Jack watched the large bumbling boy climb the hill with a sort of weary disgust. Disdain was not a feature which sat well on his face, but one which he found himself wearing frequently as the summer wore on. He took a drag from the cigarette he was smoking and passed it back across to Christian. Glancing back at Phil climbing the hill, he thought that he had never seen a more awkward figure attempt a more awkward ascent. Why does he do it? Even if he finds the lighter, he’s just going to bring it back down and give it to Christian, who’s only going to throw it away again. Such pointless cruelty had become commonplace in Jack’s life, he was smart enough to recognise it for what it was, and he knew that this set him apart in the pecking order which was inevitable in a group of boys their age. People like him and Phil were near the bottom, and people like Christian were at the top and that was simply the way it was. If you were alone with one of these people you would be fine, however if more than one of them had gathered together, you must look to those below you and hope that it was they, and not you, who was humiliated. In a situation such as his was now, he was glad that it was Phil, and not he, who had to bear Christian’s meaningless games.
Jack looked lazily at the trees above him, the foliage seemed like a mass green blanket overshadowing them and masking their sins which, though trivial, he knew would agonise Phil that night, as he pondered the shape they would take the next day. Christian’s voice suddenly cut through this reverie as he said “what an idiot,” pointing a casual arm towards where Phil stood, agonisingly scouring the brush for the small yellow lighter.
“I know,” Jack replied, forcing a laugh, his heart sinking in his chest even as the sound bubbled in his throat. Why can’t you be braver, he thought, why can’t you just tell him to cut it out? He felt like a coward but he knew that if he stood up for Phil, he only risked inciting ridicule against himself. It was better to be looking down disgusted with oneself, he reasoned, than to be looking up and see that disgust reflected in another’s eyes. Even as his heart went to Phil, he felt disdain for him, for as he spoke he saw Phil lean over, pick up the lighter and begin oafishly climbing down the hill.
“I bet I get him to give it to me again,” said Christian.
“Why bother?” Jack replied.
Christian gave him a shrewd look. “Because it’s funny,” he said.
“Oh yeah,” Jack replied, then echoed Christian’s earlier words. “What an idiot.” Christian put the cigarette out on his shoe. “Watch this,” he said.
“Found it!” Phil cried.
“Let me see it,” Christian said, holding up the burnt-out smoke.
Phil tried to laugh but it came out with a grimace. “You have your own,” he said. Christian shrugged in response. “Can’t find it.”
Phil’s eyes turned to Jack pleadingly. “Jack has one,” he said.
Turning from Phil’s harassed eyes to Christian’s meaningful ones; Jack hesitated only a moment before speaking. “No, I left it at home today.”
“Just give me your lighter, Phil,” Christian said.
“You’re going to throw it again,” Phil replied.
“I won’t, I promise,” said Christian, a smile flickering around the corners of his lips. Phil’s hand went to his pocket, then wavered, hesitating, then slowly reached down again and took the lighter out. Sensing victory, Christian changed tack, now suddenly aggressive, and said, “Phil stop being a jerk and give me the lighter!”
Jack knew why Phil would give it to him. It was because where Christian was cool, and calm, and self-assured, Phil was big and clumsy and awkward, and he knew what it was to be humiliated, and he hoped that this time he wouldn’t be. As his hand reached out to give Christian the lighter, Jack felt a sudden sense of rage.
“Phil – if you give him that lighter, and he throws it again, I’m going to go and get it, and I’m not going to give it back,” disdain heavy in his voice, and not for the one who brought it there, the one who was orchestrating the charade, but for the one who so readily accepted it. Phil looked at Jack and then again at Christian, and hesitated only a moment before placing the lighter in Christian’s waiting, open, palm, who promptly threw it up the hill and into the trees.
“Oh my God, you idiot!” Christian howled, “I can’t believe you gave it to me again, what did you think I was going to do – Jack did you see that?” Jack started to laugh but inside he didn’t feel mirthful, he felt only an inevitable sorrow tempered by a rage at the mocking pretence which they had all just passed through.
“Well then?” said Christian, “go and get it Jack.” Jack knew what was going to happen next, and he looked at Christian hatefully, who, for once, seemed startled by the glare in his eyes. “All right then, I will,” Jack said.
Jack was small and agile, and he knew he could clamber up the hill and find the lighter long before Phil would reach him. Getting up, he turned and began a dogged ascent. He heard Phil panting behind him. “Don’t do it,” his voice said pleadingly, then quieter, in a whisper, “He wants you to, Jack.” Jack didn’t reply. Don’t you think I know that? This is your fault: why’d you give it to him in the first place? He knew that it was silly, and that he and Phil felt this to a degree much higher than Christian could perceive. You had to have known that feeling to understand it, to have felt the lash crack with a casual word or a cutting action. Seeing the lighter on the ground before him, Jack picked it up, turned around and, dodging Phil, went back to his original seat across from Christian.
Jack was afraid to look over his shoulder and see the sadness and despair which would surely crawl over Phil’s features. I’m not the one who put that there, he told himself, it’s not my fault. He could hear the big foolish footsteps coming up behind him, crunching through the undergrowth as twigs and leaves broke beneath the great weight. Christian laughed, “You going to let him do that, Phil? Steal your lighter like that?” It wasn’t really a question, but a statement, and one which implied a purpose far different from what was said plainly.
“I guess not,” Phil replied hesitantly.
“Well take it back then,” said Christian, humour gone from his voice.
“Don’t do it, Phil,” said Jack.
For some moments, silence reigned, but it was broken by Christian saying angrily, “Don’t be such a wuss, Phil!”
Jack started to turn around. “Phil,” he said, but the words caught in his throat as two arms clasped his neck in a headlock. Rising, he slipped from Phil’s grasp and, spinning around, put his leg behind the larger boys’, knocking him on his back.
“I’m sorry, Phil,” he said, as he brought his foot down onto the boy’s stomach, “I’m sorry, Phil,” he repeated, as he jumped astride him and crashed his fist into Phil’s face. In the back of his mind, Jack was vaguely aware of Christian’s laughter and, glancing behind him, saw the same smile, which had passed before, dance again across Christian’s face. Disgusted with himself, Jack looked down at Phil whose mouth and nose were bleeding. He got off the boy and helped him up, dusting the dirt from his back which was wracked by barely controlled sobs. “Come on, Phil,” said Jack, “I’ll walk you home.” Without a backward glance, Phil and Jack together walked through the trees and, with Christian’s laughter echoing behind them, began the long, arduous uphill climb.