Your Father’s Son by Math Bird

You break in through the back, just like your uncle Mikey showed you. But old Jonesy’s gone out; recently it seems, owing to the cup of coffee steaming on the kitchen table. So you decide to wait. Not that you have any choice. No. You have to make your name with this one.

You pull back a chair and sit down. The kitchen looks just like your mum’s. Even smells the same: a recent mix of fried eggs and cigarettes. In fact, you half expect to see her standing at the sink, fussing over you, just like when you were a kid. Your dad hated that, insisted you needed toughening up, even tried to teach you boxing.

“It’s no use,” he said. “You’ve got your mother’s softness.”

Those words cut you deep, so from then on you tried to be your father’s son.

Not that you saw him that much. Your uncle Mikey raised you. Your dad spent most of his time in jail.

 

You wander into the lounge, staring at the photographs on the mantel. Most of them are of Jonesy and his wife. Captured moments of time, aligned chronologically. You pick one up and hold it to the light. Jonesy looks so young. His beautiful wife’s by his side, her strawberry-blonde curls glowing like a summer fire.

You smile, then Mikey’s words come flooding back to you: “Old Jonesy’s not the man he was, especially since his wife took ill. He’s been nursing her for years. Dementia, or so I’m told. It’s a sad state of affairs, but he owes Mr Hale, and he’s been telling folks that he’s paying no one. Jonesy knows the score; he collected enough debts in his day. You go and remind him. Make your old man proud.”

You wander back into the hall, thinking how pathetic it all is, the has-been versus the wannabe. You sound like your mum. But not your dad. No. Such thoughts would never have occurred to him. When you were twelve-years old, you went to visit him in jail. You even drew him a picture: two men fighting in the street.

“Which one’s me?” he asked.

You pointed to the larger of the two, the man with his shirt off. He stared at it for a second. “This is all wrong; I’ve told you before, keep your hands up; only a fool comes out swinging punches.”

 

You push such memories aside, then wander upstairs, following a pale creep of light. You open the door and see Jonesy’s wife. She’s lying on the bed, her eyes and mouth wide open. Her red, satin nightie looks misplaced against her shriveled skin. A relic of her past. A desperate hope. A failed reminder. Did she finally forget how to breathe? you wonder. Did she take her last breath in limbo? You think how frail she looks, deflated, the life sucked out of her. It’s not the first time you’ve been this close to death, and it reminds you of your dad.

You hear something, turn round, and see Jonesy by the door – clenching his liver-spotted hands. He staggers over to the bed, leans over his wife and kisses her forehead. He stays there awhile, making a whining sound, his big shoulders shaking.

You tell him that you’re here for him. That you found her like this. How it has nothing to do with you. Yet Jonesy isn’t listening, and lunges towards you.

The old man’s strong, and it takes all of your strength to restrain him. You shove him against the wall, holding him until he calms down.

“I’m all right now,” he says, his chest wheezing.

You let him go; watching as he puts his hands in his pockets and stares down at the carpet. You’re touched by the sadness in his eyes. Tell him you’ll come back another time. That you’ll make some excuse to Mikey.

Jonesy leans forward, then tells you he knew your dad. “You’re nothing like him though. No. He was a mean fucker that one.”

You smile, try to say something, but the knife in your throat holds you silent.

The Darkness and the Light by Math Bird

Billy was the runt of the litter. There was no denying it. He was the kid they shoved around. The guy they picked a fight with. He longed to be popular. He just didn’t have the face for it. He knew that. But it never stopped him from dreaming. Somewhere deep, a voice told him everything was possible.

Tonight was his time to shine.

The warmest feeling, as if everything was about to change.

Even Degsy greeted him with a smile. His eyes shining as he slapped little Billy on the back.

“You always remind me of when we were kids,” Degsy said. “That gang we used to have, drinking all night, watching the sunrise every morning.”

Even back then, Billy didn’t fit in. Always fucking up. Always running out of chances. But Degsy had been sweet on Billy’s sister. So he always cut Billy some slack.

Degsy took hold of Billy’s arm, sighing as he gazed out of the window. “Who would have thought it,” he said. “That we’d come this far, running the eastside of the bay.”

But Billy preferred the old days. Selling uppers and downers, eighths of weed, whiz when they could get their hands on it. He’d felt safer back then. He was one of the boys, striding behind Degsy’s shadow.

“Don’t look so worried,” Degsy said. “Relax for Christ’s sake.”

Billy sat down, slumping into the chair.

Degsy smiled. “Skinny Billy Briers,” he said. “You always were the sensitive type, ever since we were kids. Do you remember that bird we found? Half dead, it was. Twitchin’ like a runt in the sand.”

Billy’s eyes widened. “I’ll never forget it,” he said. “The boys were going to toss it like a rag.”

“That’s right, Billy. Until you picked it up, nursing it back to life, cradling it like a baby in your arms. That’s why this job needs your touch. Someone quiet. Someone who won’t react to Falon’s mouth.”

Billy’s heart thumped. He couldn’t stop smiling. “So we’re actually gonna pay the bastard?”

Degsy stared into his hands. “I don’t see how we have any choice. We took down one of his boys. A mistake, I know. But the Boss says we need to put it right.”  

“I understand,” Billy said.

Degsy picked up the package from his desk, and threw it into Billy’s lap.

Billy stood up. “I won’t let you down, Degsy. Not this time.”

Degsy looked away. “I know that,” he said, his voice softening. “And believe me, there’ll be better jobs. We’ve just gotta take the darkness with the light.”

*

As he hurried along the promenade, Billy kept those words in his head, whispering them over and over.

“Hey it’s Billy Runt,” the young kids shouted.

But Billy kept walking, smiling as he turned his collar to the cold.

Billy rarely ventured into town. He hated the noise. Loathed the narrow confines of its streets. A siren blared. A myriad of lights flickered like stars in the distance. But Billy kept walking. Checking his pockets every five seconds, making sure nothing was lost.

He could smell the crack house from the far side of the road, tainting the air like a poison. Music boomed through the windows, a reverberating bass, pumping like a giant heart.

When he got to the end of the path, Billy found the door open. He stepped inside, the music deafening. To his surprise, Falon was already waiting, his hair slicked back, grinning from the foot of the stairs.

“So he decided to send you after all,” Falon said. “You’ve gotta hand it to Degsy. He always lets his head rule his heart.”

Billy had no idea what Falon was talking about, so he chucked the package on the floor.

Falon kicked it open, laughing to himself, as Billy gawped at the blank sheets of paper.

Then Falon pulled out his gun, the barrel’s cold steel pressing into Billy’s mouth.

“It’s nothing personal,” Falon said. “It’s just what me and Degsy agreed – one of his for one of mine. If it makes things any better, Degsy felt bad about it. But shit happens, Billy. You’ve just gotta to take the darkness with the light.”