Her skin is raw and pink, fleshy-soft like the fat chicken fillets my mother brings home from the butcher’s that I poke through the plastic bag. I reach out into the darkness of the garage and stroke the tips of my fingers along the back of the girl’s neck.
“I don’t think they’ll find us in here,” the girl says in a broken whisper.
“Sure that’s the whole point a’ hide and seek,” I whisper back, “for them not to find us.”
The next morning, the girl’s father gives me this look and tells the girl to stay where she is. The same look my mother gave me when she found the crow. I saw this crow dead on the grass at the park so I tucked it into my fleece and took it home, pushed it into an empty biscuit tin and left it in the garage.
“Why?” my mother kept asking when she found it, “Why?”
I just shrugged. She looked at me like she didn’t recognise me.
I try to forget about the girl as I walk with the others up to the boarding school. It’s dead in summer besides a few foreign exchange students roaming about in tanned groups with their matching school bags.
“They must be like, ‘What the fuck?’ when they end up in a shithole like this for the summer.” My brother Tadhg drips out mid Dip Dab, the sherbet crusting in the corners of his mouth.
“Especially when they’re from like Spain, or wherever.” His friend Jude has been wearing the same denim shorts every day since school holidays started a few weeks ago.
“That one’s cute,” Kim giggles out, sticking a finger into Tadhg’s sherbet.
“The one with the small head?” I stare at the gang of fellas Kim nods at, seeing nothing noteworthy about any of them. Kim always knows what she likes. I spend all my time wondering what’s my favourite colour, or movie, or book. I tell my mother I won’t be having any children, that I’ll marry some old fella who already has grown-up ones of his own. She says I’ll change my mind.
The four of us drag through the tall field of wheat grass, the beige whipping around whacking one of us every so often in the face. Jude keeps an eye on the sky, decides when we’re at the best spot to flatten down a circle and sit around munching sweets. I’ve a gobstopper. I take it in and out of my mouth to give my jaw a rest, my hands glistening like an oil slick.
“Truth or Dare?”
“Neither,” I spit at Jude.
“You always say that, you’re some bore. Dare!” Kim always picks dare, hoping someone will dare her to kiss Tadhg and Kim will act all coy until Tadhg makes the first move because that’s a fella’s job, apparently. Then when they go off kissing, I’m stuck with Jude and I know he has no more interest than I do. We did kiss once, my first, not that I told him. I’ve kissed Kim too but we don’t talk about that and it doesn’t count as a kiss when the question comes up, as it does with a vengeance the summer we’re eleven, and the boys are thirteen.
“Alright Kim, I dare you to…” Jude glances round. I start pulling at my eyelashes wishing I brought a book. “Run through the field with your arse out.”
“What? Jude, gross!” Kim’s bottom lip guts out, her eyebrows scrunch as she twirls a sandy lock through her fingers.
“It’s just your arse.” Tadhg gives Jude this look that tells him to leave her alone.
“Grand,” says Jude, “I’ll go first. Once ye see the wind gently brushing my arse, ye’ll be mad to join me.”
“You must hold your arse in very high esteem Jude.” I stare up at him as he unbuttons. He’s handsome in a disfigured way, as if he broke all the bones in his face and they healed so that he’s interesting enough to be considered good-looking.
“Nobody will love you until you learn to love yourself.” He grins at me and runs free of his denim shorts.
I’m forever looking in the mirror, my mother laughing at me, calling me vain. But I’m not admiring myself, just trying to recognise my face, to try and feel some kind of connection to it. All my features are missing something, like a room with faded wallpaper where photographs used to hang. It’s like I moved out of myself when he moved out for the last time.
“Wait for me!” Kim’s knickers crumple on her button-front white miniskirt as she sprints after Jude. I stay sitting with Tadhg, smiling as we watch our best friends dance about the wheat, their pale arses twinkling in the sun.
“That was liberating.” Kim and Jude flop down next to us, pulling rushed-up underwear into place.
“You guys have really freaked out the foreigners.” Tadhg points to a line of tanned faces looking out from over the hockey pitch fence in our direction. Kim throws up her right hand, waves with her fingers and shouts, “Yoo-hoo!” The faces smile and turn away from us, back to their hockey game. Kim tucks her feet under my thighs, I pull at them.
“Kim stop will ya?”
“My toes are cold.”
“Stick ‘em under your own bloody legs.”
“Cool it,” Tadhg says so only I can hear him.
I start to think about the girl. I try to think up a story, the kind that would make people feel sorry for me. I can only think of the ordinary depressing shite that happens to everyone in this town. I think about the Evangelicals that used to call when we were children, when my mother was first alone, with their strange bibles that are so much smaller than ours.
“How is she now?” they asked, mumbled to each other about my “behaviour”. My mother pawned off the question with an uncomfortable laugh and changed the topic.
“Your arm is bleeding!” Kim grabs the stick from my right hand.
“I just scratched it.”
“You’re always just scratching.” Kim stares at my clawed fingers, scratching nail to nail.
“I’m frozen,” I say, “let’s go.”
We gather up, brush past the hockey game and down the hill home.
“That girl from over the road call?” I search for place mats, one a mismatched sunny landscape against the woven set of four. There’s supposed to be four people in your family for dinner, I know that much.
“No, sure ye weren’t here. What would she be wanting with me?” My mother passes glasses from the cupboard to me over her shoulder.
“Will I take Kim home after dinner?”
I’m always asking my mother to take Kim home and Kim is always asking me to stay at her house. She gives me the phone to call and ask permission. They’ve no landline so I have to use her mother’s mobile, her whole family sitting around listening. My mother always asks, “Do you want to stay?” and I try to answer in a way that will let her know I don’t want to without Kim and her family knowing, saying something like, “I wouldn’t know.”
For a while Kim’s family didn’t have a landline or a mobile so we’d use the payphone down the road. One time I was walking to Kim’s and it rang.
“Who you callin’ for?” I asked after silence answered my hello.
“Some days are harder than others,” the voice said to me. Kim says she never heard the phone ringing. Later I found out payphones are handy for calling drug dealers because the calls are hard to trace.
“I’ll take Jude with me and all. What happened to your arm?”
“I scratched it.” I look down at the crusted blood running down my forearm.
“Clean it will ya? There’s bit of God knows what stuck in it.”
I walk past the back door, open to the sounds of Tadhg, Jude and Kim jostling around the basketball hoop. Tadhg’s arms are out either side of Kim as she backs into him, dribbling the ball, Kim looking over her shoulder all suggestive, Tadhg’s hands gripping her hips and Jude having to busy himself patting the dog. I turn back to my mother.
“I just wanted to see what’d happen.”
“The crow in the biscuit tin.”
“Jesus, that was months ago.” She pours boiling water into the instant gravy, angrily stirring to try and kill the lumps. “Dinner!” She shouts out the kitchen window without looking at me. Tadhg and Kim snap apart.
At dinner, feet flail all over the place under the table, trying to find the right ones to rub up against. The cat rubs against mine.
“Hi.” The girl is in the kitchen, all teeth and knees.
“We’re at our dinner at the minute love, call back over tomorrow.”
“I’m not really supposed to be here.” Her skinny limbs lift like they’re on strings, her eyes lifeless.
“Even more reason for you to head away home there.” My mother’s voice grows impatient.
“I’m not supposed to be here because…” the girl looks at me, “because my dad says it’s not ‘propriate for me because I’m younger and maybe get taken ‘vantage of.” Silence falls on the table. Tadhg, Kim and Jude all look into their laps. What had they done to the girl?
“Why don’t you head back over the road? I’ll have a chat to your father tomorrow.” The girl lingers until my mother gives her a gentle nudge out through the doorway. She pauses one last time on the ledge to look back at me before taking herself and her dead eyes home.
“Thank fuck. Hope that’s the last we see of her.”
“Tadhg, mind your tongue! After dinner I’ll take you home Kim. You too Jude.”
“I’m grand here,” Jude mumbles out through a mouth full of potatoes.
“I’m grand too.” Kim looks at Tadhg.
I scratch my palms. My mother looks at the four of us in turn.
“Fine,” she sighs. “How’s the chicken? I left the skin on for a treat.”