Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Change by Liz Berg

“Does it hurt?”
“The change. Does it hurt?” Sam’s pointed face peered up at his buddy Abel.
Abel frowned. Then his brow cleared.
“Oh, right. Yes, I think it does. You needn’t worry for some time. Not until you are at least fourteen or fifteen.”
“Eighteen. It’s eighteen.” Sam was positive. He trotted alongside Abel as they walked towards the park. This was his favourite journey, Abel’s blue eyes twinkling, his shaved head giving him a panther look.
Sam felt the buzz in his chest. He yipped with pleasure. Abel guided him over to the adventure playground.
“Take it off.”
“Magic word, Sam?”
“Please. Take it off please.”
Abel released the wrist band.
Sam ran around the apparatus, checking for anything new, anything changed. Satisfied, he raced over to the rope netting, flinging himself upwards. As he reached the top, he let out his special howl. His chest could burst now and he’d be happy.
Perched on the A frame Sam peered for Abel. Abel wasn’t at his usual seat on the bench, facing the net. Sam swivelled, his heart beating furiously. He homed in on a shining pate. Abel was by the monkey puzzle tree, talking to someone.
The stranger was stocky. Sam reckoned he worked out. He wore blue jeans and a blue denim jacket. A black baseball hat hid his face. Sam’s super keen senses told him he didn’t like the man. Abel didn’t either by his sudden arm movements. The man left abruptly.
Whining in relief, Sam began to slow his heart rate as he’d been taught. He crawled across the net and continued his tour of the apparatus, constantly checking Abel’s whereabouts.
Later, Abel called, “Come, Sam, it’s time to go.”
Sam bounded over, huffing as the wrist band snapped in place. Sam hated it, but since that scary time, Abel wouldn’t take him without it. Sam tried to walk on all fours. Abel pulled him upright a little too sharply.
“Ow!” He licked his wrist.
“Sorry, Sam.” Abel apologised. “I wasn’t thinking.”
Usually, the walk home was punctuated by a stop at the café for a hot chocolate followed by a visit to the art shop. Abel was teaching Sam to draw. This time Abel took Sam straight home.
Sam knew better than to ask about the stranger. Abel was his buddy, his friend. Friends didn’t ask questions as if they were at the doctors. Sam knew a lot of doctors. He hated the way they spoke to him, trying to syrup their way into his brain. Their talk full of jagged edges when they spoke to his mother. Mum often cried after a visit.
Abel didn’t chat to Sam’s mother this time. No waving when he reached the corner either.
“Mum, say you knew something.”
“What do you mean? Something good… bad…which, Sam?”
Sam’s mother brushed her straight black fringe with the back of one hand. Sam liked the way it moved to a point over her left eye. He also liked the lines she had shaved into the right side of her head. He could tell her moods by the colour she painted them. Today it was a mellow lilac. When she was pink, she roared around the house like a whirlwind. Sam stayed out of her way then.
“Umm. I don’t know … just thinking.” Sam tried wriggling. He lay on the floor and squirmed across the kitchen, then rolled over and jumped up. A yip escaped.
Sam dreamt about prowling around the stranger’s ankles. He bared his fangs. The smell of the man’s fear was strong. Good. Hackles lowered; Sam snuffled into his chest.

A few days later Sam walked tidily beside Abel, without trying to run away. Abel in turn, removed the wrist strap without asking. When Sam didn’t zoom off checking the apparatus, Abel sat with him on the bench.
“What’s the matter, Sam?”
“Nothing.” Sam hung his head.
“Listen to me Sam. I can’t help you unless you tell me. That’s what being a buddy means. Anything you tell me is between us, unless someone is going to get hurt.” Abel’s voice had taken on the patient tone of a teacher. Sam remembered the last time he’d heard that tone. He hadn’t been back to school since.
“What is it, Sam?” Abel’s voice cut into his thoughts. “Can I help you?”
“Can I help you?” Sam echoed. “I’ll bite him for you. I’ll jump on his back and claw him.”
“Who? And don’t bite anyone or jump on their back.”
“The man in the park.” Sam shook Abel’s jacket. “The one you talked to. The man in blue.”
“Oh, Sam,” Abel was rueful. “You don’t have to fight my battles for me. He’s nothing to worry about.”
“But you are worried. In my anger management class, they tell you take deep breaths and work out how your body feels. If you can’t control yourself, find a special place to be. Have you a special place, Abel?”
“No, Sam. I’ve not needed one.”
“Not even with that man?”
“No, Sam, not even with him. You can’t go around getting angry with people. It doesn’t help.”
“But you were angry. I saw you. You waved your arms at him,” insisted Sam.
“Leave it, Sam. Let’s go and enjoy ourselves, eh?” Abel walked towards the jungle gym. “Let’s see how a werewolf climbs these bars. “
Sam didn’t move. He crossed his arms and put his head down. A noise halfway between a growl and a humph sounded in his throat. Abel touched his shoulder; Sam shook him off. “Sometimes, Sam, you can’t help. Sometimes things are private.”
He didn’t react to the wrist strap, refused hot chocolate and lagged behind all the way home.
Sam checked his mother’s stripes. Orange. It might be the best time to talk to her. She wouldn’t remember tomorrow.
“Mum, is Abel okay?”
“I’m sure he is, bab. He didn’t seem poorly. Have your tea and then you can have fifteen minutes on your PlayStation.”
“I don’t mean ill, Mum. I mean like me.” Sam talked as his mother followed him into the kitchen.
“No one’s like you, Sam.” Mum put his tea in front of him.
Sam picked up a fork. He tried again. “I saw Abel angry the other day.”
“He’s allowed to get angry, bab. Sit at the table to eat, Sam. Don’t wander with food on your fork.”
He bent his head like a werewolf, eating very fast. He licked his paws and slurped at his drink. It was a long time till next Thursday.

Abel was late. Sam ranged back and for. The bell rang, startling him.
Abel held out his hand. Sam slipped in a paw. Safe. Even with the wrist strap. He bounced along, content.
“It’s Thursday, isn’t it? Mum’s stripes are blue today. That’s good. Have you ever put blue stripes on your head?” He grinned at Abel who grinned back.
“You seem happy today. Any particular reason?”
“No…just am.”
They followed their usual routine. Sam bounded from one piece of apparatus to another, trying out his werewolf moves on them all.
“Sam, about the man,” Abel called, “It’s all worked out now.” Sam stilled on the A frame. Then he swung down and loped over to Abel. He approached him carefully, sniffing at the air to scent out any unfamiliar smells, finding only Abel’s aftershave, woody and pleasant.
“He’s my brother. He’s been away. He came back to ask me to go into… business.” Abel paused and looked straight at Sam.
Sam’s heart beat faster. Abel was leaving him. He was going to be with his brother. Sam’s eyes grew bright. He remembered his dream. He would fight Abel’s brother for him. Blood roared in his ears, drowning out the rest of what Abel was saying.
Abel caught hold of him and held him firmly. Sam squirmed in his grasp.
“I’m not going away, Sam. I’m not going away,” repeated Abel until the boy lay shuddering in his arms.
“I told my brother he had to work on his own. I wasn’t going to help him this time. I told him, I was your buddy and that came first.”
Sam’s ears pricked up. His heart rate slowed; the pounding lessened.
“I couldn’t leave you. Not after all we’ve gone through. It would break my heart. I told him…”
“What did you tell him, Abel?” whispered Sam.
“I told him… I told him I’d changed. It’s taken you to do it, but I have finally changed. It wasn’t easy.”
“Did he believe you?”
“That’s what took so long. I had to make him understand. He did in the end. When I showed him how much it had hurt to change.”
“It doesn’t hurt now, does it, Abel?” Sam touched his cheek, gently.
Abel smiled. “No, Sam. Like I told you before, change hurts only while you’re going through it.”
Abel stood up, putting the wrist strap in his pocket.
“How about a hot chocolate then?”

© Liz Berg

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