© Mark Vector
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I always loved to hear the school bell at day’s end. That beautiful sound of freedom. I would leave the school with a smile so wide I had to walk through the gate sideways just to fit.
Then Gnarler arrived.
Now, the dreaded bell’s clang brought only fear, fright and fist fights. And today was no different as I sprinted from Gnarler’s roar. On the pavement behind me, his heavy feet pounded growing closer with each stride. Until panting, I collapsed against a shabby arcade wall and sank to the floor. I dropped my head between my knees and hugged myself.
‘I give up!’ I shouted and shot both hands blindly in the air to surrender. Two of my fingers plunged deep up Gnarler’s nose. One for each nostril.
Talk about awkward.
The growing crowd took a sharp intake of breath. Luckily, Gnarler didn’t inhale, or I’d literally be up to my elbow in snot. Instead, he loomed over me, unmoving as if paralysed.
My fingers squelched as I desperately pulled, but they were plugged in tight. I continued to wiggle until I poked something smooth and round. Probably his brain as it felt about the right size, either that or he’d somehow sucked up a walnut through his nose. After a quick prod, his face contorted as if he were about to give birth. So, I prodded some more to create faces I’d only seen in the zoo.
The crowd jostled for a better view. I’d never live this down, assuming Gnarler allowed me to live at all.
I stopped when his tongue slithered over my hand to lick his bulging eyeballs.
Gnarler’s brown eyes twitched and went cross-eyed to focus on my hand, knuckles deep, up his sniffer. Either through anger or a lack of oxygen the bully’s face changed from pink to red to purple. All very hypnotising until he grabbed my wrist, and with a powerful jerk, yanked it towards the crowd. They ducked, as two loud pops shot over them. I checked to make sure my hand wasn’t also flying over their heads. Yep, still there, although my fingers needed more soap than I could ever afford.
I offered an apologetic smile to Gnarler. As Aunty Billie always said, peace starts with a smile.
A hefty fist shattered my peaceful smile and bounced off my front teeth knocking me to the floor. Eyes wide in disbelief, I stared at Gnarler. I guess he hadn’t heard the saying.
‘I’ve lost my lunch money,’ I lied. I couldn't tell him the truth. To spend it on anything other than his protection was madness. But the smell of the canteen’s fish-fingers had been irresistible. The not starving part had been a fun bonus.
‘Cough up or no protection.’ Gnarler cracked his knuckles. ‘You’re so skinny you’ll cough your lungs through your eye sockets with one punch.’
Rubbish! First off, I doubted anyone had ever coughed through their eye-sockets, and if they had, they were doing it wrong. And second, not even Gnarler could force my lungs through an eye socket like that. Two punches, yeah definitely.
‘I've got nothing,’ I said, with a tongue so dry it felt like a cactus. Tears started to trickle down my face. Perfect timing. Years of studying drama had been a complete waste of time. These waterworks were thanks to being scared spit-less.
‘Fine. Stop bawling. I’m not a monster—’ Gnarler waited for the crowd to stop laughing before continuing. ‘Bring a fiver tomorrow.’ He flicked my ear. ‘Such a wimp. Like your mum.’
Not cool! No, I wouldn’t accept that. I wiped my tears and stood. Dad would never allow anyone to talk trash about Mum. My heart pumped hard enough to crack a rib, which usually happened anyway when fighting Gnarler. Dad was no longer around so, I would make a stand. I felt him close — filling me with courage. Dad had always hated bullies. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, he would say. Today, Gnarler would fall, preferably not on top of me. If he didn’t fall, then I’d be visiting Dad earlier than expected, wearing lungs instead of eyes.
I tapped Gnarler’s lower back, as I couldn’t reach his shoulder. ‘The bigger they are…’ I said, pulling back my fist. ‘The harder they f…’ I punched with enough rage to break a wall made of Lego, loosely put together.
Gnarler caught my hand — like a leaf falling from a tree.
With my fist trapped between his finger and thumb, he said, ‘—the harder they… HIT.’
His knuckles rocketed towards my stomach. By pure chance, I caught his fist — like a tractor falling from a tree. The surprise on my face didn’t change as my hand joined his, and together we punched my belly stopping only at my spine. My stomach grumbled and decided there wasn’t enough room for two fists and four fish-fingers. So, it ejected lunch the quickest way possible.
With the power of a fire hose, I aimed and vomited towards Gnarler. With a quick sidestep, he dodged a flying fish-finger. Unfortunately, I’d chewed the other fish-fingers, so my puke attack wasn’t much more than a fishy dribble.
Gnarler shook his greasy, brown hair and directed an almighty fist towards my eye. For a terrifying second, I didn’t think he’d stop. I hated being right. My skull shattered his fist. Well, I hoped it did because my head almost cracked in two.
‘Now, you’re gonna bring me a tenner or no more Mr Gentle.’
I nodded, as my eye began to close thanks to Mr Gentle’s fist.
Then I spotted it.
His knuckle showed a speck of blood, probably from when I blocked his punch with my teeth.
Gnarler could be hurt! And even more surprising — by me.
‘Ha!’ I thought… out loud. Very loud. So loud, in fact, the crowd spun round in disbelief.
I galloped away on my knees. Impressive to watch, but not recommended if you prefer your knees to stay inside your trousers. I made good distance though, until a rough hand clutched for the back of my trousers, missed, and instead grabbed my Hulk underpants. Lifted clean off my knees, Gnarler suspended me in the air like a spinning piñata.
‘Wedgey!’ someone shouted. I didn’t argue, partly because it was true, but mostly because my teeth were clenched so tight, I couldn’t breathe.
Gnarler’s bloodshot eyes flared. ‘Did you laugh at me?’
Above the crowd’s chant of ‘Show us his lungs’, I heard a familiar voice a comforting voice. A red-haired lady pushed her way through the crowd and placed her hands on her slim hips.
She was a sight for sore eyes. I mean that literally, my bruised eyes were very sore.
‘Release the boy!’
I spun in slow circles, hanging by the elastic of my bright green underwear and then crashed to the floor and adjusted my undies so I couldn’t taste them. Gnarler looked at me and punched his hand with enough force to shatter the bones of a small child. A child about my size.
Aunty Billie pulled out her phone. ‘I’ll call his mum, who is the—’
‘Headmistress?’ Gnarler said. ‘Yeah, so what?’ He turned and strolled past the arcade with his friends circling him like vultures.
Aunty Billie helped me to my feet. ‘What’s he talking about? Your mum will kick him out of school so hard he’ll never find her shoe.’
‘I can’t snitch to Mum, and he knows that. If anyone reports a bully, she’ll miss out on the prize.’
‘Oh, please. Not the prize again.’ She straightened my curly hair only for it to spring back. ‘Is she still going on about that?’
‘It’s all she cares about, since Dad—’
‘Not true.’ She linked arms and started walking home. ’She also cares about jigsaws and cats.’
‘Don’t be sad, Ollie. We both know she loves more than anything—’
‘I know,’ I nodded. ‘But—’
‘Cat jigsaws. She adores those.’
‘Seriously, meeting the Prime Minister is everything to her. She didn’t even vote for him.’
‘Your mum had a very different job to a Headmistress befo—’ Aunty Billie paused. ‘Let’s just say, I’m sure she has her reasons.’
I kicked a crisp packet. ‘I need to stop Gnarler without Mum knowing about it, and if my lungs stay inside my body, well, I’d prefer that.’
Aunty Billie placed a well-manicured hand on my shoulder. ’Look, if you absolutely can’t tell your mum, I’ll help. Let your mum win the prize. But she can never find out, or it will be me who’ll need a shoe-finding surgeon.’
‘I’ve been meaning to ask, why are you walking like a one-armed scarecrow?’ she asked.
‘You see the end of my fingers? How they’re green and crusty?’
‘That’s not my snot.’
‘Oh, disgusting. No wonder you lost, fighting by emptying his nose. What was your next move, cut his toenails and run him a bath?’ She handed me a tissue. ‘Hands are overrated, anyway. Get something cool like a hook. Imagine how many bags of new shoes you could carry.’
I thought for a moment. ‘I’m not so sure. Clapping would be a problem, and I don’t even want to think about using the wrong hand with toilet paper.’
‘Eek! Good point. Get it? Point?’ She nudged me. ‘Forget the hook.’
‘I have an idea,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you use your super-spy skills to stop Gnarler?’
‘Hmm, it does remind me of a mission in Switzerland—‘
‘Please no, not the Switzerland story again. I was joshing. You’re not really a spy.’
‘Well then, how did I get hold of this?’ She flashed her MI6 employee photo-card. In bright red letters, it stated, ‘TOP SECRET - Access All Levels’. She only ever pulled this out when questioned about her supposed adventures. ‘All Levels,’ she said. ‘Can you see it?’
I couldn’t see anything because she had the card pressed against my partially open eyeball. I loved Auntie’s stories, but that’s all they were — stories. They all followed the same plots as James Bond films. I doubted Aunty Billie had visited a water park, never mind an underwater spy base to wrestle robotic sharks. The identity card, her most prized possession, had always been a mystery though. It looked so real.
We bought fried chicken from the Plucking Great Chicken. Their tagline read, ‘Fried Chicken so good, you’ll lick other people’s fingers’. They were right, I wouldn’t even hesitate. Then, I remembered my own green-stained hand. Those fingers might have to wait.
‘What’s the bully’s story?’ she asked, biting into a drumstick.
‘Gnarler?’ I replied. ‘Well, he’s not happy until he collects his body weight in coins.’
‘He must be strong,’ Aunty Billie said. ‘Hmm. What to do? The skills we’re taught in the Secret Intelligence Service are overkill. After all, he’s still a young lad, even if he’s mean enough to make a Happy Meal cry.’ She ruffled my hair. ‘Let’s try a gym and self-defence classes.’
‘Orrr…’ I rubbed my hands together. ‘You can beat him up and tell him to stop.’ I raised two thumbs.
‘It wouldn’t solve anything.’
‘Well, it kinda would. For starters, it would stop him hitting me.’
‘But you wouldn’t learn anything.’
‘I’d learn life is less painful without bruises,’ I said, pointing to my eyes.
‘But how would you stop the next bully, say… when you leave school?’
‘What? There’s bullying after school?’ I threw a broken, battered chicken in a green bin.
‘Look, the bin’s as bright as your underwear, which everyone saw. Even that girl you mention like every day.’
‘Haley? Oh, great. And I wouldn’t be surprised if my green undies are no longer just green. At least, I didn’t wear my “Fart Loading” ones.’
‘Poop Loading would have been more accurate.’ Aunty Billie punched my arm softly.
She always knew how to make me smile.
‘I’ll meet you at the gym 6am. I know the perfect instructor. He’s a bit out there, but if anyone can teach you to handle Gnarler, it’s him.’
‘Sure. I’ve got nothing to lose.’
‘Except two hour’s sleep and a few aching muscles.’ Her red hair bounced like rusty springs as she waved goodbye.
At home, I kept my black eye hidden. ‘Hi, Mum,’ I shouted.
‘Hi Ollie,’ she sang back.
‘I’m beat.’ No lies there. ‘I’m going to have an early night because I’m meeting Aunty Billie at the gym before school.’
‘Okay. I’m snowed under, anyway. Cya tomorrow.’
The street lamps fought back the early morning darkness. Aunty Billie tugged her red bobble hat to rest above her green eyes and long eyelashes. In the dark gym entrance, stood the only man visible from space. Large letters stretched across his massive chest saying, ‘I didn’t get this Butt by sitting on it.’
He leant forward, took Aunty Billie’s hand and kissed it.
‘It tickles,’ she said.
He leant forward to me. So, I shoved both hands into my pockets and didn’t stop until my fingers poked through the bottom. But, instead of a kiss, I received a firm black slap. Firm enough to force my tongue to leap out of my mouth with my internal organs lined up ready to follow.
Aunty Billie tried to mop away the remaining saliva off her hand with a tissue. She did well, considering the job required at least two beach towels. The back slap no longer seemed so bad.
The Instructor stepped into the light to open the doors, and for the first time, I saw his face. Instinctively, I leapt back building up the courage to whack the attacking rat from his lip. But the Instructor didn’t seem flustered. In fact, he stroked it lovingly. Then I realised the Instructor was more moustache than man — and considering the size of the man, that was really saying something.
‘Your nephew looks a little nervous,’ he said. He leaned down to face me. ‘Oh, my mistake. He’s just little.’ Straight away I knew this man played by his own rules, like not cleaning his teeth.
I held my breath so as not to appear rude by collapsing.
’So, you want to be a fighting machine?’ He laughed heavily, drowning me in morning breath from at least a week ago. My eyes watered, and I wondered which animal lay decomposed under his tongue. I had a choice to make. Smell his breath or suffocation. No decision. I welcomed suffocation by refusing to breathe. But my body cheated me, and I gasped. He stepped back — at my breath!
‘Good God!’ he said, waving a hand in front of his nose. ‘What’s that stink?’
‘Toothpaste,’ I said. You should try it, is what I would have said if I had no manners and had Superman stood behind me.
‘Sooo,’ Aunty Billie ruffled my hair, ‘this is Ollie.’
‘I didn’t know they made boys this small. Have you tried inflating him?’
Aunty Billie shook her head. ‘He may not big—’
The Instructor nodded. ‘Preach, sister.’
‘—but he’s a quick learner and understands self-defence will take time—’
‘Honey, the Pyramids took time,’ the Instructor said. ‘Unless you parked Dr Who’s Tardis outside, you’ll be too old to see his first muscle.’
Aunty Billie cleared her throat and flashed a stern smile.
The Instructor stepped back. ‘I’ll do my best, but I can’t make anyone look as awesome as me.’ He squinted at Aunty Billie as he slowly removed his shirt, then lifted both arms above his head. Lumpy muscles jumped to attention. He strained to create thick, blue veins pumping down his neck.
Aunty Billie yawned.
His red face strained further to squeeze out another hundred or so muscles. I checked for the closest toilet because I feared his tight trousers weren’t strong enough to stop an accident of explosive proportions.
‘Phooweeee,’ he said relaxing. A collective sigh of relief sounded through the gym as everyone relaxed a little. The cleaner, who had come running with a mop, produced more sweat than the entire gym. ‘Not everyone gets a free ticket to the Gun Show.’ He kissed his biceps and winked at Aunty Billie.
She shivered. ‘I’m out of here. Good luck, Ollie.’ She ran to the far end of the gym and slipped into the splits. I ran over to help her until I realised she was stretching.
The Instructor pointed my head to the jogging machine and motioned for me to jump on.
The treadmill started moving before my foot touched the belt. As the speed increased, my jog turned into a run then a sprint, and finally into a battle not to shoot off the back.
‘Too fast?’ The moustache sneered and like a good puppy received a stroke. The Instructor pressed the ‘bleeping’ button to go faster. Only when I stumbled and reached for his moustache did the ‘Bleeping’ Instructor reduce the speed.
After ten minutes of looking at himself in the mirror, he said, ’Keep running. I’ll show you how to charm a woman into a date.’ With a scan of the gym, he wandered off towards two ladies on rowing machines.
He leant on their equipment and squinted. ‘I’m sorry, but did you just fart?’
In disgust, they both shook their heads.
‘Because you just blew me away.’ He winked and tensed his left chest muscle. Obediently, it climbed and perched upon his shoulder. The girls rowed their machines to the other side of the room. Impressive, as they were usually bolted to the floor.
He returned with a sway of his moustache and a roll of his eyes. ‘Their loss. Am I right?’ He stopped the treadmill. ‘Lift that dumbbell.’ He pointed across the floor. ‘It’s a woman’s weight.’ He laughed. ‘Yeah, yeah I know. Aren’t pans and babies enough?’
The older lady threw a death-stare, but it was clear she wished it were a pan.
I grabbed the dumbbells. I didn’t know about it being a woman’s weight; it felt more like the weight of a woman — and not a small one. My body trembled and my arms shook. I couldn’t lift the weights above my knees, not good considering I was kneeling.
‘Let’s try the machines. If they’re too heavy, you can pop over to reception and bench-press a stapler,’ The Instructor said.
Aunty Billie wandered over, wiping sweat from her brow. ‘Are you going easy on him? He needs to build up his strength.’
‘Strength? It’s a miracle he can lift his shoes when he walks.’
Aunty Billie dropped her hands to her hips.
To prove him wrong, I sat at the machine and pushed the handle forward with everything I had. It actually moved. In fact, it moved fast, so I pumped even harder.
Aunty Billie was about to clap when the Instructor shouted, ‘Stop pushing, Fool! You almost ripped my finger off. I’m attaching a weight.’
With no moving parts attacking him, he slotted a metal pin into the fourth weight. I think he also cemented it to the floor because it wouldn’t budge. Only after he moved the peg to a single weight could I move it, barely. I squeezed out six reps before my trembling arms fell to my side.
The Instructor smiled and seemed genuinely surprised. Finally, I’d impressed him.
‘I’m amazed.’ His wide eyes confirmed this.
I raised an eyebrow because I couldn’t lift anything heavier.
‘I didn’t believe anyone could be so weak.’ He led me to a set of blue mats. ‘Time for the big event; Self-Defence.’ The Instructor crouched like a battleship and raised his fist like cannons.
I hoped the cleaner was close by with his mop.
Out of nowhere, a hand slapped me across the head. I rolled off the mat. The same hand that slapped me now tickled the moustache.
‘Why did I hit you?’ The Instructor asked.
’That was going to be my question.’ I rubbed my head.
‘Because you invited me.’
I didn’t remember asking for a slap, but heavy blows to the head could cause memory loss.
‘Be ready for the unknown,’ the Instructor said. ‘Always, and I can’t say this enough, be ready for the unknown.’
He leapt forward. I froze. He placed his arm around my neck.
I gurgled from inside a headlock.
‘Wake up! Be… Ready… For… The… Unknown.’
I blinked twice for yes. Squashed between slabs of muscle, my breathing laboured, until he tensed his cannonball bicep, at which point all breathing stopped. The birdies circling my head suffocated and crashed to the floor. I tapped his marble arm. Nothing. Light fading, I slapped him harder. With a sigh, he threw me to the floor. I gasped. My lungs filled with air while my undies almost filled with something more solid.
Aunty Billie waved from the chin-up bar while continuing to chin-up with her left arm.
After the room stopped spinning, I placed my arms in a circle. ‘I’m ready to learn the headlock.’
The Instructor laughed. ‘I’ll never get in there.’
I looked at my arm circle, nodded, and doubled the size to include his moustache.
He bent down. His moustache swept the floor as it hung low. ‘This is how you break free from someone bigger than you. So, in your case, anyone older than four.’
Time to see if he enjoyed suffocation. I tightened my arms around his neck with all my strength and then squeezed harder. I waited for him to beg me to release him. Then he slapped me my arm.
‘Okay, go ahead and tighten your arms,’ he said.
Choking a tree trunk would have been easier.
‘Forget it. What’s it like to have arms with the strength of soggy spaghetti?’ He thrust both hands upwards and followed through with a punch just below my belly button. I collapsed making screechy noises gasping for my stolen air.
‘Your turn.’ He produced a bulging bicep to rest my head on. It was like a pillow, filled with solid lead.
Aunty Billie jogged over and cheered, ‘Do your worst, Ollie.’
‘Don’t worry. He can’t get any worse.’ The Instructor laughed.
I slotted my neck into the crease of his muscle. His arm tensed and locked into place. I hoped he didn’t slip, or else he’d twist my head off like a bottle top. My new friend ‘Dizziness’ returned as blood rushed everywhere, except to my head. I focused and, as shown, struck upwards with both hands clasped together. I managed to loosen the Instructor’s grip and sucked in some precious air. My second upward thrust actually broke his headlock. But in my excitement, forgot to strike.
Aunty Billie shouted, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it!’
My next attempt was perfect, except when I closed my eyes to dream about taking him down, I may have punched too low. The Instructor’s blue face squeaked like Minnie Mouse. An excellent impression, except Minnie would never use such rude words.
‘Oooh,’ Aunty Billie said.
I couldn’t resist saying, ‘He wasn’t ready for the unknown.’
The Instructor leapt forward. A clawed hand reached for my throat. I didn’t have time to blink before Aunty Billie’s manicured hand appeared in front of my face. It deflected the massive arm. Then with a delicate spin on her pink trainer, she gripped the Instructor’s wrist and twisted it. He performed a perfect back somersault until the crunch landing on his chin.
‘Right,’ Aunty Billie said. ‘That’s enough for today.’
The Instructor groaned.
‘Go for a shower, Ollie.’ Aunty Billie looked at the beaten man on the floor. ‘I’m getting a refund.’
In the changing room, I whipped my towel. A heroic feeling rushed through me. No headlock could hold me. Bully Basher!
After getting dressed, a distant voice forced me to gulp and my stomach to tighten into more knots than a Scouts handbook. I peeked into the gym. Gnarler hung upside down from his feet while the Instructor punched him in the gut after each toe touch. I couldn’t compete with that. Batman would take notes on how to improve his workout. No amount of training could ever prepare me to beat him.
Gnarler sprung off the equipment and talked to the Instructor. They both looked over to changing rooms. I ducked back in. The only other exit towered above me. A tiny window, for a tiny person. Ha! Who needed muscles?
Sweat beaded my forehead as I struggled to pull myself up to the window. Impossible. Okay, some muscle could be handy.
‘So, you know him?’ I heard the Instructor say, getting closer with each word.
‘Oh yeah,’ Gnarler answered. ‘He owes me money, and I owe him a beating.’
I stepped on the toilet and clambered up the door frame until I balanced on the edge of the cubicle.
‘Hello, friend.’ Gnarler grabbed for my foot, but I jumped over his hand. The open window seemed so far. But, with a stretch of my arms, I reached. With a squeeze, I wiggled halfway through the window. My trousers caught on the latch leaving me hanging outside. Gnarler slammed the bathroom cubicle. Then I heard him run towards me. I wriggled and launched myself from the lock to land on a patch of grass, which broke my fall and almost both my ankles.
Gnarler’s face filled the window.
‘I’ll catch you at school,’ he said before leaving.
It couldn’t get any worse. My stomach knots tied into tighter knots.
I dropped my head in defeat only to see a whopping great hole in my trousers. Fantastic! My Batman underpants, although darker than yesterday’s choice, had a great yellow splatter with the word, ’WHACK!’ in the centre. Perhaps it was time to wear some plain undies.
With my coat wrapped around my waist, I headed home to collect a less breezy pair of trousers.
Mum would see my bruises from yesterday. With a bit of effort, I could get a day off school. Limping into the kitchen, I yanked my tie down and unbuttoned my shirt as if I’d battled a zombie apocalypse.
‘How was the gym, Sweetie?’ Mum faced the wall as she prepared sandwiches.
‘I learnt having muscles doesn’t always mean you’ll win the fight. But more importantly, can you teach me how to shave because I never want a moustache.’
‘Glad to hear it,’ Mum said. ‘Are you ready for school?’
‘As soon as the room stops spinning.’
‘Sounds like you exercised too much.’ She placed a tomato on the bread and turned to me. She slapped her open palm against her chest and let out a yelp as if injured. ‘What happened to you?’
I hated lying to Mum partly because it’s plain wrong, but mostly because I’m so bad at it. ‘On my way home, I knocked over a motorbike.’
‘Do you mean a motorbike knocked you over?’
Oh man! That sounded much more believable but too late now to change my story. ‘No, I knocked over a motorbike.’
‘What?’ She looked over my wounds. ‘Was the bike a Transformer who hit you back?’
‘No, I tripped into a parked motorbike with my face.’ I pointed to my black eye. ‘The motorbike toppled over and into another until, like dominos, all the motorbikes fell over.’
‘All of them? How many were there?’
‘Hundreds.’ I scratched my head, wishing my mouth would stop speaking. ‘Also, two cars exploded.’ Now, I really did feel dizzy. ‘I couldn’t do anything but erm… watch in horror. Across the road, the motorbike owners ate their breakfast in the Grease Bucket Cafe as they erm… also watched in horror. Four bikers choked on their food, which I erm…’
‘Let me guess, watched in horror?’
I nodded. ‘Were you there?’
‘I know, lots of horrors.’ Mum tried to interrupt, but my mouth wouldn’t stop. ‘Then all the bikers swarmed out of the cafe waving swords and flaming torches. One carried a rocket launcher on his shoulder, but it might have been a jumbo sausage roll—’
‘Wait. How hard did you hit your head?’ Mum escorted me to the medicine cabinet. She stuck plasters on anything that looked injured, including a mole and my black eye. ‘I’ll call the police to find these crazed hooligans. Oh, and I hear Batman prefers to work in the shadows.’
‘So please find a pair of trousers where he can have some privacy.’
I looked down to see, ‘WHACK!’ I crossed my legs. ‘No need for the police. Aunty Billie sorted it out.’
‘By fighting?’ Mum asked, her back straightening.
‘Only fighting words. She told them to go away in an assortment of ways. Most of the bikers covered their ears and hummed. One brave guy offered her a bar of soap to clean her mouth out.’
Mum nodded. ‘She can handle a situation.’
‘Is she really a spy?’ I asked.
‘Let’s forget about school for today.’
‘Mum,’ I said, refusing to give up. ‘Should I call her Jane Bond?’
‘Enough!’ She flashed the ‘don’t even bother’ look.
I gave up.
‘I know what’ll cheer you up.’ Mum looked at the wall above the fireplace where the family photo hung. Aunty Billie had taken the picture in Disneyland a week before Dad’s accident, almost two years ago. Shame he was mid-scream, but he’d always hated rollercoasters. Mum’s school certificates surrounded it. Each one congratulated the Headmistress for another term of zero bullying incidents.
’Spot anything new?’
‘Is it another certificate?’
‘See. I knew it would make you happy?’
I’d be even happier if the certificates were true. ‘Nice one, Mum.’ I hugged her. ‘No one’s safe when a bully’s around—’
‘Sorry, I mean, no bully’s safe when you’re around.’
‘You’d better believe it.’ She raised her fist. ‘One more term without bullying and I meet the Prime Minister.’ Her focus drifted to the family photo. ‘It’s been a long road.’ She shook her head as if a fly had landed up her nose. ‘Right, welcome to home-schooling. Any homework?’
‘We had to write a limerick about a dictionary. But I finished it last night.’
‘Let’s hear it then,’ Mum said.
‘There once lived a bully tougher than brick
With a punch so strong it would make you sick
So, I learnt how to fight
And with all of my might
I kicked him real hard in the dictionary.’
Mum dropped her head in her hands. ‘Oh, my! It doesn’t even rhyme.’
That evening, I popped over to Aunty Billie’s. She opened the door and glanced down both sides of the street.
‘Don’t worry. Gnarler goes boxing after school. I feel sorry for the poor guy in the ring with him,’ I said. ‘Oh wait, that’s kinda me.’
Aunty Billie pulled me into her flat. ‘It’s not him I’m checking for.’ With the door closed, Aunty Billie returned to her usual bubbly self. ‘Gnarler must struggle with boxing.’
I raised an eyebrow. ‘I doubt it.’
‘Well, every time he knocks someone out, he has to count to ten - without using his fingers because of his boxing gloves.’ She took my coat. ’So, how was school?’
‘I stayed at home.’
‘By the way, if Mum asks, you stopped loads of angry bikers with swords, flaming torches and a sausage roll.’
She nodded. ‘That’s a silly place for a plaster.’ With a girly scream, she ripped off the plaster covering my black eye. And yes, the scream was mine.
‘Quicker is always better.’
‘Not if I wanted to keep the eyebrow,’ I said, feeling my smooth forehead. ‘I was attached to it.’
‘Well, it’s attached to this now,’ Aunty Billie said holding up a hairy plaster.
I took a seat. ‘That’s all right, I have bigger worries. After you left the gym, Gnarler arrived for his ninja training.’
Aunty Billie made herself comfortable on the sofa. ‘Did he see you?’
‘Yeah, but I escaped through a window.’
‘Sounds like a pane in the glass.’ Aunty Billie smirked. ‘Anyway, don’t worry about Gnarler. I have a solution.’
I could only think of one ‘adult’ solution, two if weapons of mass destruction weren’t so expensive. ‘Please don’t ask me to be his…’ the word caught in my throat, ’friend.’
‘It’s probably what you’re supposed to do, but let’s ignore wisdom.’ She pulled out a small jewellery box from her pocket.
‘And I’m not marrying him.’
Aunty Billie frowned. ‘Be warned. This is an extreme option. But I see little choice if you don’t want to involve the school or your mum?’
She looked around the room as if checking for hidden cameras and then slowly opened the box.
I didn’t know what to say, well, without being rude. ‘It’s, erm, it’s lovely? Not my colour, but—’
‘It’s a green bracelet.’
‘But, it’s not a normal bracelet.’
‘It’s from work.’
“—a real spy gadget from MI6?’
Aunty Billie nodded.
‘Does it shoot lasers? Because I might stand a chance against Gnarler if it shoots lasers or tiny missiles.’
‘It turns you invisible.’
I wore the bracelet. ‘Can you see me?’ I asked pressing, pulling and prodding it.
‘Oh. Is it broken?’
‘It’s fine. First, I need to explain a few details. Do you want a cup of tea?’
I shook my head.
She returned and dipped a digestive into the steaming tea. ‘The gadgets increase the number of brain neurones from 86 billion to… well, more. The gadget allows the wearer to access areas of the brain that ungadgeted humans can’t access.’
The tea looked tempting. She didn’t mention digestives were available.
‘I hope you’re listening,’ she said. ‘The first time you use the bracelet, it will inject guanine crystals thingymajigs to help with the physical side of invisibility. It’s like when a taxi driver learns all the London roads, his brain actually grows. This does the same, only much better and you don’t have to ride a moped in the rain.’
‘So, I’m injecting actual ‘thingymajigs’ into my brain?’
‘I can’t remember the actual name. But it’s perfectly safe. Well, maybe not perfectly, but close.’
I turned the bracelet around in my hands. ‘And all I need to do is press a button, and I turn invisible?’
‘Correct. It’s like turning on a TV.’
‘Except I can’t find the button.’ I squashed, squeezed and squished the bracelet.
‘Scientists believe after years of using the gadget maybe the brain will produce the same results with no help from the gadget. Can you imagine gadget-free invisibility?’
‘If I ever find the button, I’ll be happy with gadget invisibility. How long can I stay invisible?’
‘The best scientists managed a full minute.’
‘Whaaa? I won’t have time to tie Gnarler’s shoelaces together in sixty-seconds.’ I imagined myself re-appearing next to Gnarler’s foot and me gulping.
‘Spies around the world would literally kill to have this tech.’
‘You’re right. I’m sorry. Please thank your boss for letting me use it. You must be very convincing.’
‘Yeah well, moving on…’ Her biscuit broke off and drowned in the hot tea. ‘You may have less than a minute because your brain isn’t fully formed yet.’
Did she just call me stupid?
‘So, the side effects are,’
I’m not stupid.
‘abdominal growth, followed by stomach noises and finally,’
Sure, my concentration can wander at times. I might even miss a thing or three, but I’m in the top set of maths.
‘excessive flatulence or in other words a sudden release of gassy wind. Understood?’
Invisibility would be awesome, though.
Aunty Billie clicked her fingers. ‘I’ll take your silence that you’re fine with the side effects. Also, the gadget makes you invisible but obviously can’t make your clothes invisible.’
‘I’m not going anywhere naked. No way!’
‘Of course not. The scientists created a material that mimics skin and turns invisible once activated.’ She lifted a pair of bright green shorts and a rucksack from the same material.
‘I might as well be naked wearing those. They’re tiny.’
‘They stretch.’ She pulled them apart as far as her arms would reach. ‘Also, I forgot to mention; you won’t suddenly re-appear without warning. You only return visible once you press the button to stop the gadget.’
‘That’s a relief.’
‘But don’t stay invisible too long. Or you’ll get the side effects.’ From her pocket, Aunty Billie revealed a small remote control. ‘The bracelet has a timer built in showing how long you’ve been invisible.’ She pressed the remote button. The bracelet tightened on my wrist. Two needles punctured my skin, and the thingymajigs entered my body. I felt weak but put on a brave face.
‘Are you going to faint?’
‘No, this is my brave face.’
‘Then why is your brave face so pale?’ Aunty Billie looked at the bracelet to check everything was fine. Then handed over the remote. ‘The first time will take about an hour before anything happens because it needs to rejig your brain.’
‘Fancy a cup of tea now, while we wait?’
‘Yes please,’ I said, holding the shorts up to the window to make sure I couldn’t see through them. ‘So tiny.’
‘Get changed in the toilet and see how they fit.’
Aunty Billie returned as I sat staring at my hand in my green shorts. She placed the tea on the table next to me without laughing at my shorts. Then without even hiding it, she glanced over her shoulder and picked her nose. I didn’t know where to look. Sure, everyone does it, but there’s a time and place, at least that’s what I’m told when I’m caught. I focused on my hand, but it was difficult with her digging away. We both waited in silence for a few minutes. I would check my hand and Aunty Billie would check her nose. Then at the top of her voice, she shouted, ‘Have you run out of toilet-roll?’
Wow, what? She needed a roll of toilet paper for her nose, not me. ‘I’m good, thanks,’ I said.
She screamed and jumped as high as the ceiling lamp. ‘You’re here? Well, you’re not here. I mean, you’re invisible. Why aren’t you in the loo?’
‘The sofa’s more comfortable. Did you say I’m invisible?’ I checked my hand. Still visible and solid.
‘It shouldn’t have happened so quickly.’ Aunty Billie looked at her watch. ‘How long were you sat there?’ She wiped her nose.
‘Since you walked in. I’ve been watching my hand the whole time,’ I said, happy to forget the nose drama. ‘Which, by the way, I can still see perfectly.’
‘I can’t see your hand or any part of you. Your brain handles your invisibility, so it counters this by ensuring you can always see yourself. Ingenious stuff. However, mirrors show you what others see.’
I ran to the closest mirror. Nothing. I didn’t exist. I danced an energetic mixture of twerking and walking like a chicken. I liked being invisible.
Aunty Billie clapped. ‘Ooh, you’re right. They are bright.’
‘Please say you can’t see me,’ I said.
‘The battery must have run out,’ she said. ‘Gadgets stay charged for about a week. This one has been in storage for some time.’
I removed the bracelet and changed into my clothes.
‘You realise you stayed invisible for longer than a minute and suffered no side effects? Only the gadget inventor did that.’
‘How long could the inventor stay invisible?’
‘Ten minutes, before the final side effect kicked in.’
‘Maybe it’s because I’m so brainy.’
‘Well, the MI6 lab guys are geniuses with IQ’s higher than your stack of comics.’ Aunty Billie laughed. ‘So, definitely not.’ She laughed harder. ‘That’s so funny.’ She wiped a tear away and crossed her legs as she laughed louder.
‘Wow! Thanks for letting me down easy.’ I folded the shorts and placed them in the green rucksack. ‘So, are there different gadgets?’
She nodded. ‘Hopefully, this gadget will be enough. The only one I haven’t seen is the Devastator.’
‘Ooh. Sounds dangerous.’
‘You might be right. The scientists always get nervous whenever it’s mentioned.’ She opened the front door and checked down both sides of the street. ‘Only the Head of MI6 and the Secretary of Defence have access.’ She ruffled my hair. ‘Recharge the bracelet with any phone charger. After school tomorrow meet me at the travelling funfair. I absolutely must return the gadget to work tomorrow. Oh, and good luck tomorrow.’