My stepson Joe is like my husband Warrick in so many ways, both in looks, mannerisms and personality. Joe’s a little taller, but otherwise, I sometimes scare myself when I almost fling my arms around Joe instead of Rick. I feel like I know my stepson as well as I know Rick so there’s a definite possibility something is wrong.
One of the things Joe and Rick share is the uncanny ability to seem unthreatening and it’s something which makes them both popular guys. Don’t get me wrong – my husband, a former police detective, could no doubt kill a man with his bare hands if pushed – but he wouldn’t, and he doesn’t appear capable of that, either. They’re my boys – well, just two of my boys actually, because I have twin boys as well – and yes, I know my boys. So, yes, my life is pretty much a big whole lot of boydom.
Anyway, it’s the shared floppy hair, you see. Since Joe shelved his football career he grew out the crew cut and now he wears his curls even longer than his dad’s. People see Joe coming a mile off. Six-two. Wide shoulders. Big, brown eyes. The widest smile you’ve ever seen. Dimples. God, those dimples. Some girl is going to fall flat on her face right in front of him one of these days.
I have to sigh.
Unfortunately the twins are looking more and more like me every day. They’ll be fairer, probably moodier (like me) and I think Charlie might be a dancer, like me, too. He prances. I never thought a toddler would prance. But he does. He bounces over any obstacle you put in front of him. So… maybe he’s meant for hurdling, not dancing. I don’t know.
Anyway. I am obviously rattling around my own head here because I am worried about Joe, my popular six-foot, sixteen year old who recently started acting different. I can’t put my finger on it. But he’s different.
I don’t like different.
Different usually means not good… or something big’s going on. I know Joe all too well, like I know Warrick, remember?
We’re all sat around the dinner table and I don’t even give a monkeys that Charlie and Harry have most of their food in their eyes. I’m watching Joe.
“Dinner okay?” I ask generally.
Rick, with his curls tied back in a low ponytail, looks up at me from beneath tired eyes. He’s still wearing his football shorts and shirt, having just played five-a-side after a day at the community centre he runs.
“It’s great, Jules,” he says, his eyes going side to side, like he’s picked up on something about my tone – and recognises I’m acting sketchy. “Your sausage and mash is the best. I’ll shower as soon as I’m done. Sorry if I stink.”
His nose wrinkles and he knows too. He bloody knows. Why won’t he address this? What the fuck is going on under my roof?
Rage simmers beneath my skin and I have to remember, my rage is not a good thing. It’s not a good thing. Get a grip Jules.
Joe is shovelling his food with his head down which he never does. He at least sometimes tries to muck about with his brothers or he might tell us about his day. He’d normally come out with some joke or recant a daft tale of teenage love gone wrong. A little bit of goss about one of my colleagues, perhaps… (I teach at the same school Joe’s at, you see.)
“Everything alright, Joe?”
He looks up and I think I almost see him shaking. He stares past me and flushes slightly. All I get is a slight nod of the head, then he looks down into his food.
The shovelling recommences and within seconds, he’s eaten a couple of sausages in just a few bites. I look at Rick who tells me with his eyes that his son will have indigestion later on.
Joe jumps up from his seat and lightning-fast, puts his empty plate in the dishwasher, grabs a yoghurt from the fridge and chases upstairs away from us – or rather me, the questioning stepmother.
Charlie and Harry are oblivious, trying to drop bits of broccoli on the floor so they won’t have to eat it. The gravy, they suck from their spoons, and the mash appears to have been used as a hairstyling product.
“Something has got into that kid, Rick.”
He sits, fork paused over his food, waiting for me to say something more. He pulls a bit of sausage skin from between his teeth and gives me the ‘it’s probably a man thing’ look.
“I won’t leave it,” I warn.
“I trust him. He’ll sort it out himself.”
“I trust him, too. It’s everyone else I don’t trust.”
“Jules, you can’t just…” He pauses, sighing, delivering me those soft, pleading eyes of his I cannot resist. “…he’s a lad and he’s almost a man. Shit’s gonna happen. Sometimes you have got to let him get on with it.”
I almost throw down my cutlery but think better of it. Charlie and Harry are finally putting sausage in their mouths and if they only have sausage, at least they’re having something. I will not distract them from eating solid foods. So I turn myself away from the twins who are sitting either side of me, alongside one another in their highchairs, and put my hand up against my face to shield them from my fury.
“There is something fucking wrong,” I mutter, or rather, try to mutter.
Rick gives me a soothing smile, one side of his mouth turned up ever so slightly.
“Jules, he’ll tell us when he’s ready.”
“Yeah, like he was gonna tell us about having underage sex. Until I caught him!”
Shaking his head, he puts his fork down, his appetite diminished now too. “Jules, please.”
“I know we are through with all that and he knows better about all that now, you know? But as you well know Rick, my instincts have proven very powerful in the past.”
“Let’s just give him a bit of time to fess up and if he doesn’t, okay… we’ll start probing him. Right now, he might just need some time before he tells us what’s wrong. It could be something as simple as heartbreak or a bad test. It’s not been easy for him this year. Going from GCSEs to A levels is a massive jump.”
I scowl. “He got seven A stars and four A’s at GCSE, are you fucking kidding me?” I just mouthed the fucking.
Rick goes silent, which he knows I hate. Help me vent the rage – or go silent and enrage it. He just doesn’t want me to go off on one about this.
“Rick,” I say between almost clenched teeth, “he’s one of the most popular boys in school and he’s not himself. This isn’t him. He’s normally full of life. He’s normally the one waking me up in the morning. He’s been late for his paper round almost every day for the past two weeks. I’ve had to answer the madwoman at the paper shop when she calls every morning.”
“Hey Jules, people have bad times in life,” he says, reaching across the table to use the twins’ bibs to mop their chops slightly.
“Don’t divert, Rick. You know something’s wrong.”
He turns his deep brown, almost black, eyes onto mine and gives me a deadly serious look. “I acknowledge that. The thing is, we still need to give him time.”
Fuming, I toss what’s left of my half-eaten dinner in the bin and leave the room, heading upstairs for the study. I have a ton of books to mark and they might be the only thing that will take my mind off this.
Rick crawls into bed with me at about eleven, freshly showered, his hair slightly damp. After bathing and reading the twins their bedtime story, he got called out to an incident at the community centre, where a real fight broke out during one of the evening’s mixed martial arts classes. Something about a man and his girlfriend’s ex having fisticuffs. He’s only just had chance for that shower and looks exhausted.
Out of the corner of my eye, I sense him look across at me. I’m reading a book by the light of my bedside lamp.
“Have you calmed down a bit?”
“But you won’t let it go?”
“Well, I never expected you would. That’s not you.”
I look across at him, beyond weary, his eyes full of love. I toss my book onto the nightstand and switch off the lamp. Shifting across to his side, I roll into him, resting my cheek on his chest. All my worries and fears fade away the moment I’m in his arms.
“I love you, baby,” he whispers.
“I love you, so much.”
Sleep finds us too easily.
“So he finally acknowledged something is wrong, but he didn’t suggest you should do anything about it?” My colleague Ruby is stood with me in the English office the morning after, scanning me for telltale signs of rage.
“He flat out said we should leave it until Joe is ready to tell us what’s going on.”
“Oh dear.” She reads my exasperation. “Listen… Jules. Joe is his son.”
I flash her my eyes. Has she forgotten about the things Joe and me have been through together? He’s as much my son as my twins are. I care about Joe just the same.
“Ruby.” I turn myself fully towards her, putting my cup of tea on the worktop, my hands free to make sweeping movements to enforce my passion on this. “It’s something in my gut, telling me there’s something wrong. I don’t know, but when it comes to kids, I just–”
She steps forward and holds my hand. “I know. You’re right back there, to the day you got battered and left all alone, in the dark. I know you want to protect him from the same things that happened to you.”
I focus on her eyes, which are watering. She feels my pain, even though she’s never had to deal with the same pain herself.
“Jules,” she whispers, softly stroking the back of my hand, “Joe is different. He’s Warrick’s son for a start and he’s definitely tougher than you imagine. I think Warrick’s right. I think he’ll tell you when the time’s right. He knows you’re there for him.”
“This is the thing,” I say fast, “he knows we’re here for him, and he’s still not telling us. He knows we’re not judgy, he knows that.”
“Give it another week, maybe?”
I throw my head back, groaning. “Torture.”
I smile wryly. “Rubes, you know how many cheesecakes I can eat in a week, right?”
“Unfortunately I do, and I also know that while you’ll maybe put on a pound, I’d put on a couple of stone comfort eating in the same manner as you.”
I pick my teacup off the counter, anticipating the bell for the first lesson, which I’m taking today.
“You and Rick had better have cheesecake for me at every fucking stop this week,” I grumble, and walk away.
As I take the corridor, I try to wriggle the anxiety out of my heavy shoulders and neck, but it’s not working.
Deep, deep, deep breaths, I remind myself, sucking in vital oxygen, trying to remember my breathing exercises of old.
Walking into a classroom full of kids, there’s suddenly nothing else to think about other than controlling thirty teenagers for the next two hours.
Dinnertime is no different today. Joe’s being quiet over his pasta and salad. Warrick’s knackered. The twins are lobbing pasta shells at one another and I’m focusing on the baked, New York-style cheesecake waiting for me in the fridge.
“Frrrr–” A sort of grumble erupts from me and the boys all look at me. I was going to say something mad like flipping tell me what is wrong Joe! but I guess, I stopped myself.
“Something stuck in my throat,” I excuse myself, reaching for a glass of water.
Joe finishes his meal and excuses himself from the table before I can even think of another way to broach this. Once his son’s locked himself away upstairs, Warrick gives me a look and I say nothing. What is there to say?
I promised Ruby I would give this a week…
It’s the next day – my day off – and I’m twiddling my thumbs. The house is empty. Warrick’s dad came round half an hour ago to collect the twins so he and Wendy can take them to the park for an hour. They do this for me every week which is kind of them. Usually when I’ve got this time free, I go get my hair done or my nails or I sit and eat a full cheesecake while I watch Dancing with the Stars on ITV2.
Today, I can’t concentrate on anything. It took balls for me to tell Warrick that I think something is wrong – but he shot me down. I feel like I’m coping with the weight of this all alone. How can he be so cool about everything?
“Fuck it,” I mutter to myself, heading upstairs.
I stand on the threshold of Joe’s bedroom, knowing full well I am about to invade his private territory, but I do so anyway. I’m desperate for answers.
His room, like a habitat of its own, seems like a growth on our otherwise spotless house. He keeps the blackout blinds shut at all times, maybe fearing the neighbours will see how filthy he keeps the place and start to judge him – which is silly, because our neighbours haven’t got any windows facing this side of our property. A detached house, we’re very private here. Maybe he’s a nocturnal creature then, someone who needs the submergence of this dank pit whenever he gets home, absorbing the dark so he can re-mutate or something.
(I’ve definitely been watching far too many of Rick’s sci-fi movies lately.)
“What’s going on with you Joe?”
I step gingerly through the mess on the floor. Shirts and trousers, shorts and socks, splattered everywhere. It’s not like he’s ever been clean, but…
I decide to do the usual checks. I look under the pillow, mattress, bed; back of the wardrobe; sock drawer, pants drawer… nothing.
Checking his desk drawers… nothing. No drugs, no vast amounts of drug-dealing cash. No contraband anything. Not even a jammy can of Carling, saved for a later date.
Looking at his desktop, I spot his laptop, left slightly open – the lid like he closed it in a hurry and didn’t press it all the way down.
Opening the laptop, an artful Windows screensaver lights up the gloomy room and the screen asks for a password.
We should have banned passwords altogether when we let him move in with us.
“Oh god,” I mutter, seating myself behind his desk. “Think Jules, think.”
I try a few things, like his ex-girlfriend’s name, his brothers’, his mum’s name… his granddad. His favourite football team.
It could be anything!
He wouldn’t write it down, I don’t think. So, what would he do? He’s a teenager – brain like a sieve when it comes to small details – he would definitely pick something simple. A band name. I don’t know.
I try a few more hits before the computer asks me if I need help.
Scared, I now don’t know if Joe’s going to realise I’ve been trying to break into his computer.
Sweating, and feeling guilty as sin, I know I have the house to myself for the next hour or two but I still can’t help feeling SO GUILTY. He would be mortified if he found out about me doing this. I’m already mortified.
Taking some deep breaths, I tell the computer I don’t need any help and I shut it all down, closing the lid – leaving it slightly ajar, the same as he had it.
Hopefully the room looks exactly as it did before I entered, and I leave it all behind, knowing the only way I’m going to find out what’s wrong is if I can gain access to that computer.
Downstairs I open my Chromebook on the kitchen counter and with a cup of tea brewing by my side, I go to Facebook, which I don’t use. Rick uses it for the community centre but we don’t have personal accounts on there because, well, basically… we’re grown-ups.
It tells me I need a username and password. Going to Google, I type in: “Joe Jones” and “Hull” and “Facebook” and it doesn’t take many looks through the search results for me to find our Joe Jones.
“God, this world ain’t safe,” I say to no-one.
I click on his profile but because I’m not logged in, I can only see a few images and a small amount of information.
Clicking through some of the images shown, I see a girl called Reema has been tagged in a couple of the more recent images. She’s a stunning Asian girl with eyes bigger than my head, flawless skin and a bone structure to die for. I wonder…
He hasn’t said anything to Rick lately, but maybe he has got a new girlfriend…
Reema, eh… my thoughts trail off.
I take the bag out of my brewed cup of tea and dash back upstairs.
Screen lit up again, I type in:
Jackpot! Ding. Ding. Ding.
Firstly, I check Facebook.
I go through his messages and find nothing except a couple of exchanges between him and Reema, discussing their crap psychology teacher.
“Come on, Joe.”
I check his search history and roll my eyes. Just like his dad. There’s nothing much more there than websites about healthy shakes, building muscle density, the odd Tumblr search for pages with loads of boobs and a couple of hits on websites about psychology. He wants to be a psychologist to help people like his mother, who’s a manic depressive.
I’m about to give up hope that there’s nothing much more than a painful teenage crush going on here when I notice he has a number of unread messages in Outlook.
Should I? Should I?
God, this is bad. I am bad. I am really bad.
My imagination has been running wild… when this could be just a matter of Joe having the hots for a super-hot girl called Reema.
Maybe they’ve been exchanging hot emails… email sex. But why? He has a phone. He could sext if he wanted to. God… sext. Is that even a word? Bloody hell. I have twin boys. What will I be like when they’re Joe’s age? Probably worse…
I double click on the Outlook icon and his emails open. Scanning the unread emails, I am surprised by both the sender details and the subject headings. I’m even more surprised by my reaction when I open the emails and read them…
“What have you done?” Ruby peers at me, suspicious.
I stir my tea, avoiding her eyes. I decide I haven’t done anything wrong and therefore, I muster all my might to reply innocently, “Nothing. I am doing what you said. I’m giving it a week. Two cheesecakes suffered fatal collisions with my fork in the process, but we’re good, as the kids say. I’m giving Joe time to come clean.”
“I can read you a mile off. You’ve been up to something.”
“I honestly haven’t.” I turn and act my arse off, keeping eye contact without a blip of guilt or shame or admission in my eyes.
“As long as you know what you’re doing,” she mumbles, leaving the room.
I watch her back as she walks away and give myself a moment or two to think about that. Do I know what I’m doing?
Since sneaking a look at his emails, I haven’t figured out how to cut off the cyber bully Joe’s been on the receiving end of – without Joe realising that I hacked into his emails.
I also don’t want the cyber bully to know that I know. Because if they know that I know – they know that I know what they think of me.
Yes – the content of the emails was all about me.
I am apparently Joe’s fit stepmother, a MILF, and apparently I’m going to get raped on my way home one night. Kids think they’re being cute, don’t they? They don’t realise they could actually face jail for this shit.
So… no, I don’t have any idea what I’m going to do.
Teatime again. Joe’s already dashed off to his room.
“I need to contact my aunt, Kim.”
Warrick turns from loading the dishwasher to stare at me as I mop the twins’ heads and try to feign innocence.
“Family thing?” He briefly shakes his head in confusion.
“You know, people don’t contact Kim. She contacts them.”
Kim is my late mother’s sister, a detective of detectives turned rogue, on the run for taking matters into her own hands. She would know exactly how to deal with a cyber bully.
“How do I make her contact me, then?”
He thinks for a moment, lips pursed, eyes crossed. God, I love him.
“You can’t. Although… maybe I know something.”
He folds his arms. “What am I gonna get for this something?”
Looking cocky, he needn’t even ask, I’m already planning on jumping him later.
“That thing you like with the thing, if you want?”
He raises his eyebrows, smirking. “That thing I like with the thing, eh?”
“God, are you two talking code for sex, again?” Joe walks in, stroppy. “Bleugh. Cold bucket of water! Yuck! Off to Rupert’s house. Back before curfew.”
The whirlwind he is, he leaves without giving us chance to say a word. We hear his bike rattling outside the backdoor and the side gate shut as he leaves. I suppose he has his mobile if anything happens.
God, I hope he isn’t planning on confronting the bully… not that he could. They used weird email addresses without real names. I checked Joe’s list of blocked accounts and it was already 30+ long meaning he keeps blocking that twerp and they keep sending with different accounts. Maybe he’s asked around, but…
“So, are we talking the thing where you do the thing and I do the thing, and then we get thingy?” Warrick guffaws.
“We’re pretty much gonna do all the things, yeah. If you slip me a bit of info, darling. Or maybe that’ll be later.”
He sets the dishwasher running and kisses the boys’ heads before kissing mine. His eyes sparkling, he says, “She visits your mother’s grave, every year, on the anniversary. She said if I ever needed to… that’s how I’d find her.”
I frown. I never visit the grave. It’s too hard.
The funeral was a day of pain, deeper than six-feet under, deeper than the sea. The skies crowded me with their darkness, their heavy cumulonimbus sitting heavier on my shoulders than seemed possible. A walking brick viewed her coffin that day, a child carrying the weight of the world. I can never go back to that day.
The thought of it all already giving me palpitations, I reach for my water and stroke at the back of my neck, taking deep breaths. Warrick’s by my side instantly, holding my hand, caressing my face.
Through scratchy breaths, I manage, “I hacked his laptop and he’s receiving horrible emails and I want Kim to find out who sent the mails. There. I’m a bad person. I’m horrible! I hate myself!”
Tears fall. My togetherness ruptures. I’m hardly held by a thread most days, but Warrick stitches me up constantly. He’s my utter, utter rock – my solace.
“I know what’s going on… he told me weeks ago.”
I glare. “What?”
“We’re just trying to protect you.”
He nods slowly, holding my hand. “We were afraid you would see through us. We’re crap at lying to you, evidently.”
I take some more water and a few more deep breaths.
Looking down at my lap, I manage to say through a throat full of frogs, “It’s next month, the anniversary. Will you go find her for me? Please.”
“There’s really no need. We could just go to the police with this. The threats are of an aggressive nature. If you want, that’s what we could do. We just didn’t want you to see the content.”
I smile. “It’s just some absolute ne’er-do-well who can’t get to me any other way, so they’re using Joe to get to me.”
“It doesn’t matter who it is, it’s wrong. It could be anyone sending him those emails. He’s changed his address a dozen times. The idiot always finds out about his change of address.”
“It must be someone from the school, yeah? Some friend of friend who knows his email address? He probably gives out his address to people he works on projects and presentations with or whatever.” I shake my head. “I can’t believe you’ve both been sitting on this without me.”
“Jules, this is a hate crime. Everything about it is hateful. It’s just plain nasty. We didn’t know what to do–”
Warrick scratches the back of his head, which is usually code for, I’m sorry or I just don’t want to get into this.
I take a deep breath, feeling like it’s my fault, and it’s not fair… and we shouldn’t be going through this.
Reluctantly, I mumble, “Call the police.”
Detective Wainwright sits in front of us a week later, a cup of tea in front of him. He’s sat in his own armchair while Warrick and I share the sofa and Joe stands by the door lintel behind us, arms folded, a demeanour of ‘get me out of here’ written all over his face.
“First off,” the cop says, taking a sip and putting his cup back down again, “we’re really grateful you came forward. Often the culprit gives up and moves onto someone else and the process repeats, so in telling us what’s been happening,” the copper looks at Joe, “you’re not only helping your family, but your community too. You have no idea how many people come to us with petty quibbles about bad words said on Facebook… wasting our time. This was obviously of the malicious variety. Given that some of the emails contained porn and made sexually aggressive threats… we acted as quickly as we could.”
“So, what have you found out anyway?” Warrick asks, tense alongside me, his hands held tight together.
“One of the email providers the wrongdoer was using told us where the offender had logged in from.” The copper opens his notepad. “It’s an address in Hull. We have the suspect in custody and a statement is being taken. They will be shown some of the evidence we’ve gathered. In my experience, once someone like this gets found out so to speak, the reality sets in and they usually confess. It’s really a brave thing you did in coming forward, Joe. This sort of thing carries on otherwise. They will be released but I expect a court date.”
“Who was it?” I say, in a sort of outburst, my nerves frayed by all this.
Who the hell thinks they can hurt our Joe?
“I can’t say just yet.” The copper gives Rick the eye, as if he thinks I’m not coping with all of this. I just want to know who’s been trying to hurt our family.
“It’s her life that got threatened,” Warrick gently tells Detective Wainwright.
“Okay. The household we’re investigating does happen to be the home of a pupil in Joe’s year.”
“We guessed that,” Joe mumbles, “I mean, who else could get my email address? I changed it bloody fifty times.”
I roll my shoulders, trying to sound brave. “I really don’t know who I upset this badly.”
Sure, I’ve dealt with aggravated parents in the past. Kids name-calling, as kids do. I’ve dealt with a few nastier things, like Hetty – a former star pupil of mine – confessing she’d been abused by her mother. I’ve dealt with a parent asking for a retest when their kid didn’t get an A in a course paper – but a second examiner from another school gave the kid the exact same grade. It’s difficult when parents want their kid to do well, but they can’t face the fact that nobody’s perfect. My mind’s wandering because I do teach a lot of the gifted set… and…
“Boy or girl?” I ask the man.
It could really be anyone. I couldn’t guess.
“I’ll be in touch. Thanks once again.” Warrick shows Wainwright out, a few words exchanged about the state of the Force at the moment – and then the man’s gone.
Warrick returns to the room. “I wonder who the bloody hell it is.”
“Couldn’t give a fuck.” I smile, leaving the room to head upstairs and check on the twins.
As I watch the twins sleeping, their chubby arms outstretched, their little nostrils flaring with heavy breaths, tummies fluttering up and down, I think about the bullies who hurt me when I was young. I’d just lost my mother and I was vulnerable and people knew it. Nasty people knew it. Ever since, I’ve protected myself from harm by being untouchable. Even now in my thirties, after all I’ve been through in life, and even with Warrick’s resounding love – I still try to keep myself from harm by not really putting myself out there. I don’t need to be popular, I don’t need to tell everyone my sob story, I don’t need to roll into work everyday with a hangover to be liked or for people to find me funny. I just turn up, do my job well, love my kids and my husband. I don’t want pity. I’m happy, but the person messaging Joe obviously doesn’t like it that beneath my stern demeanour, I’m obviously happy. I like to dress nicely. I fancy I’m attractive. I wear big statement pieces of jewellery because they’re colourful and life needs a bit of colour. I fancy I’m tall and have a body my husband likes. I fancy I don’t care what other people think – and certain people don’t like that. Immature people. Silly people. Lonely people. Unhappy people.
“You okay?” Warrick asks in a whisper, tiptoeing over to me. He joins me on the thick cream carpet of the nursery, sitting beside me.
“It’s about control,” I murmur, resting my head on his shoulder. “When you can’t control an immovable object, this is sometimes what happens, unfortunately.”
“There’s no point in putting any logic to this. Whichever little bitch did this, she’s going to get what’s coming to her.”
I turn to look into the fiery eyes of my possessive, protective husband. “Wanna do some stuff tonight?”
He helps me up and we stand, facing each other.
I can’t help but wonder about my childhood bullies, occasionally. Did karma get them eventually? Who knows? I expect they never had to pay for what they did to me.
I also expect they’ve never known what it’s like to look into the eyes of another person and know – absolutely and completely – that you were their true beginning and you will be theirs until the end. Bullies probably don’t have the capacity to really give themselves to one person; to let their guard down with just one person, who’s as sensitive as you are, beneath.
“I love your mind,” I tell him, “and I love your thingy.”
We laugh, heading out of the room.
“Joe’s just gone out,” he mutters, and we’re running to our bedroom together in no time.
**The story of how Jules and Warrick met can be read in Angel Avenue. Jules isn’t always a likeable character but her story is one I see all too often. BULLYING AFFECTS PEOPLE FOR YEARS AFTERWARDS.**
The short story you’ve just read features in an anthology of anti-bullying themed short stories called BREAK THE CYCLE which is available to purchase on AMAZON US and AMAZON UK and is a non-profit book.