THE BULLY BULLY
Street lights intermittently flushed the interior of the car orange through the sun roof as they navigated the streets of Sheffield.
Sammy stared out of the passenger window trying to seem interested in the grey, plastic-clad housing blocks that huddled together by the side of the ring road. If she didn’t make eye contact with her mum, perhaps the woman would leave her alone. A child’s game. Look away and no one can see you. But she’d been treated like a child, and now she felt like acting like one.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” It was the first time her mum had spoken since leaving the head’s office.
“You’re turning into a bully like your father?” She’d only said it to get a reaction, but Sammy couldn’t let the comment go unchallenged.
“I’m nothing like him.” She made eye contact. “Don’t ever compare me to him.”
“You’ve been suspended for beating up kids in the year below you. I’d say that sounds a lot like him.”
“Five big college lads in the year below me,” she said, staring back out of the window. “Five seventeen-year-old boys versus me. By myself. I’d hardly call them kids. And they were attempting to bully me. Not the other way round.” She tried to sound like the conversation was boring her. “Although, if you saw what they looked like after I’d finished with them, I suppose you could call that bullying.”
“That’s not funny.” Her mother let out a long, shuddering exhalation.
Sammy wondered how long she’d been crying for and whether some of it was for effect.
“One of those boys is in hospital with a broken arm because of you,” her mother said. “If he presses charges you’ll wind up with a criminal record. You know you’re old enough to get one, right?”
“He tripped off the curb when I came at him. He landed badly. I didn’t even touch him.”
Her mum’s mascara had run and she looked like a sad, pouty panda. Sammy went back to staring out of the window. Her stomach was tying itself in knots. She hadn’t meant to make her mum cry, but she resented being made to feel like it was always her fault. It had been five against one. How could she be to blame? It was because she’d taken Reece’s spot on the football team. And because she was a girl. It was as simple as that. The only South Yorkshire team in the league with a female striker. They should be proud, they were pioneers. But was her college celebrating equality? Were they, heck. She was their best player. She’d even saved them from relegation last season. Why couldn’t the less talented players cheer her on from the subs bench and be happy to be a small part of her victories?
“I don’t understand what happened to you, Sammy.” Her mum just wouldn’t let it go. “This is the third time I’ve been in the head’s office this term. Do you want to get expelled from Manor Rise too? You used to be such a sweet girl …”
“… before I came back from Perseopia.”
“I thought we’d stopped talking about that place.”
“You hoped we’d stopped talking about it.”
“Why do you think these boys pick on you, when you’re completely disconnected from reality?”
So this is what it was really about. “How am I disconnected from reality, mother? Is it because of the fantasy world I travelled to? Because you know you’re the only person I told about that, the
one person I hoped would believe me. I haven’t told anyone else.” Sammy sighed. “Trust me, I know how crazy it sounds.”
“You’re distracted all the time. Vacant. You never engage with anyone.”
“The fight started because I humiliated Reece and Connor at football. Nothing to do with me being vacant. Anyway, I’m part of a team. Isn’t that engaging with people?”
The remainder of the journey home was a silent one. They parked on the road outside their stunted terrace house, then her mum left her on the pavement as she walked away up the alley between their house and the neighbour’s.
Sammy stayed where she was, psyching herself up for the argument that would continue inside.
One of the street lights flickered overhead. She gazed up past it at the dark sky and the three stars visible through the city’s light pollution. She liked the night. Liked the lack of people and noise. The air seemed fresher somehow, full of excitement and opportunity.
She could walk away. Give her mum some breathing space. Come back later when she’d calmed down. But that wasn’t going to happen this time. Better to go in and get the rest of the argument over with.
“Mum …” she said as she closed the kitchen door behind her.
“The time for talking is over. I’ll leave your dinner outside your bedroom door.”
This was new. She didn’t even sound angry. Was she resigned to the fact her only child was a delinquent? A lost cause, maybe? Sammy wasn’t about to let that lie. “The time for talking never started. Every time I try, you shut me out.”
“How can I listen when you tell me stories of secret worlds filled with crabmen?”
Sammy was done. She walked away, climbed the stairs to her bedroom and closed the door. She dropped her rucksack by the bed, planted her face as deep into her pillow as she could, and
screamed. When she ran low on oxygen, she lifted her head, took a breath, then shoved her face back into the pillow and screamed again.
She got up and, clutching the pillow to her chest, walked to the dresser to look at herself in the mirror. A raging she-beast with messy hair and a red face glared back from the other side of the frame. She looked a state. Her mum had turned her into this crazed person that stood before her.
Always the same argument. Her mother was the lost cause. Not her. She’d at least tried talking to the woman.
“I’m not staying here,” she said to herself. She punched the pillow back at the bed and got her mobile out. She scrolled through the contacts list, tapped on a number and put the phone to her ear.
“Hiya,” came the tinny reply.
“I need a goalie. Meet me outside my house in twenty minutes.”
“I need to revise for my General Studies A-Level.”
“Do you really need to revise for that?”
“My mum said …”
“You’re eighteen, Wayne, technically an adult. Why don’t you grow a pair? And when you’ve done that, be over here in twenty minutes.” And she hung up.
Sammy sat down at her dresser. She occasionally wondered if Perseopia had ever happened, whether it was a figment of her imagination that she’d created to escape her mundane reality. Yet, bizarrely, her time in Perseopia was the only part of her life that had ever felt real. It was her current existence that seemed like someone else’s. An infinite grey corridor of closed doors. A linear first person shooter. No alternative paths, no bonus quests and no opportunities. College, home, argument, bed, college, football, fight, headmaster’s office, home, argument, bed.
Sammy concentrated on a pencil resting on her desk. Imagined all the molecules connected throughout the wooden structure, willing it to move. It wobbled, tilted, and the hexagonal prism
tipped over onto its next flat side, then the next, and the one after. Soon the pencil was rolling along the table.
Sammy stopped it with the palm of her hand.
If she’d never been to Perseopia, then how was that possible? Unless it was all in her mind like her mother had tried to convince her, and which, during her darkest moments, she had almost believed. She’d tried to show her mum the pencil trick a couple of times, but the woman never paid attention. Whenever the ‘fantasy land’ was brought up, her mum stiffened and switched off.
Sammy had found it difficult to readjust to life back in Sheffield despite spending less than a week in Perseopia. There she’d been important. Enough to be hunted by both the magi and the Order. Then she’d been dumped back into the real world where she had no purpose and no one wanted her. No one except her mother, and that was only at first, until Jerry came along. They’d lost their closeness soon after.
She should’ve stayed in Perseopia. Ramaask had gone into the cataclysm, the magi would’ve defeated the crabmen soon after, the slaves would’ve been freed and eventually order would’ve been restored to the realm. Sammy might even have become a magus by now if she’d remained.
She stared into the mirror. The psycho stared back. She should at least make an effort for Wayne, seeing as he was coming over for her to kick footballs at. Not that he was her boyfriend, but that didn’t stop him trying to fill the vacancy. She should at least throw him a bone every once in a while and make herself look presentable. Surely he wouldn’t put up with being her on-call goalie forever. Although it had worked for a surprisingly long time.
Sammy got up from the desk, swapped her jeans for leggings, put on a black t-shirt and red scarf combo that she figured looked as close to cool as she’d ever manage, and scraped her blond mop back into a ponytail. She needed something else. Make-up was too good for Wayne. Even accessories were a stretch, but what the
hell? She’d do it this one time. Her mum would have something she could pilfer.
On the carpet outside her bedroom door sat a cheese-spread sandwich on a paper plate.
A poor approximation of a Mariah Carey arpeggio warbled up the stairs from the sitting room, letting Sammy know that her mother had settled in to watch a TV talent show. Sammy stepped over the sandwich, crept along the landing to her mum’s bedroom and went straight to the dresser. New items would be stashed there.
Her mother spent more than she could afford each month on clothes and, because she always dressed younger than she should, there was usually something worth borrowing. Sammy rummaged through the drawers to see if there was anything new or interesting. Surprisingly, there wasn’t.
Sammy moved on to the jewellery boxes stacked on top of the dresser. Her mother rarely wore jewellery yet she’d still managed to accrue three boxes worth. Some were bound to be presents from Jerry, worn once then discarded and left to tarnish in their mother of pearl inlaid coffins.
Sammy never wore jewellery. She didn’t really see the point. It wasn’t as if it had a purpose other than to draw attention to you. Perhaps tonight she’d find something that would persuade her otherwise.
As a kid she’d spent hours rummaging around in these boxes, dressing up in all the sparkly necklaces and rings, then at some point in her formative years she’d lost interest. From that point onwards it had been comics, books and video games.
She lifted down the boxes, arranged them in a crescent on the floor, sat in the middle, then emptied each one in turn into separate piles.
There was a selection of rings, some plain, some jewelled. There were necklaces in silver, gold, and plastic. And then there were the hoop earrings. Millions of them, and all virtually identical. Sammy smiled when she recognised a plastic tiara with the silver paint
flaking off. It had been her favourite thing in the world when she’d been five. She thought her dad had binned it years ago when she’d failed to eat the macaroni and cheese he’d microwaved for her. Her mum must’ve rescued it from the rubbish.
Guilt pierced Sammy’s heart like an adamantium claw through the ribcage. She couldn’t carry on being angry with her mum. She’d go downstairs and apologise. Her mum was in the wrong, but she’d hold her tongue and fix the relationship. Standard. She began packing the jewellery away, but as she dropped a bundle of knotted necklaces into one of the boxes, a delicate gold chain caught her eye. The only golden item in the box that hadn’t tarnished.
Sammy took hold and pulled at it. The chain snagged, but a second tug released a golden locket into her lap.
Sammy tilted the locket in the light. There was a burning sun engraved on the front, and on the back an inscription in the unusual looping script of Avestan; a language that she’d never been taught, but one that she’d magically known how to translate and read since her visit to Perseopia.
“A wish can be as good as a map.”
Sammy shakily picked up her mobile and redialled the last called number.
“Hiya,” came the tinny reply again. “I’m nearly at your house …”
“Turn around, Wayne,” Sammy said. “I’m not coming out tonight.”
And she hung up.