Archie’s coat smells of old man and cat pee. You like to dip your nose down the sagging collar and inhale the earthy scent in the playground line. Others pinch their sensitive noses and make noises that tighten his fish-hooked jaw and turn his ears pink, but you find it pleasant, almost tangible to your rawness. You see the cloak of cloying vapour swirl in television static chaos around the threadbare wool and pray with fervent solemnity to be able jump in and tumble weightless in Archie’s fetid orbit.
A yoghurt stain in the shape of Africa remains on his trousers, even though it has been three weeks since he had a yoghurt to spill. You picture scratching the chalk-like residue from his thigh, the strawberry sweetener, long past sour, filling your nails to bursting until you diligently pick it out again. You want to feel the relief of a void being created between finger and nail, a gulping chasm that spurs satisfaction because you like being empty.
Instead, you are prickled breathless by the muddy crescents embedded in Archie’s too-long fingernails; the tacky stripes that have grown darker and wider. The dirt oozes onto his fingertips as he grasps his borrowed pencil to drag desperate strokes that tear through the pages of his dog-eared workbook.
Last week, something black scuttled in his downy nape hairs and you imagined dusky needle legs dancing freely in your own mouse-blonde thatch. The connection excited you, a creature who drank the life blood of Archie now sipping from your own fragile scalp. But deep undercover a gnawing wound spreads red, black and green, pummelled and unable to scab over. It stings when you wash your hair and you relish those painful moments.
The teacher bends over Archie’s shoulder, her pendulous locket hypnotising his ear and you wonder what she is thinking. Does she feel his muscles stiffen until they creak? Does she realise that he holds his breath, corpselike, against the onslaught of too-ripe perfume that fails to mask the smell from her morning cigarette?
You don’t think she does because Archie is fading to ether and you know that some day his chair will be empty. Not the good kind.
You ache to reach out, grab him and hold his diminishing frame to the razor edges of your own body, but you can’t. You imagine strangling the frogs in your throat to dust so that your voice can burst out through sandpaper lips but you can’t.
For you are a child who hurts too, and you can’t risk being seen.
Marie-Louise comes from a wonderfully neurodiverse household in rural Northern Ireland and enjoys writing from a sensory perspective.