Hellboy: Oddest Jobs Page 31


He'd take out a selected issue of Grampa's old Famous Monsters of Filmland whenever he went round there, which was every weekday after he was dropped off by the school bus, because neither his mum nor his dad finished work till six. Soon he looked forward specifically to that activity and planning which magazine he would delve into next — King Kong with his inhumanly flaring nostrils, or Karloff's Im-Ho-Tep in his eerie red fez? — methodically asking his grandfather to identify each character in each picture throughout, and elaborate on the stories behind each film within.

It was an illicit activity he and his grampa shared, and part of the excitement of it was that it was forbidden fruit. Both knew equally instinctively that his mother and father would not approve; that they would see his interest as unwholesome and unhealthy, but for some reason the universe (the Universal universe, often) of these mutant and reprehensible creatures meant something to Ethan. In a way he could not express, he thrilled to them and felt for them in a manner he didn't feel for people around him most of the time. He was absorbed by these wonders now, and could no more shake them off than he could shake off his own skin.

The monsters had him. He was caught in the Wolf Man's hairy grip. He was hypnotized by Bela's unconvincingly hypnotic (but nevertheless disturbing) stare, which affected him on a far deeper level than mere fear. Within those film stills of grainy graveyards, blasted heaths, and shadow-laden laboratories, way before he'd seen any of the actual films, he knew he belonged- — like he belonged nowhere else.

He learned about Bram Stoker, about James Whale, about Frederic March, about Edgar Allan Poe and Lon Chaney (Sr. and Jr.). He knew every actor who played every Frankenstein's monster pre- and post-Karloff, from Thomas Edison's short through Hammer horror and beyond. He knew who played spidery Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein and the Dracula film in which Michael Ripper played a police inspector.

Sometimes he would ask questions, and his grampa would answer as best he could, but the old man realized that these were characters that Ethan had grown to love, and love was never about logical explanations. The essential 'unknowableness' was what the boy adored, as he had adored it himself at that age. To enjoy it was enough. To enjoy, and be terrified.

When the kids in the playground talked about best friends and football and boyfriends, to Ethan it was like they were speaking a different language, but the world of monsters was familiar, homely, comforting, compared to the nasty and unpredictable world he faced every day when he opened the front door. It was scary, but it was understandable. It was understandable that to make a man come back to life you'd put electricity through bolts in his neck. It was understandable that you put a stake through a vampires heart and he wouldn't come after you anymore.

"Jekyll and Hyde," Grampa would say by way of education. "Who you are and who you want to be, and the price you have to pay."

He'd tell the boy that Ray Bradbury wrote The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and the special-effects dinosaur in that film was created by Ray Harryhausen.

"Shaky monsters!" Ethan would cry, using their shared pet expression for stop-frame animation. "Jason and the Argonauts!"

"That's right. And the two of them were friends since they were little boys. The two Rays. Two little boys in America whose heads were full of monsters. And they both went on to create them — one by writing them, one by making them."

He hung on his grampa's every word.

He'd sit, wonderfully anxious, anxiously full of wonder, watching Bride of Frankenstein on the floor between his grandfathers bony knees, occasionally given the bounty of one of the chocolates the old man lined meticulously along the armrest. And if his heart did skip a beat, or if he did have to look away at the scary part — like when, on another occasion, the camera panned to the Wolf Man for the very first time, in that mist-shrouded wood, in Wales, and his eyes were sparkling and his fur looked so real- — his grampa was there protecting him. And sometimes when there was a night scene and the TV screen was dark, Ethan could see a grandfatherly smile reflected in it, hovering somewhere in Transylvania, while his nan was in the kitchen making him beans on toast.

He remembered the day his grampa had said, "Watch this, it will make you cry," and first put on his video of King Kong — the Willis O'Brien original. As soon as it started, with its creaky old titles and music, Ethan had mumbled, "Crap, that is."

"Don't be a critic. Hush," reprimanded the old man sternly. And by the time The End came up, the boy sat gazing at the screen in awed silence, as if he had been witnessed a kind of miracle. Which, in a way, he had.

"Still think it was crap, then?"

"No." Ethan down-tilted his head slightly, reluctant to concede his change of heart. "It was good, that was," he said.

Grampa nodded, a twinkle in his eye. "Attaboy," he said, sinking back in the armchair, knowing he had a convert at last.

"Dad, if the giant Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth and Gwangi from The Valley of Gwangi had a fight, who d'you think would win?"

Vic's back was hunched over the steering wheel, knuckles as white as his pallor. "Ethan, honest to God now, I'm really not interested in the slightest, OK?"

"No, but.. ,"

"Never mind 'No, but..."

"Yeah but, say they had an encounter and ..."

"Really, Ethan." He raised his voice. "I know you don't believe me now, but I've got no interest whatsoever, all right?"

His son went silent, dropped his chin to his chest, and said nothing for the rest of the drive to school. Inevitably, Vic wondered what he was thinking. Was he thinking what a bad, horrible, nasty father he had? Was he thinking that all he wanted was a little show of fake interest from his dad, for once? Not much, just a little?

He stopped the car just beyond the school crossing. Ethan got out of the passenger seat, hauled his bag onto his shoulder and shut the door after him. Vic wasn't thinking about work any more.

"Okay, butty?"

Ethan nodded.

Vic watched his son trudge in through the gates. He seemed strangely apart from the flow of chatting, skipping children around him — a sad and lonely little boy. Tears prickled Vic's eyes and he quickly shut out the rest of his thoughts and concentrated on driving to work.

"Oi! Gay!" Dylan Drew was not the archetype of a bully. If there was an American Idol of bullies, he wouldn't even get through the first set of auditions.

"Oi! Gay boy, I'm talking to you. Why aren't you walking over here with us?"

Ethan didn't look up. He kept his eyes strictly focused on his own shadow in front of him on the pavement.

"Not gay enough for you, are we?"

Ethan said Shut up in his head and for a moment he was scared he'd said it out loud, but they didn't need that kind of incitement. He knew that in seconds he'd be surrounded by Dylan and his brainless musketeers, Huw Gronow and Matthew Pamplin. Shit, shit, shit.

They walled him off. Dylan in front, nonchalantly walking backward, the others keeping pace. Ethan tried not to slow his speed, tried not to look up. But Gronow immediately started picking at the Creature from the Black Lagoon sticker on his shoulder bag. Ethan shrugged him off but he was like a seagull going for a crust of bread.

"He do like monsters, gay boy do!"

"Van Helsing."

Ethan thrust his elbow back. "I don't even like that film." He gave a quick jab back with the other elbow. Pamplin was pinching the skin at the back of his neck, causing Ethan to duck down in his collar like a tortoise into its shell.

"It's his favorite, favorite film. Bless!"

"Get lost! Its a kids' film!" Ethan protested.

"That's what I mean. He loves it."

"I don't!It's stupid. It has Dracula wanting to produce babies. Why does Dracula want to produce babies when he reproduces by biting people and ..."

"Oo-ee, he knows all about ree-pro-duction, guys." Drew wobbled his jaw from side to side. "Not bad for a gay boy"

Ethan had had enough. "Stupid..." he said before he could stop it coming out. He was halfway through barging past the boy in front of him, who stood with his hands on his hips, but already Ethan realized he was too close and he should have kept his trap shut.

"Who are you calling stupid, freak?"

Dylan had caught Ethan round the head with the hook of his arm and wasn't letting go in a hurry. In the same blur of motion one of the others had snatched Ethan's bag off his shoulder and was swinging it in the air in big circles. "Freak!" That was the word they always used, and he hated it. "Skinny fucking freak-a-zoid twat!"

No! Ethan kicked backward with one foot but hit only air.

"Oi! Less of that!"

He felt his own school bag hit his left leg just below the buttock. Dylan had let go and one of them — Ethan thought it was Gronow again — held his head at arms length.

"What have you got in here?" Dylan was doing an inventory of Ethan's belongings, now being shaken out of his school bag all over the road. "Nutri-Grain Bar. Nice." He held up the offending object. A rectangle of protein, nuts, sultanas: a healthy substitute for sweets in his lunch box, Ethan's mum told him.

"Don't," said Ethan.

Dylan unwrapped one corner. "Shit. Looks like what fucking parrots eat. You a bloody parrot, freak?"

"No. Give it here."

Gronow sniggered. "Jesus. It looks as if it's been shoved up a goat's arse."

"Smells as if it's come out of a goat's arse," said Pamplin.

"Give it here!" said Ethan.

"Why?" said Dylan, walking toward him, waving the Nutri-Grain Bar in front of Ethan's face like a flick-knife. "Do you want to shove it up your own arse, gay-o? Is that it, freak-o?" He stabbed it toward Ethan's face but Ethan turned one cheek then the other.

"You know what?" Ethan said. "My mum says you are what you eat, and she must be right because you eat shit"

Gronow laughed — it was an ill-formed rejoinder but amusing, he thought — then quickly bit his lip because Dylan wasn't laughing at all.

"You know what your mother eats? Your father's fat prick every night." He threw the Nutri-Grain Bar into the gutter.

"Yeah. Probably," said Ethan cheerfully.

Dylans nostrils flared. "Are you trying to be a funny fuck?"

"No."

"Well don't."

"I' m not."

"Well shut up when I'm talking to you."

Ethan did.

Dylan came up close, closer even than before. So close he had to tuck his chin in. "Friday. By the park gates. Straight after school," he said, showing Ethan his fist at close range as if he wanted him to examine it. "I'm going to beat your fucking head in. All right?"

Though it sounded like a question, Ethan, sensibly, decided it probably didn't require an answer.

After they'd gone Ethan's heart started thumping as he walked to the bus stop. I'm going to beat your fucking head in. He didn't like that word. Didn't hear it that much at home, but when he did he knew there was going to be trouble, so he covered his ears till the nastiness was over.

But he knew this time the nastiness wouldn't be over. On Friday Dylan Drew would hurt him. Hurt him really badly like he bashed other boys and made really strong boys cry and scream. Ethan knew the sweet tingly feeling of a nosebleed and he knew it would be worse than that. He knew the way boxers came at each other and hit and hit, and hurt and hurt and he wondered if he could stand that, and what would happen if the hitting didn't stop, didn't stop ever, and then you'd die? What would happen then, he wondered?

Three months before, Ethan's nan and grampa had cheerfully decided one day to drive over to the Abergavenny open-air market to give it the once-over, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was the hottest day on record for several decades and there were warnings on the radio for old people not to go outdoors at all. Grampa was eighty and his wife was seventy-six. Vic was mad at them afterward, more angry than upset, or so it seemed to Ethan. It seemed like he was being like Diane was with Ethan when he stepped out into traffic without looking, and she slapped him on the back of the legs. If Grampa hadn't been old, Vic would have slapped his legs too, Ethan reckoned.

The heat had got to him in Abergavenny and he'd fallen over, too heavy for Nan to steady him, and she'd cried out for help as he slumped to the ground. As luck would have it, a nurse was passing and they got him to the nearest hospital, where he recovered, weak, wheezing, and embarrassed, and the diagnosis was "heart failure." When Ethan heard that expression from his dad he thought it sounded like failing an exam: as if his grampa's heart had been told "must try harder."

From that point on, the old man became more fragile day by day. The word "complications" started to be used. The boy didn't want to ask what that word meant — "complications." But inevitably he saw the result of his grandfathers steady decline.

He was told increasingly, when he got overexcited or boisterous, that "Gramp gets tired quickly now, love" — which he knew. He could see. He wasn't blind. He could see him get breathless and cough more and use his puffer more often. He wasn't stupid.

He still went there from school and gave him the lowdown on what monster films he'd seen, and the two of them would discuss the verdict: "Crap" or "Good." But Grampa didn't look at him so much and sometimes Ethan had to touch his chin and turn his face to him, and when he did he thought his eyes were a little bit glazy looking. But Grampa said he was just tired, that's all.

Sometimes Ethan would put his hand on the old mans cardigan sleeve and shake it gently. He didn't want him to be tired. He wanted to talk. Come on.

"No more monsters."

"Just one," Ethan would say.

The old man would sigh. "All right, then. Go on then."

And sometimes his nan would look in at them as if she was going to cry too. Everybody had that bleary, reddy, cry-y look about them these days.

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