Porcupine by Tim Frank
I hurt myself to see if I could go beyond the limits of my imaginary world – beyond condors gliding above traffic on motorways, beyond mountains dipped in ivory clouds, beyond junk in space circling Mars.
I was a child navigating the cavernous hallways and the weathered masonry of my school building, where pupils raced from classroom to classroom at dizzying speed, like videotape in fast forward, and it was against this backdrop that I determined how severely to punish myself.
For example, when I failed history, I instinctively attacked myself in the classroom by clamping my hand under my chair leg, resting my full weight upon it, pummelling my knuckles. As my face went puce, I let out a muffled cry which was snatched up and extinguished by the traffic noise that reached in through the open window. My recovering breaths slowly fell in sync with the sluggish movements of the other children as they whispered about me in code.
At home, my dad inspected my results with a troubled countenance - trying to portray the role of a responsible adult, but I knew he didn't care. That night I heard him with his new woman as he yelled "Porcupine" and images of him cuffed to a radiator, being drenched with scalding water encroached on my mind. I took a lighter and held my hand over it until my skin blistered. By now I was getting used to not crying - pain and silence in unity.
I always dreaded PE but this time we had to have a session in the pool. I had nowhere to hide. Splashes sounded like cracked window panes and I almost tripped on my own feet as screams rose and fell from the ceiling. Walking poolside, my verruca pinched my foot and I repeated the word porcupine, porcupine, as glances from within the cobalt blue water turned into stares. As I climbed up to the diving board, my feet arched around thin aluminium steps sending goose bumps rippling across my whole body.
By now the whole pool was quiet except for the water gently lapping at the sides. The suffocating smell of chlorine filled the hall and I stood proudly on the lip of the diving board - porcupine, porcupine - as everyone counted the bruises, scars and burns on my body. I then, in turn, recited reasons.
The cut on my hip for when Jimmy Hook kissed me in art class and I refused to kiss him ever again and then he had some kind of breakdown and swore he would paint portraits of me until I was no longer real.
A bruise on my chest for the time my friends started calling me fag and I was comforted by a friendly piece of flint embedded in the playground's concrete. It never turned its back on me.
The scars on my wrists from when mum left dad and I still wait and wait for her to return and build a new house on our street so I can finally sleep under a roof without the need for safety words.
And so on, until I revealed all my secrets, accounting for all my army of wounds. Then, I dove into the pristine pool, hardly disturbing the surface, relieved that I was grounded for once, that I'd been seen and I didn't have to hurt myself again that day.
Tim Frank’s short stories have been published in Bourbon Penn, Eunoia Review, Maudlin House and elsewhere. He is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal and tweets @TimFrankquill