The world around him is white hot pain. “It’s finally over now,” he whispers to himself, listening dully to the broken rasp of his own voice. He ought to be happy, he thinks, but he hurts too much to conjure up anything other than a quiet chant of I don’t want to die.
He is here, lying on the floor, thinking back over his life, and hoping that this is not his end.
Ten Years Ago
The boy sits in his corner of the basement, running his fingers in endless patterns on the dirty floor. He does not know his own name or any place other than this darkened corner. It has been his life for as long as he can remember. Sometimes there were others here; young girls who clawed at the walls and screamed over and over until their voices broke. He would curl up and watch them for hours and hours as they raged and shattered inside. It is the most company he has now. The girls never stay long as the figure eventually comes for them and his hands slide over them and the boy closes his eyes tight so he doesn’t have to watch.
All he has in this place is his own mind.
Behind his closed eyes he can slip away anywhere. Sometimes he remembers the soft voice of his mother as she finger combed his tangled hair and whispered fairy tales into his ears. His mother vanished a long time ago. He makes a point to not dwell on what might have happened to her. Instead he pushes to the forefront what she has given to him. He cannot live in this world without going mad, so instead he decides to set out on a quest for magic and a kingdom all for himself. He slips into the images he creates in his mind, until he is there. He can feel the clean earth under his feet as he searches the shadowy woods for Red Riding Hood and ocean spray hits his face as he steals into empty cottages along the beach calling for the three bears. He even, just the once, kisses a slimy smooth frog as he seeks for a prince trapped within amphibian bounds. It doesn’t matter if his internal quests for riches are never successful. They bring him closer to his mother and take him away from this place.
This corner of the basement has been his whole life. There has never been a time when he doesn’t
remember the air smelling of copper death and the floor being stained a dull brown.
The floor under him is cold, leeching away what little warmth he has. He turns his head and feels the warm liquid brush against his parted lips. He tastes the blood and chokes, gagging dully before another wave of agony overtakes him. He would be sick, but vomiting seems impossible with a hole splitting his abdomen open. Dimly he wonders if the liquid is his own. He thinks of what might happen if he were to frantically gulp it down as if it would help him hold onto this life. If he returned the blood back to his body as fast as it poured out might he remain here, trapped in limbo? But then again it might not be his own and he dreads the thought of imbibing the sins of another.
He lies on the floor, trying not to cry, and failing to think of any way out of this place.
Five Years Ago
When his eyes slide closed and dreams sweep him away he can see dancing girls whirling and twirling and swirling with color. They’re shadow dancers, sliding in and out of his reality, their skin twined with shifting rainbows. Their laughter is electric blue, exuberence
a bright yellow, and their innocence a deep red that slides down their bodies like roughened palms. They dance closer and closer, pressing against him and staring at him with empty sockets. He is being smothered by their sorrow and lost time. “Save us,” they whisper and reach out with fingers of bone to scratch at him.
“Why didn’t you save us?”
They’re shredding his skin away and he wonders what will be left when they are done. He wakes up hours later, raw and aching with feelings he doesn’t want to name. If he looks closely at his arms he might see fresh marks that will later solidify into fingerprint bruises and scabbing welts.
He doesn’t look.
The air is sweet like tracings of sugar and its coolness soothes his heated skin like the mother of his memories. He can hear raspy breaths in the air and see next to him the coughing struggling body of a withered figure writhed in the shadows cast by kitchen curtains and the starlight floating into the open window. The man is neither old nor young but somewhere in between. His face is etched with wrinkles, his temple silver stained, and his eyes are dark in the waning lights.
He looks away from the figure’s searching gaze, his body shuddering with the weight of what they have
A Year Ago
The girls are thin and dirty, their hair matted, eyes red, and hands grasping at one another for comfort. He thinks they are beautiful. He watches them, they way he did not watch the ones before. He sees them as they sleep fitfully the first night and then as they wake and scream in fear of him. He watches as they roam the room searching for a way out he knows does not exist, as they pound on the door leading outside, and as they fail to escape. He watches them as they cry, as they break, and he has never wanted anything as much as he wants to touch them now. He can taste their skin from across the room. When he closes his eyes he can see them in sharp relief. They’re as young as he but he feels so much older than their hinting curves and wide eyes.
When the figure comes down into the room and the three of them cower the boy does not close his eyes. When the door is closed, and then locked again, the boy does not close his eyes. When the figure pulls the first girl under him and shatters her with cold metal and sin as the two pretty dying things scream, the boy does not look away. His face is wet and his body shakes but he cannot turn away.
He dreams of sharpness and of guilty things that make his skin hum. He finds himself unable to stop
dreaming of them as he grows and changes into something he is afraid of.
There is bloodied metal in his hand and his body is open wide at its bequest. There’s not much time left for him, he thinks, as his vision swims alarmingly and he coughs a stream of blood. He is terrified, but he is not alone. The figure beside him is slipping away just as quickly, not much left to hold either of them to this place. He supposes he should feel more guilt for bringing this upon them both, but he finds that the closer he gets to death, the more such emotions no longer matter. He has nothing now. Not knowledge, nor morals, nor endless dreams of a world beyond crumbling walls and the barest of company.
All that is left of him is this shell of a person afraid of what comes next.
2 Hours Ago
The next girl is small and so much younger than he. She is so afraid of him as he paces this small, badly lit, room that she does not even try to find a way out. He feels powerful next to her frail body and the first night, as she sleeps fitfully, he dreams of sharpness and taking his satisfaction from her thin, dirty body. He wakes aching and shaking and sick in ways he’s becoming addicted to.
She is small and fragile and the cuts on her skin seem to glimmer in the fluorescent lighting of the room.
The figure wields his knife like an artist’s paintbrush, carving her until she is no longer a girl but a perfect image of pain. The boy is standing but a foot away, no longer cowering from the man and no longer afraid. His body aches with the desire to be the one holding the blade and to be taking his pleasure. She is screaming and the boy thrums with it and paces and paces.
She is small and fragile and no longer screaming.
The man leaves her limp and breathless, climbing the stairs away and leaving the door outside open. The man had never left a girl behind or left the door open. The knife rests next to her broken frame. He walks to where she lies and reaches out with a shaking hand to touch her face. His fingers come away slicked red and he wants her so much but her eyes are open and so dead and he sees his mother in her face . He jerks his head to the side and retches over and over until there is nothing left.
He cannot keep doing this. He cannot hurt them and he cannot save them and he cannot save himself from what he wants to do.
He can only see one way out.
He picks up the knife and, stumbling, he makes his way up the steps and leaves the basement.
He lies on the floor next to the still body of the figure from his memories and turns his head to watch their wasted lives mingle together in a pool between them. As the boy feels himself fall away from his body, he clings to the feeling of clean light seeping in through closed shutters and the muffled sounds of life stealing in through the walls.
For the first time, he realizes that he knows nothing of this world. He has never seen the night sky except in the faded imaginary worlds of his childhood. He has never touched dirt, or felt rain, or tasted the freedom of life. He is dead before he has ever lived. In his mind’s eye he can see dozens and dozens of pale children with wide eyes and lost dreams whom he had only known for mere moments before they were snuffed out like burnt candles on a drafty night. He lets them go, one by one, from the oldest to the last, a small child with his mother’s face left still on the floor beneath him.
He thinks to all the girls who might have been. All the small fragile things who could have been lost. He thinks to the man who is responsible for the deaths of so many and shaping that small boy in the corner of the basement into a mirror image of one capable of such cruelty.
In the end, they have destroyed each other, and, as much as he wants to hold on forever to all the little
things so new they fill him with wonder, he cannot regret his actions.
He flinches as he crosses the threshold of the basement door and moonlight strikes his eyes. He wobbles and nearly falls as his feet skid on the polished floor. The knife slips in his hand and a sudden stinging sensation registers on his palm, clearing his head and forcing him to focus on the path ahead. A hallway lies before him, the walls painted an off-white and decorated here and there with what dim memories imply must be flowers of some kind. At the end of the corridor lies another door, slightly cracked open to reveal an expansive room and a shadowed figure carefully cleaning a long, serrated knife. As blood slowly coats the knife from the nick in his hands and drips to the floor, drop by drop, the boy steels himself and forces himself forward. It seems a lifetime between one door and the next as his bare feet scuff along. Yet it is only moments later that the boy finds himself face to face with the clean shaven face of the man he has feared for so long.
The figure smiles a crooked smile and his eyes shift to the red soaked knife cradled in the boy’s shaking hand. “I knew you would do it,” the man whispers, rising to his feet and approaching the boy with measured, echoing steps. “You’re just like me,” the man says, reaching out with a free hand to cup the boy’s face. It was the first time the two had ever touched in a way that did not bring the boy pain. “I am proud of you,” the man says.
Skin crawling with revulsion, the boy of the basement knows, in this moment, that he only has one chance at redemption after years and years of watching girls die and never attempting to save them. So he slides the blade between the third and fourth ribs of the figure, his father, and twists it deep. He pulls it out slowly and then plunges it in again and again as the man cries out in pain and shoves at the boy with weakening limbs. Body splashed in blood, the boy follows his father in a collapse to the floor, striking over and over until his strength is almost gone and the cries in the air are no longer the man’s but his own wracking sobs. He stares at the broken man beneath him and the stains on his hands that will never come off and the stains on his soul he can never cleanse.
Somehow his father is still alive, breathing shallow wet breaths and staring upwards with wide open eyes. The boy rolls off the figure and lies, panting, on the floor beside his sire. The knife is slippery in his hands as he slides it up from its position on the floor to run over his stomach and the boy watches in fascination as metal flashes for a final time and drives home, his body welcoming the blade like an old friend despite the intense pain it brings. In truth it is a sweeter release than anything his mind has ever given him despite the fear that rises up in him as he realizes that he has no way out.
His whole body thrums with pain as he prays to a god he knows only from muddled stories that this is not
Now and Beyond
It’s sad, he thinks, that he has never really had much of a chance here. He is so afraid of what comes next but he knows he cannot stay here much longer. The body next to his own is cold and he turns to look at the crumpled body of the man he had once thought was so powerful. Here they are, father and son, together in harmony, although not the harmony his father had hoped for. Rather than bringing the demise of others, it is they who are the ones dying on a cold floor.
As the world reaches for him and pulls him down, down, down, he laughs, for a moment, at the strangeness of it all. In his mind’s eye he can see his father looming over him and his mother reaching out to him, as if to clasp him to her breast. He is no longer afraid of his father and he is strong enough to let his mother go. He is standing in the basement now, just a step away from the door leading away from the horrors it once held. The door, however, does not lead to an off-white hallway with polished flooring but instead shows only a pulsating whiteness. He cannot see what lies past it, or even guess where it will take him, but he cannot turn back. He has made his choices and he is ready to move on. He steps through the doorway and the whiteness blinds his eyes and flows into his mouth.
It tastes like salvation.
Esther Rodriguez, Age 16, Grade 11, Bronx High School of Science, Gold Key