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Battle Scars

Family ties bind.

Break them before they break you. 

Battle Scars by Cal Marcius




My grandfather treated his grandchildren the way he’d treated his own, quick with the back of his hand. Decades of practise had made him a great marksman.

At family get-togethers, while the women and girls prepared food, he would take all the boys to the barn and make them fight. There were promises of sitting at the head of the table for the winner.

Humiliation was the gift for the loser. A face smeared with blood and animal shit, and the laughter of the others following you while you made your way to the stream to wash off the hurt.

“This’s how men are made,” he’d say.

He’d spit in the straw and select his next fighter, the strong against the weak.

“Don’t cry. Don’t show fear. Don’t show rage. Most importantly, don’t give away what you’re thinking.”

He made us shout out the words. A mantra for hardened boys.

When he wasn’t around we would laugh at his accent, the drawl in his voice and the words no outsider could understand. Made up words that became part of his language. Part of us.

I rode my bike to the barn every day, and I was never alone. We were like moths to the flame. Desperate for his approval. Desperate to be crowned his favourite.

All but Tommy. My baby brother wanted none of that. He’d cry himself to sleep, hurting from the punches, praying he’d never have to go back again. His cousins would make fun of him. Call him Tamara, one of the girls. And I would join in, hoping to win points off the old man.

My grandfather prided himself on our reputation. It was well known you didn’t mess with the Harrison kids. Thugs, who’d end up in prison, or worse.

I would show my sisters the battle scars, the cuts and bruises and broken bones. I would listen to my mother, forbidding me to go back to him, but would rush back as soon as my injuries had healed, dragging Tommy with me. Telling him to man-up. Telling him to stop embarrassing me.

The old man was forging a breed of willing fighters, and we were blind to his true intentions. We were a means to money, and nothing else. This couldn’t have been more apparent than when he loaded us into his van and drove us to a warehouse two hours from home. At the centre was a makeshift ring of sandbags. Men stood, taking bets, pushing their fighters into the ring. Boys no older than my cousins and I. Teenagers with nothing to live for. What once was a game had become deadly survival, as we watched boys beaten into unconsciousness and dragged out of the ring by their feet.

***

Five years on, I stand over the old man, my knuckles dipped in his blood. The last of a dying breed.

We switched off Tommy’s life support in the morning. It took my mother eleven months to understand there was no coming back for him. Brain dead, they’d said. The machines just prolonging his suffering. But she had to try. I had to.

My grandfather knows it’s the end for him as I shout in his face, “Don’t cry. Don’t show fear. Don’t show rage. Don’t give away what you’re thinking.”

Each word is punctuated by another blow to his face. And with each blow I see Tommy, crying, wanting to go home.

***

My mother tells me to head to the mainland. Tells me that her brothers will be coming after me.

“I’m not afraid to die,” I say. “I don’t care.”

“I know,” she says. “But I do.”

She hands me an envelope filled with twenties and a bag packed with my clothes. 

And I leave, knowing I will never see her again.


Cal Marcius is a freelance writer who lives in the frozen wastes of of northern England. He has been published in Yellow Mama, Spelk, Shotgun Honey and Near to the Knuckle. He also has a story in Near to the Knuckle's "Rogue" anthology and Aidan Thorn's "Paladins" anthology. You can find Cal on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.