Mason awoke in the middle of the night with a burning pain searing through his cheek. He expected to open his eyes and find Mr Porter standing above him with a scalding hot spatula pressed to his cheek. However the pain was just the result of Mason rolling onto his left cheek and reawakening the pain that was just hiding beneath the surface.
Mason hadn’t been in a good shape after the attack. He had struggled to get to sleep because of the aching pain in his back and the burning in his cheek. His nose was causing him slight discomfort but, as it turned out, was the least of his injuries. Mr Porter had only just caught his nose with his fist and so his cheek absorbed most of the impact.
He tiptoed out of bed, making sure not to wake up Sam, and downstairs to the first floor bathroom. When he looked at himself in the mirror he could see his cheek was a very dark purple, almost bordering on black. He hesitantly raised his hand to his cheek and touched it. The skin was warm to touch and reminded Mason of checking people for fevers on the farm. The skin was taught and stretched more it regularly was and it gave the purple hue a slight shine to it. He put this down to the swelling because Mr Porter had definitely struck him hard enough to cause swelling. Mason thought himself lucky for his upbringing. He had seen bruises before, where the animals had kicked or headbutted someone while they tried to herd them, and knew that you couldn’t do anything other than wait for it to go down. He had to alleviate the heat somehow though, just because it was becoming too unbearable to get back to sleep.
After splashing cold water onto his face, hoping not to wake anyone else in the house for fear of being caught using that bathroom, he noticed the swelling or the temperature still hadn’t decreased. He decided, at this point, that he would need some ice for it. Figuring everyone else was asleep, Mason could spend an hour or so with an ice pack on his cheek and then creep back up to bed and no one would know any different. Apparently the Porter’s didn’t care if an Underclassman was in pain because it was their fault anyway. Sam had told him this, reminding him of the burns and scars up the inside of his arm.
“They won’t let you put anything on it. If you spend time tending to it then it’s time you’re not tending to them.” It had been how Sam had explained it when Mason asked if the family had any cream he could use to reduce the ache. But Mason figured what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. He did reconsider this momentarily as he stood half way down the stairs, after realising the last time he took this idea became the cause of the pain itself. He knew that if Mr Porter caught him rubbing some of their medication on his injuries then he would just inflict worse injuries and Mason would have to deal with them.
But, Mason thought to himself, this was his life now. Every time he messed up he was going to have a punishment. Sam had told him how they weren’t all that bad and that Mr Porter had probably just been in a bad mood. But Mason knew different, Mason knew that Mr Porter was angry because he hadn’t messed up at all that first day. He could imagine the blood boiling inside Mr Porter whenever Sam helped Mason out of trouble, every time Mason was seconds away from putting his foot in it and Sam would step in the way. This would be his life now, at least while Sam was kept around. Mr Porter would expect him to mess up and then, when he didn’t, he would get angry because of it. This would result in any punishment for Mason being more severe than was usual. Even Sam had commented that Mr Porter did not normally lash out so viciously, or at least he hadn’t towards him. But then again Sam had obeyed all the rules as best as he could while Mason, on the first day of his employment, was caught socialising with normal people and eating food that normal people would eat. Sam would never have done that.
As Mason reached the bottom of the stairs, still enjoying the warm laminated wooden floor underneath his feet, he saw a light on in the kitchen. A light on, as Mason had learned, did not necessarily suggest someone was in the room. As with most house in Liberty, the Porter’s were not worried about electricity and so frequently forgot or just refused to turn lights off when they left rooms. This made it difficult for Mason to do anything he wasn’t supposed to do because he could never tell if someone was in the next room or had just left the light on and walked out.
He stood by the kitchen door for a few seconds, listening out for any sounds that may suggest someone is inside. He could rule out Sam, although he wouldn’t have had to worry if it were Sam because he had no power over him. He couldn’t rule out anyone else though. The rest of the family had their bedroom doors shut and so Mason was unaware as to whether they were actually inside them or not. Weighing up the options, the pain in his cheek against the possibility of someone being in there, Mason pushed the door open slowly.
He hoped if someone was in there then he could see them before they saw him and quickly close the door and hurry back upstairs. As he pushed the door ajar he couldn’t see anyone. No one was moving around at least. As the door gently opened further Mason took a step inside, already deciding in his mind that it was a safe place to go.
No one would have expected, on that night, for the bright white kitchen to be stained with red. Unless of course it was Mason’s blood. But it couldn’t have been Mason’s blood because he was the person who found the kitchen in such a state.
The pristine white floors that usually reflected the lights were patterned with trails of blood and gentle drips from the kitchen table. Small rivers of crimson traced their way to the edges of the room and then ran along the joint where the cupboards met the floor. The stainless steel pole that held the table up was laced with blood that travelled around the circular object in a helter-skelter like decoration. And slumped on the kitchen table, causing such sinister décor, was Mr Porter.
His usually paunchy body looked even more bloated and grotesque as it was doubled over and resting on, what was once, such a clean looking surface. His salt and pepper hair was now dyed red with his own blood and the left side of his face was also covered where it lay in a pool on the table. The newspapers Mr Porter loved so much had begun to clump into huge ruby globs underneath his chest. The cause for all of this was clear: a large knife dug directly into Mr Porter’s swollen back.
Mason’s face dropped any colour and was washed over white. He had woken up to chickens being slaughtered before but this was a persons life. With animals it was different, they did it to survive. The only person fearing death at the hands of Mr Porter would have been Mason and he knew he didn’t bury the knife into the man’s back. He had wanted to. The thought crossed his mind momentarily and he felt, for a brief second, like karma had played a part in this. A couple of hours ago Mr Porter had beaten Mason so hard wanting to see him bleed, and now he was face down in a pool of his own blood. But Mason didn’t hold onto those thoughts for too long fearing they would twist his mind into actually enjoying the scene in front of him.
He couldn’t enjoy the scene, no matter who it was. It flashed him back to a few days before when Mr Bundy had been beaten by The Colls. They had enjoyed it, seeing his blood run from his head, but it had turned Mason’s stomach and he had to get away from it for his brother’s sake. That’s who brought him to realise that, no matter what kind of person Mr Porter was, he did not deserve to be run through with a knife on his own kitchen table. And Mason had no right to wish it upon a person either.
“What the hell happened here!?” It would have been incriminating had anyone been caught there but Mason was stood next to the corpse. Luckily, as Mason turned to see who had entered, he only saw Sam. Had it been Mrs Porter, or even Tallulah, then he wouldn’t have bothered trying to explain what had happened.
“I don’t know…” Mason moved around to where Mr Porter’s head was and knelt down to see if there was any life in his eyes. He had seen it a few times with animals that they may still have life in their eyes. But Mr Porter’s eyes were washed of any sort of life and the colour seemed to be draining too. “I came down for some ice…”
“Did you…?” Sam approached the body of his owner and placed his fingers on Mr Porter’s neck to check for a pulse.
“He’s dead. And cold.” Sam quickly brought his hands away, knowing what the police would be looking for when they found the body. Any fingerprints, other than those checking for a pulse, would be put down as suspects. Sam couldn’t have himself as a suspect. “What did you do?”
“Nothing!” They both kept their voices to whispers, knowing that the rest of the family was still asleep in the bedrooms just a single floor above them. “I came down for some ice and he was here, like this.” The pain in Mason’s cheek had disappeared, or at least been replaced by the racing in his heart. His body could only cope with one thing going on and had decided the dead person in front of them should take priority and so had put the entire body to work providing Mason with adrenaline and making his heard beat a thousand times faster than normal. “What do we do?”
“We?” Sam backed away like he was going to pretend he was never there. He thought about it for a second, it could work, but then he saw Mason standing on the other side of the table scared for his life. “We can’t do anything.” Sam was not an expert on this, in fact he had never dealt with a murder in his fifty years of service to the family. The only dead bodies he had to deal with were those who had died naturally of old age. Naturally the first thing Sam would have done, had Mr Porter died under normal circumstances, would be to call the police or an ambulance to get it seen by professionals.
“Should we do that then? Call the police?” Mason reached for the phone and Sam immediately snatched it back before he could even think about pushing any of the numbers.
“We can’t call the police!”
“Why? Someone’s been murdered, isn’t that their job?” Sam put the phone back on the counter and took Mason across to the other side of the room. He wanted to be as far away from the body as possible without just leaving it and washing his hands of it. He couldn’t wash his hands of it, neither could Mason. As soon as they had walked through the kitchen door they had put themselves right into the middle of it.
“You can’t call the police because you’ll be arrested.”
“But I didn’t do it!”
“You think they care about that?” Mason, still being fairly knew to Liberty and the Underclassman rules, hadn’t worked the scene out yet. “You’re the new one here. You broke the rules last night. You got a rough punishment last night. The police are going to look to someone who would want revenge, someone who would want to see Mr Porter dead.”
“But I didn’t want him dead. Well…I did for a second but I wouldn’t actually kill him. I couldn’t.” Sam shook his head and glanced back over at the body. Mason was sweating now and his temperature had dropped. If he were still on the farm this would have been considered a fever and he would have had suggested bed rest until it cleared up. But this wasn’t the farm, this was just panic, nerves, and fear. “What should I do?”
“There’s nothing you can do.” Sam paused for a second, the only possibility crossing his mind seemed like an absurd one. He couldn’t suggest for Mason to do it, he was just a kid and new to the town. “Except run.” After searching his brain, going back over every minutely related experience he could conjure up in his mind, the only suggestion he could make would be to run.
“I can’t run! Won’t that make me more guilty?”
“There’s no such thing as innocence for an Underclassman. If you stay here then they will arrest you and you’ll be sentenced to death by the end of the week. The only chance you’ve got is to get as far away as possible. If an Underclassman is present then they are guilty.” Sam crossed over to the door and opened it, physically reinforcing what he had just told Mason.
“What about you? Won’t you get arrested?”
“No. Everyone knows you were an Underclassman here. Even if you’re not here when the police arrive, they will still think you did it.” Mason looked between Sam and the doorway. It was like choosing two different worlds.
On one hand he had the world of freedom, of openness and being able to get as far away as possible before anyone showed up. That, to most people, would be the best idea. But the other world was Sam. If he walked out the doorway then he would leave Sam at the house to clear up the mess and he would have to explain it to everyone. But staying with Sam meant he would be dead by the end of the week
“Where can I go?” Mason knew that this would have been what Sam would have faced once he had taught Mason everything about being an Underclassman. It had never crossed Mason’s mind that he was going to have to leave so shortly after arriving.
“Just stick to alleyways. I can’t help you more than that.” Sam glanced over at the clock and, although the family wouldn’t be up for another few hours, he began to get worried. Any neighbours that happened to be awake would wonder why the door was left open and would raise the question to Mrs Porter. “You’ve got to go now, I’ve got to tell Mrs Porter what has happened.” Panic spread across Mason’s face.
“Why? I thought we were friends!” Mason was still stood in the doorway, glancing now between the open door, Sam, and the dead body of Mr Porter. His mind was still telling him he could talk his way out of it. If the police showed up he was still convinced that he could explain the situation to them and the whole thing would be understood and the person who actually did it would be caught.
“Whatever you thought of Mr Porter, neither of us wants Tallulah coming down here and finding this.” Sam made sense. Although Tallulah rarely ever wandered around on her own, Mason had tested it too much last night. He had the same thoughts when eating the food and then that had blown up in his face leaving him bruised and aching. But Sam did have a point.
His thoughts turned to Thomas, who was probably about Tallulah’s age, and how he cleared up the chickens so that he didn’t have to see that. They were just chickens as well. Thomas understood chickens died to feed them but Mason still covered it up to make sure he wasn’t subjected to it. There was a difference though, between seeing a family member die of natural causes – like their father had done – and seeing them brutally murdered on your kitchen table. He did understand where Sam was coming from.
“I can give you some time. If you go now then I can wait and tell her in an hour or so.” Mason didn’t want to. He didn’t want to go and, when he felt the tears sting the back of his eyes, he didn’t want to run. But this wasn’t about what he wanted to do, nothing was ever about what Mason wanted to do. Everything was about what Mason had to do. He couldn’t hang around and sweet talk his way out of it because it wouldn’t go down the way he hoped.
“Thank you.” Mason bit back the tears that threatened to fall and gave Sam a hug. It took Sam by surprise but it wasn’t unwelcome. He didn’t hug back but that was because he knew what he had to do. When Mason was gone, Sam would have to go upstairs and explain to Mrs Porter that her husband had been murdered and Mason had run away. Every bone in his body felt like he would basically be telling Mrs Porter that Mason murdered her husband, when there was no proof to suggest that.
Mason heard the door clang shut behind him as he disappeared into the back garden.
He had never been in the garden and could only work by the glow of the light from the kitchen window. A couple of times he stumbled over ornaments or balls that were just left strewn around the garden. Mason managed to reach the back fence and realised it was too high for him to climb. He spied a large tree in the corner of the garden where the branches grew higher than the fence. He made a dash for the tree and pulled himself up onto the first fork where the tree split into two. From there he climbed a few more branches and thanked his father for owning a farm where he had built up strength in his arms carrying hay bales. He could still feel the burn in his shoulders every time he pulled himself up, but he couldn’t let this deter him.
It would have been easier if Mason could have gone out of the front door but there were too many eyes watching. You never knew if the people over the road were actually asleep or were booking their next topiary design because someone else just had one installed. So Mason dangled the other side of the gate and let go, feeling his feet connect harshly with the concrete floor beneath. It sent a sharp pain up his back and Mason cursed himself for not grabbing a handful of painkillers before he left. But he was still in a better position than Mr Porter. At least painkillers would have helped Mason, poor Mr Porter was beyond help now.
Mason ran until his legs began to burn. He took Sam’s advice and stuck only to alleyways where possible. Occasionally he would have to cross a main road but would make sure to check no one was around before running straight across it and ducking into another alleyway. The alleys in Liberty were not glamorous. As Mason ducked behind a large bin, he realised then why he had to stick to the alleyways. The people of Liberty were not going to go walking down paths where the rubbish was kept. In Mason’s mind he was essentially free if he could keep to alleyways. No one would find him and he could slowly make it closer to the border every night until he found a way to get out of Liberty and then get back to the farm. A flash of light passed at one end of the alleyway and Mason knew, judging by the three or four that followed, that it was a busy road ahead. If he kept his plan in mind then Mason could stay down for the night and just wait for the road to become clear enough to cross. Finding a large rubbish bin, Mason slid himself down onto the floor next to it.
He had risen so far, moving from Ashdale to Liberty and travelling on trains and in cars, but had fallen so much further. He had been an owner of a farm a few days ago and now he was huddled against a rubbish bin trying not to be seen. He was thankful that the temperature in Liberty was controlled and never reached the bitterly cold chills of Ashdale. If the temperature had dropped any lower then Mason would have had to look for shelter, but as it was he knew he had worked it worse conditions. He pulled a cardboard box in front of him, more for protection from passing eyes than from the weather. No one really passed by, but every time Mason wanted to move he would be stopped by a sudden noise of a dog barking or a car in the distance. Sometimes he would huddle down further when he heard people in their gardens nearby. No one was going to look over the fence and beside a rubbish bin but it made him feel safer to do it.
Mason nearly drifted off to sleep once or twice but had to wake himself whenever he did. He thought this was easy because he was used to staying alert and waking up on time to tend to the farm, but it proved harder than he anticipated.
He woke to the sounds of voices as the sun was beginning to rise. Immediately he panicked and pulled his cardboard up to cover his face. He pulled himself tightly into a ball and made sure his feet couldn’t be seen sticking out underneath the cardboard. The tight shape hurt his back and he wanted to moan in pain, but he knew he couldn’t do that. He bit his lip and grit his teeth, trying not to then focus on the pain that brought to his still purple cheek. The pain in his cheek had gone down significantly as he had run but that was still due to his body knowing there were more important things going on. When the voices stopped Mason pulled the cardboard down from his face, just to make sure he was still alone.
The street in front of him was bathed with a dark orange glow as the sun was beginning to wake up. Mason decided he should get comfortable because he’s not going to be able to go anywhere for the day. It would be a whole day of ducking behind cardboard and holding his breath so people didn’t hear him.
“Not very effective cover.” Mason’s eyes grew wide and his head snapped around in every direction trying to find where the voice came from. Eventually he saw it: above him.
Sat on the edge of the rubbish bin was Xavier. His blonde hair was covered by a red bandana and he looked as casual as the last times they had met.
Mason scrambled to his feet and was about to run when Xavier smiled, shook his head and jumped down from the lid of the bin.
“Calm down, why are you so shook up?”
“How did you find me?” Mason suddenly knew the choices a body has to make between fight or flight. On one hand he could stand his ground and give his case, but on the other hand he could run as fast as he wanted in the other direction and probably outrun Xavier.
“Tell me what happened.” Mason wasn’t sure, because he had only seen the look a couple of times, but he thought Xavier looked genuinely concerned for him.
“At home. Mr Porter was murdered. Stabbed in the back.” Mason wondered what Xavier’s reaction would be. Most people would immediately assume that Mason did it and they would go to the police. All that happened was Xavier put an arm around Mason and asked if he was okay. “I had to run. They’re going to think it was me.” He could feel Xavier next to him nodding. No one could dispute the idea because an Underclassman was an easy blame. No one would feel any sort of remorse for getting an Underclassman arrested or killed so they would always be found guilty.
“Okay. You’re going to need somewhere to stay. I know a safe house not far from here, it’s in the business sector which shouldn’t take long to get to.” Xavier reached into his jeans and pulled out a small piece of paper. He placed it firmly into Mason’s hand and looked him directly in the eyes.
Mason could see those jade orbs looking directly into his and felt, only for a second, like nothing could go wrong.
“You’re going to be okay as long as you can get to this address.”
“You’ve got to trust me. If the police find you out here then you’re going to be arrested, found guilty and sentenced to death. I’m not going to let that happen.” Mason wanted to ask why. Anyone in the same situation would have stopped and asked for an explanation as to why Xavier was helping him. But Mason didn’t have the time. He saw the sun light the pavements and the dark orange was turning into a healthy daytime glow. This would usually be the time the children woke up on the farms, despite their parents or siblings having already been awake for hours.
Mason took the note and ran. But he didn’t get far: Xavier hadn’t let go of his arm.
“You can’t go anywhere yet.” Xavier took Mason’s left hand and raised it up. They both saw it immediately. It was a tiny little pinprick in the back of Mason’s left hand. They both knew what it was for. The tracker.
“They’re going to find me.” Beads of sweat began to roll down Mason’s forehead when he realised his hiding for the entire night had been futile. Did that mean Mrs Porter didn’t know yet? Surely if she had found out then she would have called the government to have his tracker located. Either she hadn’t found out yet or she hadn’t thought about it. Mason didn’t want to consider either opportunity for too long.
“I can sort it out, but you’ve got to trust me.” Mason nodded and Xavier led him over to the bin. He placed Mason’s hand face down on lid of the bin and reached down to his leg. He rolled up the left leg of his jeans and pulled out a small knife. It wasn’t a knife more suited to gutting food that hunters caught more than anything else. Mason knew his hand was about to become an animal that had fallen into a trap.
“Just do it.” Mason spoke the words through gritted teeth and had to bite down on his sleeve when Xavier first dug the knife inside.
Mason could feel the knife clipping up against the side of his bone every now and again. There wasn’t anyone around who would have been experienced enough to have done it painlessly. This was a surgery that never had to be performed. Underclassman either had their trackers or they were dead. No owner would ever consent to the removal of a tracker because it would give up the power they had.
The knife dug in deeper than Mason had been expecting. He tried not to move any of his fingers, trying to make the process easier for Xavier who didn’t seem to be panicking at all. The knife flicked back and forth slowly as Xavier tried to hook the point of the blade underneath the tracker. Mason felt Xavier angle the knife which, had it not been caught on something, would have just flicked out the top of his hand and ripped all the skin with it. So far the only damage done was the pain he was feeling and a slice in the back of his hand. Eventually Mason felt the knife loosen itself from whatever it was caught on. Either Xavier had just unhooked the tracker from his hand or he had just dislodged a piece of bone in Mason’s left hand. Xavier pulled the knife out and there was no tracker in it.
“Is it done?”
“Not yet.” Xavier didn’t bother to explain what he was doing and simply slid the blade across the back of Mason’s hand and made the original cut longer. This mark was a shallower than the original one but this time Xavier didn’t have to dig the knife in at all.
Xavier told Mason to remain perfectly still and placed both hands either side of where he had made the incision. He pulled the cut open and Mason could feel the air getting inside and it felt like it was poisoning him. He hadn’t considered how sensitive the inside of his hand was going to be. The stretching felt like it was going to tear a huge line all the way down his hand and carry up his arm. The pressure increased when Xavier reached a finger and thumb inside the cut and quickly pulled at something.
It felt like hours but was, in reality, only a couple of minutes. Xavier stood in front of Mason with a tiny little tracker that looked exactly like a computer chip. The tracker and Mason’s hand were both dripping blood over the floor and Xavier, with his less bloodied hand, took a bandage out of his pocket.
“Try to avoid using it as much as possible for now. I’ll get someone to sort you out when we get to location.” He wrapped the bandage around Mason’s hand a couple of times. The first few wraps were just stained crimson and it reminded Mason of the blood on the clean white kitchen floor. The bleeding was soon contained and the outer layer of the bandage stayed clean. “No one can track you now. They’ll be following me and it will give you enough time to get to the address.”
“You’re not coming?”
“I’ll meet you there.” Mason wanted to do something to show Xavier he appreciated it. He had just bought him considerably more time on the run than he had before. But he couldn’t think of anything in time and soon Xavier was already back on top of the now bloodied rubbish bin. “When you get there, tell them I sent you.” They were his parting words before he vaulted over a neighbouring fence and disappeared from view, still holding the bloodied tracker chip in his hand.
Mason unfolded the piece of paper in his hand and read the address on it.
85 Lammas Street.