The albino boy was named Calvin but we called him Casper. He had a thumb missing on his left hand that he told us was from a fireworks accident. He was new to our street and came from a whole other county, one away over the road and only known to myself and the others as an outline on the map or a waypoint on our constant recanting of the thirty-two counties. His missing thumb was strange in that it didn’t repulse us as much as it intrigued us, so we hooked an arm or two around his neck and dragged him down the back lane to our secret spot.
The verge that ran along the back lane was thick with briars that had gnarled brown and sharp, and yearly produced blackberries that were bitter in the mouth and riddled with pips which we’d spit. The estate dogs had burrowed a tunnel through these brambles, creating a warren-like thicket none of us could enter. We called it the dog tunnel. I had claimed in full voice that my dog had done the doing, that she owned it.
The boys said my dog was dead but she wasn’t. My mother gave her away to a farm. She was too wild to be kept in a council house with a garden the size of a stamp. She’d curl herself into knots trying to run around in that thing and once the night came, she’d pine to be let inside to the warmth.
She can pine all she wants, my mother would say. The house is no place for a dog.
But she’s cold, mam.
Well, go out and give her your blanket then.
In my blanket at night, that pining panged my heart.
Casper’s accent wasn’t like ours. It was clipped, like he was embarrassed to linger on a word for too long. We liked to dwell on our words, adding an extra syllable or two.
What’s the story with your hair? Why’s it white?
Do you burn up in the sun?
Yeah, he said.
Like an alien or something.
Yeah, he’s like an alien.
Or a ghost.
Is it true a banger blew off your thumb?
You forgot to throw it? You stupid prick.
No, it wasn’t like that, he said. I watched it burn down and just as I went to throw it, an older lad, his name was Niall Logue, put his hands over my hand and the banger blew up and blew my thumb off.
Fucking hell. Did it hurt your man too?
Where’s the thumb now?
No, but he got expelled from school and his family moved away. We had a big talk after that about safety and they brought me up on stage during school to show my hand. I never found the thumb.
Give us a look again.
He held out his hand palm up and I couldn’t help but think it looked like a human fork. The skin where the thumb should have been was shiny and taut and puckered, and he showed us that there was still a little bit of bone left that he could wiggle. It looked like something trapped.
Jesus. What a cunt.
Casper just nodded.
Did your dad kick the shite out of him?
I don’t have a dad, he said.
Fireworks were hard to come by unless you had a rebellious uncle or older brother who had a car and could drive up the north. There was a black market up there that sold everything from CDs and DVDs to rip-off soccer jerseys and fireworks. Since my dad was a prick, I had an uncle who looked after me when my mother couldn’t. He was a lot younger than my mother and would take me with him when he made the trip to get fireworks. I’d watch from the car as he went around the back of tarpaulin stalls to make shady deals with lads who had stronger accents than our own.
He’d stow the haul in a black plastic bag under the passenger seat and cover it in jackets. My feet could rest lightly on it where it stuck out and it felt like if I applied any pressure the whole lot might go off and we’d be sent flying into the air and maybe even up past the clouds. There was never much fear of being caught crossing the border because my uncle would always do the trip a month or two before Halloween, before the guards started to clamp down on the smuggling.
Once we were home and in the sitting room, he would push the coffee table to the side and lay the bag down on the carpet.
Careful, he’d say. She might go.
I’d bite my lip and squeeze my hands, waiting for the big reveal. He’d reach into the top of the bag and fumble around with his tongue out and his eyes to the ceiling, sending the shits up me sometimes, by banging his free hand on the table and screaming. When he was finished laughing, he’d pull the bag off, producing another wrapping, this time soft cloth often patterned like a tea towel. This he would peel back with pinched fingers to reveal the fireworks.
They were fanned out, tiny sticks bunched together at the bottom that grew to rockets at the top. There were usually about twenty small squealers, papered in stars and moons, and ten big ones, red and black, Roman Candles, and one huge one that looked like the rockets from the cartoons. I could see Wile E. Coyote carting this one off down the desert in search of the Road Runner. There were also Black Cat bangers collected in red boxes. I was given a box and told to not blow my hand off like the albino kid. I promised I’d be careful and was let go. My uncle didn’t care much what I did when he was supposed to be minding me.
Cats weren’t very well loved where I grew up. It wasn’t unusual to see one getting a good boot up the hole for cuddling too close to a standing leg. Or picked up by the tail and swung. My uncle was widely reported to have lined up a litter of kittens at a feeding trough, waited until they were nice and settled, lapping straight-from-the-cow milk, before sighting them down the barrel of his shotgun and firing. He wanted to save bullets. They say the shells made it all the way through to the last cat, claiming up on eighty-one lives all told. He bundled them into an old coal sack, collected the un-lapped milk for re-use, and threw the sack into the lake. I always wondered why he didn’t just skip the shotgun and throw them straight into the lake. He told me later that if you died in a room with a cat it would only wait about a minute before eating your eyes out of their sockets.
Mam was walking me to school when I saw the cat blown up in the phone box. It was cold, because around here autumn only lasts about two weeks before turning to winter, and even early morning seemed like a signal to sleep. Mam asked me how the weekend with my father went and said she hoped I had my homework done. I told her I had fun with Dad and my homework was done. Neither was true. I had spent the weekend watching my father drink brandy and listening to him tell me that my mother was a bitch. She, the bitch, noticed the cat before me and uttered an Oh God before affecting a brighter tone and asking me if I was looking forward to school. I looked up at her and followed her eyes across the green to the phone box. The glass panels, usually clear, were smudged pink and white. They had stuck a Black Cat banger up the cat’s arse.
In class I told the lads what I had seen. They didn’t believe me so I suggested coming back at lunchtime to boost each other up to have a look over the wall, but by the time the lunch bell rang and our heads popped over the top there were men in yellow coats hosing down the box with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. When I passed it on my way home, it was like brand new, like nothing had ever happened.
Halloween was getting closer and the days were barely making an appearance before slinking back into evening. When it turned dark, I met the boys down the back lane. They knew I had my uncle’s bangers and were waiting for me. We huddled together, circling the flame of a white Bic, attempting to light a Black Cat or a squealer, sometimes a screamer, and we talked again about the phone-box cat and we all laughed. I said I thought it was hilarious.
Now just fucking peg this once it lights, the banger-holder was told.
The lighter flailed in the wind as we closed in. It was cold and we could feel the meagre heat from the flame.
Get tighter, said the banger-holder.
Casper get in, quick.
Casper had only been in our town about two weeks and found himself on the lowest rung, the butt of the jokes and the one who got told what to do. I was just glad to be elevated a step above him. When he didn’t move to close the gap, I digged him in the ribs to get him going. The group nodded at me and Casper edged in but turned his face out to the black stick trees with their whisper and rustle.
It started to heat up. Dogs howled in the distance, up the fields.
Pity there aren’t any cats around, was said with a laugh.
Whisht. It’s gonna catch.
I went to bolt but it hadn’t caught, not that time. But then it did. Lines of fire spit from the wick and broke our circle. We clamoured for cover, ripping our hands on the rough cinderblocks that sectioned off the back gardens of the estate’s houses. Nobody looked to see where the banger was thrown. We gave in to its random fall, take it or leave it. You might hear it explode with a dull thump in the grassy hill that ran along the length of the back lane, or you might feel it push air against the leg of your trouser and split your ear with a crack.
We were found lucky, half hanging over gates and walls, gazing back to see a sinuous cloud of smoke rising from the bank before being taken by the breeze. The laughter and cheering that followed was riddled with relief. You could see it in the eyes of the others as surely as you knew it was in yours. In the banger-holder, you could see it in his hand and its tremble, and his voice and its warble.
That was fucking mad.
Not me, either.
Go on, you pussies. I already did it.
No fucking way, man.
I called for Casper to do it, but the call didn’t get picked up by the rest.
Once you’ve made it through the dog tunnel you’ll be one of us, we said.
We were smoking butts of fags stolen from ashtrays and huffing Lynx cans through a jumper up the back lane. The aerosol made you dizzy and sometimes so numb you could throw yourself onto the trodden mud and feel no pain. Things weren’t real. Some of the boys said it made bubbles in your brain but that didn’t scare me because I didn’t believe them. They were always trying to mess with me.
With giddy delight we jostled Casper with our shoulders.
Go on, Casper.
You can do it.
If any of us can, you can.
Casper toed the soft dirt and mumbled something about not wanting to do it, but our cheers drowned him out, and he was pushed towards the bank. He stumbled on with his head hanging and swivelled to look back at us before kneeling down in front of the maw and staring in. He turned again and said he didn’t want to do it, but it was too late for that. He was there now.
Go on, Casper.
If you don’t go in yourself, we’ll make you.
I stepped forward and flicked a match at him. It flared up and shot towards him like a comet, extinguishing as soon as it landed on his alien skin. He cried out and stared back at me, at all of us, before bowing his head and going in. He placed his hands and knees with tender care, pulling back every so often when he got jabbed by a thorn, and we walked the lane alongside him as he crawled, calling his name and howling with laughter every time he got a prick or caught himself on a branch.
Go on, lad.
It must’ve taken him about ten minutes to do the full length and by the time he emerged, covered in twigs and leaves, his face had been cut and his thumbless hand was bleeding badly from splinters. He climbed to his feet and tried to palm the muck from his knees as we encircled him with our arms and yelled: One of us! One of us!
I thought it would have been incredible to be in the middle of that heat, our voices a cacophony in his ears, but as soon as he was released, he wiped his eyes and ran home.
The next day I called for him to come out and play. He answered his door in his slippers and said he didn’t want to come out, so I explained that it was just him and me and that I had a trip planned. I was sick of the other lads saying my dog was dead and not out at a farm, so I had asked my mother exactly where the farm was. She said it belonged to an old man out the road who raised chickens and grew vegetables for the markets.
And it’s only a couple of miles, I told Casper. We can take the bikes. Are you on for it?
He thought about it for a while before nodding.
Our bikes took us down the hill towards the town and up through the main street where they were already stringing Christmas lights in an arch across the road. We cruised past all the shoppers and waved to those we knew before taking a turn down the country road with its stripe of tufted grass. The buildings grew smaller as we passed until all that was left were low bungalows sending smoke up to the heavens. A farmer walked with his hands clasped behind his back and turned a shoulder to watch us pass, giving us a nod.
His house must be around here somewhere.
It’s only been about a mile, said Casper.
How do you know?
Going by the signposts. The last sign for the next town said three miles and this one says two.
That’s clever. Right, another bit so.
I kicked the right pedal with my toe, stopped it at its peak, placed my foot back on, shouted come on, and pushed off down the road. It was downhill so I picked up speed with furious rotations of the pedals before lifting off my seat and standing as tall as I could, letting the air plaster my hair to my forehead. I wavered left and right, cackling back at Casper who was still a bit behind as though he was riding with the brakes on.
He caught up once the road levelled out and it was him who stopped first, skidding into the road’s verge at another sign.
How many miles we done now? I said, wheeling back around.
I gazed up at the sign that had caught his attention. It was made to look like a teacher’s blackboard. It was advertising eggs. Half a dozen for a quid, a dozen for 1.50. On the left, a quarter mile, it said.
That has to be him, I said.
Let’s go then, said Casper.
We pushed on again, our heads low and our backs parallel to the road. The hedgerows whizzed by and I glimpsed storm drains and discarded plastic bags and an old washing machine angled upside-down in the ditch, caught like some broad-backed wild thing that hadn’t the ability to flip itself upright. A sloping graveyard rose to our right and Casper told me his dad was buried up there. We blessed ourselves and turned our attention back to the road until we came upon a small white van parked up beside a stall made from one of those long foldable tables we had in school. We swung one leg backwards across our seats before dropping off the bikes and letting them roll on to fall, wheels spinning, in the verge.
The man rummaging in the back of the van looked up and showed me his bulbous nose all veined and pocked. He said hello, what do you need?
He lost his dog, said Casper. His mother gave it away to a man.
The man dropped his gaze and smiled. He had a handful of straw in his hand and returned to stuffing it underneath the eggs in the basket.
And you think she gave it to me?
She said she did, I said.
He shook his head. Your mother’s having you on, lad.
Casper must have seen my eyes because he patted me low on my back and told me to come on.
We cycled back into town and down to the woods where I used to make bowenarrows. It always took ages to find the right stick. You needed to get one with a bit of give in it. I told Casper all this while we walked our bikes over the rough terrain. There were about three different entrances to the woods and we had taken the main road one where you start at the lake and make your way up into the hills. If you went far enough you left the trees behind and came out at one of the highest points in the town and another one of our secret places. The hill was topped by the ruins of three old buildings we called our base. My dad told me they had belonged to an old wizard who had been kicked out of the town hundreds of years ago and that it was well guarded by the local farmers.
By the time we came to the ruins, we had made a bow each and were now looking for arrows.
I pointed at the ruins and told Casper we had a stash of steel nuts in there.
We can put them on the ends of the arrows so they go far and so they do more damage.
Cool, he said.
Once we found our arrows I brought him across the planks we had laid over the mucky ground outside the houses. The houses were low-walled and roofless. The loose cinderblocks allowed us to climb the walls if we wanted but today we went straight for the old kitchen. There was a three-legged table lying on its side which we were in the process of chopping up for firewood, the last piece of furniture to be burned in the old fireplace we often crowded around, and the kitchenette was thick with dust and old beer and Lynx cans. We hadn’t started drinking yet: those cans were from the older boys in town, but the Lynx was ours.
I told Casper that the nuts were in the bottom-right cupboard and watched him hunker down to sort through them. I took one of the Lynx cans, covered it with my sleeve and huffed its remaining high. The world went sparkly.
Pick one out for me too, I said, my lips numb.
He said he would. His face and forehead bore red evidence of his crawl through the dog tunnel and I was sorry, but couldn’t bring myself to say it. I asked him how his dad died and he said he didn’t know what died meant.
I huffed again. It’s when you’re not here anymore.
Yeah, but where are you?
You’re just not here.
Then where the fuck are you? Another voice.
I turned to see all the other boys squatting on the walls with their bowenarrows resting on their knees. The sky behind them was almost white and the wind had risen.
What are you two losers doing here?
It’s alien boy and dogless lad.
One has no thumb and neither has a dad.
Where’s your dads, lads?
Don’t be mean, I said. Mine’s working on a farm in Ballyduff.
Just like your dead dog.
They exchanged looks and laughed and told me to relax, they were only messing. What are you doing here anyway? We didn’t agree to show the alien this place.
Yeah, but I thought it’d be okay because he’s one of us.
One of us, they all said, and laughed again. He’s an alien.
And a dog.
We were actually just looking for him to kill him.
I expected another round of laughter but instead they dropped down from the walls and nocked their arrows and aimed them at us. It was too late to tell Casper to run so I pleaded.
Please don’t shoot.
Casper dropped to his knees and threw his hands in the air in submission.
I’m sorry, he said. Let me go and I won’t come back.
Don’t do it, was said.
He’s an alien spy and he needs to die.
Please, I said, and all eyes turned to me, asking why I cared so much, maybe I was a spy too.
No, I’m not.
Then you should do the killing.
He should do the killing.
Raise up your bow or be banished from this base.
I raised my bow and Casper reached his thumbless hand towards me, half to stop me, half to protect himself. I wondered what damage the arrow might do to him: whether it would be as explosive as a banger, a complete destruction of his face, or would it be merely a dint in the cheek or a skewering of the eye socket. The sun was pale but the clouds were delicate, so the light was obscured and muddy by the time it reached us, hazing a little through my lashes and creeping through Casper’s fine hair to show me his scalp. He was all white and pink and looked like he might shimmer and disappear at any moment and I thought for a second he might not be real. Maybe he was never there. Maybe none of them were, and I was all alone.