Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story

You’re Dead

Tom Williams

When Peterson was sent upstairs he was meant to go and pack, but now he’s out on the roof and nobody knows what to do. The teachers are all standing around on the grass looking confused, and the Head is holding a megaphone to his beard and shouting upwards. The voice rebounds off the building and echoes across the field towards the woods.

Then the first black square comes spinning down through the inky blue sky – it looks like a UFO crashing, out of control – and explodes on the path showering the lawn with stones. Teachers murmur nervously. The Head squats down and picks up a piece of tile shrapnel. He turns it over and over in his hand. He doesn’t know what to do next. I bet he regrets not sending someone to supervise Peterson with the packing.

The Head stands up again and shouts louder, ‘Matthew Peterson you are going to be in a lot of trouble for this!’

The megaphone sings a long, high note of static, chasing after the yell. The next tile flies right past the Head’s head and shatters on the gravel.

Kip has come up from the woods because she heard all the loud voices, and she’s lying near me chewing on something she dug up. What the teachers don’t know, but I see perfectly from here, is that Peterson is also flinging tiles down the other side of the building into the staff car park. He knows his punishment can’t get any bigger. The Head understands this too and has run out of ideas.

It’s getting dark; Peterson’s mum will be here soon to collect him.


*   *   *


Peterson sleeps in the bed next to mine, but after today his’ll be free. That’s something I have been praying for since my first week.

Once, in 3A, I found some boys cutting the heads off Peterson’s soldiers with a Stanley knife. I knew straight away there’d be trouble and wanted nothing to do with it. I even said to them all, ‘I am nothing to do with this.’

They all looked at me as if I was the one being stupid. I left. But then someone – I bet it was Andrew Chapman – told Peterson it was me and later on in the upstairs corridor I saw Peterson marching towards me, angrier than I have ever seen him before. His face was the colour of Ribena. He was staring straight at me as he got closer and muttered ‘You’re dead’ through his teeth without moving his lips. When he ran at me I couldn’t move. I just stood there and when his fist hit my mouth I crumpled to the floor and held my mouth closed around my bleeding teeth. I cried not from pain but because I hadn’t done anything.

Later on, Peterson and I had to stand in the Head’s room for hours, waiting for Peterson to say sorry. The Head just shuffled piles of paper around on his desk and did marking. He was ready to sit there all night. We were in there so long that I had time to memorise all the authors and titles on the Head’s bookshelves, and I hadn’t even heard of any of them. Peterson spent the whole time looking out of the window.

Finally, when even the Year Sixes were in bed, Peterson said sorry. He was still looking out of the window when he said it so it shouldn’t’ve counted, but I think the Head was getting tired by then because he just nodded to himself then told us to go to bed.

Just as I was falling asleep a fist thumped into my belly and I lay in the dark gulping for air, blinking away hot tears, desperate not to make any sound at all.


*   *   *


The tiles are still falling when Peterson’s mum arrives. Someone hears the car in the drive and goes to explain where her son is. She comes around the side of the building just as another tile comes cartwheeling through the sky. This time it stabs into the lawn and stays there, upright, like a shark’s fin swimming through a sea of grass.

Mrs Peterson looks even angrier than the Head. She snatches the megaphone from his hand and tries to shout through it but nothing comes out. ‘How do you work this fucking thing?’ she snaps at the Head and he shows her how to pull the trigger to make your voice come out. This time the shout works:

‘Matthew? Matthew do you hear me? I have driven for three bloody hours to get here. If you think I want to play games with you then you’ve got another thing coming. You have three minutes to get down here, before I come up there and throw you down.’

Peterson is sitting on the peak of the roof. The sky has just enough blue light left in it for him to be a silhouette. He doesn’t say anything back, but at least the tiles have stopped falling. Then I see the sitting figure stand and clamber down the slope of the roof to the edge.


*   *   *


What happened is this. Everybody else had the swimming competition today, but I was allowed to go out in the field because I had a verruca.

I was near the summer house when I heard shouts coming from the woods. Nobody else was off games, so whoever was in there shouldn’t’ve been. I couldn’t tell how many voices there were but one of them was definitely Peterson’s. That was weird because I knew Peterson was meant to be doing front crawl. Peterson has the record for two lengths. He’s never off games and always wins the swimming competition. So I started walking towards the woods to investigate, but I didn’t hurry. If you’ve got any brains, when Peterson shouts you run away. But something about this shout made me go towards it.

As I walked across the field I could see everyone up by the pool. Chlorine floated down and mixed with the smell of cut grass. I could hear the divers hitting the water and girls’ screams as high as Miss T’s whistle. The sun was out over the school roof and warmed one side of my face. There hadn’t been any clouds for days.

Close to the woods the grass is long because the branches are too low for Mr Way’s tractor. Mr Way’s job is to look after all the grass. He is always rolling it and mowing it, sometimes even talking to it. He has a page in the school magazine called ‘Thoughts on Grass’ where he tells us about the grass and whether or not it had a good term.

I walked along the edge of the trees looking into the woods but I didn’t see anyone. The shouts had stopped, so I thought whoever had been there had gone. But then deep inside the woods I saw something blue flapping and heard crying noises. The boys’ uniforms are snooker-table green; the girls wear dresses the colour of a baby boy’s blanket. So I knew it was a girl.

I couldn’t see who it was because her head was turned but I could see she was tied to a tree.

I ran in, and when I got close I saw it was Gemma. She was shaking so hard she couldn’t speak. You could tell she had been crying but she had stopped and tracks of salt had dried on her face where the tears had run down. The shoelaces had burned purple lines across her wrists and ankles, and the knots were tiny and tight. They got tighter when I tried to snap the laces. I had to use my teeth.

Straight away Gemma ran off and I could hear she was crying again. I shouted after her, ‘Was it him?’ She didn’t answer me, but I already knew it was.

She kept running, fast towards the Lecky block, and I followed across the field. Everyone was still splashing and swimming, and nobody seemed to notice or care that we weren’t up there cheering with them. Gemma ran into the Lecky block and when I caught up with her she had gone into the French room. I asked her again if it was Peterson and she just told me to go away.

‘I know it was him,’ I insisted. ‘I heard his voice.’

‘GO AWAY!’ she screamed.

I stood around outside. After a while I opened the Lecky door again but I couldn’t walk in. The door swung back and my shutting reflection looked like a hologram as it came back to face me.

I walked back up the steps towards school. Inside, the long corridor was dark and smelt of varnish. Crowd cheers bounced through the open windows and along the empty walls, down to the Head’s door at the end.


*   *   *


In total I have had to stand in the Headmaster’s study five times. But when I went in there to tell him about Gemma, that was the first time I had ever been in there on my own.

I knocked on the door. I heard a chair squeak and then the Head groaned, ‘Come in.’ I told him about Gemma and the shoelaces. Then I told him about Peterson’s shouts in the woods. Behind the Head, through the window, I could see that there were people in the pool, but that the races had stopped and people were doing bombs off the diving board. He asked me some more questions and then said, ‘Thank you’, which means get out.

In my head Peterson muttered, ‘You’re dead.’

I went back down to Lecky. Gemma was still in the French room and would only let Matron near. Matron came to the door when she saw me. The upside-down clock safety-pinned to the top pocket of her shirt reflected the sun into my face. She told me I wasn’t needed and went back inside.

Matron is big and laughy and has a nickname for almost everyone. Once I called her ‘Mummy’ by accident but she just laughed.

I walked back to the woods and threw stones at the tree imagining it was his face, and I only rested when I heard people coming. I realised I was crying too, but realising it made me stop.

It was Miss T and Mr Potter. Mr Potter knelt down and felt the marks on the bark with his hairy fingers. They looked like fat caterpillars exploring the tree trunk. He was shaking his head lots. Miss T told me to go in. I stayed outside in the long grass. They were only in the woods for a few minutes and when Miss T came out the lenses of her glasses changed colour and became sunglasses, hiding her eyes. Mr Potter followed, and when he stepped into the sunlight I saw millions of tiny ginger hairs in his beard that I had never noticed before. Normally his beard is the colour of mud.

Mr Potter and Miss T started walking back towards school. I followed them, but hid behind the tree on the lawn and looked into the Head’s study. When I leaned over I could see past the curtain, and that’s when I saw Peterson, smirking like he’d just farted. I’ve never seen him cry. The Head was talking into the telephone. None of them could see me. I wished as hard as I could that Peterson would go, before I became the sneak.

A car engine started down by Lecky and I ran. Gemma, wrapped in a red blanket, was in the back of the white car that’s always parked there. Matron got in the front. When Gemma turned to look out of the window the tears made her freckles look like sequins. The car bumped up the hill and Gemma held up her palm at me in a wave. I waved back, slowly closing my hand as the car drove away. Then I walked out across the field. The sun was coming down behind the school and made the sky behind look like a bruise.

Kip was alone on the other side of the field, digging for something, Mr Way was by the pavilion hammering something metal and the noises came a long time after each hit. The three of us were a triangle and in the middle the shadows of trees were a hundred metres long.


*   *   *


When they found out that Peterson was up on the roof the teachers sent everyone to bed, even though it was still early. They’ve let me stay out here on the wall by the pool because I am something to do with this. Mr Way is over with the teachers, who are all interrupting each other trying to explain what has happened. I’m not sure if Gemma will be back.

When Peterson was standing on the edge of the roof he looked down at the ground as if he was about to jump. A secret part of me willed him to. I know it’s wrong but I wished him to slip and break his neck, but he didn’t.

Now he comes out through the back door and walks across the lawn towards his mum. The teachers sigh in unison, relieved that no more people got hurt. Peterson’s mum snaps at him, ‘Now get in the car.’ But he stops walking when he sees me.

For a second I think he’s coming this way and that he’s going to punch me in the face again for being a sneak. Instead he stops walking and stares. He gobs on the grass between us, then turns and goes away. And like that, the bed beside mine becomes empty.

Now that the excitement is over, the teachers have gone back inside school. I’m sitting on the wall in the dark with Kip still lying near my feet. When I walk over the lawn she gets up and follows, and watches as I wrestle the embedded tile out of the turf.

The surface of the pool is tight like cling film; the water is so still you cannot even tell there is any. The tile sluices the surface and sinks. Waves bounce off the sides, echoing and overlapping, as the dark shape drowns beneath.