Chapter 1: First Breath
There are many strange occurrences in this world.
On June 6, 1966, a woman named Margaretta Maria gave birth to a baby boy in prison. The prison spanned the entirety of a remote island, where all the residents were female, including the guards. Two years into her sentence of ten for bank robbery and assault, her stomach swelled to an immense size, and she began to scream in pain as nine months of pregnancy occurred within nine minutes. The guards rushed her to the infirmary, attempting in vain to pry answers out of her as she lapsed in and out of consciousness due to the pain of childbirth.
“Who’s the father?” The guards demanded to know as the baby came to crown. Margaretta Maria did not answer. All she said was, “he’s dead... he’s been dead for two years…”
She offered no further explanation. While the guards did not believe her story, that she had been pregnant for two years without showing a single symptom, by all accounts it was true. Even if she had been impregnated during her sentence, it would never explain the sudden growth.
When the baby was finally born, and his umbilical cord cut, he didn’t cry, nor did he blink. The guards settled on bringing in a metal vat of water, the prison infirmary not even close to matching the standards of an infant ward, but the menial preparations would have to suffice. They washed the boy as he took in the world with wide, unblinking eyes, not knowing that his father was dead and his mother was imprisoned. Hopefully, they could keep it that way.
“This goes without saying,” the brown-haired guard began, washing her hands of amniotic fluid and various other excretions in the vat she knelt beside. Her thoughts strayed far from the unsanitary situation, too hyper-focused on the more important aspects of the situation. “But we can’t raise a baby here. We need to start thinking of the wellbeing of this child.”
The senior guard, an aged, grizzled, and clearly bitter woman barked unforgivingly at Margaretta.
“Oi! Where are you from, Maria?”
Margaretta took heavy, labored breaths, eyes unfocusing and refocusing on the fluorescent lights above her.
“Sar… de… gna…” She exhaled, feeling the new emptiness in her body. Silence lingered in the room, empty of the screams of the mother, empty of the screams of her child. Exhausted, she finally closed her eyes, hoping to fall asleep and wake up outside these walls.
“What’s the child’s name?” The third, black haired guard asked softly, swaddling the boy in a towel. There was a certain guilt in her actions, remorse for wrapping such a pure and precious soul in rough, worn tarry. He shouldn’t have had to be born in a prison, to be subjected to those conditions. The guard held him close to her chest, deeply shaken by the whole bizarre situation. Margaretta did not hear her question.
“What’s the boy’s name?!” The senior guard yelled at Margaretta belligerently, kicking the leg of the bed she laid upon. The black haired guard turned the newborn away from the situation, shielding his unblinking eyes with her body as if he would remember this when he grew up.
“Calm down!” The brown haired guard grabbed her superior’s shoulder, seizing her attention, and likely her ire. “Treat the woman with some respect. She just delivered a baby. I get that you don’t want to have to report this, but that’s no reason to take it out on her. We need to worry about what we’re going to do before we worry about how it looks on paper.”
Slowly, awkwardly, Margaretta placed one hand behind her, the other on her stomach. She sat up, feeling dizzy and sick, wondering how she’d made it through that alive. Had she been a little luckier in life, she could’ve bragged about delivering a child without any anesthesia, but an environment like this wasn’t the best place to flaunt things of this nature.
"Diavolo," she answered in a pained and hoarse voice, thoroughly broken from screaming. "His name is Diavolo. That's… what his father told me to name him." She attempted to clear her throat, only forcing her to acknowledge how scratchy and raw it was.
"His father?" The senior guard straightened up, scoffing. She brushed the grip of the other guard off callously. "The guy who knocked you up two years ago, then up and died? Yeah, I'm so fucking sure he knew you were pregnant two years before we did."
"It’s the truth," Margaretta replied quietly in a sigh, legs twitching in an attempt to rejoin. "He told me that one day, I would bear his child… and that I was to name him Diavolo. Shit," she giggled exhaustedly, still unable to fully process the situation. “I thought he was fucking with me too, but…”
Margaretta slowly laid back down, unable to expend any more energy to sit upright. She continued her attempts to steady her breathing, just like the two young guards had told her. Most of their knowledge of childbirth came from the Spanish soap operas that would play occasionally on the television in the guard’s quarters, but the superficial knowledge helped nonetheless. Breathe. Push.
"Well, we'll need to find Diavolo a good home, won't we?" The brown haired guard shot a steely glare at her superior, who rolled her eyes.
"I understand… it's fine…" Margaretta groaned, trying to turn on the infirmary bed. She looked over to her son, feeling a deep sense of love that only worsened her deep sense of sadness. "I don't deserve to have a child," she finished, tears finally welling up in her eyes. She gestured weakly at the black haired guard holding her son, eyes affixed to the glimmer of pink hair hidden behind her breast. Hesitantly, the guard turned to her, offering her a chance to see the child in full.
Margaretta reached out to stroke her son's round, pale face with the back of her finger. His wide, golden eyes wandered to meet his mother's, sending a chill down her spine. She felt great love for him, but in a way, she also felt a primal fear. She was a mother. This was her child. Should she be scared of this new responsibility, or scared that she wouldn’t have the privilege of raising him? Diavolo grabbed her finger, gripping it steadfastly without breaking eye contact.
"He's strong," Margaretta sang happily, the residual pain beginning to dull in the immense wave of oxytocin. Her pupils dilated heavily, nearly muting the slight terror locked away forever in her heart. Even if he had to grow up without her, which he certainly would, she was convinced that he would be just fine.
"Well, he'd better be if he took two years to grow," the brown haired guard chuckled, trying to lighten the mood. She bent over to observe the two, feeling a tragic smile form on her face. She didn't want to be the one responsible for splitting them up, but nothing could be done. "Do you have any family? Besides little Diavolo, of course."
"No," Margaretta shook her head, slowly regaining strength in her voice. "If I had any family, I wouldn't have ended up here, would I?" She chuckled wistfully, regretting it as the pain bit once more.
"We'll… find someone to adopt him. He'll grow up healthy and happy. I promise." The brown haired guard couldn't truly uphold that, but her saying that made them both feel a bit better.
"I… I don't want to leave him…" Margaretta reached out with both her hands, silently pleading for the dark haired woman to let her hold her baby boy just once. The guard nodded, sympathizing with her desperation, and moved ever so slightly forward to allow Margaretta to wrap her hands around the child. Weakly, and with great assistance, she lifted Diavolo up and sat him on her stomach, slowly laying him down to rest on her chest. For the first time, he closed his eyes. Almost mechanically, his eyelids descended, and he began to drift to sleep.
"You only have eight more years to your sentence." The brown haired guard knelt next to Margaretta, speaking softly so as not to disturb her or the baby. "You can see him when you get out, okay? And maybe, you could be part of his life again, if that's what he wants."
"Miss…? What's your name?" Margaretta stroked Diavolo's hair as he spoke, the sharp pink hue a perfect match to his father's.
"My name is Martha. Martha Cuore." The guard pressed a hand to her heart, feeling genuinely honorable. It seemed investing herself in this prisoner’s plight may have been her greatest act of service since she graduated. She wanted to help, truly. In any way she could.
"Martha… I don't want you to tell him about me…" Margaretta stared straight into Martha's eyes, chest heaving. She appeared to be heavily drugged, with frazzled hair and sluggish movements. Her smile twitched on and off, making it unclear as to what she was feeling. Her heart burned, but felt so cold nonetheless. Margaretta had passed the point of any normal emotion, and was running on nothing but chemical signals at this point in time. It was mildly disturbing.
Martha blinked once, twice, before hesitantly asking "are you sure?" It was understandable that a woman would want to sever ties with an unwanted child, but this eluded her.
"He doesn't need to know about what I've done… Not yet. And if he has to hear it from anybody, it's going to be me. When I get out… I'm going to visit him, whoever he's living with. And I'm going to tell him all I can. Promise me you won't let whoever adopts him tell him about me."
"...I promise," Martha replied emptily. That was a promise she couldn’t keep.
Two days later, a ship departed from the remote island. On board were six occupants: Diavolo Maria, Magdalena Dolce, Martha Cuore, the captain, another prisoner seeking medical attention, and the guard assigned to her. A priest from Margaretta’s hometown in Sardegna offered to adopt Diavolo, having no children of his own due to his occupation. Knowing this man personally, Margaretta authorized the adoption. It was her legal right to determine who had custody of her child, but the terms of her imprisonment muddied the waters. Her approval was noted, but held no weight. Magdalena had taken a special liking to the child, but knew adopting him wasn’t an option. Instead of adopting the child herself, she offered to accompany him to his new home. In the course of a few hours, the ship had come to dock on the Emerald Coast, a place neither Martha nor Magdalena had ever been to. After getting lost twice, they asked a local shop owner for directions to the church. By direction, they soon found the church, and were silently assured that a small town like this was an ideal place for a child to live. Finally meeting the priest face to face, they passed Diavolo to him, welcomed with open arms and open heart. As they boarded the ship back, they wondered, would this truly be the last time they saw that little boy? Would they never meet the man he would become? Their questions festered as the ship departed, sailing back to the dull, depressing prison. The only thing they left in Sardegna was their best wishes for Diavolo’s future, that he’d experience a happy childhood until he grew up to live a successful adulthood.
“Grow up big and strong,” Magdalena prayed on the thinly carpeted floor, pressing clasped hands close to her chest. She projected her emotions as if God would truly listen. “Never feel alone. A lot more people love you than you know.”
“You’re so superstitious, Magdalena,” Martha giggled, crossing her legs. Her smile faded, eyes slowly drifting towards the wooden ceiling of the cabin. She tried to peer straight through it, to see the clear blue sky and the man who supposedly resided there. “But, if there is a God… and he’s listening… I second that,” she waved subtly to the man upstairs.
Chapter 2: Imitosis
Diavolo brings an unexpected guest home.
Diavolo Maria was the adopted son of Father Alagis Anselmi. For the first few years of his life, he never guessed that the priest wasn't his own flesh and blood, but as he began to grow, he understood the laws of the church. But this arrangement, he was fine with. Regardless of the unmentioned fate of his parents, whether they died tragically or didn't love him enough to raise him, being adopted meant that somebody loved him enough to keep him around. In the back of his mind, Diavolo knew he would never truly be alone. That was the understanding he came to, that his father constantly reinforced. Not optimistic, nor pessimistic, nor pragmatic either. In his miniscule view of the world, that line of reasoning just seemed to make the most sense, and he clung to it dearly. Not unlike any other orphan, he often found himself wondering about his mother and father. Would they one day come back for him? Were they even still alive? One day, Diavolo concluded that he'd rather not know. If someone were to tell him the truth surrounding the circumstances of his birth, it would utterly shatter the platitude he held so dearly. If his parents didn’t want him, Diavolo would be upset. If his parents did want him, Diavolo would ache to know why they didn’t keep him in the first place. Any possible way he could patch it together in his head would further upset him and ruin his peaceful life. Eventually, the subject no longer came to mind.
Diavolo buried himself in that blissful, willful ignorance for years. Latching onto it as young as four, it indicated, possibly inspired, another prominent trait of his: the utter fear of confrontation. He didn't like action movies-- they got his heart rate up. He never felt confident enough to disagree with people, too scared they'd never forgive him. He couldn't even read the horoscopes in magazines without fretting over his future, struggling with the possibility the words on the page might pop out into his real life and strangle him. Not that he really believed in horoscopes, his father had firmly instilled that, but the suspicion would always remain that somehow, some way, they would be right.
Diavolo shied away from anything that would worry him, preferring to live peacefully. For the majority of the time, it worked-- until it didn't. Something as small as a cut hand or a stubbed toe could reduce him to tears in a matter of minutes. He was unlucky, he claimed vehemently through his tears. Always managing to break something, skin his knee, spill milk. Nothing major. But in his childish worldview, his issues became magnified. Just like a virus, anxiety leeched off him as he refused to build an immunity to stress. He’d never had his heart broken by a girl, nobody he loved had been injured, not a single animal he ever knew had ever died. Nothing had ever truly gone wrong in his life, and he had no plans if something ever did. That was how he lived.
Diavolo, in his youth, shared a remarkable amount of similarities with a house of cards. Subtly complex, yet simple and intuitive, but so… fragile. A passing breeze could bring it all crashing down. Such care and thought was put into his upbringing, but a single shake to the foundation could cause him to break down and weep. Yet, though it may seem frustrating or futile, the house can always be built back up again. But it will never be exactly the same. The cards may wind up in all the wrong places, flipped about and scrambled. In the end, the house is whole again, and isn’t that what counts? Only the results matter.
Diavolo gingerly opened the sliding glass door, wondering if the noise was too loud for the sensitive little ears of the squirrel he carried. Wrapped in the bottom of his oversized pink sweater, the squirrel tried unsuccessfully to play dead, nostrils flaring wide in tandem with its heavy breathing. Its injured leg kicked occasionally, brushing up against the plush fabric.
Diavolo toddled up to the kitchen table, reaching a hand into his makeshift sweater pouch to scoop up the little squirrel and gently lay him down on the table. The squirrel's eyes finally twitched open to meet the giant in front of them, half lit by the late afternoon sun streaming into the window. It was certainly in no condition to sprint away, but it wouldn’t accept its death so easily either. In the simple processes of its mind, a firm bite would certainly salvage the situation. Diavolo raised his hand up slowly, inching it closer to the creature, only able to hope he wouldn’t rouse its aggression.
“It’s okay,” Diavolo cooed, “I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m your friend, okay?” He carried on as if the squirrel could understand Italian. Gently, he ran his fingertips over the head of the poor creature, too paralyzed by the reality of the situation to resist. As the petting and ineffectual words of encouragement continued, it gradually softened up to the contact, finding the attention surprisingly pleasant, and captor remarkably gentle.
The elderly priest standing at the kitchen sink finished washing his hands, turning off the faucet and flicking his hands free of excess runoff. He turned around, looking for a towel to dry his hands, instead only finding a small rodent sprawled across the dining table. The priest’s breath hitched, unaccustomed but very averse to the sight of filthy animals lounging around in his spotless kitchen.
“Lord in--” he said with a start, placing a hand over his aging heart and immediately stopping himself before he took the lord’s name in vain. A gentle and welcoming man, he truly was, but no parent in their right mind would condone this. “Diavolo, put that thing back where it came from or so help me--”
“But look, papa, it’s hurt. It’s bleeding,” Diavolo interrupted him, scooping up the squirrel and startling it out of its mellow state. He walked over to his father, short legs not taking him too far too fast, but he was no less insistent on proving his point. Stopping huffily in front of his father, he waited for the man to humor him. Hesitantly, the priest leaned forward, making sure to keep distance from the creature. Peering at it skeptically, he saw no injury, until Diavolo nearly forced it into his face. The priest reared back slightly, conceding in his mind that he’d indeed seen a flash of red on the leg.
“It’s just a scratch,” Anselmi sighed heavily, shaking his head. His son's idealism wasn’t necessarily a detrimental trait, but in cases like these, it was rather inconvenient. “It’ll be fine. But you won’t be if it infects you with rabies or whatever it has. Leave it outside.”
“If it was fine, I wouldn't've been able to catch it,” Diavolo pleaded, holding the squirrel protectively to his chest. “It’s really hurt, and we can’t just leave it out to die!”
Anselmi inhaled, far too worn of Diavolo’s creature hoarding antics over the years to address this trend quite so gently as he used to. This behavior needed to stop, and soon. “Everything dies, Diavolo,” he sighed somberly. “It’s part of God’s plan. Leave it,” he stated authoritatively, kneeling down to his son’s eye level. Diavolo stepped back, pouting.
“But why would God do that?” Diavolo asked immediately, barely allowing any time for his father’s words to linger in the atmosphere. His voice cracked as he spoke, voice peaking in emotional instability, as always. “Why would he make the squirrel just to off it like this? And how do you know it’s not part of God’s plan for us to take care of it?”
The priest hesitated, never expecting a retort quite like this. Not from his own son, at the very least. As a priest, it certainly wasn’t his job to turn people away from the lord by making him seem cold, uncaring, or even sadistic. It dawned on the man that he may be crushing his little boy in this way. Drilling a small hole in his head that would fester and propagate, widening to the point all hope would begin to pour out in his adult years. Or perhaps he was being paranoid. Better safe than sorry.
“Fine… Fine, it can stay here tonight,” he groaned, standing up. “But tomorrow we’re taking it somewhere else. You cannot keep it, you understand?”
“I understand,” Diavolo nodded as he looked up at his father, cradling the squirrel in his arms as if it was his own child. “I just want it to be safe.”
Diavolo looked to his left, then his right, finally realizing he had no idea how to care for any animal, much less a squirrel. Where would it sleep? He’d have to make something up.
“Take him for a second, would you?” Diavolo forced the squirrel into his unsuspecting father’s hands, dashing up to his room with high hopes that he could find all the empty shoeboxes and old sweaters a squirrel could ever want. Anselmi fumbled awkwardly with the creature, holding it in such a way that it couldn’t come close to biting him even if it wanted to. Now, he was a passionate, caring man, but he could never quite understand his son’s obsession with his… ‘pet projects’
With a little luck and a lot of goodwill, Diavolo found himself able to construct a haphazard vivarium with secured exits, soft bedding, and much more water than a squirrel could ever need. As the relatively oversized dish swelled to max capacity, Diavolo turned off the kitchen tap, taking slow and gentle steps to keep the surface tension in the dish from breaking. In a few seconds more, he’d made it from the sink to the kitchen table, gingerly setting the dish down in its assigned quadrant of the shoebox vivarium. His father watched every careful movement of his, not exactly pleased, but not disappointed. At the very least it seemed his son was learning of responsibility, or was certainly making an effort. Whether or not the squirrel was traumatized and emaciated the following day would be quite telling.
Diavolo raised the lid to close it, slowly enough that it wouldn’t worry the squirrel, not that he could tell if the squirrel was worried, or ever truly prevent its stress, but he had the spirit. After the lid was set, Diavolo peered into the top, which he had replaced with screen and some staples, and smiled proudly.
“Diavolo,” his father began, tapping his fingers on the table skeptically. He sat up straight and rested his cheek in the other hand. “How do you plan to make it through life picking up diseased strays?”
Diavolo looked back to him with wide, innocent, golden eyes. For a second, it seemed like he was going to have a real answer, but in reality, he just shrugged unassumingly. With nothing more to add to the conversation besides the silent “I don’t know,” he rerouted his attention to the shoebox.
“Son… I think you need a hobby.”
“Hobby? Why?” Diavolo replied without looking, preoccupied with the goings-on in the vivarium.
“Just as something to help you occupy your time…” The priest continued, eyes wandering to the side in thought. “And maybe you can make friends with people, and not rodents,” he chuckled.
“Well…” Diavolo finally looked up from the shoebox, turned to his father, and blinked once. He looked clueless. He always looked clueless. “I mean, what do you think I should do?”
“Oh, I don’t know…” The priest began to tap on the table again, smiling warmly now that his son would actually listen to him. He tilted his head further into his hand, grabbing for the most basic hobby he could think of. Anything would suffice. “How about football?”
Diavolo’s expression soured instantly. “The other boys laugh at me when I fall…”
“M-Maybe something less physical,” the priest replied quickly, nearly wheezing at his misstep. He began to truly think about something Diavolo could do, something he would truly enjoy, something that wouldn’t leave him so open to bullying. “How about… you could learn to paint?”
With no words, Diavolo stared at him silently for a solid four seconds, mulling over the proposal. No. The answer was no. Perhaps, it would be better for him to engage in his father’s pasttimes, he thought. “What’s your hobby, Papa?”
“Mine, well… Mine is collecting matchbooks,” the priest shifted in his seat, realizing only after the words had come out of his mouth how old that made him sound. No child would be interested in such an activity..
“Matchbooks? Can I see?” Diavolo interest was only slightly feigned, because just like any other child, small cases full of fire-making sticks caught his attention. Especially a whole collection.
“Oh, sure,” the priest replied, blinking twice, taken aback by the response. He rose from his seat, making for the stairs. Turning to Diavolo with a pleasantly surprised smile, he said, “sit tight.”
“Here we are.”
The priest set down a wooden box on the table, pressing his thumbs against the epoxied lid and flipping it open. Diavolo crowded right next to him with no concept of personal space, standing on the tips of his toes to get the best view. Inside were stacks and stacks of matchbooks, going several layers deep. They all had different cuts, but the matchbooks similar in shape were stacked upon their counterparts and carefully tiled together with differently cut stacks to fit each one snugly in the box. They all contrasted in color, some jewel tones, some pastels, some earth toned, some yellowed with age. Each had a unique design with a story to tell, if not necessarily one your average Italian national could comprehend. Eastern characters adorned some, and others had German print, and even more were in symbols the boy couldn’t even begin to place. Diavolo reached his hand out to touch the organised stacks, his father gently warding it away, but only for a moment.
“Be careful, okay? Some of these are very old, and the paper might break if you handle them too harshly.”
Diavolo looked up to him, nodding in understanding, and picked the prettiest matchbook on the top layer. At least, in his opinion. It was bright pink, matching his hair in tone, and glossy. The logo read in black scrawl, “Passione,” accompanied by a stylized lipstick stamp. He ogled it and flipped it open, looking at all the perfectly lined up matches just begging to be struck against something. Diavolo suppressed the urge to take one out and light it, instead favoring asking for his own. Closing the matchbook once more, he turned to his father and lifted it up for him to see. “Where’d you get this one?”
His father squinted at it for a moment, before finally realizing.
“Eh-- that was a gift,” the priest dismissed the question and retrieved the matchbook, fitting it back into its proper place. The vast majority of the matchbooks he accrued were gifts from his congregation, who’d often seek out gifts to give him when they traveled abroad. As such, he never really questioned the specific establishment they were produced for, so long as they added to the collection and looked nice. It was quite unfortunate that the one Diavolo was most attracted to appeared to be from… a more “adult-oriented” place.
Diavolo was confused, but he moved on. “Can I look at another one?”
The priest hesitated, before answering “sure.” The chances of Diavolo coming across a matchbook so similar in nature were quite low.
Diavolo stuck his hand in again, this time pulling a worn green one from an American bar. The texture changed with age, weakening the paper irreparably, but making it uncommonly soft. It was anyone’s guess as to the age of this one. Taking extra care, Diavolo peeked inside, finding, predictably, more matches. His interest began to diminish rapidly as the reality finally occurred that they were all the same, only with different packaging.
“I… I don’t understand,” Diavolo sputtered out, having destroyed his childlike wonder in a matter of seconds. He fit the matchbook back into its assigned place, slightly rougher with it than he was beforehand. Disappointment abounded.
“Maybe when you’re older, you’ll understand the value of having a set,” Anselmi shrugged, not particularly hurt by his son’s lack of interest. He couldn’t really expect an eight year old boy to entertain himself with matchbooks he couldn’t even use for their intended purpose. Closing the box slowly, he shifted it out of the way and sat down at the table.
“It’s so boring though…” Diavolo muttered, unable to comprehend how someone could enjoy this despite having so much fun not seconds earlier. “I mean, they’re just matchbooks. They don’t make cute noises, you can’t play with them, you can’t feed them, so what’s the point in having so many?”
“All you think about are animals, huh?” Anselmi chuckled in a fashion specific to the elderly. Diavolo wasn’t quite ‘mature’ yet, but he still had plenty of time to learn.
“Is there really anything else worth thinking about?” Diavolo giggled, holding his hands behind his back and bouncing on his heels. With a wide smile, he turned to the vivarium, observing the somehow sleeping squirrel. In a moment, his face changed from one of warmth, to one of discovery. “Wait…”
“That look on your face…” The priest asked warily, knowing nothing good was coming.
“Papa…” Diavolo began, tilting his head as he prepared to beg in the most annoying, irrefusable manner possible.
“Oh no, don’t you ‘papa’ me, what are you about to do?” The priest wagged his finger at Diavolo, as if that would stop him.
“Can I please get a pet?” Diavolo was spurred into action, hands that were once behind his back now wrung together and pressed to his chest. He bent his knees and made the widest puppy dog eyes, not too different from how he looked normally. “I promise I’ll never ask for anything else ever again!”
“I’ll take really, really good care of it!” Diavolo continued on without listening to his father’s protests or reason. “And I’ll stop bringing in animals from outside, I swear!”
With a little hesitation, the priest stood up from the table and looked down at his young son before speaking. “...You swear?”
Diavolo nodded emphatically, hair swaying with the motion.
“Alright then. But nothing big, you understand?”
Fish food, sawdust, rubber, and fur. The scents wafted over them as they opened the door to the pet store. A chorus of chirps resounded somewhere from the back, chitters from another quadrant entirely, and if you were in the right spot, you could see that the entire back wall bore host to numerous, orderly fish tanks. Diavolo had never been in a store like this, and the knowledge they existed excited him terribly. He hadn't much time to marvel over the genre as a whole before curiosity had whisked him up and sent him careening through the various aisles-- without his father, of course.
"Diavolo, don't get too far ahead now," Father Anselmi warned. His words ultimately meant nothing as Diavolo had already stopped to ogle the mice. Champagne, coffee, cream. Gold, ivory, lilac. Any mouse coat you could imagine, and then the mottled ones the boy didn't even bother to place. They were all beautiful in their own way.
"Ah, mice? Mice seem like a good choice…" Father Anselmi looked at the paper plaques adorning the enclosures, taking special care to absorb the maintenance requirements. A small, good natured, low maintenance desk pet seemed the optimal choice for a boy such as Diavolo, and he'd quite clearly shown interest in them already. The only downside was their relatively short lifespan. That would certainly have to be discussed beforehand. Father Anselmi turned to look down at his wide eyed son, meeting nothing. He hadn't been looking at the signs for more than a few minutes, but Diavolo was already dust in the wind.
Father Anselmi sighed, looking around for the nearest employee, and located him.
"Sir? I'm very sorry to bother you," he began as he approached the employee, "but I seem to have lost my son. He's got pink hair--"
The priest's report was short lived, not like Diavolo really needed any more physical description. Catching a flash of pink from the corner of his eye, he turned back to the concerned and confused employee, apologizing for the inconvenience.
"Well, he's right there. Sorry to take up your time. God bless you," the priest said before waving slightly and departing.
"What is it that you're looking at now?" Father Anselmi approached his son, paying no mind to whatever Diavolo was so enraptured with. He certainly hoped the mice would be it, but it seems fate is never that forgiving, and the two of them may be stuck there for the next hour.
"I… Can I have one of these?" Diavolo came closer to the glass, just far enough to keep his breath from fogging it up. His father knelt down to his height in order to peer through the window, not quite liking what he saw.
A bright red and orange snake curled up a fake log, slowly weaving its head around and analyzing this new face. Its large black eyes seemed like they processed nothing, yet were incredibly judgemental.
"...Are you sure?" The priest looked between the snake and his son, well aware of how incompatible they would be, but Diavolo was infatuated with it nonetheless. Father Anselmi thought, Diavolo certainly wouldn't want to end up feeding that snake mice so similar to the ones he was fawning over not minutes ago.
"It likes me. Look," Diavolo whispered, almost as if he was talking to the snake itself. It bobbed its head up and down, nodding in agreement.
"Diavolo, they're quite high maintenance. You have to keep them at a certain humidity or they'll get sick. Mice are much easier to take care of. I just think you should consider..."
"I don't want a mouse. I want a snake. Look at how beautiful it is," Diavolo said breathlessly, admiring the bold, warm colors painting the snake's body.
"They're carnivores. You'll have to feed them mice, you realize?"
That gave Diavolo some pause, for once. He pulled his face away from the tank to look at his father, before simply saying, "it can't be that bad." Either he wasn't thinking about it at all, or had immediately reasoned the process couldn't be so gruesome if snakes were popular enough pets to be sold in stores.
"Perhaps you should see a feeding for yourself before you decide that," the priest sighed heavily, feeling unable to control his son. But to be fair, it was his choice of what kind of pet he'd raise. And if he wanted to raise a snake, it would be pointless to provide him any other animal. Father Anselmi stood up and looked around for the employee he had bothered beforehand, putting his head on a swivel. The man hadn't moved far from where he was standing, so the priest approached him to ask a favor.
"My son wants to get a pet snake," the priest began, reaching out to the staff member. Once his attention was secured, he continued. "But, in my opinion, I don't think he quite understands what the feeding of a snake entails. Is there, uh, any way he could view a feeding before he decides to purchase a snake? I want to make sure he knows what he's getting into."
The employee blinked once before politely replying, "Oh, sure. You’re actually just in time for their feedings anyways."
The two walked back to Diavolo, who hadn’t moved from his spot. When the boy looked up, he recognized the employee uniform and shuffled back, still unwilling to move very far. The employee nestled in beside him, popping the tank of the vivarium.
The man held a small black bag in his hand, filled with something unknown. Reasonably, it was obvious, but perhaps the realization hadn’t sunk in yet for Diavolo. Reaching in with a pair of tweezers, the employee pulled out a long dead mouse by its tail, preserved by ice for days. It dangled quietly from the metal grip, eyes closed and unmoving. It might as well have never been alive at all. Like a toy.
The employee lowered the mouse down into the enclosure, taking care to catch the snake’s attention. The second he let the mouse drop, the snake bolted after it, grabbing it by the neck, and in an instant it was gone. Wrapped deeply in the ruby coil, with no chance of escape-- not like the mouse had retained the capacity to struggle over its time in the fridge.
Diavolo watched in silence on the other side of the glass. It was an unexpectedly fascinating situation. He couldn’t truly feel anything for the mouse, seeing it pulled out of a bag one second and then totally gone the next. He knew for a fact that the snake didn’t cause the mouse’s death, so how could he feel remorse for that? To his knowledge, that little snake had never hurt anything in its life, and was just obeying its nature. It looked damn good doing it too.
“I’ll take it,” Diavolo shot at the employee with bright eyes, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“Once we’re ready,” the priest clarified to the worker. “Can we place a reservation?”
Pardon, I know this all seems like filler, but I pinky promise all of this is going to be important later. Even if it's uh, introduction wasn't done quite well. Had a rocky week. Also, the song this chapter is named after is 'Imitosis" by Andrew Bird. Here's a link. https://youtu.be/64sBcHNszXE
Chapter 3: Opposite Day
Diavolo meets his mother for the first time.
Maybe the mirror was tricking him. Demons always possessed mirrors. Though in truth, Diavolo knew it wouldn’t take a malicious demon to thwart him at this task. He narrowed his eyes further at the mirror on his desk, leaning in again to get a closer look at his face. Turning it slowly, he let his finger drift over each freckle.
“Thirteen, four-- oh, dang it,” he pouted. It was utterly useless, like trying to count the stars in the sky. Pulling his hands away from his face, he huffed and furrowed his brow, even more displeased at his expression in the reflection. He decided to let it go for now, but one day, he’d finally figure out just how many freckles dotted his cheeks. Hearing a subtle hiss, he turned to the source of the noise.
“You couldn’t count any better than me,” he muttered to his pet snake, who only replied by bobbing its head. Diavolo tilted his head briefly at the strange behavior, before formulating a hypothesis. “Oh, you must be hungry, huh? It’s about that time anyways,” he muttered, looking to the bedroom door. “I’ll be back soon with food, then.”
Diavolo opened his bedroom door and stepped out into the comparatively dark hall, shutting it behind him quietly. With the last of the noise gone, the silence gave way to the mellow chirping from downstairs. A voice familiar to Diavolo, that of his father, conversing with an unknown woman. Then two. Then three. Slowly, carefully, he crept towards the entrance of the stairs and parked himself there, drawing up his knees to his chest in wait.
“He’s obsessed with animals,” Father Anselmi told his company. “He used to bring them in from outside all the time.”
“Animals? He’s one of those boys?” One of the female voices inquired lightheartedly.
“Actually, I’ve just been describing him all this time. I should call him down so you can see him in person.”
“Diavolo?” Father Anselmi called for his son. Diavolo drew back slightly, before sliding his foot onto the lower step and leaning forward to peer through the little angle where the stairs diverged from the upper floor. There were three women, one with shoulder length brown hair, another with tied black hair, and the one in the middle with wavy dark hair that must have reached her waist. Scooting down the next three stairs, Diavolo finally stood up to walk down normally, nervous about showing his face. For a brief moment, his eyes reached equal height with the overhead light and blinded him, making him feel no better about this foreign situation.
“Oh, there he is,” the brown haired woman said, clasping her hands in front of her chest joyously. Upon further inspection, the rigid, navy blue clothes she wore corresponded near the letter to the clothing of the woman with tied black hair. Police officers. The two women were police officers. What business did two police officers have with Diavolo? He continued down the steps, hyper aware of the potential noises he didn't dare make. There was no logical reason to quiet himself, as if he was being hunted, but he couldn't shake the feeling.
"Look at you! So tall!" The woman with tied black hair exclaimed, nearly springing up from her seat.
"...Have I met you?" Diavolo asked warily, standing totally static at the bottom of the stairs. He wouldn't make a move until he knew what he was getting himself into.
"Come, sit down," Father Anselmi said casually with a wide, warm smile, as if nothing was wrong. "I'll make you a cup of tea."
Diavolo could do nothing but oblige. Awkwardly, he made his way closer to the kitchen table, the walk feeling incredibly long with three sets of eyes on him. He counted the chairs. Five chairs. Diavolo hadn’t even known they had five matching dining chairs. Where did they come from? Not the chairs, the women.
He sat down quietly without meeting anyone’s eyes, without raising his head, and waited for his father to say something. The absence of thoughts was cut short by the gentle clink of the cup and saucer being laid down in front of him. Knowing he was being watched, he was hesitant at first, but knew nothing else to do. He reached out to pick up the teacup, wrapping his small fingers around the handle gingerly to bring it up to his lips.
“Diavolo… This is your mother, and her friends.”
His hearing cut off after mother. Freezing in his tracks, his eyes widened dramatically. Totally petrified, down to the lungs. He exhaled barely, slightly, becoming lightheaded as he softly set the teacup back on the saucer. Despite how gently he did it, it should’ve made some noise regardless, but there was nothing. He could hear nothing besides the word, ‘mother.’
“Who is…” Diavolo croaked, looking up warily. He regretted his words. He needed to leave immediately.
“I’m Martha,” the brunette said.
“And I’m Magdalena,” the woman with black hair said, following closely on the heels of the other ecstatically.
“And I’m…” the woman in the middle began, wringing her hands together. The sunlight from the window caught on her dark hair, revealing in the projected patches that it was actually a deep brown. The strands on the outer edges caught the light and glittered gold, her own saint’s halo. A smile formed on her face, and tears in her eyes. Softly, she spoke, saying what she had been waiting to say for eight years. “...Your mother. Margaretta.”
The others watched the two expectantly, hearts high for a teary eyed reunion. Each held their breath, waiting for Diavolo to ask ‘mother,’ ‘mom,’ ‘mama,’ or any variant thereof, for the first time.
"Why are you here?" Diavolo looked the woman in the face. She bore no resemblance to him at first glance, but the longer he looked, the clearer it was. This woman was certainly his mother, having crawled out of her hole after all this time, expecting a warm welcome. He inhaled shakily and asked again, “why are you here, now? Where were you my…?”
Diavolo cracked. His sad, golden eyes began to fill with tears, his voice lost all semblance of calm, and his face began to burn. Leaning forward on the table, he put his head in his hands, wanting to hide from everyone. The heavy thuds of his heart were not constrained only to his chest, each pulse mirrored in his stomach and throat, choking him.
“Diavolo,” Margaretta whispered, tears beginning to overwhelm her as well. She didn’t expect her son to spring to action as if he’d known her all her life, but this reaction was more severe than she anticipated. Slowly, she reached out to pat his arm and offer what little comfort she could provide at the moment, to show she cared. The second her fingertips met Diavolo’s wrist, he jerked it away as if she had burned him, screaming bloody murder.
“Don’t touch me!” Diavolo shrieked, head snapping up. He was gasping for air like a fish. Didn’t know why. Didn’t know when it started. But he couldn’t breathe. He was panting so hard, but he couldn’t breathe.
“I didn’t know, I never wanted to know, why did you leave me? Why did you leave, why did you--? No, no no no no, don’t answer that. Don’t talk to me,” he rambled deliriously as he got up from the kitchen table. He couldn’t hear his own words over the deafening rumble that accompanied his body’s shaking. Clutching the fabric about his chest with both hands, he headed straight for the stairs. He was going to go to his room and do something, anything about this. There was no plan otherwise. Hide. That was the objective. Hide, and hope that a simple nap would wipe all of this from his memory.
“I never wanted to leave you, Diavolo,” Margaretta said as quickly and concisely through her tears as she possibly could, hoping desperately to touch base with her son’s senses. She quickly got up from her chair to follow him. “The moment my sentence was over I came to see you! Yes, I was scared, but I’ve been thinking about you for years, and if I had my way, we’d have never been apart!”
Diavolo froze, foot planted on the first step up. He couldn’t tell whether his body felt hot or cold, but his skin was crawling either way. He turned his head slightly, and echoed the word, “sentence…?”
Out of some twisted, morbid curiosity, or simply the mammalian instinct to see what threatens you, Diavolo turned fully to look at his mother. To look at the teary eyed woman who had birthed him, and know something was very, very wrong with her.
“You were… a prisoner? What—What did you do?! That you were locked away for eight years?! What is…? Who are you?!” Diavolo backed up on the steps like a threatened, injured animal, attempting to scoot up the steps, but being too uncoordinated in his panic to make much progress.
“Diavolo, please! I’m your mother, and I love you! I understand that you’re overwhelmed, but I’d like to be a part of your life again,” Margaretta cried, knowing not to physically pursue him up the stairs, lest she make him more hysterical.
“What did you do?! What did you do?!” Diavolo repeated his words, asking for an answer he didn’t want. But he was too far gone. He either had to know everything, or had to know nothing. “Did you kill someone?!”
“Diavolo, please, if I told you now you wouldn’t understand…” Margaretta gripped the stair rail, pleadingly pressing a hand to her chest as the guilt she felt doubled. “I-I’m sure you’ll be able to understand when you grow older…”
“Don’t make excuses!” Diavolo screamed, finding his feet and standing above her. He wasn’t tall or intimidating by any means, but he just seemed so much more upset at that angle. “You hurt someone!”
“You-- Please, listen to me! I never hurt anyone! Y-Your father--”
“...My father too? My parents are… Where--Where is my father?! Why is he not here with you?!” Diavolo took a step back up warily, regretting the words from the process of forming them, to speaking them. It was absolutely the last thing he wanted to know, yet he couldn’t help but ask despite this.
“He’s…. He’s dead.” That was all Margaretta had to say. He had been dead for ten years, and for all intents and purposes, no longer existed.
Diavolo’s legs felt like they were crumbling beneath him. He sat as quickly as he could, raising his hands over his head as if someone was making to beat him. Tucking his head behind his knees, he weeped openly. The vision of his life that he had so carefully guarded, mercilessly shredded to pieces in seconds. He never wanted to know where he came from. But now, he knew his mother was a criminal, and his father was dead. He couldn’t breathe. His whole body shook, almost violently. There was this ever-present searing headache, that made it feel like his brain was going to be severed in two. When he opened his mouth to reply in some coherent manner, all that came out was a torn up, bloody scream of anguish. A scream, and then nothing. Nothing that Diavolo’s fleeting consciousness could process as he blacked out, anyways.
Margaretta could do nothing but watch as the son she loved screamed and cried, but refused her help. Refused her love, refused her remorse. As his scream began to wane, her last sliver of hope withered away. Thoroughly broken, she didn’t want to make the situation any worse. Through her tears, with her cracking voice, she somberly said, “I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused.”
And that was it. Margaretta said nothing more, turning around and heading straight out the front door without her handbag. Martha and Magdalena quickly gathered their things and followed her out to comfort her--to no avail.
Diavolo stared at the dark space between his chest and thighs, where his hot breath bounced off every surface and stifled his breathing. He asked himself, why was he crying? No, not him, that… other person. Sliding his feet down the step to give himself some breathing room, Diavolo stared at his lap with wide, unblinking eyes. The hot tears pooled up in his eyes, blurred his vision as they hung, then fell and hit his pants. To clear his vision, he blinked, once, twice. For the strangest reason, his breathing was unsteady. And why, Diavolo couldn’t quite comprehend. He stared emptily at the door as his emotions stabilized, raising his hand up to his face. Gently, he poked his lower eyelid to feel how wet, sensitive, and swollen it was. How dry the skin touched by his tears had become. In fact, it didn’t even feel like his own face.
“...Are you alright?” Father Anselmi approached his son slowly, the only possible person who could talk him down from his first real panic attack. Unfortunately, he was far too late.
Diavolo straightened up, near robotically, and made direct eye contact with him as if he couldn’t understand the question, or the motivation behind it. He wiped the last of the wetness from his eyes with the back of his sleeve, before responding, “...yeah.” When he lowered his arm, his father was even closer than before, passively offering a cup of tea. Diavolo stared at it like it was alien technology, eyes eventually drifting up to Father Anselmi’s face. The priest had a sliver of hope buried somewhere in those old eyes, despite the thrashing this situation had given him. Diavolo accepted the tea, slowly brought it up to his lips, and finally took a sip.
“It’s… too sweet,” he said, punctuating the sentence by clearing his throat.
“Uh…? I’m sorry,” the priest shook his head guiltily. After all this, he had to top it off by somehow failing to make a simple cup of tea. “That’s usually how you like it. I’ll go make another cup, okay?”
“No, it’s fine,” Diavolo corrected himself. He usually liked it sweet, right? Then he would drink it sweet, even if he could give an approximate estimate of how many grams of sugar were dumped in. With love, of course, whatever that was worth. He rose from the stairs with his nose still buried in the cup and made his way over to the kitchen table, not visibly taking a moment to breathe as he downed the whole thing. Not as if all the sugar made it something worth tasting. By the time he had reached the kitchen table, the cup was empty. Setting it down, Diavolo turned back around to say, “I’m going to my room. Which is… upstairs. Upstairs. To my room.”
Father Anselmi watched him pass by silently, worried, but not worried enough to voice his concerns. He picked up Diavolo’s empty cup and put it in the sink to rinse it. As he turned the faucet, he began to think, it was unusual for Diavolo to leave messes like this. He had certainly taught his son better than that. But, the priest supposed, he would need a little time to heal from this. Then he’d be back to normal.
Diavolo was sharply aware of his breathing as he entered his room. Well, ‘his’ room. The door clicked shut, seeming so loud in the total silence of the house. He crept further in, bare footfalls silent against the plush carpet. The whole room was splashed in a reddish pink, from the sunlight that filtered through the thin curtains. Finding the light switch, Diavolo dragged his finger across it without breaking gaze from the room as a whole, wishing to see the exact moment the tone changed. Pure, colorless light appeared in the room, diluting the red, but leaving the room still visibly pink in some areas. Perhaps the change wasn’t that great, after all. Diavolo’s eyes honed in on a glass tank set on the desk, filled with synthetic foliage and rocks to create the illusion of a world where there was none. But what inhabited that world?
No louder than before, Diavolo walked up to the tank and peeked in the top, debating the merit of overturning the hiding spots to get his answer quicker. All the thinking was for naught, as a ruby colored corn snake slithered out to greet him.
“...Heyyy,” Diavolo began hesitantly, not intimidated per se, just a little uncomfortable that he apparently owned a snake. As the word dragged on, his tone began to falter from one of discomfort, to one of fawning.
“Mister! Oh, look at you,” Diavolo said, all semblance of caution or alienation totally wiped from his mannerisms. A totally different person. He stood on the tips of his toes, whispering to his beloved pet like it could possibly know what he was saying. Well, Diavolo had always had a habit of confiding in things that couldn’t respond.
“Wait…” Diavolo continued, unsure whether he was simply speaking to himself, or speaking to the snake. “How… How long have I been standing here? Wasn’t there something I needed to do downstairs…? It must have slipped my mind. Oh well! If I forgot, it probably wasn’t that important, right Mister Red?”
The snake bobbed its head animatedly, and Diavolo took that as an affirmative.
“Ah, my eyes actually burn real bad. Why do they…? And my chest feels really tight too. You know what, I was probably going to go outside and get some fresh air. I’ll be back, okay?”
Without further ado, Diavolo left the room as quickly as he came, shutting the lights off like usual. He didn’t bother to be particularly quiet when closing the door, but the silence that lingered afterwards gave him intense deja vu. Though it bothered him, nothing could truly be done about a simple feeling. On his way to the back door, he passed the kitchen table, where his father sat silently.
“Diavolo,” Father Anselmi called softly to his son, remaining as passive as possible to avoid aggravating another panic attack. “Are you… alright?”
Diavolo stopped to address him, close to the handle of the sliding glass door. “Of course I am, silly,” he shrugged. “I’m just going to get some fresh air.”
Diavolo stepped outside, first inhaling deeply, then shutting the door behind him. The scent of the seaside was one he had always been familiar with, having grown up on this island. But it seemed that he had forgotten the precise smell of the beach, the weathered rocks ground into fine sand releasing the scent of minerals in the air, the mist of the salty sea. The scent was exciting to many, but to Diavolo, it was simply the smell of home. Somewhere in the distance, a flock of seagulls called, and gained a response.
Diavolo walked further into the backyard, gravitating towards the large tree. There resided a family of birds, and he knew this because in his spare time, he had provided nesting materials for them. He’d visit often-- though not so often that he would scare them away permanently. Coming close to the trunk, he grabbed the branch he’d always use to climb out of sheer muscle memory, before hearing a soft chirping coming from the ground. Diavolo peered at the tuft of grass, squatting down and holding his breath to hear better.
He had heard right. On the ground laid a baby bird, old enough to fly, but in no condition to. It dragged its limp, injured wing along, with no plans for the immediate future besides survival. Diavolo scooped it up, well aware that he had sworn not to do this, but unwilling to see the fledgling he had a hand in raising die on the ground like a common mammal. Stuffing the baby bird into his sweater, he prepared to lie his way back to his room.
The walk up had passed without incident. Diavolo quickly removed the bird from the folds of his sweater, hoping he hadn’t suffocated it in any way. Luckily, it seemed to be just fine. Diavolo held it up, wondering where exactly he should put it for now.
“Hmmm… You know, I think I know someone you might get along with, Mister… is it Mister or Miss?” Diavolo spoke to the confused bird, pretending to confirm its gender. It chirped meaninglessly, and Diavolo responded, “ah, pardon my rude behavior, Miss Bird. I won’t make the same mistake twice.”
Bringing the bird over to the snake’s vivarium, Diavolo gently set it in, politely saying, “We’ll have that wing fixed up in no time, Miss Bird. In the meantime, I want you to make friends with Mister Red over here, okay?”
The second the bird’s talons touched down on the vivarium’s bedding, its fate was sealed. Diavolo removed his hands, waiting for the corn snake to come out of hiding. And almost immediately, it did, slithering out from under the synthetic husk of half a log. For a few moments, the snake and bird nosed around each other, investigating the other. The bird’s chirping began to increase in frequency and volume as it frantically hopped around the snake, dragging along that hopelessly injured wing.
“Striking up a conversation, are you?” Diavolo hummed warmly, his words immediately warped into a twisted pun not even a full second later as the corn snake attacked the bird, grabbing it by the throat and coiling around it. The chirping ceased immediately, and was resumed with the strangled cries of a dying animal fighting for its life.
Diavolo slapped a hand over his mouth as he truly realized what he was watching. He'd never seen his snake eat something that was alive before. Never heard it cry as it struggled. He hadn’t even known that snakes ate birds, but snakes would eat anything if hungry enough. There was blood, coming from somewhere. He didn’t know where, or how, but there were drops of blood on the body of the snake, a clearly different shade of red than its scales. Diavolo gasped sharply at the sight, though his hand firmly covered his nose and mouth, preventing him from breathing. In the moment he went lightheaded, his eyes rolled back and the world went black.
From the brink of unconsciousness, Diavolo gripped the side of the desk and stood back up, wondering what series of events had led him to emerge again. It seemed that in the other’s moments of high stress or mental instability, he would take control, whether he liked it or not. Diavolo peered into the vivarium in front of him curiously, wondering what had distressed him so. Needless to say, it wasn’t a pretty sight-- at least to the other.
The bird’s pink, pointed tongue was lolling from side, eyes beginning to bulge out of its skull the tighter the constriction got. Some part of it was twitching, though it was impossible to tell what. Behind the ruby coils, the fledgling had been completely bent out of shape, making it impossible to gauge an impression of its anatomy. Eventually, the twitching stopped. The eyes bulged out no further, and the swaying of the tongue stilled to a halt as the snake began to loosen. It flicked its tongue through the bird’s baby feathers to confirm it had secured its kill, rustling them gently. All signs of life were wiped clean. With the bird’s black plumage, it was still impossible to tell where the blood had come from, but it was very clearly present, small amounts smeared on the snake’s white underbelly. As the snake unwound more, the bird was revealed to be totally limp, like it had no bones, or they had been completely crushed. The snake found a place to grab that it considered convenient, and got to work.
“You know,” Diavolo chuckled as he watched, “I think we could actually be great friends.”
The song this chapter is titled after is 'Opposite Day' by Andrew Bird. I'm sure you're seeing a pattern here. https://youtu.be/-xDRmsmGyXI
I particularly like the lyric about "good kids sprouting horns." I'm sure you can see how this chapter title is relevant. I'm not entirely sure if the transitions between the two are clear enough, but I can only hope they are. I wonder if they're too obvious, or too subtle.
Chapter 4: His Name is Diavolo
Half finished: update coming, uh, eventually. When I get around to it.
As Diavolo returned home, the sea breeze began to pick up once more. He’d been to visit the market in the center of town, nearly draining his allowance with overly sweet candies made in Sardegna, and colorful novelties imported from mainland Italy. All of his spoils were stuffed into the front basket of his bike as he rode back to his home, passing through the neighborhood where most of the islanders resided.
Two boys, Diavolo’s own age, watched as he pedaled down the street in front of them, glowering. One picked up a fragment of brick, shaken off the road after years of wear, and threw it at the spokes of Diavolo’s bike. The other boy followed suit as well, both grabbing anything they could get their hands on to mercilessly pelt him until something finally stopped him. One brick fragment hit Diavolo’s ankle, causing him to wince in pain and lift his foot off the pedal for a mere moment. Quickly following up on that, a stick thrown managed to lodge itself between the spokes and bring Diavolo to a screeching halt. He touched one foot to the ground in urgency, barely managing to keep control of the bike. Unfortunately, all the goods in the basket were not so compliant, and spilled out into the road in front of him. With no real knowledge of his circumstances, Diavolo’s only thought was to collect what belonged to him, and continue on his way. He knelt down to scoop up his belongings, before his actions were cut short.
“Give it back,” one of the boys spat threateningly, seemingly materializing in front of Diavolo. He nudged Diavolo's package of goods further from his hand, making an audible scraping noise as the brand new product began to scratch and collect dirt. Diavolo looked up and squinted at the unfamiliar face, blocking the sunlight. The town was by no means large, but he didn’t recognize this boy at all.
“Give what back?” He asked nervously, diverting his eyes and continuing to collect the contents of his basket in the hopes that he’d be able to book it as soon as possible. The feeling of the hot pavement scuffing his knees, though he was wearing full length pants, kept him on edge.
“You stole my wallet!” Unable to stomach the false ignorance, the boy snapped and raised his voice, stomping once on the ground. So close to Diavolo’s head, the sudden noise of rubber colliding with brick sounded like a gunshot. A small amount of dirt was kicked into his face, not much, but enough to irritate his eyes and stifle his breathing.
“Stole… your…?” Diavolo croaked, holding back the urge to cough. He tried to blink the excess water out of his vision as he looked up at the boy fearfully, cluelessly, moving his own hand close to his chest to keep it from being stepped on.
The boy reached down to grip the collar of Doppio’s sweater, lifting him to his feet and pulling their faces uncomfortably close. As if the summer sun wasn’t hot enough already, the blood rush of terror made Diavolo feel like he was boiling from the inside. Stifled breathing, teary eyes, and now flushed face, he looked and felt well past primed for a breakdown. “Pay back the money you stole! You’re not getting away with this just because you’re the priest’s son!”
“I really didn’t take anything, I swear!” Diavolo pleaded, grabbing the boy’s wrists, but unwilling to initiate the violence and pry him off. Turn the other cheek. That’s what he learned in Sunday school. “P-Please, let me go!”
The boy ignored Diavolo’s pleas, attempting to knee him in the stomach, but failing miserably. Nonetheless, contact was made, and though it wasn’t a particularly hard hit that didn’t hurt very badly, it shed light on the fact that this boy was willing to harm him over this. That made Diavolo rightfully terrified.
“Please, please leave me alone! I didn’t do anything!” Diavolo’s voice had officially cracked. He tried to step back, slowly, unable to bring himself to run away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about! I swear on my life!”
“M-Maybe you should drop him, Giasone…” The other boy grimaced, beginning to feel remorse for standing by and watching this. “He’s really... I don’t think he did it. I mean, look at him, man.”
“I don’t care if he’s a good actor,” Giasone grumbled, looking back at his friend with residual bloodlust lingering in his eyes. “I know he took what’s mine! He’s the only person in this town with that stupid pink hair…”
“You know what? I’m… not gonna be a part of this,” the boy said, stepping back slowly. One step became two, and in three, he began walking backwards as he spoke. “I’m telling my parents. If you beat him up, you’ll get in trouble. Jus’ leave him be.”
“Don’t be a snitch! Toni! I won’t be friends with you anymore if you tattle!” He dropped Diavolo to point an accusatory finger at the other boy and wave his arms about, as if that would help his case.
“Peace,” Toni called back, unwilling to negotiate his morality. He stopped for a moment to secure eye contact and flick his hand under his chin, before resuming his exit.
Giasone groaned, beginning to lose confidence now that he had no one to back him up. But he had to follow through. He turned back around to face Diavolo, and was hit with a swift, ruthless punch to the face. The boy's consciousness flickered out immediately, narrowly dodging the added pain of careening to the ground.
Breathing deeply, Diavolo felt the pain radiate through his hand as he flexed his fingers. He didn’t mind it. In fact, he enjoyed it. It reminded him that he existed. “Awake… I’m awake, I’m… Let’s take advantage of this for as long as it lasts.”
Diavolo stood over the boy's unconscious body, tilting his head and peering at him coldly. Slowly, he knelt down over him, casting a grand shadow and giving an unsettling smile. Uncomfortably close to the boy’s sleeping face, he muttered to him, “I’m the one who stole your wallet. Not him. Not my double. Me. Diavolo. Don’t give that goddamn parasite the credit.”
Without breaking gaze, Diavolo slipped his hands into the boy's pockets, looking for anything he could possibly take. All he could manage to fish out was twenty-five lira, which wasn’t much, but it was the action that counted to Diavolo. To have an effect on someone, without them knowing he existed. With no one to direct their anger towards. A way for Diavolo to leave his legacy without his double seeking treatment-- be that antipsychotics or an exorcism. To exist, without existing. That was Diavolo’s goal. He placed the coin on the forehead of the unconscious boy, pressing it in harshly with his thumb until it left a mark. “Remember me.”
Diavolo pried the coin off and stuffed it in his pocket, barely allowing himself any time to see if the coin had actually caused any damage, before grabbing the boy by the ankles and dragging him to a nearby bush. Circling to the less seen side, Diavolo shoved the boy in with no regard for how he’d feel when he woke up, like a sack of meat. And since Giasone couldn’t fit in all the way, Diavolo pressed repeatedly against his chest hard and fast, snapping several branches to force him deeper inside. The ragged shafts scraped and cut, leaving small lesions on the boy’s skin, drawing blood. Leaves and branches fell on his lap, inside his clothes, and would remain there until he arose, confused and terrified. But for now, Diavolo would unceremoniously leave him like this and be on his way.
He strode back to the bike, keeping his head on a swivel to make sure no one had witnessed that encounter. When he made it back, he righted and mounted the bike immediately, even going so far as to press his foot to a pedal before he remembered the items spilled all over the road. Momentarily, he glared down at them with distaste, before setting out the kickstand and hopping off to retrieve them. He knelt down and picked up a bag of candies, resentful of the joyous rustling of the packaging. It wasn’t an annoying noise, it wasn’t much to fret over, least of all to feel hatred for, but something about it set him off. Throwing the bag into the basket, he grabbed another item, taking a second to look at it. He didn’t own it, nor did he want to own it, but the fact that he was obligated to pick up after someone else’s frivolities ate at him.
“I’m tired of being your damn bodyguard,” Diavolo growled, thumbing the dirt off a plush stuffed animal before haphazardly throwing it back into the basket. “You’re not worthy. Weak… You don’t deserve to have-- to control someone like me. And you certainly don’t deserve to share a body with me. Parasite…”
He shook with rage as he contemplated his circumstances, forever tethered in servitude to a coward. Cursed to never live a life his own, always picking up after his double. His Doppio. Keeping him safe and comfortable, protecting him from bullies. Yet never would he be repaid. His Doppio would never thank him, or acknowledge his existence for that matter, and would continue dragging him around to live his pointless little life. It had only been a year since Diavolo had first awakened, but it hadn’t taken very long for his resentment as a mere afterthought to set in. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. He picked up a pack of pencils, the final item, and clutched it with both hands as he brought it closer to his body.
“Maybe I should just leave you to fend for yourself, dammit!” Diavolo threw the pack into the basket harshly, unaffected by the gruesome noise it made as it hit wire. He stood up huffily, brushed the dust off his knees, and mounted his bike, making sure to look both ways and ensure no witnesses had seen him. With nothing else to check, Diavolo stared at a brick house with empty, tired eyes for a moment, something in the back of his brain telling him to accept his circumstances. He ignored the feeling and kicked off.
The sea breeze rushed past his face, not giving him nearly as much joy as it would’ve given the other. Coasting down a slight hill, the steeple of the church came into view, crossed by a flock of seagulls in the distance. Their cacophonous chatter was loud enough to reach Diavolo’s ears, worsening his mood. The bright sky, the cool breeze, the ambient symphony of crashing waves in the distance, all irked him. He hated the atmosphere, not because it disturbed him, but on principle. His double would have loved this, if he was awake. But as long as Diavolo was conscious, he was going to stifle and subvert that presence, by force if he needed to. As he continued down the road, the thought of total dominance buzzed around in Diavolo's head deafeningly, the life he would lead if he wasn't shackled, and in that moment, the thought pleased him. The fantasy blended in with the relaxed scenery and blurred together, filling Diavolo with a sense of hope for the future that he’d never felt. That intense, rising happiness in his chest began to dim as his brain switched off, allowing the other to switch in and steal what little Diavolo had to his name.
A pulse of awareness resounded through Diavolo's body. The entire coast, the chattering seagulls, the crashing waves, all popped into existence in one jarring moment. All sense of hope was extinguished in the transition, overtaken by sudden panic. The only knowledge Diavolo had acquired in the second that he’d been awake was that he had no knowledge. He could smell the sea breeze, feel the wind rush past his face, but he didn’t know where he was. Fists clenched over and riveted to the handlebars he’d no memory of grabbing in the first place, he turned sharply to view his surroundings. The front tire lost traction, sliding and turning the whole bicycle sideways, with Diavolo on top. Of course, he wouldn’t be on top for long. His forearms collided with the rigid ground as the bike escaped him, skidding a meter away. It ejected the basket's contents for a second time and laid quietly, waiting to be picked up once again. Scrapes and cuts from various pebbles and other debris strewn about decorated Diavolo's arms. He winced in pain as tears formed in his eyes, grasping his wrist tightly, as if cutting off blood flow would make it hurt any less. With a severe pout, Diavolo turned and crawled over to everything that had spilled from the basket. Their shapes were indecipherable due to the blur that glazed his eyes, but the bright colors stuck out against the earth toned road. He blinked the tears away and composed himself, quickly grabbing all of his things to put back in the basket. Each item, he put into the pouch made from his sweater, one after the other. As he got up and righted his bike, a horribly disturbing and powerful sense of deja vu washed over him. For a second, he forgot his misery entirely, replaced in full with dreadful tension. The feeling that something wasn't quite right with him. A strange sensation crawled up his back, constricting all his muscles as it passed, stiffening him like a stone statue. With a shudder and a shake of the head, Diavolo shoved the eerie feeling into the recesses of his mind and transferred the contents of the pouch to the basket. He paused for a second as he looked at the full basket, and thought to himself, perhaps it would be better to simply walk the bike the short distance home? With his poor luck, it seemed the best course of action.
I'm super, super sorry for the half upload. I figured it was better to let you know I'm alive, considering I disappeared for a year. So, I'm not dead, just kinda depressed. I had some really bad writer's block for an extended period of time, so I wasn't getting much work done. On top of that, I didn't like the writing I'd actually managed to finish. My mental health hasn't exactly been floating during quarantine, and it's infected someone in my family. I wanted to get that out of the way, as some sort of excuse for the infrequency of my posting. I made a discord server to log my notes for the whole series, and hopefully speak with some of you. If you’re interested, I’ll link it here. https://discord.gg/UgkuRdX Come join me: I’m cripplingly lonely.