Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Autumn 2013 Results




That’s It! I’m Running Away

Copyright © Rebecca Hayman 2013


Wednesday

“There you go,” Mum says, placing a plate in front of me. “Some lovely tofu tonight. In fact—” She sits down opposite me. “There’s something I want to discuss with you, Riley—” She pauses. In fact, come to think of it, this is pause number two. Pause number one was cleverly disguised as the act of sitting down. Two pauses in the one sentence! This is going to be serious. I do a quick re-wind but I can’t think of anything I’ve done wrong. Maybe it’s Mum! She’s sick. I scan her face. She smiles. Is that one of those tragic, brave smiles?

Mum clears her throat or is it a third pause? “Riley, I’ve decided we should become vegetarian.”

“Vegetarian! As in ‘no meat’ sort of vegetarian?”

She nods and smiles. It’s a sinister smile.

I slump in my chair. “But why?”

“Because of the environment. You know how it is Riley, we’ve got to think of the environment these days. And if everyone was vegetarian I reckon it would help.”

I turn a piece of tofu over with my fork. “We could have steak sometimes, couldn’t we? You know as a special treat!” I try to keep my voice light and cheerful. Instead, it sounds squeaky and desperate.

Mum waves a tofu-laden fork at me. “Now you listen here, Riley. Do you know how much water is needed to produce one steak? Do you know how much a cow drinks, not to mention how much it eats and then farts.”

Thursday

I’m on the edge of my seat. Redskin dribble is running down my chin and I don’t even notice. I remind myself to chew and swallow. This is the best-est of the best bits ever. Homer Simpson is just about to — and Mum marches in and switches off the TV. And when I say ‘switches off’, I don’t mean the little red button on the remote, not even the little black button under the screen. I mean the ‘reach-behind, pull-out-the-cord’ kind of switching off, right in the middle of the show.

“What the!?”

“How many times have you seen that episode?” she demands.

“But Mum it was just getting to the bit where …”

“Exactly,” she says. “You’ve probably seen it a dozen times, two dozen.” She’s looping the cord around her elbow. “TV is turning your brain to mush, crushing your imagination, stifling your creativity …”

She wraps her arms around the box and flexes like a weight lifter. “It’s tangling the pathways between your right and left hemispheres,” she grunts, “scrambling your neurotransmitter messages, shorting-out your synapses …”

There’s a pause while she tries to get the TV in a head lock. “Give me a hand with this, will you? I want to put it in the garage.”

Not likely. I quite like the idea of shorting out my synapses. And what’s so wrong with scrambled neurotransmitters?

“Riley,” she says. “Either you help me carry the TV to the garage or I’ll push it off the cabinet and roll it there.”

“Coming Mum.” I leap to my feet and hug the TV close to my chest. I’m not letting this baby go dropping and rolling anywhere. We stagger with it out the door and into the garage.

“Will I ever see it again?” I ask.

“Sure, when you’re eighteen or so.”

I can’t believe I’m hearing this. She’s joking. She must be joking. “Okay Mum I get it! Very funny. You want me to watch less TV. I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.”

“We have come to an arrangement—when you’re old enough you can have the TV back.” She smiles a scary, mother-knows-best smile and goes back into the house. This is no joke.

Maybe I’m dreaming? I could be dreaming. I pinch myself. Ouch! This is no dream. This is my new reality. I sink to the ground. I’m twelve years old! Who cares if my hemispheres are confused? I don’t need imagination. I need to watch The Simpsons.

“Riley,” Mum calls. “Dinner.”

I get to my feet. I’m stiff and sore from having hunched in foetal position. Inside, I can hear Mum humming. She never hums.

“You know I was thinking—” Mum says as she places our meals on the table.

I keep my eyes on my plate and chase tofu with a fork.

“Now that we don’t have the TV to distract us, we’ll have more time together. We could play board games?”

I ram a piece of tofu so hard my fork comes out the other side.

“That would be fun. What do you think?”

I’m now trying to bite the tofu off my fork and it’s fighting back.

“You’d be good at Scrabble,” Mum says.

I grunt. Tofu has robbed me of speech.

Friday

Mum waits until I’m all gummed up with tofu and then says, “Riley, I’ve been thinking—”

The tofu turns to rock in my mouth. I nearly choke. Not thinking again. That’s what happens when you lock up the TV—too much time for thinking.

“I think we should turn the heating down to conserve energy,” Mum says.

I keep a tofu-induced quiet. Is Mum telling me we’ve run out of money and can’t pay the bill? Is that it? I offer to get a paper round.

“That’s so sweet Riley,” Mum says. But no, it’s not money. It’s the ENVIRONMENT. “We can’t keep burning fossil fuels the way we have been,” she says. “We’re killing the planet. We all need to do our bit and turn our thermostats down.”

What a speech! I can almost hear the national anthem playing in the background. I wipe a tear from my eye.

“You’re right,” I say. “We must!”

But then she says, “Good on you. Let’s turn it down to 18.”

And the anthem dies. It's just me and this mad woman fate has decided is my Mum. “Um … how about we turn it down to 24?”

“No Riley, 18’s perfect, you’ll see.”

“Alright, how about 23 just until we acclimatise?”

“Don’t be silly, 18’s not cold.”

“Okay, okay 22!” I say.

“You’ll find 18 to be refreshing …”

“21!”

“… No more stuffiness …”

“20!” I squeak. “A nice even 20!”

“The air will seem so much cleaner …”

“19!” I’m desperate now. “Think of the guests. You can’t freeze our guests.”

For a moment Mum looks thoughtful. I’m in with a chance. “You know how Auntie Em feels the cold,” I say. “What about her? You have to think of her.”

“You’re right,” Mum says, but then she brightens. “We can turn it up when she comes to visit.”

Saturday

Mum’s talking to a gum-chewing 18-year-old, wearing his cap back-to-front and I don’t like it one bit. When she hands over the keys, I like it less than zero bits, more like negative one trillion bits. I can’t believe it! Mum is selling this overgrown teenager our little blue Corolla, which is older than me and smells of rotten bananas.

I stomp up to my room and slam the door, as cap-boy reverses our car out of our driveway. I had been going to ask Mum to drive me to my friend Aiden’s but now there’s no being driven anywhere.

Ever since Mum locked away the TV, turned down the central heating and made us become vegetarian, I’ve been bored, freezing and starving. What’s more the Bombers are playing the Saints at the G and I’m going to miss it. Snot fair. Right now Aiden will be lolling in front of his hulking 60 inch plasma screen, in his t-shirt with the heating set at 25, eating a meat pie and sauce.

Mum calls me down to lunch. She’s humming like a jet engine. Any minute now she’ll take off. “It feels good, doesn’t Riley?” she says. “Now we can walk everywhere or ride our bikes. You’ll be able to ride to school with your friends.”

I grunt. My friends are chauffeur-driven to school by their parents. They do not ride. Losers ride.

I stare at my tofu, raise my fork, then put it down again. I am a man of steel, but I have been pushed too far. There’s nothing else for it: I’m going to have to run away. And I know where I’m going: Aiden’s house, the home of that hulking 60 inch plasma screen. If someone’s got room for that much TV then surely they’ve got room for one more kid. I check my watch. 1.10. Fifty minutes to get myself to Aiden’s, get adopted and be settled in front of the TV in time for kick-off.

I bite my lip. Mum and I had been so close to being a perfect TV-dinner family, her and me, on the couch, dinner on our laps. Now look at me: pretending calm while planning my escape.

“Sorry Mum, I’m just not hungry,” I say, pushing my plate away and getting up. These may be the last words I ever say to her. I nearly stop. I nearly go back. I want my last words to be: ‘I love you Mum, even if you are a crazy freak’, but there’s no going back. I trudge up the stairs to my room.

I pull out my Bombers bag and pack my DS, my Game Boy, my remote control car, my Piggy and my Teddy. The bag is pretty full, just room for a pair of jocks and socks. I take one last look around my room. I never thought it would come to this.

Sliding open the window, I reach for the tree and climb down. The TV’s there in the garage, dusty and huddled in the corner. It shouldn’t be this way. I get my bike and helmet and shut the door. 1.25. Thirty-five minutes to kick off.

At first the road to Aiden’s house is flat and I’m thinking that maybe Mum is right about cars, but then I get to the hill. It goes up so far I can’t see the top. I get slower and slower until I’m off and walking. I walk slower and slower until I’m stopped. I slump over the handle bars. I’m red in the face and panting. There’s no water in my water bottle. No Redskins in my pocket. I’m not even halfway up the hill. I’m going to die. I pull my bike over onto the footpath and sit in the gutter.

It needn’t have been this way. If Mum hadn’t become a crazy freak, I’d be home right now, drinking coke and eating chips, safe in front of the TV. Instead I’m on an epic journey to the home of the 60 inch plasma screen.

I struggle to my feet and start pushing the bike. Finally, I reach the top. I’m weak from lack of food. My legs are shaking and my eyes are blurred with sweat. I put a leg over my bike and push off from the kerb, but I’m wobbling all over the road. A bus crests the hill and honks. My wheel hits the kerb and I go flying.

I land smack, with my nose pressed into the pavement. I’m half-dazed. Death cannot be far away. Slowly I turn over and manage to lift my head. I’m looking down the footpath. I can see the bottom of the hill and the turn-off to Aiden’s house. I check my watch. 1.49. Eleven minutes to kick-off. I struggle to my knees and then to my feet. The 60 inch plasma screen urges me on.

I limp over to my bike. It’s a mangled wreck. The front wheel is squeaking, the handlebars are bent and the chain has dropped off. I’m too weak to fix any of it. I just have to ride it as it is. The bike begins its torturous descent down the hill. Eek, urk, eek, urk. I pick up speed. The wind lifts my hair. Eek, urk, eek, urk. I coast around the corner and down the street to Aiden’s house.

Standing outside the house, I pause to straighten my jacket and smooth my hair. It’s 1.53. Sweet. I have seven minutes to get myself adopted and my charm routine only takes six. Should be sitting on the couch with a coke in one hand and a pie in the other in time for kick-off.

Aiden’s Dad Mr Fletcher opens the door. “Oh, it’s you.”

“That’s right! It’s me—Aiden’s best friend.”

“Who is it?” Aiden’s Mum appears. “Oh, it’s you.”

She knows me. She loves me. This is going to be easy, I just have to keep my cool.

“What are you doing here?” she asks.

I take this as my cue and start to cry and not just a tear. No way. I sob. I’m clinging to Mrs F’s front wailing like I haven’t since the Bombers lost the Grand Final. “I’ve run away,” I say. “I just can’t take it anymore. Please don’t send me back.”

Mrs F manages to prise me loose and lead me inside. She sits me down on the couch, facing (as it so happens) the 60 inch plasma screen TV.

“Tell me what happened,” she says.

But I’m speechless. I can’t take my eyes off that wonder of technology.

“Was your mother cross about something?” she urges gently.

I force a sob and shudder. “I can’t talk about it,” I say. “Not yet. I need time. Do you think maybe I could watch a little TV, just a little footy, to help me calm down?” I turn sad eyes on Mrs F. It’s a gamble. She’s frowning again, but it has now been one day, twenty hours, seven minutes and 45 seconds since Mum locked the TV in the garage. I’ve eaten exactly ten and a half pieces of tofu and endured a night of unbearable cold. I can’t go on much longer.

“Please,” I beg. “Just the first quarter.” I’m reaching for the remote. It’s nearly kick-off. Where’s Aiden? He should be here with his meat pie all dripping with sauce. And where’s my meat pie? I look around me frantically. Something’s wrong. Very wrong. “Where’s—” Then a shiver runs through my body. This can’t be.

Mrs F gently prises the remote from my fingers. “The power’s out, Riley. Aiden’s round at a friend’s place to watch the footy there.”