'Escalation' by Christopher Stanley
Six-year-old Jake Wilmot lurks in the doorway of a sitting room that never left the seventies. Burnt-orange shag pile carpet and wallpaper that’s a forest of overlapping ferns. Jake’s cheeks are spotted with tears to match the decorations on the standard lamp and he leaves them there, waiting for his parents to see. Against the back wall, his mum irons bedclothes in a shroud of fragrant steam, while his silver-haired stepfather hogs the sofa in front of the football. Neither of them notices Jake until he steps into the room.
“What’s up?” asks his stepfather.
“Carl from number forty-two took my dinosaur and won’t give it back.”
Jake’s stepfather nods as if this was inevitable—like bruises on a little boy’s knee. “You’ve got to stand up for yourself,” he says. “Watch.” He puffs out his chest, takes a firm hold of Jake’s shirt collar and forms a fist with his other hand. “Give it back!” he roars, spittle dancing from his teeth. Jake jumps and bursts into tears. “That’s all you need to do,” says his stepfather, calmly straightening Jake’s collar. “Now go and fetch your toy.”
Five minutes later, Jake tries to sneak through the living room but his stepfather is waiting for him. “I did what you told me to do,” says Jake, his face crumpled like used wrapping paper, “but Carl just laughed at me and I didn’t know what to do next.”
“You hit him!” says his stepfather, slamming his fist into the palm of his hand.
The next time Jake comes in, his left eye is ringed in purple and blue.
“How dare you come back without your toy!” says his stepfather. “Someone bought that for you. Someone spent their hard-earned money on that stupid bit of plastic. The least you can do is look after it.”
Jake is too upset to speak.
“Don’t be so pathetic,” says his stepfather. “Do you want me to hit you, too?”
Twenty minutes later, Jake bursts into the living room, clutching his dinosaur like it’s a winning raffle ticket. “Carl’s aunt helped me find it,” he confesses to his mum. “She told Carl off.”
His mum’s smile tugs at her crooked nose and reveals a missing front tooth. “Carl’s older than you, right?” she says. “And bigger?” She irons while she speaks, diligently removing unwanted creases. “You’ll never beat a boy like that head on. You need to use your wits.”
“What does ‘wits’ mean?”
“It means you wait for the right moment. Then you sneak up on him from behind and hit him with something hard.”
Jake’s mum stands the iron on its heel rest while she folds the bedding. When the steam has whooshed and cleared, Jake notices that the soleplate is dented and there’s a tuft of silver hair sprouting from the tip.