LISP Short Story WINNER, Conor O'Sullivan
NO BROTHER LEFT BEHIND
Scott Jordan struck his younger brother, Jake, across the arm. They were running late to Croydon KidZone — an entertainment centre for children and a hotspot for teenagers buying hash — and his mum was saying to his dad that the other guests would already be arriving. It was a hot August afternoon, and Scott was having the last birthday party of the summer before school began.
‘We’re late,’ Scott said. He had turned eleven that morning and had been awake since eight am to wait for his mum’s pancake breakfast. His dad had taken himself and Jake to watch the Chelsea match in the pub; his parents had got rid of the satellite channels to save money. They had refused to give Scott any clues about his birthday present — he had been reminding them he wanted the new Adidas Predators football boots that the other boys in his class owned.
‘Just go to the main car park, Gary,’ his mum said, ‘before we get any grief from the manager.’
‘I don’t have enough change for the pay and display.’
‘Then drop us off. You can walk over if you are so determined to avoid spending a few quid.’
Scott saw his classmates standing outside KidZone with their parents. He unbuckled his seatbelt before his dad stopped the car and pushed the door open. Uncle Jim was already there, bending down on his knees when Scott ran towards him. Jake did the same.
Uncle Jim was in their house a lot. He came by after Scott and Jake got home from school and gave them chocolate bars when his mum left the room. On weekends he stayed for dinner and afterwards drank beers with Scott and Jake’s dad. Uncle Jim took them to Crystal Palace games in his Mercedes when he got the tickets through work, sometimes Chelsea or Arsenal for European matches. Scott’s dad had had to shut his audio equipment business earlier that year, and Uncle Jim had given him a job in one of his print shops. Scott had heard his dad and Uncle Jim argue about money and “the mortgage” when he was supposed to be asleep.
Uncle Jim said, wrapping his arms around Scott. ‘Hello, birthday boy. Are you late because you’ve been meeting your girlfriend?’
‘We got delayed,’ said Scott’s mum. ‘Gary’s parking the car.’
He stood up. ‘Let’s go inside everyone. Scotty is about to school all of us at football.’
The other parents said goodbye and headed for their cars. Uncle Jim put Jake on his shoulders and took Scott’s hand as they entered the foyer of KidZone. An acned teenage girl in a candy-striped shirt took their name and showed them to a table in the motor racing-themed diner.
‘You can leave any possessions here,’ the girl said, ‘I have you down for a football game first and then Laser tag after lunch.’
‘Sounds perfect,’ Scott’s mum said. ‘There’s Gary now.’
‘We were starting to get worried,’ said Uncle Jim.
Scott’s dad wiped sweat from his brow. ‘Parking was a nightmare. The world and his wife is out today.’
‘Come on everyone,’ said Scott. He led them across the neon hall past the slot machines and pool tables to the indoor football pitches, as if he was Harry Kane leading England out.
‘What presents did you get?’ Tom Dinford asked him.
‘Not sure yet. How are the Predators?’
‘You’ll see when I’m banging in the goals.’
‘Shut it, Tom,’ said David Clarke. They jostled into the caged pitch and chased after the ball, taking shots on Luke Fletcher — wearing a faded goalkeeper jersey — who always went in net because he was too chubby to play outfield. Another teenager with spots on his pale face blew his whistle and told them to pick teams. Scott was designated to be a captain along with Tom.
Scott was given first pick because it was his birthday and chose Clarkey because he was the best player in their class due to his size and skill level. Uncle Jim and Scott’s dad stood by the cage sipping beers. Scott played in midfield and scored plenty of goals in the first half because Clarkey was so dominant over every other player. Without seemingly exerting any effort. Tom Dinford tried to trip Scott as they both contested for a rebound.
‘Sign Scotty up for Palace,’ Uncle Jim said when Clarkey set him up for another goal. Tom Dinford complained that the teams were “completely unfair”, and Scott remained silent when Clarkey agreed to switch sides. Jake, who was too short and weak to play with older boys, was an inadequate swap, and they let in five goals within a few minutes.
Scott bounced off Clarkey when he attempted to tackle him and was nutmegged by Tom Dinford who always said he was their class’s second best player after Clarkey, even when Scott played well in training or an actual match. Their team ended up losing by two goals after Jake lost possession to Tom Dinford who celebrated with relish at the final whistle. Scott slowed his gait when they left the pitch so nobody saw him crying.
He avoided the gaze of Uncle Jim who knelt beside him. ‘That Tom lad is a real pain. You did well, Scotty, and you looked after your little brother which is the most important thing.’
‘Tom Dinford is such a moaner, and he always, always gets his way.’
‘You’re still twice the player he is.’
They went back to the diner where the waiters handed out soft drinks in plastic cups. Scott’s dad was drinking a beer and ordered one for Uncle Jim. His mum had to explain to the waitress that Carl Fletcher was a celiac and was not to be served any bread or fried chicken based on his parents’ instructions. Everyone else was given a basket of hot dogs, chicken nuggets and chips. Carl grabbed one of the baskets when Scott’s mum went to the bar to order a coffee.
‘Who won?’ Scott’s dad asked.
‘It was a draw by my count,’ said Uncle Jim, winking at Scott.
‘We won,’ Tom Dinford said, ‘the referee kept the score on his phone. It would’ve been by even more if the teams had been picked properly.’
‘Scotty played a blinder though,’ Uncle Jim said.
‘I scored a goal,’ Jake said, ‘and everyone here is three years older than me.’
Uncle Jim lifted Jake on to his lap. ‘You boys must’ve got that talent from our dad because your old man was a pretty average footballer.’
‘We were both average,’ Scott’s dad remarked.
‘I was much better at golf and tennis,’ said Uncle Jim. ‘There was nobody else to account for.’
Scott bit into his hot dog; the bun tasted stale, and his chips were lukewarm. He wanted to ask his parents if they could play another football game before the party ended. Jake finished his nuggets. His mum brought over a football pitch cake with eleven candles representing players poking out of the chocolate frosting. Everyone sang happy birthday, and Scott’s mum filmed him blowing out the candles on her phone. They all cheered when the final player had been extinguished.
His classmates’ presents comprised of sweets and a Chelsea-branded pencil case; Luke Fletcher gave him a pack of Premier League stickers. His relatives had already sent him cash which his mum wanted him to put in the credit union. Uncle Jim handed him an envelope that had VIP written on the front.
‘Are these Chelsea tickets?’
‘England. We’re going to Wembley for the France match, and I managed to get us in the box so we can meet the players after the game.’
‘Wicked. You’re the best, Uncle Jim.’
‘They must’ve cost a fortune,’ said Scott’s mum.
‘Nothing’s too expensive for my nephews.’
‘Right,’ Scott’s dad said, ‘this is from your mum and I.’
‘Thanks,’ Scott said. He unwrapped the paper to reveal an Umbro box, lifting the lid on black boots from last season’s catalogue. His dad smiled at him as he removed the boots from the box, catching the smirk on Tom Dinford’s face.
‘What do you say, Scott?’ his mum asked.
‘Thanks,’ he said and handed the boots back to his dad.
‘Are they the right size?’ he enquired.
‘I told you to get me Predators or not to bother with boots. Those are no better than my last pair.’
‘Scott,’ his mum said, ‘that’s not the way to show gratitude.’
‘The boot doesn’t make the player, Scotty,’ said Uncle Jim. Scott’s dad remained silent, lifting the beer bottle to his lips. Everyone was staring at Scott, and he felt his cheeks becoming flushed. He went to the bathroom and locked himself in the cubicle, punching the wall and rubbing tears from his cheek with the sleeve of his jersey.
Uncle Jim was standing outside in the corridor when he came out. ‘Sorry about the boots, Scotty. I’ll get you the right pair, just try to remember your dad is doing his best.’
‘He never listens to me.’
‘Things are tough with the shop closing but I’m going to help him get back on his feet,’ he said. ‘Look, I wanted you to have something that my dad gave me when I was younger.’
‘What is it?’ he asked, his eyes still glistening from crying.
‘It’s a special coin. He got it when he was with the army in India. He left it to me, and now it’s yours.’
‘Thanks, Uncle Jim,’ Scott said, clenching the coin in his palm.
‘Let’s get back to the party and show that Tom chap not to mess with Jordan boys.’
Scott ate a slice of cake before the acned girl came back and told them to pick their teams for Laser tag. Clarkey and Tom Dinford went on the orange team with five boys from the class who all played football or rugby. Scott had Jake and Luke Fletcher on the blue team along with four of his less athletic classmates. The girl gave them matching illuminous vests and rifles, then showed them a layout of the arena on a computer screen.
‘The vest is linked to our server and keeps track of the scores,’ she said. ‘The team with the highest tally wins, and there’s a prize for the best individual score.’
‘You gits have no chance,’ said Tom Dinford, nudging Clarkey with his elbow. Tom really believed that, and it made Scott want to fill the gun with real bullets and shoot Tom Dinford in the leg to end his football career.
‘Step inside the arena and wait for the siren. You’ll have one hour.’
‘Listen up,’ Scott said to Jake and Luke, ‘let’s split up and ambush Tom.’
‘I don’t to be left on my own,’ Jake said.
‘You have to,’ Scott said, ‘stop being a baby.’
They entered the dark room and held the guns close to their chests. Each boy lined up against a high wall. An automated voice speaking in the accent of an American drill sergeant told them to “get ready for combat and to take no prisoners!”, before the siren went off and the props that resembled a barracks appeared in illuminous lighting. The arena had a ground floor with four exits in the corners and a balcony running around the perimeter directly above them.
‘Jake,’ Scott whispered, ‘you take the ground floor and Carl will circle the balcony. I’ll cover the passageways.’
‘What do we do if one us needs help?’ Carl asked. Scott saw Tom Dinford and Clarkey take different paths out of the room.
‘Hold them off as long as possible, and just shout if you’re stranded. Right — let’s move out.’
Jake ran down into the plastic trench. Scott kissed the coin and put it back in his pocket before sprinting to the exit which Tom Dinford had taken. The walls were lined with pre-generated images of barbed wire and grenades. He turned right, looking back and seeing Carl come towards him.
‘Carl,’ he shouted, ‘I told you to get upstairs.’
‘It’s so dark in here we could already be upstairs for all I know.’
‘You girls are making this too easy,’ Tom Dinford said, who was standing in front of Scott. ‘Open fire, Clarkey!’
Scott stepped to his side and pointed his gun at Tom Dinford, holding down the trigger until his finger cramped. Carl backed into Scott and put him off-balance, allowing Tom Dinford and Clarkey to take clear shots at them. Their vests lit up and vibrated to signal several direct hits.
‘Let’s get his brother,’ Tom Dinford said, ‘these two girls can stay here and each other.’
‘Sorry, Scott,’ Carl said as he got off the floor.
‘Get upstairs and stay out of my way. I’ll go help Jake.’
Scott ran back towards the main room and saw the two boys closing in on Jake. He heard Tom Dinford laughing while Jake called for help. Shots rang from their fake guns as Scott watched his brother slump against the wall and begin to cry.
Tom Dinford was standing above them on a fake cannon. ‘You Jordan boys are such losers. My dad says their old man is considered a joke by everyone.’
‘I want to leave,’ said Jake, in a whimper. Scott raised his arms and was about to hit Tom Dinford over the head with the gun. He wanted to see Tom Dinford cry like a girl so everyone in the class would hear about it.
‘I think he’s weed himself,’ Clarkey said.
‘You’re joking,’ said Tom Dinford, cackling like a hyena; his teeth glowed. Scott barged past him and grabbed Jake by the arm. Carl shouted at Scott and waved his arms as they stepped into the waiting area.
‘There’s still forty-five minutes left,’ the girl said, standing beside the boy who refereed their football match.
Scott removed their equipment and left it on the floor. ‘My brother is feeling sick. We need to find our mum.’
Jake kept crying, stopping a few times on their way to the diner, which forced Scott to hit him on the shoulder and then drag him by his arm. KidZone had filled up with teenagers hanging out in the pool hall and bowling lanes. A group of boys said “Mummy” in high-pitched voices when Scott and Jake bumped into them. Scott saw his dad sitting alone in a booth, a half-empty beer and a whiskey glass in front of him. Scott could tell that he was drunk from his bloodshot eyes, like he too had been crying.
‘Wait in the diner with Dad,’ Scott said to Jake, ‘I’m going to find Mum.’
‘But there’s a big stain on my shorts.’
‘You need to toughen up or boys like Tom Dinford will make your life miserable.’
He went to the bathroom after deciding that he would get Jake some paper towels. As he rounded the corner into the long corridor, Scott noticed he was sweating profusely. He saw Uncle Jim standing against the wall kissing a woman. Scott stopped sweating — his whole body went cold — once he recognised that it was his mum’s hands wrapped around Uncle Jim. Her interlinked fingers stroked his thick neck.
Scott had an image of his mum doing the same thing with their dad, back when the business was making money, and Scott was having a good season for the team, and Jake had gone a few weeks without wetting the bed. He had forgotten that memory, like it was part of a life he had never lived.
Uncle Jim smiled in between planting his mouth on her lips. Scott’s mum opened her left eye and registered the sight of Scott standing there. Her face froze as she stared back at her son while Uncle Jim maintained their embrace. Scott removed the coin from his pocket and flung it at Uncle Jim’s head. The blood had drawn from his scalp before he turned around.