‘You’ll need these to break out,’ he says, passing me the silk bag. I tip the contents onto the table: a small hammer; an HB pencil, striped red and black; a mirror, round with a silver frame, the size of my palm.
‘What about the mask?’ I ask. ‘The earmuffs?’
He shakes his head. ‘You won’t be needing those anymore.’
I look again at the tools, my breathing fast and shallow.
‘Remember what you learned,’ he says. ‘Four in, seven out.’
I nod. In through the nose, four beats. Out through the mouth, counting to seven. Better.
‘Shall we have some more practice before you go?’
I nod again, grateful.
‘Lie down, close your eyes. Let’s go to the field.’
I do as instructed, and when I open my eyes I’m eight years old. The sun beats against my forehead, its rays painting a yellow varnish on the veins of every blade of grass. I squint through the blazing caramel light, black orbs staining the recesses of each blink. The air stinks of acrid daisies trodden into the grass and the poisonous perfume of nettles that cluster like barbed-wire mines around the base of the outer fence. I step through the crowd and hear the riotous roars of boys as they charge about the field, their violent brogues crashing against the ground like the hooves of thoroughbreds approaching the grandstand; the shrill, flowery laughs of girls that judge me with a criteria drawn up from some other plane.
‘No,’ comes the voice from the chair in the other world. ‘Not judging. Say what you see, don’t transfer your own thoughts onto them.’
I try again. The shrill, flowery laughs of girls, amused by something unknown.
‘Better. Keep going.’
I steal on, chin pointed to my leather toe-caps, arms soldier-tight by my sides. Every step is careful, immaculately planned and executed, leaving no room for error.
‘You’re wearing your mask,’ comes the voice. ‘Lose it.’
I lift my eyes to the school; the great pigskin-bricked warren of worries. Four in, seven out. I peel the mask off like a film of dried glue.
‘Take your time. Look around you.’
I glance to the left at the scattered nests of scarecrow infants rolling on the floor, grass sticking to their jumpers and hanging from their hair; a group of rose-faced girls with white hamster teeth and locked elbows; the rubber-stomached dinner ladies with beetroot cheeks, leaning up against the low wall with their sausage arms crossed. None of them is looking at me.
I turn to the right, to the battalion of lost boys, war-painted and stick-wielding, feet slamming, fists clenched. Their cheeks are blue like jellyfish, stuffed with hungry breaths. Footballs cannon through the sky, announced by battle-cries and the shaking earth of a fresh stampede. None of them is looking at me.
‘Good. Now get ready.’
Four in, seven out; I ready myself for impact. One of the cannonballs connects with the side of my head, knocking me sideways, stumbling. The air is sucked out of the field, time and sound briefly plucked from the earth and stashed away by invisible thieves. But only for a moment. Then the wolves begin to howl, their teeth gnashing in delight, the whites of their eyes rolling desperately like wild horses at the sound of a gun. Hell’s own laughter, collecting over the field like a charcoal cloud that swallows up the sky. Eyes everywhere awaken; a thousand eyes, and all of them on me.
‘What do you do first?’
Four in, seven out.
I stand up straight, try to raise my head. It’s heavier now.
‘Eye contact. Look around.’
I blink hard and look up. Left, right, ahead, meeting as many eyes as I can. I see the plum faces, the boys laughing, bodies rolling around on the floor holding their stomachs. I rub my ear. It’s hot, and my face is red.
‘How do you know?’
My cheeks are burning.
I reach into my pocket and pull the mirror out of the silk bag, hold it up in front of my face.
‘It’s not as red as you thought, is it?’
No, it’s not.
The laughter is dying away. The boys have already reclaimed the ball like hungry pups and some of them are continuing with the game. I breathe, watch the fresh charge of black shoes towards a goal made from jumper piles. No one cares. Most of them have already forgotten about it. It’s over.
I open my eyes. I’m back in the room, lying down.
‘Good. Now one more,’ he says from the chair. ‘Let’s go to the party.’
I close my eyes again.
* * *
I’m passing down the rotating throat of a kaleidoscope. The corridor walls lean in towards the ceiling, the strobe flashes throwing psychedelic diamonds across my path. I shuffle down towards the kitchen, back against the wall. There are no boys or girls; there are only armies of elbows and plastic cups of bitter gold, greasy curtains of hair stuck to the posters on the corridor wall. The tunnel is rank with the musty stench of armpits, the damp mire of vodka soaked into the carpet, and the foul manure of cigarette ash left to stew in half-crushed beer cans.
‘Eye contact,’ comes the voice from the other world. ‘Earmuffs off.’
The voice is more distant than before, the bass from the lounge speakers making a heartbeat of the floor and dictating its thump up through my ribs, drowning out the sour-breathed din of conversation and the voice from the other world. This time I ignore it; it’s easier to keep my eyes down.
I find a pocket of air in the kitchen, lean up against the fridge. I crack open a can and my thumb paddles briefly in the frothy rim spill. A trio of smokers at the back door rope me into conversation.
I take a sip of my drink and prepare to tread the boards, calling out my character from the dressing room. I smile, crack a joke, nod along, swig. I’m sweating under the arms.
‘Take off the masks. Rationalise it. Remember, what’s the worst that can happen?’
I ignore the voice again. The beer is tasteless; now it’s merely an extra-thick layer of make-up, powdered like chalk onto my smiling-clown face. The worst that can happen? I say something stupid and have it etched into my forehead forever like a botched tattoo; I fall behind the repartee like a spent greyhound after a rabbit lure; I’m left to gather mould in the corner of the kitchen, a gurning gravestone under a wind of autumn leaves. I live out my three years of university like a hermit with straw in his hair, alone in his den of stale piss and turtle soup. What’s the worst that can happen? Everything.
The smokers flick their black-tipped stubs into the sink and I ransack the recesses of my brain. There are still a few unflooded lobes somewhere in the back, and in one of them I find the clown on his unicycle, turning the cogs that keep me moving. Grimacing, the red make-up at his eyes bleeding with sweat, he churns out one last joke to see them off. The smokers head off in search of drinks, laughing at whatever witticism my cycling clown granted me. I sense the wetness under my arms, rewind through every moment of the conversation; every slow blink, every sideways crawl of every eye, every slurred, smoke-curled word.
‘Get out your hammer.’
I stand in the corner of the kitchen, watching the crowds rotate. I sip, watch, smile at every passing glance. One song finishes and there’s a moment when everything is clear.
‘Get out your hammer.’
I put the drink down and reach into the silk bag in my pocket, feel the cold steel of the hammer head. I pull it out and weigh it in my hands. It’s light, like a toothbrush, easy to grip.
‘Describe your bubble,’ the voice says, clearer now.
I look up at the room. The colours of the kitchen have faded. I’m enclosed in glass, frosted, thick like a river frozen over for the long winter. My very own hamster ball, hard like stone, an impermeable shield between me and the world. I place a hand on its surface, feel the cold condensation on my palm, see the foggy shapes of the party on the other side.
I take a deep breath and grip the handle of the hammer with both hands. It’s bigger now, heavier, like an oil-tanker’s anchor. The steel claw drags my wrists towards the floor.
I look at the ice wall and the wild, unpredictable world on the other side, full of judgement and endless possibilities of embarrassment and failure. I see my reflection in the wall. Me. The one and only; unique, loved, with a whirlwind of fire in my eyes that deserves to be unleashed like a hurricane onto the world, mistakes and all.
With a strength ripped from somewhere deep in the sinews of my stomach, I haul the hammer above my head, and with a primal roar drive it into the glass wall. Cracks appear on the surface, and I strike at it again, and again, until the whole thing shatters around me, glass splintering over my shoes and in my hair like crystals of snow.
I’m out, free, naked to the world.
‘Go,’ says the voice.
I leave my drink on the side, step over the broken glass, crunching under my feet, and head towards the nearest rabble. I cannot even think. I must not think.
‘How do you feel?’
My heart’s racing.
‘That’s good. It means you’re alive. Fight or flight, remember, and now it’s time for you to fight. It’s your body’s natural reaction. Acknowledge it, embrace it.’
Four in, seven out. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Nothing that will extinguish this new blaze in my eyes, I tell myself.
* * *
I open my eyes. I take in the room, sit up.
‘Very good. You’ve made a lot of progress.’
‘I have,’ I admit.
He refolds his legs and crosses his fingers on his lap. ‘That fire you mentioned then. The fire in your eyes. You believe in that, don’t you?’
I think about it and nod. He smiles but doesn’t say anything; he’s good at making me talk.
‘I’ve got something,’ I say. ‘I’ve always known that I have something.’
‘Are you ready for the world to see?’ he asks. ‘What will you do when they look?’
Four in, seven out. I’ve learned that it’s okay to make people wait.
‘I’ll dance,’ I say simply.
He nods. ‘And when doubt comes?’
‘I’ll gouge out its eyes with my own fingers. Then I’ll use the same nails to claw into the mountainside of life and rip my way to the top.’
‘Yes. And fear?’
‘I will shatter it with my bare fists, tear barriers with my teeth. When my cheeks burn and my heart thunders against my chest, I’ll know that I’m alive. And when they stare, I will dance.’
He smiles, and we both stand up. He shakes my hand, opens the office door onto a thick wall of ice.
‘The outside world,’ he says. ‘Don’t forget your things.’
I put the mirror back inside the silk bag, and then I remember the pencil on the table.
‘I haven’t used this,’ I say, picking it up. ‘It’s for me?’
‘For you, yes. And for others. Use it well, and it won’t just help to bring down your own walls. There are many who have it worse.’
I consider it, nod, slip it into my pocket; I look at the wall that separates me from the world.
‘Are you ready?’ he asks.
I take up the hammer in both hands, raise it above my head. There’s a hurricane of fire in my eyes.
TOMAS MARCANTONIO is a fiction writer from Brighton, England. His work has appeared in places such as STORGY, The Fiction Pool, and Ellipsis Zine. Tomas is currently based in Busan, South Korea, where he splits his time between writing, teaching, and getting lost in neon-lit backstreets.
Image by AI Leino from Pixabay