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Authors: Euan Leckie

Underdog

BOOK: Underdog
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When lonely and troubled teenager Tom White secretly witnesses the world of underground dog fights, he is horrified by what he sees
.

 

But Tom feels a deep connection with one of the dogs he momentarily encounters, a young pit bull snatched from an animal shelter by the vicious gang of ‘dog-men’.

 

Without a thought for his own safety, Tom steals him.

 

While on the run, a remarkable bond develops between dog and boy that rekindles lost feelings of love and trust within each of them. It is a friendship that offers hope and salvation to both …

 

Until they are caught.

Jeffo licked the congealed blood from the underside of his paws. The swollen pads beneath his toes were cracked and torn, and had blistered overnight. The injuries stung as he rolled his tongue over them, reminding him of what had taken place in the other barn. He trembled when he remembered the angry faces of the men screaming him on.

‘Faster, you useless bastard. Fucking move yourself.’

At first he had struggled for balance. The rope harnesses that hung from the treadmill’s frame and held him in position felt awkward, hindering his attempts to break fully into a run. A stick was viciously thrust into his side, the sudden shock of pain forcing him to find more speed. Almost immediately he missed his footing and the bracelet of wooden slats making up the runway sped violently under his feet, causing the metal runners to screech loudly. His stumble was rewarded with striking fists that compelled him to keep moving, run faster. There was no escaping the blows, each one delivered with threats and laughter. As the speed of the treadmill increased, it became ever harder to find his feet until inevitably, he had fallen.

‘Up. Get up, you little shit.’

Jeffo was thrashed back up to his feet, then run for almost an hour. When the men finally unharnessed him, he was on the point of collapse. His feet were raw and the runway beneath him was streaked red and slippery with his blood.

Jeffo closed his eyes. None of it made any sense. Everything had changed so quickly; he longed to return to the safety of the sanctuary and the kindness of the lady warden. Miserably, he thought back to the moment when she unwittingly betrayed him, the trusting look on her face as she handed him over to what she believed would be a happy and safe home.

Slowly inching his way backwards, Jeffo moved deeper into the shadows, too tired to avoid his own mess that soiled the floor. The heavy chain around his neck snaked about his feet and the weight attached to it dangled clumsily below his chin, beating against his chest with each retreating step. The combined load pulled at his shoulders and made him unsteady as he shrank into the corner of his cage.

The skin beneath his fur, purest white apart from the perfect black circle centred on his back, made cold contact with the rusting mesh behind him. He lay down upon the bare concrete, curling himself into a tight, protective ball, his back twitching with each raindrop that dripped on him from the decrepit roof above. Every muscle of his compact body ached. The continuous regimen of training and lack of adequate food had stolen the last ounces of fat from him, draining his natural strength. He let out a pathetic sound, a wretched and faint cry that vanished in the damp air.

A gust of wind dislodged one of the rattling boards that covered a small window to the side of the barn door. The plank clattered to the ground, its fall exposing the bottom edge of a rotting window frame lined with shards of glass. The suddenness of the noise stirred the three other dogs from their slumbers. As they shuffled and rearranged themselves in their cages, the breeze whistled in through the newly formed gap and swirled around the barn, cutting through the sickly stench of shit and dried urine.

Ears pricked, Jeffo forced himself onto his feet and took a couple of painful steps forward, leaning his head in the direction of the barn door: a car was approaching. He listened attentively as the murmur of the engine drew nearer. The sound of wheels crunching over gravel finally woke the other dogs. They reacted to the noise in unison and jumped up barking wildly, rearing onto their hind legs to scratch and bite at the doors of their cages. The chains restraining them tightened and bit into their necks, choking their growls.

The car stopped. Its doors opened, then slammed shut.

Only Jeffo remained quiet. He stood still, his focus on the footsteps approaching the barn. When he heard and recognised the voices talking outside, his heart began to thump in his chest. He slunk to the back of his cage and lay down, listening over the barking of the other dogs to the jangle of keys as the lock was turned.

‘Shut that fucking noise up.’

The barn door swung open and a large man swaggered in. He kicked the nearest cage, the force of his boot sending Bane, the largest of the pit bulls, reeling back from his upright position. The other man, slouching in the doorway, laughed as he tossed the smoking butt of a joint onto the floor.

‘Quiet!’

The ferocity of the shout silenced the dogs at once. They stood with their heads lowered, shifting their weight nervously as they looked up at the figure standing before them. Whilst this man was in the barn, they knew never to take their eyes off him, aware he might lash out at any time. Having glanced over each of the dogs, he stopped in front of Jeffo’s cage, a hand deep in one of his pockets, searching for the keys to the lock. Jeffo’s heart sank when he realised he was to be picked out again.

‘On your feet,’ growled the man as he threw open the cage door. He grabbed at Jeffo’s chain and began to pull. ‘Come here.’

Jeffo dug his heels in, vainly attempting to use his body weight against the chain. The blisters on his paws ruptured on the concrete floor as he was hauled forward. A hand thrust into the cage grabbed the scruff of his neck.

‘Gotcha!’

Once heaved out, he was held still, the chain drawn over his head and dropped onto the floor beside him. A punch struck his side.

‘When I say come, I fucking mean it. Don’t piss me about. I ain’t in the mood.’

Jeffo’s head was pushed down and forced hard against the floor as an arm wrestled its way under his ribs. His legs thrashed wildly as he was lifted, but resistance was futile; he was easily overpowered and held so tightly it felt as if the breath was being crushed out of him.

‘Bit lively, ain’t he, Cal?’

‘He’ll learn. He ain’t no different to the others.’

Jeffo was carried the short distance to the far end of the barn, still struggling as the men stopped next to a large barrel: a swim-pit that dominated the end wall. Without any warning he was upended and plunged headfirst into the cold water. Disorientated, he thrashed wildly to right himself and reach the surface, where his wide-eyed panic was met with laughter. Jeffo gasped for air, his legs paddling frantically beneath him. The men ignored his whimpers.

‘How long you giving him in there, Cal?’

‘Twenty minutes or so. Not long. I want to get Bane on the Jenny next door and give him a go with that cat. When he’s done we’ll get this one out. If he ain’t sunk.’

The men sniggered as they strode off to fetch the pacing, brindle dog from his cage.

Jeffo panicked when he heard the men leave, the barn door slamming shut behind them with a heavy thud. He tried to bark but water rushed into his mouth, filling his throat, and as he spluttered his head began to slip under. Terrified, he began scratching at the smooth sides of the barrel in an attempt to find some purchase and stay afloat, but his claws slid hopelessly against the plastic lining. He paddled in a tight circle.

As the minutes passed he began to feel increasingly heavy. The movement in his legs was becoming uncoordinated, the kicking weaker as his muscles were stripped of their strength. Each breath was harder as his lungs burned. He could feel his body dragging him down.

***

The barn door opened just as Jeffo’s head sank below the surface. A hand grabbed the scruff of his neck, heaving him out of the water. As he was scraped over the sides of the barrel, he slipped free and fell, letting out a feeble yelp as he hit the floor. He tried to stand but his legs buckled beneath him and he collapsed onto his belly.

‘Get up,’ snarled the man.

Jeffo flinched, his ribs stinging as the toe of a boot hit him.

‘You’ll be getting worse to do than that, you spineless bastard.’

The man looked furious as he stooped to haul Jeffo onto his feet. He dragged him back to his cage and shoved him inside. Jeffo took a few faltering steps, then stood obediently as the chain was thrown roughly over his head and jerked tight around his neck. Despite the dirt and stench around him, and the weight of his tether, it was a relief to be back in the cage.

Jeffo watched as the brindle was led back into the barn. The dog panted heavily as he was caged and chained. Small clumps of matted ginger fur were stuck to his muzzle. Blood dripped from his jaws.

‘I’ll tidy up the mess next door, then, Cal. Only take a minute.’

‘Throw what’s left of it into the bushes. I’ll see you back at the car.’

Jeffo took a few steps further into the cramped space, his movement slow and unsteady on shaking legs. A metal bowl was tossed into the cage behind him and clattered against the floor, the sound making him turn sharply. He fixed his eyes on the man, who locked the padlock on the cage door and left the barn. His departure was soon followed by the sound of the car’s engine revving noisily as it drove over the gravel outside and accelerated away.

When he was sure that the men would not return, Jeffo felt safe enough to sit down. His small ears pressed back, flat against his head, and he shivered as water dripped from his sodden coat.

He slumped to the floor. His mouth was dry and he lapped at the puddled water in front of him, not minding the dirt that came with it or the sourness of its taste. Although hungry, he was too exhausted to get up and did his best to ignore the raw meat half filling the dirty metal bowl.

Jeffo gazed into the dim light. Stretching out his aching forelegs, he sought out a place to rest his chin. Gradually, his anxiety was replaced with an overwhelming tiredness. He closed his eyes and his mind drifted. As he began to doze he remembered the life he once had, the happy times shared with his family. From out of the darkness a memory of the boy came to him. He could see him smiling.

Jeffo did his utmost to hold onto the image, shutting out any thoughts of his surroundings and of the men who had mistreated him. He fell into a dream. He was running free.

The match head fizzed alight. Tom cupped the flame in his hand and lit his cigarette. He took a tentative drag, inhaling the smoke a little more deeply than he intended, the sudden burning sensation in his throat making him cough uncontrollably. The hacking produced a thick white gob which he spat as far as he could, beyond the concrete and onto the trimmed edge of the grass.

Pushing with his feet he began to rock himself back and forth on the swing. It felt like being cradled and the sensation made him think of his mother. Remembering the last time she held him made the ache inside him grow, and he tried to put any more thoughts of her out of his mind.

Each pull on the cigarette made Tom slightly more light-headed. He rested his head on his hand and looked down at his worn-out trainers, keeping his feet in focus to help the sickly feeling from getting worse. He felt like lying down.

‘White! You bloody fool! What do you think you’re playing at?’

Tom sat up with a start, turning swiftly in his seat. The chains on the swing rattled and he had to steady himself on the plastic seat. Too late, he spotted Mr. Norris pacing across the grass, coming straight for him.

Shielding what was left of the cigarette from view, he quickly dropped it, squashing and concealing the butt with the heel of his trainer.

‘Nothing, sir,’ he called back. ‘Just waiting till it’s time to go in.’

The words were carried on a fine cloud of smoke that drifted in front of him, the sight of it making his face flush a guilty red. Looking down at the ground, he turned his head to one side, speedily puffing out the last of his breath from the corner of his mouth.

‘You must think I was born yesterday,’ said Mr. Norris as he reached him. ‘Come on, lad: hand them over.’

‘Hand what over?’ Tom sputtered.

‘The cigarettes, boy. I saw you puffing away a mile off. You reek of the bloody things.’

Mr. Norris was getting angrier, his mood further rubbed the wrong way by Tom’s innocent expression. The threaded mass of tiny veins that covered his cheeks was turning an unpleasant and worrying crimson.

‘And get off that swing whilst I’m talking to you!’

Tom warily stood up and shoved a hand into his pocket. Taking a step back, he pulled out the crumpled packet of Bensons. He thought he was going to get a clip round the ear as he offered it up.

‘Smoking! At your age!’

Mr. Norris’s bellowing caused his razor-burned double chin to ripple over the tightness of his crisp, starched collar. He shook his head dramatically, the appalled look on his face making it seem as if Tom was the first puffer he had ever come across.

‘When
I
was thirteen, my father would have given me a damned fine thrashing if he caught me smoking. And I bloody well would have deserved it!’

‘I’m fourteen.’

‘You’re a slovenly waste of good space.’

Mr. Norris angrily snatched the cigarettes and stuffed them into his jacket pocket. His mean-spirited eyes rolled disapprovingly over Tom’s scruffy figure as he looked him up and down.

‘Get yourself tidied up, lad,’ he ordered. ‘And pick up that bike. You can walk in with me. See if we can’t keep you out of any more trouble for the next ten minutes. And count yourself lucky it’s the last day of term, otherwise you’d have been up in front of Mrs. Jenkins.’

Tom reluctantly stuffed the ends of his shirt into his trousers and straightened his loosely hanging tie. Having brushed a length of dark, uncombed fringe away from his face, he picked up his jacket and lifted the bike onto its wheels. With Mr. Norris as an unwelcome chaperon, he walked out of the park.

Despite the earliness of the morning, the sun was bright and warm, the sky milky blue and nearly cloudless.

‘It’s going to be hot again,’ stated Mr. Norris, the abruptness of his tone suggesting it was not a matter he wished to discuss further.

Tom glanced up at his teacher. The man was probably only in his mid-forties, but the weight he carried, and the fine grey hair that circled his ears and ran around the back of his bald head made him seem older. And then there was that dark warty thing that drooped over his right eyebrow. The sight of it, and the thought of Mr. Norris’s nickname nearly made Tom giggle. Ignoring the sound of the traffic as they turned onto the busy school road, he amused himself with thoughts of what it would be like to slice the growth off with his knife, or stick it with the tip of a sharpened pencil.

Groups of noisy kids loitered outside the gates. Their excited chatter was interrupted as Mr. Norris approached with Tom self-consciously in tow. On seeing the teacher striding up the road towards them, most began to make their way in.

The rush of excitement Tom felt when he noticed Alison up ahead was quickly tempered. Chris was with her, casually propped up against one of the gateposts, all crew-cut hair and crowded teeth as he mouthed off at the back of the group. The red hoody he wore was zipped tight, hiding his uniform from view. Fraser was there too.

Tom lowered his head as he and Mr. Norris walked on towards the gates, hoping he might not be noticed. Being dragged in by one of the teachers would only give Chris an excuse to have a go, start picking. Tom wondered how long it would take for the name-calling to start, how long before some petty threat was made and carried out.

As he neared them, Alison turned and looked directly at him. Tom’s heart began to pound and he blushed, the same reaction he had whenever he caught sight of her. Ignoring the churning in the pit of his stomach, he forced himself to smile. To his surprise she smiled back, as much with the warmth in her stunning blue eyes as with her mouth. She seductively held him in her view for a moment, combing a hand through a length of her blond hair before turning back to her friends. Tom felt as if the air had been sucked out of him.

‘Right, you bunch of malingerers,’ Mr. Norris snapped. ‘On your way. Look lively.’

The remaining clusters of boys and girls grudgingly took notice, picking up the assortment of bags and satchels at their feet with a distinct lack of urgency. Lazily they began to filter through the gates, muttering as they went. Mr. Norris followed, all arms as he shooed them towards the main entrance, like a farmer bringing in his cows.

Tom turned his bike in the direction of the bike shed, happy to finally put some distance between himself and the teacher. As he did so, Chris split away from the others and stepped out in front of him, blocking his path.

‘Nipple won’t be around to hold your hand all day, dickhead.’

‘Wanker,’ said Tom dismissively, not bothering to look up as he tried to manoeuvre his way past.

‘You’ve fucking had it, bitch,’ snarled Chris.

Grabbing the handlebars, he wrestled the bike away from Tom and threw it to the ground. The clatter was met with whoops of laughter and clapping from the pupils as they sauntered into the school block; the same kind of noise that would erupt when a stack of plates was smashed in the canteen.

‘You’re beginning to annoy me, White,’ shouted Mr. Norris, lumbering over to see what was going on as Chris slipped away. He stood over Tom as he picked up his bike. ‘What’s the matter with you, boy? Only ever happy when you’re causing trouble? Well, life’ll be the learning of you, make no mistake.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Now, get that bike parked. And make sure you’re not late for assembly. I’ll be watching for you. Step on it.’

Mr. Norris turned and walked away, taking out a handkerchief from the top pocket of his brown corduroy jacket. He dabbed the perspiration from his forehead as he ushered in the last of the stragglers.

‘Stupid fat bender,’ whispered Tom once Mr. Norris was safely out of earshot, throwing an underhand ‘V’ at the doors as they swung shut behind the teacher. He stood for a disobedient moment before idling his way towards the bike shed on the other side of the playground.

Lined with bikes, the shed was almost full. It was warm under the transparent corrugated roofing and the air was filled with the smell of damp, rotten wood and tyre rubber. Tom could feel the moisture clinging to his shirt. Having found a free tyre-grip to squeeze his bike into, he placed his jacket over the handlebars, then took a padlock and chain from his saddlebag. Kneeling down, he fed the chain through the spokes of the front wheel, rolling it round until he reached the lock. He was too busy fiddling with the combination to notice the boys enter behind him, and before he could react to the sound of their quickening footsteps, he felt a sharp kick at the base of his back. It sent him sprawling across the floor. Gathering himself up, he looked over his shoulder to see Chris’s close-set eyes staring wildly back at him. The bully’s face was contorted, a single deep line creased into the slab of his forehead.

‘No-one calls me a wanker.’

Tom stood up, wiping his hands on his trousers. Moving squarely forward, he closed the gap between them, the look in his eyes defiant as he stared up at Chris. No-one was going to give him shit. Not today.

‘But you
are
a wanker.’

Chris seemed momentarily confused by Tom’s response. Most of the other kids would crumble the minute he confronted them. He took a step back, his hands curling into fists.

Tom pulled up his shirt sleeves, readying himself. As the cuff dragged over the skin of his left forearm, he felt a stinging sensation. The pain helped to pump some more adrenalin into him. His brown eyes seemed to darken as they narrowed and glared at the bigger boy in front of him.

‘Fucking hell,’ said Fraser, his eyebrows lifting sharply as his bottom lip dropped, a shocked expression on his acned face. ‘Look at those.’

He gawped at the raised welts and scars on Tom’s arm, horrified yet intrigued by the blood that started to seep from the most recent cut. He let out a nervous laugh as he spoke.

‘What you done that for?’

‘Done what?’ answered Tom aggressively, not taking his eyes off Chris.

‘He’s a fucking loony, that’s why he’s done it.’ Chris’s face was a picture of mock revulsion. He  laughed. ‘No wonder his mum topped herself.’

Without warning, Tom rushed forward, throwing a powerful punch that just missed Chris’s chin and caught him on the throat. Chris reeled backwards, instinctively grabbing at his neck with both hands, gagging as he stumbled. Tom was instantly on him, beating him to the floor with a flurry of punches.

‘Bastard!’

Tom spat out the word as if it were poison in his mouth, repeating it as each punch landed, his attack frenzied. Lost in the moment, he vented his anger and pain.

And then as suddenly as he started, Tom stopped. He withdrew, gasping for breath, fighting to hold back the tears as he looked down at Chris, pathetic and beaten at his feet. An unexpected feeling of remorse broke over him and he felt ashamed for having lost control so easily, angry for having given too much of himself away. For letting them see. He quickly pulled his shirt sleeves down and hid his arms, hoping they wouldn’t tell anyone.

‘I’m … I’m sorry.’

‘You fucking well will be,’ wheezed Chris, wiping a drip of blood from his mouth.

Tom unchained his bike and threw on his jacket. All he wanted to do was get away. As far away from them all as he could.

He turned his bike around and wheeled it to the shed doors, glancing back at Fraser helping Chris up off the floor. Taking a second to look out onto the playground, he made sure the coast was clear. A rush of blood and he was away, cycling back out of the school gates as fast as he could.

***

By the time he reached the isolated clearing near the top of the hills, Tom was sweating, his shirt clinging to his back. The last part of the climb had been hard, and his lungs were burning and tight in his chest. Slowing to a stop, he took a moment to catch some breath before dismounting his bike, laying it down beside him. He took off his jacket and threw it down onto the grass. His hand pushed the sweat from his forehead into the tangles of his thick, dark hair as he sat down and stretched out his legs.

The damp grass sparkled, the refracted sunlight making the hill look silvery as it rolled down and away from him. It didn’t take long for a cool, refreshing damp patch to seep through the back of his trousers. He raised his knees and rested his head between them, listening to the pump of blood rushing in his ears as his heart gradually slowed to a less intense rhythm.

He bit the inside of his mouth as he looked over the town spread out below him, taking in the mess of red and grey brickwork scorched into the green of the surrounding hills. He hated it all: the town, the house, the school. They should never have come. His dad had said it was what they needed, promised it was going to be a fresh start. But Tom didn’t need, or want, any of it. His dad had lied. They had run away. They were still running.

He picked out the school, set back in the distance from the sprawl of the town. The C-shaped arrangement of prefabricated buildings looked so insignificant, made miniature and unreal by his elevated position. He closed his left eye slowly and centred his view on the flat-roofed classrooms and empty playing field, picturing the vacant space filled with teachers and kids. He took aim with his finger and from his sniper’s view fired a couple of warning shots into the imaginary crowd, happy to cause an immediate panic that sent them all scurrying for cover.

Tom lay back on the grass and looked up at the morning sky. It felt good to be alone. No-one shouting. No-one getting at him. He grabbed at the grass either side of him, the blades bending then breaking in his hands as he pulled the wet tufts from the ground. As the warmth of the sunshine dried the grass around him, he imagined Alison lying beside him, indulging himself in his usual fantasy: their hands and lips touching for the first time.

***

The sound of swallows overhead made Tom sit up. He tracked them as they flew down towards the rooftops below, amazed at their speed and agility as they swooped expertly through the air, envying their freedom as they disappeared into the distance.

Figuring his dad would be asleep, Tom wrapped his jacket around his waist and picked up his bike. Pushing it into motion with his foot, he jumped on. The handlebars rattled and shook wildly in his hands as he traversed the steeper part of the hill and picked up more and more speed. He raced his way through the jumble of trees and gaps in the bushes that made up the trail, slowing down only when he came to the footpath with its potholes and loose stones.

BOOK: Underdog
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