The branches of the trees were barren and skeletal, like the digits of fingers reaching up from dead frames and clutching at the grey skies outside of his window.
It had been four weeks since Jaden Stryder’s mother had died, four weeks in which the young boy had grown accustomed to the new status quo in the family home, his back raw with the fresh markings of his father’s belt and his eyes still red with tears.
He knew it wasn’t his father’s fault, he knew that somehow, despite the cruelty and unfairness of it all, his father was just expressing the sorrow they both felt now that they were alone together in the world. He understood that if his grandparents had telegraphed the money his father had requested of them then maybe he wouldn’t have to suffer the older man’s anger. This was the manner in which the world worked and whilst he was only six years old, Jaden Stryder understood this implicitly.
If you were weak, the world took advantage of you. He hadn’t understood that whilst his mother had still been alive but in the four weeks that had followed the car crash that had killed her and left his father with a permanent limp, Jaden had acquired the knowledge that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
“Jaden!” a voice from outside the room bellowed through the house. “Jaden, you little son of a bitch, where are you hiding?”
Upon the stairs, there was the sound of heavy footfalls, one boot falling against the carpet whilst the other was dragged after it, a wooden stick clattering against the handrail.
“For Christ’s sake, you little runt, where in God’s name are you?”
He felt a sickness stir inside him, fear rooting him to the spot as the sound of his father’s ascension grew louder and louder.
“I swear to God, I’m going to beat the living daylights out of you if you don’t give me a good answer soon!”
The boy’s lips parted but his tongue was a lead weight in his mouth, no words able to lift it and spur him into a reply.
Too late, he heard the sound of his father in the hallway outside and then, abruptly the door was thrown wide open to reveal a large, heavyset man in a lumberjack shirt, one hand clutching a bottle of whiskey and walking stick, the thick leather of his belt wound about the knuckles of the other.
The older man’s eyes flashed in his ruddy face, his black teeth visible beneath the coarse hair of his beard.
Jaden Stryder felt the taste of bile rising in his throat, the seat of his trousers dampening with fear as a tremble ran through his body.
Without a word of explanation, his father raised his first, light glistening on the silver of the buckle.
The boy closed his eyes and the older man’s fist descended.