worth it. And what if we found more like me and you, eh? And trained them up, got a whole organisation going? Who knows?’
There that churning was again, but it was as much a mental churning as a physical one. Some instinct trying to tell him something he wasn’t listening to. Always listen to your instincts, Harry taught him. Or was it something he ate?
He looked at what remained of the roast, set aside on a sheet of metal beside the fire. It was unrecognizable mostly, just burned meat and bones. There was, however, a leg they hadn’t gotten around to eating. It didn’t look like deer, and it was much too big for rabbit. It was nothing like Mickey’d ever eaten before, for sure. The leg was cut at the ankle so it was impossible to tell by footprint, but it was familiar. Particularly the long cut about halfway along the shinbone. Finny had a scar just there; she’d got it trying to chase a rabbit through a vicious thorn patch.
That churning. Harry was still talking, starting to smile now, going on about all his ideas, all the things they were going to do, how they were really heroes that no one understood. Mickey felt like someone was pouring a bucket of cold water over him in slow motion.
Unless you’re on a hunt, hit without warning, and fast.
But Harry had seen the look in his eyes. That was breaking one of the rules, showing what you were thinking of doing with your eyes – only there was a moment when Mickey looked at Harry and Harry saw what was going on, and he dove forward and sprayed a handful of ashes into Mickey’s eyes.
Mickey had slipped his knife into his pocket when he packed, and he came forward with it now, blind, because it was the only chance he’d ever get. If Harry got away Mickey would never see him again. He would become one of Harry’s problems, and Harry would hunt him down and stop him being a problem.
The knife hit earth, grazed cloth, and then sunk into something soft. Mickey was fast, and he struck three times before Harry got his own knife around. It was meant to pierce his heart from the back but instead it glanced off his shoulder blade. Mickey got in a few more blows, pressing down on Harry and feeling with his hand so he knew he was getting close to his face. Harry sunk the blade into his left shoulder.
Mickey kept stabbing. Even when Harry went limp, he stabbed, until the blood that covered them started getting cold.
He crawled over to some bushes and vomited the pieces of Finny he’d eaten. He checked his wounds, and decided they were bad, but not bad enough for a hospital. He stitched them up the way Harry taught him. Night fell.
The police searched for the missing boy who they said was also a suspect for the murder of his own father. He had a history of violent behaviour at school, and the disappearances over the years in the nearby forest pointed nowhere good. They searched, but he forest was vast and they found nothing. The curfew was extended to five thirty in all areas immediately surrounding the forest, and citizens were told to be on the watch for a probably malnourished, ragged looking teenager, who may be dangerous.
In 2009, A young Markus Reid did not arrive at school one morning. His friends all testified that he was an enemy of the missing boy, who had reportedly slit his throat in one confrontation.
Less than six months later a notorious gangster by the name of Goldy went missing by the now infamous Keyneton forest and parklands. He was not the last. His body was never found.