Reb’s alarm went off at 8, but he was already awake. He lay there listening to it for about 10 minutes, and thought more deeply about it than he would usually. He didn’t want to move. One step out of bed and the day began. He looked around his room, at his shelves, the doorway and clothes hanging from hooks. On the floor his Playstation was tidied neatly under the tv, games stacked neatly, there were socks and boxers on the floor. He looked at his school uniform hanging on the rail. His brother wore it before, then it was given to him. It was maroon, with a yellow and blue shield on the breast. A blazer. The trousers were folded inside, across the hanger.
In the bathroom he cleaned his teeth, and washed his face and hands and armpits. Water dripping down into his boxers – he caught what he could with a towel, dried himself, then went back to his room, put on his jeans and trainers and a t-shirt. His trainers were new –black hi-tops– all black, the Nike tick too, but there was a texture around the very top and side that looked like animal skin. He’d left them in the box for 3 weeks after he bought them. Occasionally he’d open the box and look at them. Brand new, tissue around them. More tissue stuffed inside to help them keep their shape. He took a photo and looked at it most days and knowing they were under his bed, like a treasure chest, gave him a feeling of satisfied peace.
This was the second day he’d worn them. He felt like a ninja wearing them. He stood up when the laces were tied, and looked into the mirror. Powerful. But there was also a slight anxiety. He wouldn’t wear them when it rained, he had decided. When he wore them, occasionally he thought of the box beneath his bed, now open, tissue in disarray, lid fallen off, eventually stepped on, slowly forgotten, eventually something he would throw away as it lost its energy. The ninja force left in it by his trainers. But at those moments he would think of the trainers themselves, source of all that power, and source of his own powers now he wore them.
He called Rufus around 11 and went to meet him in the park. It was hot, and Rufus had on a t-shirt and jeans and Nike AM90s with a custom colourway. So frivolous, but visually magnetic. Reb’s all-black had more dignity though, he thought. More dark force. The black absorbed the sun’s rays, and stored them as dark energy in his trainers.
“Yes mate” said Rufus, “Ali wants to see you today”
“I know” Reb said “it’s my thing innit”
“Your mission, your membership application” Rufus laughed.
“What’s it like?” Reb asked him
“It’s like, I dunno, it’s like scary, and you’re all like ‘is this really happening, am I gonna do this’ but then you just do it and it’s fine”
“And the guy, you know, what happened to him?”
“Fuck man, what do you think happened, he got fucked up” Rufus said.
“Yeah but I mean, did he stay there on the pavement, or what, did he take off? Did he call the police”
“Mate it’s over quick – you do it then you go”
Rufus was the only friend Reb could talk to about this. With the others this question would have been unthinkable. With them, Reb didn’t say a lot. Things were said and he would nod, or laugh along. They were soldiers, a unit, they hunted and took action. They made money. They didn’t talk about how they felt about what they were doing. You didn’t question doing it. Reb couldn’t even imagine it.
Ali was outside the chicken shop with two other guys Reb didn’t know. He was stocky, short, powerful, slicked back hair, and he grinned a lot. But you couldn’t tell what mood he was in. He’d be talking to someone and grinning, then he’d suddenly bottle them and start hitting them, kicking them on the ground til they were bloody, teeth smashed out. Part of Reb flinched whenever Ali grinned.
They were standing looking at a motorbike. Ali had his hands on the throttle and clutch. When they saw Reb, the two he didn’t know looked at him, and he could feel a sense of threat growing.
“Yes R-e-b, the big R&B, look at my bike” Ali said. The two other boys relaxed a little, but not completely. They were 2 or 3 years older. Reb went over to the bike.
“Nice” he said. Ali had drawn a skull and crossbones on the fuel tank, and painted a baseball cap on it. “That’s my logo” he said.
“You got a bike?” One of the others said to him
They were silent for a bit.
Their trainers were unimpressive, Reb noticed. One of them was wearing Asics, which made no sense unless you were running.
“You said to come see you Ali, about that thing”
“Yeah yeah yeah, come over here” Ali took Reb around the corner of the chicken shop, where there was a little alley filled with boxes. Extractor fans whirred and clacked inside grilles and there was a smell of gas. “Put this inside your coat bruv” Ali said, and handed Reb a claw hammer. “The hammer side’s good to shock ‘em, the claw’s good for damage. Makes holes. You gotta keep hitting though.”
Reb put the hammer inside his coat. He couldn’t accept that he would use it to hit someone. But he didn’t want to think what would happen if he didn’t.
“So who do I get?” Reb said, trying to sound like it was all business as usual
“Whoever man, just no gang members”
“No gang members?”
“Nah find a civilian, but do a black guy or it’ll get in the papers and we’ll all have to lay low. When you gonna do it?”
“Uh, sometime this week”
“Do it tonight yeah” Ali grinned, then like lightning grabbed the back of Reb’s neck, and pulled his head towards him, crushing it against his bicep. He put the fist of his other hand against Reb’s temple, pressing his knuckle in so it hurt. “We want soldiers here” Ali said. “We can use soldiers. Soldiers kill, soldiers fight, soldiers don’t have no fear. If I ever think you’re afraid, you’ll be dealt with, whether you do this thing or not” Reb struggled against Ali’s hand but couldn’t move him.
“Ok Ali, tonight”.
“Do it tonight – now fuck off” Ali pushed him roughly and Reb half fell from out between the shops into the daylight.
Ali turned and walked back to the two guys. They turned their backs and carried on talking. Reb walked past like a stranger.
He walked towards his home. He didn’t want to go home though: nothing seemed quite the way it should be. He stared at buildings, the names on the estates, Ramar House, Bollinger House nos 1-30, street signs marking a dead end with a red-topped T, traffic lights changing, two little girls with ice creams and their mum saying ‘come on!’ He imagined them on the street with their faces smashed in. He was suddenly walking and breathing faster, running from the image. Every mundane thing around him had betrayed him – he scanned it all for a remnant of the world he knew before. Beneath his feet, the pavement whirred along, through, behind him, he was walking on a treadmill with a hammer inside his coat: an alien weight beside his pumping heart.
“What do you mean, a hammer?” Rufus said, when they were alone in Reb’s room.
“Yeah I mean a hammer. Look it’s right there on the fucking bed, it’s a hammer, he gave me a fucking hammer and said to do it tonight or he’ll deal with me”
“What, he wants you to kill someone?”
“He said the claw side is good for making holes”
“Holes in what?”
“In people’s faces!”
Rufus looked pale, frightened. For his initiation he just had to attack a guy with his fists. He’d beaten him up but he didn’t think he’d killed him. Attacking someone with a hammer was something else.
“Fuck” Rufus said. Then, “well I guess you’d better get it over with then.”
“What?” Reb whispered, suddenly thinking of his mum downstairs overhearing them.
“Well do you wanna die or do you wanna live? It’s kill or be killed – this is a test, you can only get through it one way”
“I can’t fucking smash someone’s head in with a hammer!”
“Don’t think about it – just do it. That’s how this works. You’re a soldier. You do what you need to.”
Rufus wasn’t who Reb had thought he was. He realised now that if Rufus thought he wasn’t going to go through with it, he wasn’t going to help Reb get away. How could he get away anyway? He lived here, his mum lived here, he went to school here. It was all out of hand. He’d just helped his mum make banana bread. It was cooling in the kitchen. And he had to take a hammer and kill someone. He thought of the banana bread covered in blood and brains and bits of skull and the dead man eating it with his smashed mouth.
“Fuck” Reb said.
“Come on man” Rufus said.
Reb picked up the hammer and they went downstairs. It was ok, Reb thought, because there’s no way this can be happening.
“Where you going?” His mum asked when she heard them “you got school tomorrow.”
“Going out” Reb said as he opened the door, Rufus ahead of him.
“No you’re not!” His mum said as he closed it. They ran around the block in case she came out after them. Then they started to walk, looking around them. In the night, walking alone, Reb felt more like it was possible to do this. It was night. He was out in the dark like a killer – hunting his pray. It was like a video game, and he was a ninja, stalking the enemy for execution. Who was the enemy? He didn’t know – he was waiting for information from the Shogun, a special message, a sign would show the way. Two art yuppies went by guffawing in strange shell suits from the 90s and cowboy boots. He couldn’t do them because of the papers, you couldn’t kill yuppies, you could only rob them.
They were walking along between a high brick wall, the back of a warehouse or something, and at the outer edge of the pavement, tall trees with thick boughs. “There!” Rufus said. There was an old black man walking towards them, in his 60s, smoking a rolly. They would have to stand to one side to let him pass, if they didn’t, they’d block his way. “Easy!” Rufus said.
Everything in Reb said not to do it. It looked like his granddad.
“Oi mate!” Shouted Rufus as they stopped in the man’s path. But the man was already looking at Rufus, smiling. “DO it Reb” Rufus told him.
Reb shut his eyes and swung the hammer at the man’s head, the flat side. He felt the hammer hit something hard, much harder than a head. He opened his eyes. He’d hit the wall. The old man and Rufus were nowhere to be seen.
“What – Rufus?” Reb said. “Where the FUCK are you Rufus”. The road was silent, the wind blew in the trees overhead. Reb walked slowly forwards towards where the man had come from. There was nothing, just bare wall, nothing in either direction but the sound of the leaves rustling. Wait, what was that? He’d walked about a hundred yards, and on the left there was a doorway, a wooden door painted black, flecked white paint beneath – it was ajar. But how? They can’t have moved a hundred yards backwards in the time it had taken him to swing the hammer. He pushed the door open.
Inside, he held the hammer up by his head in two hands, ready to swing. It was dark, the floor was wood, he could feel it, rough wood, covered in debris that crunched and scattered under foot. It was an entry hall, only lit by a streetlight outside at one of the windows that left a white square of light on the floor. He passed through it, then on into darkness, his hammer fading into sight then back into shadow. The walls were lined with doors, but there was no sign anyone had been here recently. Just an old warehouse.
He kept walking towards the far wall, it looked like there was a door there. Yes. This door was iron, a heavy security door. Not locked but latched. He raised the latch easily, opened the door, and immediately he heard it. A very low sound, like a rumble, coming from further ahead, but somehow beneath him. This room was lit by candles in wall sconces – candles! – and a long Persian rug ran along its length, frayed at the edges, the floor underneath was polished wood like his school hall. What kind of warehouse was this? Must be some art-yuppie conversion job. He looked back towards the front door he’d come through, but from here everything behind him was darkness. What was he doing here? He didn’t want to kill anybody. He had to find Rufus though. Were they really in here? Where could they have gone? He decided all he could do was keep going – maybe if he found something valuable he could buy himself some time with Ali.
He walked softly along the rug, and noticed that the room was sloping downwards. What kind of room did that? As it sloped it narrowed, until he had to duck his head to keep going. There was a rough hewn stone hole in the far wall, someone had knocked it through with a hammer, and he had to lie down and crawl into it on his forearms and knees. The rumbling sound was getting louder, was it voices? Suddenly he put his hand down into space, and fell forward so far his legs flew up nearly over the back of his head. He was falling into a room, a brightly lit room and the floor accelerated towards him until he landed with a terrible impact on his face, the hammer between him and the floor. “Uuunnghh!” he tried to scream, but he felt like he’d smashed a hole in his mouth and couldn’t speak.
Blood and teeth spilled out onto the floor in front of him. Heat, it was so hot in here! And that sound of rumbling was deafening now. He looked up and reeled back in fear, not knowing what he was seeing. In front of him a towering wall of flame roared up out of the marble floor, and in the flames there were people. How? They stood rank upon rank facing him, bright jets of flame coming out of their mouths as they sang their dirge. Between two columns of them he could see through the flame to a figure sitting on a throne, shrouded and hooded, shimmering through the heat like a mirage.
The figure stood, it looked like he was pointing towards Reb. Reb let out a scream as he saw his teeth begining to move across the floor towards that wall of flame, along with the blood, which ran along the level floor as though it ran out of an upturned cup. Sliding along the floor by themselves towards that distant man, when the teeth reached the flames they glowed bright and burst, and the flame flared up around them.
“You are not the neophyte” a voice said. “Who are you?”
Reb couldn’t see who was speaking,
“Um forry”! He said without his teeth, “Uh han t’ go homhn’. Home – he saw it in his mind, his mum wondering where he was, his brother asleep.
Then his trainers started to walk by themselves. “UHn!” Reb screamed. They started walking towards the wall of flames.
“The rite of initiation is tainted with blood. We await the neophyte” the voice said. “Embrace us and be purified.” Among the chanting he heard laughter, laughter that rose in strange spirals, higher and higher pitched, his trainers stepped towards the flames, and he fought to keep his balance, tried to bend and unlace them and run. The hammer fell from his grip. The heat was unbearable now, but he was powerless. He looked around frantically as the shoes pulled him inside the fire. Pain, nothing but pain and heat, he screamed, screamed, but still his trainers walked on, deeper, melting onto his feet and the floor. His fingers, his hands, his arms, his face, his legs, his groin, he could feel it all burning, could smell cooking meat. Before him was the figure, pointing, a vague dark shape through the heat and the fatty smoke. He felt every part of him aflame, burning away his body, his hair, his ears, his lips. To either side chanting, laughing, figures standing in the flames.
And then he stepped out, the exposed bones of his feet protruded where the flesh was burned away, clacked on the marble floor. He could still see from one eye, and in front of him, on the throne, was the old man from outside on the street. Smiling, wrapped in black robes. Beside him, at his right hand, sat Rufus, sitting stiffly erect, wearing a white gown, tears running down his face. The old man held his arms open. Reb took his last agonising steps, fell into those arms, and as the light and heat around him faded into darkness, he felt a cool kiss on his brow.