Monday, September 16, 2019

Bunker by Harrison Abbott

Harrison Abbott's musically gifted character plots a long-festering revenge against a playground bully.

People talk about bad parenting, rough upbringings and ego when they try to explain sadism. They say it proves maturity to recognise somebody else's perspective. Then you'll learn to forgive the person. If they do something mean to you, just forgive them, because it's not about you, it's about them. But I already understood this notion as a boy. And it didn't work.

A pigeon. I felt a thud on my backpack, turned and looked. This blue-grey lump of mashed feathers, lying on the grass. I looked up, and he was there. Calum Lowe. An enormous grin on his face, mirrored on the faces of his friends, who were my regular tormentors. Calum was always the worst of them. I stood by the dead bird, and they walked past me guffawing. When I got back to the playground at the end of lunch break, the news had already surfed around the children. How Calum had thrown a dead bird at me.

When I say Calum was the worst, I mean his skills as a tormentor were the most profound of all. He whacked me between the legs the first time I met him. That was in the first year of high school, when I was trying to make friends. Aged eleven, equipped with the tactic of polite conversational questions, I came up behind Calum and his friends in the lunch queue and I asked him a football question. What team he supported, or something similar; and he backhanded me in the testicles as an answer.

Then there was the P.E. changing room underwear prank. And the incident when he stole my phone and told me it was hidden somewhere in the playground. Then when I found it, the screen was smashed. Another time Calum robbed my homework jotter, copied my answers, because he hadn't done the work, then kept the jotter so I would get a row from the teacher for leaving it at home... But the dead bird, that was the catalyst. I didn't do anything in response that day. Yet, I knew I would retaliate, one day.

Such a thing is not simple. In the days following the attack, I conjured all kinds of ideas. Gradually but steadily, the correct one took its form.

I already avoided Calum and his friends when walking home from school, because we took the same route. After the bell, I'd hang back and wait for them to walk ahead, then follow at a distance. The route led through a half-mile of woodland, with the neighbourhood the far side of the trees. Thus I could already observe Calum from behind, five days of the week. Most importantly, Calum was left alone for approximately six minutes in the woods at the end of the walk. His friends all took the early exit out the woods, because they lived the other way.

Therefore, the six-minute window, and the coinciding stretch of the path when he was alone, were my parameters. I studied this area, and the wooded parts either side of the path. Which were the thickest parts of shrubbery; what couldn't be seen from the path; how likely somebody would find the chosen spot. And I found the best place, where the ivy was heavy and tree branches arched over a depression in the ground.

There, I began digging.

I did it at night, almost every night. I'd use the tools from the garden shed. The earth was rough and filled with boulders. But I enjoyed the toil, and after a month or so, I had a deep hole. I went to Homebase and bought some tarpaulin, so the hole would be dry inside. Then fashioned a waterproof roof with wood and more tarpaulin. I placed the ivy strands back over the roof for camouflage. By late spring it was nearly complete. When I began to decorate the hole's interior, it became more than just a 'hole'. It became my Bunker.

Then the summer came, bringing the holidays. My plan's execution was delayed. I wouldn't be seeing Calum for six weeks. But being inside the Bunker gave me meaning. I began to spend days there, taking books and food with me, lighting the place by candles at night. The Bunker became my bedroom. My mother began to wonder where I was so often. I told her I was hanging out with Alfie down the road. The lie worked. Alfie was a real person. But I wasn't friends with him, didn't know him.

It all changed when I took my mini keyboard to the Bunker. When I did that, I invented a creative asylum. I stocked up on fat batteries, and practised the keys for hours. I'd play along with songs on my phone. Beatles, Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, oh, glorious music: I developed a decent skill. Then I began to write my own songs and sang them over and over. Being underground allowed my music to blossom. By the end of the holidays, I had about 20 songs in my repertoire.

Things had changed when school resumed for the 3rd year. They'd separated the children into tiered classes based on previous test scores. I was placed mostly in the upper classes, whereas a whole fleet of kids I'd known in the first two years, including Calum Lowe, were relegated elsewhere. My tormentors were no longer around.

I mean, I would still see Calum in school, but his sustained classroom threat was gone. When he saw me, he didn't do anything. Seemed to have lost interest, which I found odd. When he passed me with his gang in the corridors, there were no words. Had he matured? I didn't buy it, and I hadn't forgotten. And of course, I still followed him every day after school.

September and October were still quite warm. November brought the cold, which I always prefer, and, being a Scorpio myself, it was the ideal month to deliver my plan in.

It was a Monday. I'd hidden the mallet in the woods so that it wouldn't be found in my bag at school. Hidden in a plastic bag alongside the black tape and garden gloves. On that early evening, the sky was turning a merry pink, when Calum's cronies exited the early path from the woods. I saw Calum turn and wave to them, grinning. As his head moved, he caught my sight down the path. His expression didn't change. Though he hesitated... He walked on in the pink light. I followed.

I counted the seconds as I sped up. His tall frame lumbered ahead, face down. I retrieved my things under the bushes by the path, slipped the gloves on. Only 56 seconds, and he still didn't know how close I was. I said his name, and he turned, and looked down at me:

"Hey! Little man! Not seen you in a while - how's it going?" I was so glad he said this. I swung the mallet diagonally and caught him on the left temple.

He buckled and hit the path, knocked out. Then came the tricky part. How to carry him to the Bunker. Calum was about a foot bigger than me. And I hadn't planned for his heavy schoolbag or boots. So I was cursing my own lack of foresight when I first picked him up, swearing at myself in a frenzy. But I was able to drag him round the nearest bushes, where I paused and filled my lungs up. Then I wrapped the black tape around his mouth, and his eyes. I removed his bag and boots and dragged him across to the Bunker.

Rolled him inside, hopped down and tied his feet and hands together, the four limbs together in one fat knot, and put him on his front to avoid suffocation by vomiting. When I got back with his bag and boots, he was still unconscious.

I'd done it all so quickly and it'd been fairly easy. Shouldn't have been angry with myself beforehand. I had my ultimate tormentor captive in my Bunker. And I'd told my mother I was going to a football game with Alfie that night, and would be home late. So I had the first night with Calum all to myself.

I knew he wasn't in any serious physical danger at that point. He'd regained consciousness before too long, and as I'd anticipated, he started to panic shortly after. He bellowed through the tape around his mouth and shook his limbs against the rope. I'll admit I was afraid of his struggle. It was also exhilarating, and the ropes held him, and he eventually became exhausted. I leaned to his head:

"Calum. I need you to keep still for the time being. I'll give you some water in a few hours."

His boots and bag were still annoying me so I left the Bunker and hid them elsewhere in the woods. Full night had come and in the dark I felt better than I'd been mentally for a long, long time. When I returned to Calum, he groaned when I shut the Bunker roof.

I sat down opposite Calum, next to my keyboard. And I played. I felt every nuance of the keys splayed in my fingers. The melodies came through the chords, as light-dots through foliage of summer trees. I sang my songs to him. I would talk to him in between the tracks. I got a little teary during the saddest one, which was about a girl. And when I turned around and saw him crying, I thought he was moved the same way.

I thought he was crying over the song's beauty. But that wasn't the reason, and it offended me, and I didn't give him the water I'd promised that night.

I made sure I knew the football score before I got home in case mother should ask, and went to school as normal the next day. I felt sublime during class, with a distraction I'd never known before, wondering how I would perform to Calum that night.

When I got into the Bunker, he was writhing about. He'd knocked over my things and caused a mess. Even upended my keyboard.

"Calum," I said to him, "you need to calm down. I have some water for you."

I splashed some of the water on his face and it seemed to register with him. I ripped the tape off his mouth and he drank. So god-like, I felt, watering him. But I hated it too. And then he started yelling, so I whacked him with the mallet until he dropped out. Then put more tape on his mouth.

I played more songs to him that night when he awoke. All of them, all 20, the whole way through, and didn't make any mistakes. Perfect concert.

Next day in school, the word was pulsing that Calum Lowe was missing. I can't say whether I felt furtive, or smug. I didn't sweat, or glow. Just completed the day, then went home, then went to the Bunker.

I'd brought a can of ravioli for him. And told him that if he screamed again when I took off the tape, it would result in more mallet-blows. I fed him with a spoon and watered him, then put the tape back over his mouth and played more of my songs.

The following two days were that same procedure. Ravioli, water, songs. But really, 'procedure' is the wrong word. The nights when I serenaded Calum, I became somebody else. I would watch his expression each time I played. His eyebrows and cheeks would move by my words, most of all when I did the angry ones. There were, of course, so many references to the playground horror, the gory daily life of high school, in the lyrics. I even gave Calum a pseudonym in a cycle of the songs, and one was about the dead bird incident. He was an attentive audience throughout the entire opus. That can never be denied.

On day three of Calum's missing status, the school was in pandemonium. Everybody discussing what had happened to him, whether he was dead, whether he'd left for good, bailing on his parents. Had he run away from home, just like all the other kids wanted to do?

By day four, there were policemen within the school grounds, speaking to the teachers and Calum's closest friends, who became suspects after each of them were taken out of class. Fantastic stories evolved over which friend betrayed the mighty Calum Lowe...

Would anyone have ever guessed it was all me? If I hadn't been clumsy with the Bunker's security?

I played a final concert to Calum on that Thursday night, and when I returned on the Friday afternoon, he was gone. Escaped. The roof of the Bunker was wide open. He'd managed to get out, somehow, blind, soiled and demented. I should have thought about security more.

But I had planned for that as well: what I would do if he escaped.

I had a decent chunk of birthday/Christmas money in my account. And I'd left a bag of survival-type gear ready in the Bunker itself. My town was on the cusp of the countryside, and then a national park. I left home without a word to mother, and I took a bus two hours out into the sticks. Deep into the wild, I lived by a tent and fires by night to survive against the winter cold. I'd packed my bag up with canned soup, and I bathed and drank from the woodland river.

Being alone within a vast woodland is unlike anything you'd expect, if delved in for long periods of time. The zapping powers of the voiceless trees and the unforgiving beauty of the long spaces between them. I was in those woods, alone, throughout the winter, until spring. I do not regret being in the woods for that long a time. It was revelatory.

And I could have stayed longer. But, it was music that ended me. The magic of music kept returning. John Lennon and Brian Wilson would bat me about with their melodies. I'd sing their tunes over and over in the wilderness, and I had no instrument to channel it anywhere.

When my food supplies were dwindling, I needed to re-enter civilisation. A supermarket in a village south of the woods. It was a mistake. I knew it would be, to go there. I had the money, and I didn't look like too much of a vagabond. The antiseptic light of the place just fried me. And the modern, awful pop music on the ceiling speakers just tipped me over.

I returned to the woods and I tried to settle back into isolation. But the supermarket had poisoned me. I pondered suicide, but I chose to return home instead. And I submitted myself to the authorities.

I didn't go to my mother's first. I went straight to the local police station. I was arrested, and charged. Apparently, I was quite famous. And I couldn't attend the trial physically for this reason. I had to watch it via video-link.

Nor could I testify, or give a 'direct statement' - oh, I'm not sure what the specific jargon was.

Honestly, I don't remember much of it. I do remember one poignant bit in the trial: that Calum Lowe had brain damage after his incarceration within my Bunker. The opposition lawyer kept bringing this up, that he had lifelong brain injuries. From my mallet blows to his skull, or psychological trauma - don't know.

The final result was that I was incarcerated. They've put me in isolated confinement. A high-security institution that most likely I will never leave. It's been about four years, my tenure here. I barely see any person, often for days. I've never been violent or angry towards the people I do see, because they offer no reason for me to be.

I don't know, as I say, what exactly happened to Calum. I don't even know what happened to my Bunker. It was a good creation of mine. You have to admit that, right? I suppose I'll never find out what became of it, because I'll never go back home again.

I do know that the same memories of Calum's cruelty, from my youth, still attack me daily. They are so useless, yet his hooks never go blunt as they hack away at my mind. Him, and all the other tormentors. What they said to me, and why they said it; they all pick the same slogans; they're unified in being cruel.

The memories never end. Sometimes I get so angry I just slap myself in my cell. I slap the walls too. Until my hands are red and I enjoy the stinging pain, imagining a rejection of those insults, hushing all those voices.

There is only one thing that preserves me: Music.

The people at this institution are okay. I eventually persuaded them to let me keep a keyboard in my cell. Basic Casio, 54-keys. It's cheap, but it sounds glorious. And, if I was good as a boy on the keys, I'm a genius as a man now. This talent is all I am, all I'm good for. I still see the light-dots through the foliage of summer trees as I sing Strawberry Fields Forever and my own songsalike.

When I play, I need nobody to speak to. I hear nothing of the past, though the past has made me.

3 comments:

  1. A perceived lack of respect is a main cause of violence...tense tale of an obsession. Music was his only friend, but it's a good one.

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  2. Interesting choice to leave the narrator unnamed, lends a certain scariness thinking anyone could have this sadistic streak lying just beneath the surface. Calum most definitely picked the wrong victim.

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  3. Very effective. Brings back memories of school-yard bullies I have known. The line "I fed him with a spoon and watered him" presents his twisted voice perfectly. Stephen King like. Scarry good.

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