This piece is an introductory teaser to one of my favourite characters in Fractured Earth. It’s totally separate from the Derek & Sylvie storyline and I’ve no plans for the two stories’ paths to cross. It weighs in at around 1750 words. I hope you enjoy.
Peter Findley was perched on top of a bus stop bench waiting for something interesting to happen. Interesting things were few and far between in his part of town and he was determined that today wouldn’t be as boring as every other day this summer had been. His two best mates, Therese and Jake, were up against the wall behind him.
“Hey, you two. Quit swapping spit and help me work out what the fuck we’re doing today. I’m bored shitless.”
“Fuck off Pete,” Jake replied, “You work out what we’re doing. It’ll make you less bored.”
Pete waved his hand dismissively in their general direction. “Fine. But if I don’t work out something fun in the next coupla minutes, I’m going home. My brother’s probably smoked enough now that he’ll share his stash.”
He looked up the street, scratching his head, and noticed a boy walking down the street. A backpack form their old highschool slung haphazardly over one shoulder.
“Hey Therese, you recognise that kid? Was he at school last year?”
Therese extricated herself from Jake’s arms and peered up the street.
“Nah, he must be new this year. Whatcha thinking?”
“I’m thinking we teach him a lesson about wandering on our streets when he should be at school.” Pete jumped down from the bench and cracked his neck to each side. The three of them walked up to the boy, circling him. He looked up as Pete’s shadow fell across him and quickly tried to step out of the way. Pete side-stepped to block his path. The boy looked around and saw the other two surrounding him, he clutched his backpack tightly and again tried to step around Pete. Pete blocked his path and grabbed the boy by the shoulder.
“Shouldn’t you be in school loser? We’re going to have to charge you a tax for walking our streets when you should be in school. How much money you got on you?”
“Liar.” Pete reached for the boy’s backpack and the boy ducked sideways. Pete missed the backpack, but tightened his grip on the boy’s shoulder and yanked him back in front of him. “Oh no you don’t. We’re taking your backpack as payment.”
The boy kicked him in the shin. Pete yelled out and instinctively rubbed at the kick. The boy made a break for it. Therese lunged after him, barely grabbing a hold of his backpack and pulling it from his grasp. The boy stumbled and almost fell. Pete grabbed him by the back of the shirt and hauled him up.
“You aren’t getting away that easily little shit. And now you’re really going to have to pay. Can’t have people thinking they can kick us and get away with it. Hold him, Jake.” Jake grabbed the boy and twisted his arms behind his back, turning him to face Pete. Pete punched him in the gut hard enough to double over. Jake shoved the boy towards Pete, kicking him in the back as he stumbled. The three shoved him between them, each adding little kicks and punches as he staggered between them. After a particularly violent shove from Pete, Therese simply stepped out of the way, hooking her foot around the boy’s ankle as he passed. He fell to the gravelly ground, landing hard on his knees and sliding forwards. The three howled in delight. They stood over him, mocking him and daring him to stand up. Pete drew his leg back and kicked him firmly in the ribs when someone loudly cleared their throat behind him. He jumped and spun around, wide-eyed to see who was there, his heart pounding in his chest.
Standing there was a woman, maybe ten years older than him. She was tall for a woman, but still shorter than Pete and Jake.
“Leave the boy alone and get out of here,” she said, jaw clenched and eyes boring into Pete’s. Pete laughed.
“Fuck off bitch or we’ll have some fun with you too.” Pete turned back to the boy and pulled him up off the ground by his hair. Therese and Jake stepped in between the woman and Pete and motioned at her to leave, staring at her, daring her to try something. Pete pushed the boy against the wall and punched him in the face. His eyes rolled back in his head, his knees buckled and he fell to the ground. Pete grinned.
The woman leapt forwards, sweeping a leg through Therese’s legs, knocking her flat on her back. The woman’s movement was barely slowed by the attack as she followed through with a fist to Jake’s gut. He fell to his knees gasping for air. Pete spun to face her and swung wildly at her. She didn’t try to dodge. His fist smashed into the side of her face. Her skin where he hit flashed from flesh to metal. He snatched his hand back, shaking it like he’d punched a brick wall. She grinned and grabbed his wrist, twisting until he screamed.
“Run along little boys and girls. Try not to wet yourselves. And remember, there is always someone bigger, stronger, tougher, and meaner than you. Bullies always get what’s coming to them. So run away and don’t stop running. I’ll be right behind you. In the shadows. From now until you learn your lesson or I kill you. Whichever comes first. Now run.”
Pete fled, his wrist held against his chest. He didn’t glance behind him even once to see if his friends were following.”
“Don’t call me that,” said the boy, punctuating each word with a swallowed sob. He sat on the stoop of an abandoned store, absently plucking at the frayed threads of his backpack.
“But it’s your name Michael,” replied the woman, “It says so right there on your backpack. What else would I use?” She sat next to Michael and used the tight bun of her hair as a pillow to lean against the chipped and faded frame of the doorway. She waited silently for his response examining him as she struggled to remember what kids looked like at different ages. She settled on thirteen. Give or take a few years. She looked at his feet. Well-worn sneakers with mismatched laces. His skinny calves were covered in dust and streaked with blood, but showed no signs of injury themselves. Both knees were caked with blood, threads from the bottom of his shorts were stuck in the nasty looking, but ultimately harmless, grazes. His breathing was deep and regular, and he didn’t wince when he sobbed – his ribs probably weren’t broken. His arms were fine, scrawny, but undamaged. His knuckles scraped raw, several oozing blood gently with small rocks and clumps of dirt stuck to them. One eye was red and puffy and would surely be black and purple tomorrow. His lip was split and blood stained his chin.
“I hate my name. Why can’t I have a cool name? Like yours?”
“I haven’t told you my name, Mikey, how do you know it’s cool?”
“I seen ya face when the big one hit ya. You’s the lady from the stories ev’ryone says ain’t true but believe anyhow. Ironheart. That’s a cool name. Billy, that’s my best mate. His Dad says you named yerself. So why can’t I name meself? I could be Strongman or Cap’n Universe or somethink. Then they’d all be scared of me like they are of you. I could call meself the Great.”
“The Great what?”
“Just the Great. Like I’m great at ev’rythink or I dunno. I jus’ don’t wanna be me. I wanna be cool like you.”
“Well, Mikey, we don’t get to pick our own names. I didn’t give myself the name Ironheart. I took it. I was about your age when people started calling me it. I hated it. More than you hate being called Mikey or Michael. More than you hate those kids who beat you up. I hated everything back then. When I got a little older, I decided to become the name. To become what they all feared,” she sighed and gazed up the street for several long seconds, “I was young and dumb. In ten or fifteen years, when you’re my age, you’ll know what I mean when I say that. I took Ironheart and I made it mine. Where people used to shout and laugh it at me, now they only whisper it to each other behind closed doors. That might sound good to you at the moment, kid, but trust me. It ain’t much of a way to live.”
She sighed again and and studied the pattern of cracked paint on the opposite side of the doorway.
“You got parents and a home to go to Mikey?”
“I got a Dad. But me Ma died when I was little. We got a house over on Midway.”
“Alright. Sorry about your mum, mine died when I was young too. Come on, I’ll walk you home. Your Dad can put some ice and bandages on those wounds.”
The two walked the three blocks to Mikey’s house in silence. It was a ramshackle semi-detached with a brown and patchy front yard and a rusted chain-wire fence.
“Mikey, those bullies won’t bother you again, but what I did wasn’t the right way to handle the situation. I got angry seeing that kid punch you and I lost control and probably broke his arm. Violence just tends to result in more violence until your entire life is just one fight scene after another. Never give in to your anger like I did. It makes you no better than those kids back there. And you’re better than that. You got me?”
“Okay. If you say so I guess.”
“You’re home. It’s probably best if you don’t tell your Dad that you met me. He likely won’t believe you anyway. I’m a fiction, remember?” she turned to go before kicking her heel into the ground and spinning back.
“Oh, and talk to your school counsellor or a priest or your Dad or someone. I’m no good at these sorts of conversations and I don’t really know how to talk to people your age. Own your name, kid, you’re going to do just fine. It really does get better. Make sure you put some ice on that eye. You’re going to have quite the shiner regardless, but it’ll hurt less that way. Now scoot.”
Michael turned and walked up to his door. Under her breath, Ironheart added “Well. It gets better for most”. When he reached the top of the few stairs to his door, he turned to wave goodbye to his new hero. She was nowhere to be seen.