The Rule

Frances Donnelly

In our town, there was a rule to make things fair and clear. Adults in positions of authority observed the following calendar:

Mon, Weds, Fri, Sun 

Tues, Thurs, Sat 

This simple system meant that on a sunny Tuesday you could be grabbed for chatting during morning register in the boiling classroom, and Mr Thornton could grip and grip and twist so that the small bones inside your wrist worked against each other and it puffed up and then you had to write with the wrong hand all day and at lunch you couldn't hold your sandwich properly and all the good bits from inside your sandwich fell out onto your lap, but on Wednesday morning Mr Thornton would be the one to notice the black-purple band of finger marks and tut sympathetically and send you to the nurse. And when you came back with your soft bandage, high on custard creams and orange squash and painkillers, smelling of nurse bosom, Mr Thornton would pop into your Geography class and say hi, and help old Mrs Brenton open the top windows with the white hook on a stick, because it was a nice fresh summer's day and children need air.

Us little kids were the easiest pickings, and everyone knew it. But on bad days, adults in charge didn't just lay into us, they laid into other adults too. Sometimes a loudmouth got taken in by the police, and came back out with their face all smashed up. The adults really had to know who was who, and their place in the pecking order, and not to push the wrong person on the wrong day.

At home, we all had our own family stuff to deal with. None of us kids really talked about it. I guess every family was different. But at school we all faced the same foe. We mainly learnt to keep our heads down on bad days, and accepted our lot.

When I was fifteen though, my lot got more complicated.

Daniel was in the year above me. His perfect hair was technically an offence. It rose in waves, but when pulled straight it was two inches longer than regulation. Any time a teacher disciplined him, he'd stroll out the room after, comb his hair back into place, and flash a smile at the girls waiting for him. I wanted him to flash that smile at me so badly. I started spending time around the kids who knew him.

I first stood close to Daniel when we had all gone to the woods at the end of the playing field to share a cigarette. The sun slanting on him through the trees like a sign from God. He wore such tight jeans. When I breathed in, I don't know, I couldn't name a smell, or a word, I just felt.

School was out for summer when Daniel's birthday came around. We'd been dating officially for two months by then. The party was on a Wednesday. The weather was nice. His parents were away, as usual, but they'd ordered food and beer and hired someone to fill the huge garden with balloons and fairy lights.

The party was the best night of my life. I felt beautiful in a new thin shimmering silver dress with spaghetti straps, all the warm eyes on my chilly skin then all the legs and arms and laughter and swimming pool water and the lights and kissing Daniel in front of everyone again and again and then him hard and aching inside me on his parent's bed, checking that my grimaces contained pleasure, smoothing my wet hair from my forehead.

Afterwards, we sat up and shared a drink and leaned against each other, looking out into the shadowy room. Then I downed the rest of the drink and wriggled further under the fluffy covers, making them into a nice nest, and tried to pull Daniel into it, but he pulled away.

"It's still early, I'm going back to the party." He kissed me on the top of my head and got out of bed. I fell asleep to the sounds of music and laughter rolling below me.

I woke up to clear morning light. Daniel was asleep beside me, and all around us was his parent's pastel bedroom, pristine. I went downstairs. A maid was quietly cleaning the living room, stepping over passed-out kids.

In the kitchen, everything was already sparkling, spacious and silver. I made birthday pancakes and piled them up, puffed and golden, steaming through each other, covered in butterscotch sauce in a big shiny heart. Then I stuck a single candle in the top and carried the pancakes upstairs.

"Happy birthday, baby," I said.

Daniel looked at the pancakes, then at me. His hair was stuck up in all directions. His naked shoulders were surprisingly delicate. He smiled, and kept his gaze on me as he took the plate and bent his head to blow out the candle. I smiled back. The aching pain between my legs and the layer of dried blood in my knickers felt warm and substantial.

Then Daniel picked the top pancake off the plate. He squeezed it in his fist and dropped it on the floor by his bed. Then all the rest, one by one. I tried to make this funny, because Daniel was laughing. But it wasn't very funny. I was still full of swimming pool and sex, and weak from drinking, and I kind of drifted away, back somewhere else, into the boiling classroom, and I was so small and narrow and light.

I knelt on the floor. A voice in me told me that everything was going to be OK again soon, I just needed to get this cleared up and take a nice long nap. I began picking up the pieces of broken pancake, one by one. But when I heard a snap, I looked up.

Daniel was snapping his fingers at me. Snap snap. He laughed. "Good girl!" he said. "Good doggie!"

I walked back across town still stinking of chlorine, shoes in my hand, my bare shoulders clenched, my insides cold and grinding, pelvic pain sharp like a needle.

I let myself into my house and felt a small relief at the familiarity, but then I turned on the light. Compared to Daniel's house, my place was a hobbit's lair. Everything was cramped and gross. Weird old ornaments crowded nearly every surface. Ugly creatures crawled up and down the curtains and across the cushions and blankets, all embroidered by Grandma. I'd always made Daniel drop me off outside.

I checked the house for Grandma, then saw out of the window that she was in the garden, her thick back bent over one of the vegetable beds. I showered, went to my room, and tried to make a nest with my crappy old duvet.

It was early evening when Daniel texted me to come and let him in. I looked out my bedroom window, and the light was glowing in Grandma's shed. My mother wouldn't be home for ages. I went to the front door and opened it quietly. I just wanted a quick peek, to say a few words. Daniel was there, looking so good I thought I would die. I was desperate for Daniel, for his sweetness, and for the needle in my pelvis to be melted away. His eyes seemed to be full of remorse and his hair was swept back but dishevelled like he was in turmoil. I let him in.

We went through to the kitchen. I thought we could just sit and talk. I knew not to risk doing anything with Daniel in the house because Grandma would disapprove. But he stood so close to me, smelling like an angel. We began kissing, and I moaned into his mouth. He undid my shirt buttons, ran his fingers up my sides like butterflies, massaged my breasts through my bra, nuzzled into my neck with his warm boy breath. Then he pinched my hip.

"Hey, that kind of hurt," I said.

He pinched my hip again, harder. I jumped and squealed. Daniel smirked.

I asked him, knowing that I should do so as calmly as possible, but struggling to control myself: "Why are you being such a dick?"

Simple things can actually be really confusing to understand when you're in the heat of them. It was a Thursday. Daniel was sixteen today. In our town, he was technically an adult now. But we were in love. He was my boyfriend, I was his girlfriend. How did he have authority over me?

Daniel kind of dropped his head, then turned his eyes up to lock with mine, like on a TV show. My cheeks stung as I argued through memories. Daniel stood in the center of a group of adoring kids, telling us an impressive tale. Daniel buying me and my friends cigarettes while I waited outside the shop. Daniel's giant house and rich friends. Daniel cupping his hand around the bare nape of my neck at the party.

"But—we're together. It's not like that."

"This is exactly what it is going to be like," he said softly. He prodded a finger into my exposed stomach and I heard myself cry out.

I drifted back into the shimmering feeling of the party, but now it was boiling, and I felt light and narrow and I wanted Mr Thornton to use the white stick to let in the nice fresh air. But I also wanted Daniel, to press into his smell until it covered me.

That's when Grandma came in.

She was carrying her small hatchet. She used that hatchet to cut chicken's heads from chicken's bodies in the garden, but also to keep general law and order around home on Tues, Thurs and Sat. I'd never been stupid enough to entice her to do more with it than threaten me.

The hatchet turned a little in the light, winking at me and Daniel. I clutched my shirt around me, and stood very, very still and quiet. I saw Grandma's nostrils flaring.

Daniel raised his iPhone and pointed it at Grandma. The camera light flashed on and Daniel laughed, stepping forwards for a better angle to film Grandma from. Then he made a noise, the kind of kissing noise you make to attract an animal.

"Say hi, granny! Looking cute!" he said.

Such a stupid thing to do. It's strange to think about now, but I actually felt annoyed at the time, and kind of disappointed with him. I had been taught to pay attention and take things seriously. Daniel hadn't, I suppose.

The hatchet struck him in the top of the head and cracked it wide wide wide. His pretty brown eyes below the red divide seemed stuck open. Grandma lifted the hatchet for another strike. She was fairly indiscriminate, and it turned out that Daniel was not very good at fighting back. Hack hack hack. Vital bits of Daniel coming off like a chicken's head, while the body still twitched and danced.

When all of him finally lay still on the ground, it was very dark, and the air had turned silent and hot and smelt like a thousand chickens had been slaughtered. I was shivering. I was still frozen in the place I'd been when Grandma walked in, and my mind felt empty.

Grandma had taken a seat and was dozing from all the exertion, snoring with her head tipped up, hatchet in her lap. At some point my mother came in. I heard her stop in the hallway to pull off her high heels as she always did. Then I think she stepped in some of Daniel's blood. It had spread so far. She swore.

The swearing woke Grandma, who heaved herself to her feet. I heard her tell my mother off in the hallway for swearing, and grumble about dealing with me. Then Grandma's footsteps creaked up the stairs to bed.

My mother came into the kitchen. She was still in her dark skirt suit. Even when she was exhausted and Grandma had laid into her, she held herself up straight like a statue. She put her large leather purse down on the kitchen table and took a seat, smoothing her hair into place. She always wore it down, in a blunt bob, to cover her half-missing left ear. She switched on the table lamp. In the dim light, her hair was sleek as water. I thought about how cool and soft it would feel to touch it. I thought about it running all the way down her body and onto the floor. I tried not to look at the floor.

She motioned for me to sit at the table opposite her, next to Daniel's body, and tell her everything. While I talked, she went through the contents of her swollen purse, scrunching up old receipts, pulling out her cigarette pack and lighter, and transferring pennies to the coppers jar.

She'd always been good at this kind of punishment. She never needed to raise a fist. The more I cried, the more questions she asked about exactly what Daniel and I had done together and when.

The smell of dirty iron filled up my mouth and nose. When I was sick in the sink halfway through telling, she made me start again from the beginning. My body felt emptied out.

Then she made me kneel by the remains of Daniel. Oh God, Daniel. The commanding slant of sunlight. Those tight jeans. Maybe I could have tamed him, or been more understanding. He'd a lot to figure out on his first day of adulthood. Maybe I could have just avoided him on Tues, Thurs and Sat.

She made me take one of his cold severed fingers.

"Eat it," she said.

My mother didn't give orders lightly. I put the finger in my mouth and began to press down on the little bones until they cracked and I felt something nameless in me surging up and up, a sports day kind of feeling. The moon struck Daniel's red body on the floor, his stiff ruined jeans, and the surging feeling in me grew.

I gathered and lined up the other nine fingers and thumbs in front of me on the table. My mother and I sat at the table for a long time. I chewed and chewed.

It was hard work, and near the end my jaw ached. My mother reached across the table and laid her hand over mine, and calmly smoked her cigarette. Her hand was warm. The new feeling inside me got bigger and bigger until it eclipsed everything else and I couldn't feel any of the sad little pains I'd come home with. I saw my mother glance at the kitchen clock.

My eyes followed, but from where I sat it was a closed disc of harsh silver that I couldn't read, smoke clouding and unclouding before it, and I realised I had no idea whether or not it was past midnight.