Ned Wosnitsuj was a fifteen-year-old student at St. Bom's Secondary School. He didn't study hard and in his spare time he liked to watch television. He wore baggy clothes and listened to rap and techno music. He was an obese teen who went to the gym every week but never lost any weight. He had messy blonde hair and an unusually large lower lip, which he always tried to tuck in since it attracted so much attention from the rest of his conventional face.
Ned flicked through the channels on the television, trying to find anything that would satisfy his desires for another hour till his friends from school picked him up. He and his friends plan to go to a pub or a nightclub in the city, but for now he was at home watching TV drama.
As he slouched on the couch, his fat slobbish father came over with a can of beer.
"What in God's bloody world are you doin', Son?"
"You're watching television now. Go to yer room and do yer homework!"
"But I'm watchin' a good part. Why should I do my homework?"
"Because I said so. I want me son to have an education."
"Why don't you get an education?"
"It's already too late for me. I'm an old man now. No feller's gonna hire an old fart, even if he's educated."
"Why didn't you study when you were young then?"
"Because I was like you! I was a lazy slob who did nothing all day. And look what happened to me. Now I shovel manure for a living."
"Then who are you to tell me to study when you yourself didn't study?"
"I'm not saying what I did was right."
"You are a hypocrite."
"Uh…what is a hypocrite?"
Ned couldn't find the definition in his head. He recognized the word but couldn't define it. "Not sure."
"Why'd yer use it then?"
"I know what it means, but I don't know how to explain it."
"Where'd you learn it? School taught you?"
"No. Television. Goes to show how good telly can be. I can learn somethin' from watchin' the telly."
"Telly's no good for learning, son! If you want to get somewhere in life nowadays yer gotta hit the books. Forget about sports, forget about musical instruments, forget about theatre, forget about computers, forget about games, forget about everything and look to the book. Everything is in the book."
"That's where yer wrong. You can learn with computers and television. In fact, learnin' from television is probably better 'cos you use more of yer senses. When you read you don't hear nothin'. And games can be educational also. What about chess?"
"Get up to yer room right now and study! When you finish your homework, I'll let yer go out with yer friends. But don't go out for too long. Make sure you call me."
Ned went upstairs to his room and saw his little brother Eddie playing with a teddy bear. On the floor nearby was a toy tyrannosaurus rex with a Barbie doll in its mouth.
"The teddy bear is the only one who can save Barbie," said Eddie. "The teddy bear belongs to the army of good people. The dinosaur belongs to the army of the evil."
Eddie and Ned were similar-looking brothers, only Eddie, six years old, was much smaller and looked slightly smarter ever since he dyed his hair black. The dye wouldn't last long though. Ned often found Eddie's hair black in the morning but blonde in the afternoon when the dye wore off. Eddie shared Ned's untidiness, which they probably inherited from their pig-like father. Since the Wosnitsuj family was poor, the two brothers shared bedrooms.
"Dad sent you up here to do work, didn't he?" said Eddie.
"Yeah, what an idiot. Me friends are comin' over soon. We gonna go partyin' in the city of London. You wanna come along?"
Eddie was probably too young for parties, but Ned wondered how his little brother would react to such an invitation.
Eddie seemed flattered. "What do you do at these parties?"
"Just walk aroun' and have fun, I guess."
"I've seen some parties on TV. They look weird."
"What's weird to you is normal to me."
"What's the point of going to these parties?"
"I don't know. Have fun."
"What's fun for you isn't fun for me."
"What yer goin' do instead? Just stay home an' watch TV? Waste your life?"
"I could say the same to you. You're wasting your life by going to parties."
"By goin' to parties you don't waste yer life. You live it."
"It's pointless. What do get out of it?"
"What do you get out of anythin'? What's the point of anythin' in life if yer just gonna die in the end? The point of life is to have fun. To be happy. Going to parties makes me happy. If yer don't have fun in yer life then you ain't got no life."
"Parties make you happy?"
"Yes. Parties make me happy. I wanna be with me friends. I wanna dance to music. You've danced before, haven't you? You know how good it feels?"
"I don't dance," said Eddie. "To me dancing is a sign of weakness. By dancing you are a slave to music. You lack self-control."
"What are you talkin' 'bout? Do you even know what yer sayin'?"
"There's a difference between happiness and pleasure. Going to a nightclub, dancing, and drinking won't make you truly happy. True happiness comes though hard work. You have to work for your happiness."
Ned couldn't be bothered arguing with his little brother. His dad was coming up soon. "Okay, well, I'd better pretend that I'm working in case Dad comes and checks us out. I've got an essay to pretend to write."
"Why are you pretending? What if Dad counts how many words you write?"
"It's okay. Today at school I brought some A-grade essays from a smart kid for only five pounds."
"You are a cheat."
From their room, the Wosnitsuj brothers heard the front doorbell ring.
"That's must be your friends," said Eddie. "I'll see you tomorrow. Don't get too drunk. And if you pass out try to pass out in a park. Don't pass out on the middle of a road like you did before."
Ned laughed and ran to the front door. When he got to the living room his father intercepted him.
"You ain't goin' nowhere tonight 'less you finish yer homework."
Ned shoved the essay in his dad's face and rushed to the door. He opened it and saw the familiar face of his old friend Ryan Ggoh, a young teen just like Ned, only more tall and muscular. Ryan had a nasty habit of always cracking his bony fingers. His left index finger had swelled up to the size of a golf ball with all the cracking.
Ryan walked in the house and saw Ned's father. "Mr. Wosnitsuj, how's it goin'?"
Ned's dad didn't have the same sense of enthusiasm that Ryan had. "What do you plan to do with my son tonight?"
"You know…just hangin' around…checking the city out. London's a great city. I'm proud to be British."
"I'd rather be a Brit than any other nationality," said Ned. "Me ancestors took over nearly all of Europe and the world. I'm proud of 'em. I'm proud of me nation."
Ned's dad spoke. "You proud of your nation? You proud of the nation whose economic system makes me the poor man that I am now? Since I'm poor, you'll probably go to a poor university and get a poor education while all 'em other rich kiddies go to fine schools and rake in all the cash when they're older."
"You don't speak trash about my country," said Ryan, cracking his fingers. "How dare you try to take the national spirit from your boy. What kind of a father are you?"
Ned's dad shot back. "Don't you see that the ruling class is using nationalism to fool the masses or are yer too dumb to see anything?"
Ryan went for the door. "I'm outta here!" cried Ryan. "And Ned, if yer wanna support yer father, then I don't wanna be your friend no more."
"But I never supported…"
Ryan slammed the door shut behind him as he left.
Ned turned to his father. "Look what yer did! Did yer have to be so stupid? Don't you care about your son? You cost me another one of me friends!"
"You don't need him anyways. That guy's rubbish. I mean…seriously…what kind of name is Ggoh? You can do better than him. Why don't yer hang around with smart kids? Some of their smartness might rub off on you. You hang with the wrong crowd, then next thing you know you'll be on drugs. You'll live the rest of yer life like I did. I'm not gonna let that happen to you."
"I'll be friends with whoever I want. It's a free country."
"Exactly. It's a free country. If you don't follow my orders you're outta the family. I'm free to kick you outta the house. You'll have to live on the streets. How yer gonna survive all by yourself, huh? So if yer don't like it here, leave! For all I care you can die and rot out there."
Ned didn't know what to say. He couldn't believe his dad was threatening him like this. "You have to take care of me. It's your duty."
"You're eighteen or thereabouts. You're old enough to take care of yourself. Who says I gotta take care of you?"
"It says so in the bible. Parents must take care of their children."
"The bible also says that children must respect their parents. It's one of them Ten Commandments."
Ned knew his biblical ignorance would cost him one day. "So you want me to be friends with smart kids? How do I do that?"
"It ain't no problem. I've been socializing with some of our rich neighbours near here. Some of them have boys that go to your school. I'll invite them to dinner at our house. You can get to know them during dinner."
Ned hated the way his dad sucked up to the elite. But he didn't have the energy to argue with him. All he could do was walk away to his bedroom upstairs and think about all the reasons why he hated his father. He wished his family were complete and normal. Ever since his mother drowned in a lake three years ago, Ned found it hard to cope. His father was a brute and his little brother was an annoying little brat. But in times of great stress, Ned had one refuge. Ned had one little secret.
Eddie was in his room playing with teddy bears and action figures again.
"Eddie, Dad told you to have a shower now. You stink."
"Okay. I like showers." Eddie ran to the showers downstairs.
When his brother left the bedroom, Ned locked the door from the inside so nobody could get in. With a key hidden under his pillow, he opened a secret door concealed in the wardrobe. The secret door led to a narrow tunnel that went down to a secret basement. In this basement Ned took refuge from the hassles of life.
Candles filled the underground basement with light. There were all sorts of things in his secret underground room: test tubes, chemicals, books, blankets, and beanbags. The place was a library and a laboratory. The bookshelf was filled with religious books like How to Find God, The Hierarchy and Structure of the London Arkayz Union, and his favourite books The Holy Bible and The Arkayz Bible.
Ned's dad had invited the neighbours over for dinner. Ned put on baggy pants and a black jacket. He made sure it wasn't too formal so he could piss his dad off, but it wasn't too casual because he didn't want to offend the guests.
Ned went downstairs with his little brother Eddie behind him. Ned could smell the marinated turkey Dad cooked. The doorbell rang. Ned's dad ran to the front door. Ned stood in the middle of the living room and looked at the neighbours whom he'd never seen before.
The neighbours were just a simple nuclear family. There was a father, a mother, and one male teenager. They all wore suits, perhaps mistakenly thinking it was a formal dinner. The father was a dark-skinned man. His hair was combed back. He had large eyes, full lips, and a long nose. He walked elegantly as if he'd been training in front of a mirror for many years. His wife was strikingly paler that he was. She had long brown hair that went down to her shoulders. When she spoke her accent sounded Italian. The teenager was a fairly dark boy with no hair, perhaps because it was shaved off—he was too young to lose hair naturally. He was more muscular than his father, maybe because he worked out. That would explain why his right arm was slightly bigger than his left arm—too much emphasis on one side of the body. In spite of the kid's bulkiness, he shared the characteristic elegant walk his father possessed. The arms moved in harmony with the legs. The movement wasn't lanky or awkward, just smooth and flowing like fine music. The young boy moved towards Ned and greeted him by jerking out his hands.
Ned shook the boy's hands. "I'm Ned Wosnitsuj. Who are you?"
"Sherwin Brown. I go to your school."
Ned looked up at the ceiling for a second, searching his mind. "I think I've heard a little 'bout yer. But I rarely see yer 'round school."
"I usually spend time in the library."
"Do you have any hobbies?"
"I like to make films. I also like to make other things as well. Engineering is something I can fall back on if I make bad films. I've made spy cameras, lock picks, and pretty much anything."
"Play much sports?"
"Not really. I normally play chess nowadays. I played a little football when I was younger."
"The English football team is doin' alright, ain't it?"
"In my opinion, it's the best football team in the world. It's even better than Brazil. Brazil sucks. I saw a documentary of Brazil before and everyone there is, like, poor."
"Are we comparing economic success or football success?"
After Ned's father got Sherwin's parents seated in the dining room table he went to Ned and Sherwin. He was delighted to see them chatting between themselves. "Youse two bond together well, haven't yer?"
Sherwin was silent.
Acknowledging Sherwin's non-response, Ned forced something out of his mouth. "Me and Sherwin are both British. Brits get along well with each other. Ain't that right, Sherwin?"
Sherwin responded immediately. "I get along well with people of other nationalities. My parents travel the world extensively. They're international people, and they bring me along when they travel. I've been exposed to many cultures of the world."
"Why'd yer wanna be anywhere but Britain?"
"Have you ever been overseas?"
Ned saw his dad walk away, perhaps a sign that he wanted his son to lie. Sherwin didn't have to know that Ned's family was too poor to travel. "Yeah, I've been to…uh…Italy before," said Ned.
"Did you go to Rome? It used to be the heart of the Roman Empire."
"I've always loved the Romans. Read so many of 'em Asterix comics. I wish I could learn the Roman language."
"No, Rome is in Italy, not Latin America." Ned noticed Sherwin looking nervously at the ceiling now.
"What do you plan to do over the weekend?" asked Sherwin.
Ned patted his large belly. "I'm gonna lose weight."
Sherwin laughed. It was a controlled laugh, probably fake.
"It's true but," said Ned. "I think maybe some of 'em girls'll like me better if I'm a little slimmer."
"How do you plan to loose weight? You shouldn't fast because your body needs nutrients."
"Instead of eatin' pizza or pies and stuff I'll just drink coke. Coke has no fat."
"Coke has sugar in it."
"Yeah, it has sugar but no fat."
"But excess sugar gets converted to fat in the liver anyway."
Ned didn't know this. He was stunned by Sherwin's seemingly limitless knowledge. "How do you know?"
"I was dux of biology and chemistry last year. I won the National Science Award six times. I've conducted several research projects for the Oxford University School of Medical Sciences. And early this year I came second place in the European Chemistry Olympiad."
"Wow." Ned couldn't think of any other way to respond. Usually he'd scoff at this blatant display of arrogance, but when it came from Sherwin, the only feeling that swelled up in his head was one of admiration and respect—dashed, of course, with a little envy. "That's amazing! How do you do that? How do you get all 'em stuff? Are you a genius or somethin'?"
"I think I'm a fairly bright kid," said Sherwin. He face was emotionless, showing no signs of flattery or shame. "But I'm no genius. I'm no Einstein."
"Yeah, but yer pretty close. Yer probably the smartest guy in our school."
"Nuh, there's another boy named Richard Huygens. Heard of him?"
"Can't say I have."
"He's much smarter than I am. When he was seven he read the whole Encyclopaedia Britannica. His knowledge is diverse. He reads very widely and is extremely intelligent. He is, in my opinion, a true genius."
"You friends with this guy?"
"He and I are best friends, although he doesn't believe in being good friends with someone for too long. He believes that if you present yourself to people periodically with systematic moments of absence, then people tend to exaggerate your good points and respect you more."
"That explains why most of me friends think I'm an idiot."
"Richard is such an good person. In fact, a picture of him was in the school newspaper last week." Sherwin took out a folded newspaper from his pockets.
"He looks like a happy guy," said Ned. Richard's smiling face covered the front page with the headlines Huygens is Top Student. Richard had shady eyes, perfect teeth, and short black hair that was smooth at the back and spiky at the front.
"Are you interested in science?" said Sherwin. "Richard and I are moth men of science."
"You're just boys," said Ned.
"Science benefits mankind. Without science this world would be swamped with mysticism and superstition."
"Hmm, well, I'm a little bit of a scientist myself actually," said Ned.
"A little bit?"
Ned's scientific knowledge was basic. He had only patched up a few facts and concepts from science documentaries he saw on television. But he wanted to impress Sherwin. "I actually have a laboratory where I perform scientific experiments."
"You have your own laboratory? Where is it?"
"It's hidden from my dad and my little brother. I haven't told anyone about it."
"They wouldn't approve of it."
Ned went upstairs to his bedroom with Sherwin. His dad, his little brother, and Sherwin's parents were downstairs. When he was inside, Ned reached in his pockets and pulled out a key. He locked his bedroom door and opened the wardrobe.
Sherwin walked in the wardrobe. "Looks like an ordinary wardrobe with clothes in it."
"There's a secret door in there. Look harder."
Sherwin eventually found the keyhole and the small grooves in the wall. "It's just like The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe."
"I was reading that book when I made this secret door."
"You made this!"
Ned could read Sherwin's facial expressions and knew he had impressed his new friend.
When Sherwin opened the secret door, Ned interrupted. "I'd better go in the tunnel first for safety." Ned climbed in the tunnel, which was horizontal for a while but then went down steeply. Ned had gone down this tunnel hundreds of times, so he learnt how to slide down effortlessly. Sherwin, however, took his time, making sure he didn't put his foot in the wrong place lest he fell and hurt himself.
Ned arrived first and knew Sherwin was going to take a while. Very quickly, he took a bed blanket from the corner and covered the bookshelf filled with religious books. He didn't want Sherwin to see the religious texts.
When Sherwin finally came down he was amazed with what he saw. "You are just like the ancient alchemists. This place is wonderful."
Ned showed Sherwin his set of test tubes as well as his prized micropipette, which he actually stole from a genetic engineering research facility built by a company called Potter Pharmaceuticals. Sherwin even saw the absorption spectrometers and bottles and bottles of chemicals, all with names like silver chloride and vanadium oxide.
Something else then caught Sherwin's attention. It was another room labelled Room B. But Ned didn't want Sherwin to go in that room.
"What's in this room?" said Sherwin.
"Nothing's in there. Nothing."
The two boys stood silent and heard something inside the room. It was the sound of muffled voices and screams.
"I heard something in there?" Sherwin said. "Open it up. I want to see."
"No! Yer can't go in there. Let's go back up. Dad's probably finished cooking that turkey now."
Ned's dad made everyone eat on the main table in the dining room. Eddie came down from the toilet to join everyone.
"I never knew you had a second son," said Sherwin's dad as he saw Eddie.
"That here's Eddie," said Ned's dad. "He's a good little boy. He's gonna make me proud when he grows up."
Sherwin's dad spoke. "What about the older boy? Ned. Don't you like him?"
Ned didn't like the idea of his dad favouring his little brother over himself. He wanted to hear what his dad had to say.
"Well, Ned's a good kid and all. He's nice 'n' stuff. But he spends too much time watchin' the telly. He's also a fat lard who eats too much."
Ned pointed to his dad's belly. "You're not exactly slim yourself, Dad."
"I don't need to be slim. I'm an old man now. I ain't got time to exercise. But you, boy, you shouldn't eat so much."
"If yer don't want me to eat so much then why are yer always shovin' food in me."
"Like now! You force me to eat this turkey. You force me to eat everythin'."
"I'm not responsible for what you eat. If you don't want to eat my stuff then don't eat it. It's your choice. Some people are starvin' in Africa, and here you are complainin' to me that you get too much food."
"We don't live in Africa, Dad. No one starves here." Ned threw his piece of turkey on the floor and stood in defiance.
"You pick that piece of meat up right now!"
"No, I won't." Ned saw his little brother and members of the Brown family wearing anxious looks on their faces. His dad was red as a tomato. Dad wasn't angry very often but when he was he was vicious. He remembered one time at the hospital when a nurse made a mistake. Dad took a syringe and stabbed it several times into the nurse's neck.
Right now Dad's anger seemed to be near boiling point. For the safety of everyone around him and for the reputation of his family, he had to cool his father down. He bent down, picked the turkey up, lightly threw it back on his plate, and walked upstairs to his room.
As he sat on his bed that night he listened to the dinner conversations. They were forced and artificial. Mr. Brown tried to talk positively, but the quiver in his voice suggested that he was shocked by the turkey incident. Ned was embarrassed. He cursed his father and thought about ways he could escape. He needed to get a job, to start making money for himself so he wouldn't be dependent on others. But his dad didn't tell him how to get a job. His dad didn't have time to show his son how to write a resume or how to dress for an interview.
Ned went to bed and tried to sleep out the anger. But the anger seemed to convert itself into heat. His body sweated and his skin felt like it was burning against the blankets on top of him. He got up and opened the window. But there was no air outside and it was as humid outside as it was inside. Ned placed his hands against his forehead and felt the heat diffusing through his skin like the heat flowing out of an oven. He had school the next day so he needed to sleep.
When he couldn't get to sleep for another hour he went to the bathroom and had a shower. When he finished washing his face, underarm and groin with soap he turned down the hot water gradually so the water got colder and colder. After it got so cold that Ned found it difficult to breath, he turned the water off, dried himself, got dressed, and went to bed feeling cooler. The blankets suddenly felt like they were wrapping themselves on Ned's skin.
He fell asleep and dreamed about mountain peaks and white clouds.