Note: You can now read where these two characters met in this other short story, here.
“It is not the dark that children should be afraid of. Nor is it the strangers that parents should fear their children are too open to. It is not the bump in the night or the young man with a gun. It is not the drugs in the streets or the hooker on the corner.
“Nothing should ever be feared more than your own mind.
“Thoughts bring your fears to life. It is a single thought that makes an innocent shadow look like a monster. It is a thought that makes one stranger in a hundred the one that snatches up the child. It is a thought that makes you wonder if the thud upstairs could be an intruder. It was a thought that told the boy to seek revenge for the way he had been treated. One more thought pulled the trigger. It is a thought that chooses to get high or buy unprotected sex.
“Your minds are the evil you fear in the world. Humans are considered the punchline of jokes because you are a creation that wastes its precious, limited time under the control of the single most powerful gift you had been created with. The mind is wasted on humans. It spins you in circles and laughs because you refuse to take some bloody control.
“Thoughts are your slaves. Not the other way around. Understand this and you will know true strength.”
I remember his words like he’d just finished speaking them in this moment. A chill is clinging to my skin and I’m shivering behind the wheel of my little car even though the heat is up to max. I still feel the intensity of his anger from that day. The wounds healing on the inside of my left wrist tingle with an unpleasant heat. I’d never seen him look so disappointed before.
Deep breaths in and out allow me to focus on the road in front of me. I have to stop thinking about that night. He told me to move on. To keep my eyes straight and my legs strong. He told me I couldn’t keep staring into my past. It would catch hold, shove its claws in deep and rip me apart happily.
I can’t fall that far again. I can’t bear to look into those eyes if they’re angry and sad. I can’t betray him like that another time.
Inhale, count to five and exhale. Repeat.
My chest is tight and I wonder if emotional pain can truly be strong enough to physically strangle a person. Maybe it can burst the organ beating so innocently behind my ribs. Gods why is it so difficult to trap that hopeless stain spreading through my blood stream and constricting my lungs? I can’t concentrate when it’s twisting and galloping in my chest, slithering harshly up my throat and into my eyes. No, don’t cry!
Inhale, count to five and exhale. Repeat.
Almost there. One more set of lights to cross and a right turn. It’s the third house to the right again. The light turns green and I lock my jaw, tightening my hands around the steering wheel until my knuckles are white.
‘I’m coming home! I’m coming and I swear I’m not broken anymore!’ My thoughts are screaming. ‘Please be there. Please don’t leave me to do this on my own.’
I take the corner too fast and now I am straining to slow down and put the car back into its proper part of the road. Deep breaths. I’m getting desperate now and I can’t seem to push the hand down that’s gripping my throat too tightly. Perhaps it really is possible to stop breathing simply from the intensity of raw misery.
My skin feels like it is encased in ice yet my shaking hands are sweaty as I slide the car easily into his driveway. Stop, take out the keys and now I need to remind myself to breathe.
Inhale, count to five and exhale. Repeat.
Open the door and slip out into the warm night air. It is a stark reminder of his anger that night. That one harsh violet eye tainted with the deep slicing pain of my betrayal. I promised I’d be strong. Promised I would warn him if I couldn’t handle it.
Making my way up the walkway to the dark brown oak door, suddenly my mind fills with blood. Gods there’d been so much of it that night. I can only imagine what he must have been thinking before he finally found where the mess led to. It must have appeared like a massacre. In a way, I guess that’s exactly what it was except I was my own intruder.
I shake my head, come back to reality. Don’t remember it. He told me not to remember.
Inhale, count to five and exhale. Repeat.
Now knock on the door. ‘Please, let me show you I’m still strong!’ Holding my breath, biting my lip. Waiting. My wrist is stinging. The strain from my drive probably loosened a stitch or two. Snakes constrict about my heart and my hand twitches to press into the pain. No, just ignore it. It’s not real.
Still waiting, it’s been ten minutes and there is a breeze on the air that sends shards of ice through my cold flesh. I suddenly wish I hadn’t left so dramatically, throwing my keys at his face in a rage. Why wasn’t he answering, though? Maybe he didn’t hear the knock? He can’t be gone yet; his flight wasn’t until tomorrow morning. Do it again and ring the doorbell too. Wait just a little longer. He’s coming. He has to be coming. Right?
A desperate surge rips through me and now I’m pounding on the door and I’m choking on rage and spilling profanity into the unforgiving wind.
“You damn bastard!” I call out into the silence of the street. “I slipped up once! Out of all these years I’ve fought by your side and I’ve learned all you had to teach and it was one goddamn night that I couldn’t take anymore! After everything we’ve been through, you can’t give up on me now!”
I let out a primal scream while my legs collapse under me and now I’m crying on his doorstep like a fool. ‘I can’t do this without you.’ My thoughts whimper.
The black mass in my mind is laughing. My heart sputters with the strain of the world’s weight pressing against it. I can’t breathe.
I’m too weak.
“You are doing it again.”
That voice slices through the pain like the razor he’d pulled from my hand that night. My head snaps up to stare, bewildered at the man before me. There’s a cigarette burning away in his large right hand. The left holds a plastic grocery bag. His uncovered, tired eye forces a bored expression to look upon me. A black patch hides the other; a pastel shaded, scarred mess that cannot judge me for it only sees shadows. His lips display humor at the scene before him, but it is forced as well.
Confusion lights up in me, but I bite my lip and stumble back to my feet. He’s putting the cigarette into the hold of his lips so he can pull out his house keys. He won’t look at me for too long.
“Your mind is controlling you again.” He explains as the door opens. “You are just as strong as you have always been. But you gave up control. Now look at the mess you have become.”
His words hurt, but his tone remains gentle. Quietly, I make my way behind him into our home. Part of me is rejoicing because he’s still here. He didn’t give up on me. The other part is scolding. I gave up already, that’s why he didn’t have to!
He heaves out a sigh before inviting me to take a seat at the counter in his kitchen. He busies himself with making drinks for us. I’ve been gone for days yet he’s not going to ask where I stayed or how I’ve been. It is not a surprise, but it does sting.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, tracing the tattered bandage on my arm.
He only frowns in answer, handing me a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea. I know how much he hates apologies, but I can’t stop myself. I hurt him more than I did myself.
“Do not apologize if you do not plan to change the circumstance you are sorry for.”
He has a point. I don’t say anything after that. Just sip my tea quietly and fiddle with the bandage. I don’t know how to get better from here. That dark cloud suffocating me beneath the skin never seems to fade no matter what I do to fight it. I can’t tell him that though and I know it. Keep drinking. Let him lead the next thought.
It doesn’t take long before he catches onto my silence.
“Have you been cleaning them?” He asks with solemn resignation.
I nod slowly, but my eyes stay on my tea. I don’t want to worry him with the truth. My breath is slightly unstable. Don’t notice that, please.
I close my eyes. He knows me too well. Knows I can’t look at them. Knows I can’t face the evidence of my shattered will. The bandage hasn’t moved in a week. Not since the day he wrapped the wounds securely after smothering them in disinfectants and healing agents.
He reaches across the counter to pull my hand from the glass. His touch is warm. His eye is sad again when I lift mine to investigate his intentions.
“Let me see them. I can clean them again and you can read if you need a distraction while I work.” I hate hearing the sadness that creeps into the edges of his voice.
Still, I let him lead me to his living room and take a seat on the black leather couch. He leaves for a minute before returning with a new bandage roll and the various ointments. Suddenly my silly lungs are scared again. I can’t breathe properly and I won’t meet his eyes now. Shame fills me to the core when the wounds are revealed ever so carefully.
He asks patiently before he begins if I need a distraction. I lock my jaw, though and shake my head. I have to force myself to watch. I need to brand my eyes with the horror of my weakness.
‘This won’t happen again. No matter what. I won’t let this happen again.’ My mind is repeating it over and over while the stinging begins and fire is shooting up my arm.
Nineteen in total. There’s nineteen angry, swollen gashes staring up at me. Accusing me… cursing me… laughing at me!
Ten of them went deep enough to send me to the hospital that night. The rest are sealing themselves slowly over time, but those others are forced together with black threads causing the flesh to swell and bubble slightly. Bile rises into my throat, but I choke it down. This ugly sight is my doing and mine alone. I can’t turn away now that my handy work has a face that is purely hideous.
“They are infected, brat.”
I glance down at his face. His frown is still in place, but his eyes are soft and gentle. My arm has become numb while he finishes adding the disinfectant. He begins wrapping the bandage around my disfigured limb and I bite my lip again. It’s too tight and the stinging is back. Fire licks at my skin. I wonder if he’s tying it that way on purpose. A lesson to never forget what I did. A reminder that he is leaving tomorrow because I am broken.
Tears rush down my cheeks before I realize my eyes filled with the liquid. My chest is ripping open and I can’t breathe again.
“Please, don’t l-leave me behind.” I blubber out around strangled sobs.
He sits back abruptly like I’d pushed him. My hand seeks out the pain in my chest that I know isn’t real while he stares at me with an unreadable expression. A sad smile appears on his lips. He takes hold of both my hands and there are tears built up in his eye. I’ve never seen liquid there before.
“Listen to me carefully, little one,” he whispers gently. “I would never leave you. Especially not now with your strength so worn. This is not a goodbye. But I have a job to do. It is not anything you are not already used to. The family needs me to take care of something important. It is only business as usual, I promise. I am not leaving you. Do you understand?”
I nod my head solemnly. “They found him for you… And it’s your duty to make sure he’s punished for his crimes.”
Now it’s his turn to nod. There was a powerful family he watched over and protected from harm, which frequently took his company from me for days at a time. A few months back, there’d been an attack, though. One of the children lost their life, another was badly injured. I wasn’t given much more information than that, but his anger had been enough to know that it was serious. That family was more than a job; they meant something dear to him and he wouldn’t be satisfied until the criminal was served his personal justice.
And now he has the opportunity to have his revenge. Who am I to try to take that from him?
Yet my hands begin to shake again. I can’t trust myself to my own devices. The last time he left, he came home to me laying in my own blood unconscious and cold. He almost lost me then. I remember the rage when I woke. I can’t breathe. He sees the panic and I know he blames himself for it.
He reaches up and his hand cups the back of my neck, pulling my forehead down to touch his. He lets out a heavy breath that heats up my face and he whispers, “It will not be like last time. I promise. I will not let things get that bad again.”
I tell him I know that he won’t, but his fingers are stroking the bandage and I wonder if he even heard me. He is entranced by the ghosts of upraised skin that can be felt through the material.
When he looks up into my confused, waiting eyes there is sadness in his as he whispers, “it will only be a few days. Just stay strong for me until then and then you can rest. I realize I pushed too hard with your training. I know you are tired.”
It is the only time since I moved in with him that he has ever acknowledged an understanding in my faults.
The moment ends as quickly as it has come. Now he is clearing his throat, standing up. He wipes his hands on his jeans while I watch him turn away. The forced boredom has returned to his gaze.
“It is getting late. You should head to bed,” he muttered, absently heading back towards the kitchen.
I stand quickly, grabbing his arm. “Can’t I stay with you tonight?”
I won’t tell him that I can’t stand my room anymore. The suffocating madness paints those walls and I need his strength this last night. He runs a hand through his black hair and let’s a heavy sigh out.
Looking over at me with resignation he says, “fine, but no tears in the morning, alright?”