I kneel on the back seat of the bus and wave goodbye to Mama. She blows kisses with one hand and in the other she clutches a hanky to the chest of her pink robe, the one that Daddy got her for Christmas that put her in a bad mood. It's summer now and she's not in a bad mood anymore. Before the bus reaches the corner, she turns and heads back to the house, tapping the hanky to her eyes. I face front, slip down to sit on the seat and look at the back of strangers' heads. I take a deep breath like Mama said I should do and remind myself that I'm ten now and I'm a big boy and shouldn't be nervous. The bus smells of wet.
When the bus stops for the last time, we all get off and I follow the others into a big building with flags outside. There's a small line at a big wooden desk and I stand behind Maysyn Vermont who was the smartest kid in my class but isn't my friend anymore so I don't say hello to him and he doesn't say hello to me. Something makes a noise that goes Bang! Bang! and my insides jump and take ages to come back down and when I look at Maysyn's shoulders they look like they're shaking. I take another deep breath.
On the walls, there's art that Mama would like and Daddy would hate. In amongst that, there's a picture of a man with brown hair round his ears and even though he doesn't look very old he has no hair on top of his head. At all. He's smiling but his eyes look like he's just woken up or he's thinking of something sad. On another wall, there's another flag.
I look to see who called my name and now I notice a woman sitting behind the big wooden desk but because she's sitting in a low chair I can only see her eyebrows, her forehead and a bush of wispy hair that looks like yellow cotton candy. I walk past Maysyn Vermont and I don't even stick my tongue out at him because Mama said now that I'm a big boy, I shouldn't do things like that and I should behave like the other big boys and girls if I want to get on. Now I'm closer to the desk, I stand on my tip toes and I can see all of the woman's face. She has thin, red lips and the same eyes as the man in the picture and a mole on her chin that has black hairs popping out of it. She smells of candy that's been left out in the sun for too long.
"Murphy, Byron?" she asks.
She licks a finger then flicks through a pile of papers really, really fast and snatches out a page that has a small photograph of me paper-clipped in the corner where a stamp would go. I take an envelope from the inside pocket of my blazer and slide it across the top of the big wooden desk toward her.
She takes the envelope, looks at the contents then writes something on a different piece of paper that sits on top of a different pile. She picks up a stamp and smashes it into both pages, so loud that it goes Bang! Bang! This time I just blink. My insides stay put.
"Room One Fifteen, end of the corridor," she says, pointing to an open set of double doors below the flag. Then she smiles but I don't believe her.
I follow her finger and head through the doors as the woman says, "Vermont, Maysyn." I walk past a water cooler that gurgles and belches like it's saying hello and it makes me grin. I walk past rooms with glass doors, rooms with computers, rooms with wires and metal cages, rooms with big massive rolls of paper that spin in even bigger massiver machines, rooms with people at computers. When I get to room One Fifteen, there's a bang bang but it sounds very far away. I don't even blink.
Inside room One Fifteen, there's a big boy sitting at a desk reading some papers. In front of him there are three rows of cubicles. Each row has four cubicles and each cubicle has a kid and a computer except for one at the back of the room that looks empty. Some of the kids I recognize from my class last year. Some are older and I recognize them from a couple of years ago. The others I don't recognize. All of the boys are wearing blazers and shirts and ties. The girls are wearing dresses. The room smells of detergent that's trying to cover up the smell of something else.
The big boy glances up at me from his paperwork.
"I'm Byron Murphy," I say because the big boy looks like he's expecting me to say something. "The woman at the front sent me."
He comes over to me and we shake hands. He's much taller and maybe three years older than me. He's definitely in his teens.
"Ah, Byron," he says. "Good to have you on board. I'm Brad Powers."
"Good to be here, Mr Powers," I say.
"Please. Just Brad. You call me Mr Powers and I'm looking over my shoulder for my daddy. Let me show you the lay of the land before we get you settled in. Orientation stuff. Health and safety. Yadda yadda yadda." He laughs as he rolls his eyes.
I have no idea what he's talking about but I nod and smile. "Sounds good."
"Yeah, well it keeps those sheep in HR happy, I guess." He checks a chunky silver watch that hangs loose round his wrist and then says, "I've a production meeting in ten minutes so sorry if this feels rushed. Best laid plans and all that."
He leads me back into the corridor and points out the bathrooms and the belching water cooler that I've already seen and a coffee machine that I must've missed the first time because I was grinning at the water cooler. He gets us both a double espresso which tastes like it's pulling out my teeth. He explains about Tuesday fire alarm checks and emergency exits and where we should go if there's a tornado. I nod and smile a lot. As we're walking back, he talks about the results from last year (record-breaking), the forecasts for this year (bar-raising), what that means to the boys and girls in One Fifteen (challenging) and what sort of position this puts the company in relation to its competitors (healthy). I kind of understand most of it but then he starts talking about cogs and synergies and penetration pricing and I don't understand any of that at all.
"I started out in One Fifteen when I was ten, straight from school, just like you. I'm proof that if you work hard, there's no telling where your career will take you."
He shows me to my cube and gives me a sticky piece of yellow paper with my User ID. I key this into my computer and I'm asked to choose a password. I choose "powerrangers" but the computer doesn't like this and makes a horrid buzz that gives me a little fright.
Brad sighs and then says, "Corporate password conventions are crazy, aren't they? You need to put some numbers in there."
I choose "p0werr4nger5" and the computer likes this one much better and makes a pleasant ping. I smile and get a tingle in my cheeks and jaw. After that, Brad goes off to his production meeting but he tells the girl next to me, Alexx Santiago, to make sure I settle in. Alexx was in my class last year but we only spoke once and that was when she asked me if I knew what time it was even though we were in the canteen and there's a big massive clock right there. I mean, you can't miss it. When I pointed this out to her, she just blushed and hurried back to her friends.
"Hey, Byron," she says, blushing again but not as badly this time. Her hair is different.
"Hey, Alexx." I look about to see if there's a clock in room One Fifteen. There's one above Brad's desk although it's not particularly big or massive.
She pushes her chair from her cube to mine so that the two of us are a little squished. She leans in to me. She smells of fruit.
"I hope this isn't going to be awkward," she whispers, her lips hardly moving. "I've known for a week that you'd be joining us and you'd be sitting right here so I've had time to adjust. But I guess you weren't to know I'd be here so I understand if that's come as a surprise to you. A shock, even. If it helps, I've put the past behind me. I've moved on. We were so young last year, so naïve. Look at us now. What a difference a summer can make. I guess what I'm trying to say is there's no need for there to be an atmosphere between us just because of … y'know. There's no need for there to be any tension." She pauses for a second. "Unless you want there to be?"
I have absolutely no idea what she's talking about and I'm about to point her in the direction of the clock when her phone rings and she skooshes back to her own cube. I look at my own phone and wonder if anyone will call me. I want to call Mama. I wonder if anyone would mind. Surely no one would notice if I gave her a quick call and told her I was okay. But then I remember that I don't know our phone number and I sink in my chair, ashamed. I'm feeling like I might actually start to cry. But then one of the older boys comes round with double espressos for everyone and this one leaves my teeth alone and afterwards, I feel much, much better.
Alexx spends an hour showing me how to type things from pieces of paper into the computer and to make sure there are signatures on the pieces of paper and that I take double special care that I get all the numbers and letters correct and in the right order. She brushes against me thirty-seven times while she's showing me all this.
At twelve o'clock, Brad -- who came back from his production meeting in a very bad mood -- announces that we should all go out for lunch to welcome me aboard. He's too busy to join us but tells us to enjoy ourselves and instructs a girl called Feeyona to charge it to the corporate card.
There's a shopping complex across the street from our building with clothes stores and cell phone stores and lots and lots of pigeons that I want to chase but know I shouldn't. In amongst all this there's a store called The Kilted Kangaroo and that's where we go. It's dark inside The Kilted Kangaroo and it smells of Daddy's man cave. Ossian Bozman, who was in my class last year and must work here now, leads us past some tables that have adults, some that have kids, some that have a mix. Everyone here looks like they work at the same place as me. Finally, Ossian shows us our table right at the back. We say hey to each other.
"Just soft drinks, okay?" Alexx says. She's managed to sit next to me. "Brad doesn't approve of liquid lunches on company time."
We all chat about what we got up to last summer. For me, that wasn't a lot. I applied for jobs and helped Daddy mow the lawn a few times. Other than that, I mostly slept and watched cartoons. This makes people laugh. I'm not sure why. One of the boys who's a year older than me says he's got a little cabin upstate and he went there with his girlfriend and his dogs and hung out and did some writing, some fishing, some hunting. Alexx sighs when he says this and then brushes against me for the thirty-eighth time today.
I order yellowfin sashimi and a Coke Zero because that's what Alexx orders and I don't know what I want. After we order, Alexx and some of the others get up and start to head to the exit.
"You coming?" Alexx asks me.
"Where are you going?"
It's really dark and smelly in here so I say, "Yes," and follow the others. Once we're all outside, Alexx pulls a pack of Lucky Strikes from her purse and hands one out to each of the five kids who've joined her. I hesitate before I remember Mama's words about fitting in and take one. It feels big and awkward between my fingers and I'm not sure how far down I'm meant to hold it. Should my fingers be on the white bit or the orange bit? No one tells you these things. In the end, I just copy Alexx and hope for the best. The smoke is cold. I expected it to be hot. It makes me cough. It smells of smoke. The four girls talk about an R rated movie they went to see at the weekend. The other boy who came out with us -- a guy called Caleb -- asks me what age I am and when I tell him he shakes his head and starts to laugh.
"Man, I remember thinking I'd never hit double digits," he says. "Now I'm all like, God, when was I ever nine?"
"I still feel nine," I admit.
He takes a big suck of smoke into his mouth and as he's doing this, he's blowing it out of his nose at exactly the same time. I have no idea how he's doing that. I feel dizzy.
"Give it two weeks," he says, "and you'll feel as jaded as the rest of us."
When we go back in, our food is waiting for us and I'm disappointed to see that I've ordered raw fish so I just eat the salad and drink my sauce and my Coke Zero. During lunch we talk about the recent tax hikes, a yoga instructor in town who was arrested on sexual assault charges, chemical castration, gun control, a bill that may be passed that'll lower the legal working age to nine and a recent suicide bomb attack in a school in Chicago that killed fifteen. Halfway through these discussions, I'm so hungry I end up eating my raw fish anyway. It's not bad. While we're waiting to cross the street on the way back to work, Alexx gives me another Lucky Strike which doesn't make me cough as much.
The afternoon drags. I watch the clock above Brad's desk. I key some numbers and words. I go to the bathroom. I drink some more double espressos. I key some stuff, probably wrongly. Alexx brushes against me eighteen times as she shows me other systems on the computer terminal. Everything smells of sweat until Caleb -- who stayed behind at The Kilted Kangaroo after we left -- throws up on his keyboard then pees himself. The boys laugh. The girls pretend not to laugh. Brad sends Caleb home and tells him not to come back tomorrow.
"You know the worst thing about going out for lunch?" Alexx whispers to me.
"It makes Caleb pee in his pants?"
Alexx laughs. "No. Well, yes. But, no, the worst thing is that it makes me want to go out for dinner."
"That doesn't sound such a bad thing."
"Well, a girl doesn't like to dine alone. Y'know?"
"Yes. Yes, I can see that would be a problem." I gulp down another double espresso.
"Fucking hell, Byron. Do you have to play it so fucking cool?"
I frown because I don't know what to say. Plus, she's saying bad words.
"Is this about the canteen?" she asks. "Is that what this is about?"
"Alexx, I dunno what --"
"Okay, fine," she says, rolling her eyes dramatically. "I suppose I'm a twenty-first century girl. Although that doesn't mean I don't like to be wooed. But okay. Seeing as it's your first day. Do you want to have dinner with me? Oh, God. I can't believe I just did that. Someone shoot me."
By the time the clock says it's five o'clock I still don't know what the big deal is. By five minutes after five, I've had another two Lucky Strikes and I'm sitting with Alexx at a small table near the front of The Kilted Kangaroo. We have to wait a while to get served as they're short-staffed.
Alexx leans across the table and with her hand on my knee she says, "Caleb works nights here in a vain attempt to pay off his gambling debts."
I go for the house burger, not wanting to risk another raw animal. I'm about to ask for a Coke Zero when Alexx jumps in and orders a pitcher of margarita.
"This is the great thing about The Kilted Kangaroo," she says. "Y'know … Japanese food, Mexican drinks, American burgers, a kangaroo in a kilt, it's a little bit of everything. Blah blah blah, sorry, I'm just talking for the sake of talking, aren't I? Feel free to tell me to shut up."
"Shut up," I tell her. She laughs.
I take a sip of my margarita. It tastes nippy.
We're starting our third pitcher, still waiting on our food thanks to Caleb and his stupid pissy pants, when I look at Alexx and it's like she's slipping away down and to the right. I need to blink to reset her back to the middle. I need to blink a lot. She asks if I'm okay and I'm not sure I understand what I say in reply.
And then, out of the corner of my wonky vision, I see him. Maysyn Vermont. He walks in with some older boys like he's the big man. Like he's here just to piss me off.
"Wow, Maysyn Vermont," Alexx says. "I haven't seen him in forever. I hear he's been earmarked for a position in Legal and Compliance since his fourth grade assessment." She turns to me. "Are you okay?"
Maysyn looks at me, looks at Alexx, looks back at me. The older boys keep walking towards the bar.
"Byron. Are you okay?"
"No," I say. "I'm not okay."
"Byron and Alexx, sitting in a tree," Maysyn sings at me with his nose upturned. "K-I-S-S-I --"
I push back from the table and launch myself at Maysyn. I hear my chair tumble behind me as I connect with him. He falls back and with me on top of him I start pounding at his face, his shoulders, his chest. He tries to throw punches back but they're feeble and with my knees on his arms they lose even more power. Someone screams. Someone else tries to pull me off but I'm like a big massive boulder. I'm going nowhere. Not yet.
"This is what you get!" I scream at him. "This is what you get for stealing my fucking Pokemon cards! This is what you get! Give them back, you bag of shit!"
I catch him a great shot to the eye with my left fist and to the mouth with my right that I think loosens a tooth. Before I catch him again, I'm pulled from him and thrown outside. Across the street, my building is mostly in darkness with just a few windows lit up but everything looks like it's on its side because my cheek is on the cold sidewalk. I laugh. I don't know why.
"Prick," a girl, maybe Alexx, says as her shoes clip away from me. She's struggling to put her coat on, like she's wrestling with it and it's wrestling back. That makes me laugh even more.
The taxi ride home is a nightmare. I lie across the back seat and look at the ceiling, at the lights as they move across my vision, highlight stains from who knows what, while the driver tells me if I puke it'll be double fare. I don't puke. Not in the taxi. I puke later. At home. In the bathroom. While Mama shushes me and tells me to be quiet or I'll disturb Daddy. I swear at Mama. I call her a cunt. I don't mean it. I tell her so. Then I laugh. Then I call Daddy a whore. Then I vomit again. Then other stuff must happen.
When I wake up, somehow it's morning and I'm in bed and the sheets look fresh and uncreased like I haven't moved all night and my skull is strangling my brain. A white shirt on a hanger is hooked over the knob of my bedroom door. Mama has put an air-freshener in my room. Everything smells of pine. Everything smells clean and new. I groan. I get up. I get ready for work.
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This work is copyrighted by the author, Gavin Broom. All rights reserved.