“Perhaps you are,” Dad said.
“Jack!” Mum yelled, before wrapping her arms around me as my tears started to flow. “Do you want me to talk to Mrs Collins?”
“No, that’d only make things worse. Please, just transfer me to the state school.”
“You know you’d have to wear shoes there, don’t you?”
“I don’t care!”
She stared into my eyes while ruffling what was left of my hair. “Surely it can’t be that bad, can it? Look, sweetie, give it another week and if you still feel the same way I’ll try to have you transferred, okay?”
“Yeah, all right I suppose.”
* * *
It was finally Saturday. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and there was still a whole day and a half to go before Monday. For the moment I was happy, but little did I know what was waiting for me just around the corner.
“Hey drongo, where are your shoes?”
I’d stepped into the lane at the back of the shops, a bag of hot chips in my hand, only to find myself face to face with the two creeps from primary school.
“I said where are your shoes?”
“His father’s too stingy to buy him any,” the other one said, spitting on my foot. “Knocked back my Dad’s loan application, he did.”
“Let’s teach him a lesson, then, make him think twice next time.”
They had hold of me before I could move, pinning my arms behind my back and pushing me face down in the dirt. The heavier of the two sat on my back, hoeing into my chips while the other one pulled out a cigarette lighter. That’s right, if anyone would be daft enough to smoke, it’d be him.
“Let’s see how tough his feet really are.”
“Quit squirming,” he said, grabbing my foot around the ankle and pulling it up until almost dislocating my knee. “Yuck, what’ve you been stepping in?”
“Those chips,” I said, unable to stop myself.
The one sitting on me almost choked. “Now it thinks it’s funny.”
His mate tugged harder on my leg, causing me to cry out. “Let’s barbecue a drongo, shall we?”
I closed my eyes, whimpering as the lighter woomphed into life.
“You tell your daddy when you go limping home with a burnt-off foot, drongo, you tell him it’s not nice knocking back people’s loan applications. You got it?”
A cold sweat broke out on my forehead as I felt the heat of the flame coming closer to my toes.
“Hey Barnsie, Tyler,” another voice cried from behind me. “What’s you doing?”
“Cooking us some drongo meat.”
“Cool.” I turned my head to see David Collins walking up to them. “Let me try.”
I watched in disbelief as he grabbed hold of the lighter, my eyes pleading with him to stop. He knelt beside me, holding it just centimetres from my sole. “You ready, git?”
“No don’t, please.”
“Shut up and take it like a man.”
The flame came closer, licking at my toes in the gentle breeze. Everything inside me wanted to scream but I knew if I did it’d only make things worse, so I gritted my teeth and focussed my mind on not wetting myself.
“Do it,” the one sitting on me said. I felt his considerable weight shift as he leaned over to get a closer look at the carnage.
It all happened so quickly, I still can’t quite figure it out. David’s knee flew up, collecting the creep under the chin and sending him toppling backwards into the other one. In an instant David was on top of them, waving the lighter under their noses.
“This git is my property now, to mangle and mutilate as I, and only I, see fit. You get it?”
“Sure, anything you say, boss.”
David pocketed the lighter before grabbing me, pulling me roughly to my feet and twisting my arm behind my back. “By the time I’m through with you, git, you’ll be wishing I’d left you to those losers.”
He turned to the other two. “Beat it!”
The creeps looked at each other before dashing back into the shops, while David twisted my arm even tighter, causing me to cry out.
“Louder,” he whispered to me. “Make it sound like you’re dying.”
It took a moment for my brain to kick into gear, but when it did I let out the loudest, most blood-curdling scream I could manage.
“Cool,” David said, pushing me further down the lane. “With any luck those morons won’t bother you again.”
He released me as soon as we were out of sight of the shops, wrapping his arm around my shoulder instead.
“You – but – how?”
“Let’s just say they used to be friends of a friend before falling out big time. They know not to mess with me.”
He turned to face me, his deep dark eyes burning into mine as a grin spread across his face. “Loraine told me you’re not a git.”
“Yeah, I heard her.”
“Along with the rest of the class, I’m sure.” He grinned again. “She’s wrong, you know, but who cares? For better or worse you’re one of us now, Joel, and we take care of our own.”