You’re four-years-old when you realize the name “Isaac” doesn’t fit you.
You wear it loosely like your muddy shoes—which are two sizes too big—but they’re the only pair you’ll ever get.
When your name is called, you answer to it, but it’s never really yours. Not really.
When your mother says it, it sounds like marbles clattering against the floor. A smack of lightning. A swear word. Isaac, come here. Isaac, shut up. Isaac, go away.
Sometimes you think lightning might be better than nothing at all. That a storm might be better than silence. That your name being spat by a forked tongue sounds better than it not being said at all. And maybe that’s because when days go by and she doesn’t speak to you, your heart starts to shrink—two sizes too small—until you can feel it slide out of your chest and onto the floor somewhere (probably behind the couch where you play hide and seek, hoping one day she might actually look for you).
Sometimes you say her name and you’re met with radio silence.
Other times you’re lucky and she comes over, tends to whatever you need, and leaves again. She’s a woman made up of so much wind, she just blows away.
Most times you let her go, but on the rare occasion, when your emptiness makes you brave, you reach out and grab hold. She’ll look at you with graveyard eyes, but it doesn’t matter because she looked at you. That makes you happy.
But only for a little while.
Someone once said your name means ‘laughter,’ but it’s hard to laugh when you’re hungry and all your mother does is stare.
You’re five-years-old when silence becomes your greatest weapon and best friend.
It becomes your companion when your mother is not home (which is often).
It becomes your companion when your mother is home (which is never often enough).
She’s the one who introduces the two of you, because by five-years-old she’s trying to forget you exist.
(No, that’s not right.)
She isn’t trying to forget you exist; she’s trying to make the fact that you exist less painful.
It’s a known strategy: if you ignore scabs, they eventually fade. If you ignore thunder, it eventually becomes background noise. If you ignore your child, they eventually shrivel up and turn to ash, a bad dream that disappears once you reopen your eyes.
You’re not sure how to feel about that, so you just add it to the long list of things you’ll think about when it gets too dark to explore the outside world and not dark enough to keep you from exploring the world inside of you.
Besides, it’s not like your mother is all bad. She teaches you things— when you learn to mimic what she does. Tying your shoes, counting on your fingers, dreaming with your eyes wide open. She teaches you things.
Other things you learn on your own: which roads to take to get back home at dusk, which foods are okay to eat past their expiration date, how to differentiate between loneliness and hunger. (That last one’s easy because it’s always hunger. Always.)
You also learn how to ignore things, she’s good at teaching you that, too. You ignore the sticky amble of ants at the edge of the kitchen sink, the envelopes with angry-red words piling up at the front door, the leftover crumbs from the crackers you ate for breakfast and lunch and lunch and dinner and snack and dessert.
You learn to ignore the smell of rot, first in the meat she doesn’t cook and then on yourself when the food runs out and you search for mercy in someone else’s garbage.
You take a cold shower when you get back home, but the smell doesn’t leave. It isn’t the trash, it’s you.
And that’s beyond strange. You’re only five, but your body is already shriveling up, turning to ash.
You’re the bad dream, but you aren’t fading away.
You’re six-years-old when you realize Isaac is synonymous with stupid, but if they think you’re going to cry about it, they’re wrong.
So what if you don’t go to school? So what if you can’t read like everyone else? The important things can’t be found in books or seven-hour classrooms, so who cares?
(You care. That’s why you spend your days with books, with newspapers. with magazines, trying to catch up, trying to know what they know.)
You watch the school kids on their way home and wonder if they’d let you borrow their books. Or better yet, read them aloud to you, invite you behind the closed gates.
You grow restless with watching, so when the opportunity arises, you seize it by the throat with both hands. You steal a book when the kid with the checkerboard face isn’t looking, and you carry it home under your shirt. You like the way the pages feel because they promise to make you someone new.
The book is slim, lightweight, willow-skinned like you, and— oh, there are pictures in it. It’s red all over, cover to spine, with black text that doesn’t scream at you but softly catches your eye. You like it; this book is yours now, a present for you.
There are worlds in this book. Crooked-nosed trolls and golden-haired girls, and you think that perhaps this book is filled with what people call fairytales. Stupid stories of stupid people doing stupid things, and always a happily ever after at the end. But since this book is yours, you’ll learn what it says. You hold it in your lap and draw what you see.
‘A’, ‘C’, ‘R’— you know these letters, even if you can’t pronounce them. You’ve seen them written everywhere: on papers tacked to the kitchen walls, cereal boxes, envelopes. You write them with shaky hands—lines and half-circles, lines and half-circles—and maybe your writing doesn’t look as pretty as the book’s with its gold curlicues and knife-straight lines, but beauty means nothing to you anyway, so you continue on.
Your favorite letter is ‘O’ because it’s easy, ‘B’ looks an ass from the side, and you don’t bother with ‘S’ and ‘D’ because they’re annoying.
With practice, maybe you can learn to write your name. You don’t know what letters are in Isaac, but you hope there might be an ‘O’ somewhere. Or an ‘A’ because you’re pretty damn good at drawing those. You’ll get to Foster eventually. That one sounds like a tangled knot and you want to keep things simple.
When the letters come out wrong, you scratch them out, crumple the papers, try again. You’re not stupid. If they can learn, you can, too.
But you don’t know why you hide the book when your mother comes home. You stuff it under your bed and wonder if she’ll notice the pencil marks on your hands, or the eraser shavings on your shirt, or the hope you’ve allowed to enter your eyes at the possibility of becoming someone smart, just like all the other kids.
She doesn’t find the book. She finds your crumpled pages, the failures scrawled by your immature hands, balled up like fists all over the floor. And when she sees your B’s that look like P’s and your U’s that look like W’s, you expect her lips to quirk up like something wry and pitying, but she has nothing to say. She leaves your efforts on the floor, trampling them underfoot when she leaves.
But if she thinks you’re going to cry about it, she’s wrong.
You’re seven-years-old when you learn that monsters look like men because your mother brings a strange man home, but he doesn’t look like a man at all.
His smile is a polished knife, his voice a dark alley. His hands aren’t hands because they’re too cold to be a father’s. Or an older brother’s. Or whatever the hell your mother tries to make you believe this man is to you.
You think this man is a wolf. His eyes are hungry, his arrogance starving. Blood on his knuckles and smoke in his teeth. His shoulders are broad and his chest is a big empty cavern because nothing beats inside him. Somehow your mother doesn’t see nor care. She feeds herself to that man, a little at a time.
Hours crawl into days, days crawl into weeks. The man becomes less of a stranger and more like a disease because he never leaves. You start to wonder if your hands will look like his someday. If they’ll be as calloused, learning to form fists that can’t be unclenched.
You wonder this up until the time he extinguishes his cigarette into your palm.
This is your first brush with fire, with white flames of anger that swish from your heart into your throat, smoldering with no place to go.
Pain becomes an afterthought. Anger first, pain later – a pattern you will learn very well.
He tries to do it again.
You don’t let him.
He calls you a name.
You say he’s no better.
He punches you in the jaw and you can taste blood when you run your tongue along your teeth.
You come to learn that the stories are right about one thing. Both monsters and men have an appetite for the innocent, and that’s really the only similarity that matters, isn’t it?
You’re eight-years-old when you learn silence is not your greatest weapon or your best friend.
That man’s voice becomes less like a dark alley and more like a gun, and he aims all his bullets at you.
But you know how to deal with this.
Silence is a weapon and a shield. It works with your mom (it’s the only language she speaks), so you ignore him, too.
You don’t talk when his laugh—raucous and ugly as can be—swallows up the whole kitchen or when he finishes his beer and uses you as the trash can, tosses the bottle at your head, and watches it explode against the wall, the glass railing down like an arrogant celebration.
You don’t even talk when he finds your crumpled papers and throws his head back, roaring with laughter and as he says, “Almost ten and still can’t read? How stupid can you be!”
He spends the rest of the day, the rest of the week, the rest of the month laying out that word like a net until you get caught in it. Every mistake you make, every word you don’t understand, every solution you can’t find becomes a snare, an opportunity for him to remind you:
And because you can’t read, or write, or understand complicated things, maybe he’s right.
But you won’t tell him that.
Silence is a great weapon. It holds your hand and shields you well. When he calls you stupid, you only stare at him. When he elbows past you, the weight of his arm throwing you off your feet, you stay quiet. You can see the anger melting across his face, but that’s okay, this is working well.
Until the day it isn’t.
You come in from the outdoors on a day in late July and he takes you by surprise. Grabs your collar. Shoves you to the floor. Blood on his knuckles and smoke in his teeth as he drenches you with something that looks like honey but doesn’t smell sweet. It comes from a red tank of gasoline.
He’s laughing, cackling, uncontrollably, and then you see the lighter and you realize your fate. But you refuse to look death in the face because this isn’t fair. You weren’t made to spark and die like a match, to live without living. The only grave that awaits you are your mother’s eyes, and why should you be the one to fill them when a bastard like him exists?
Anger first, pain later. Anger first. Anger only.
And then there’s fire—you’re on fire— and the man laughs and laughs because pain is funny.
You throw yourself at him, this monster. Wrap your arms around that empty bulking frame, bite down until blood floods your teeth— and for once, that blood isn’t yours.
There’s one thing worse than a monster and that’s a demon, so if it’s fire he wants, you’ll drag him to hell with you.
You’re nine-years-old when you realize it’s been a long time since you’ve cried. You can’t remember when the last time was, perhaps not since you were a baby or a toddler. A time so far back that your brain, like a great sieve, has sifted those memories out and left only the important ones behind.
But you’re crying now and it isn’t intentional, nor is it out of sadness. You’re crying because the pain has nowhere else to go, nowhere else to spill from, so it comes from your eyes which are sopping wet and your lips which are hissing loud, and it streaks down your face and makes your burns scream.
You can’t wipe them. The skin on your hands is too melted, too blistered, too warped. It’s all so precise that you can feel everything, every nerve on your body, coming to life, down to your eyelashes, your scalp, the soft, raw meat of your earlobe. You feel like you’re full of holes, soul draining out, but that’s ridiculous. It’s probably just the blood.
One time—just once—do you open your eyes and it’s a new feeling called fear. You’re afraid of your own face; it shouldn’t look like that.
You’re looking into a mirror and it’s returning your face, but you don’t want to admit it’s your face.
What are those slits that were once your eyes? Where are your bangs? Are those your hands with the skin split open like peeled fruit, sticky, naked under-flesh revealed behind the peels?
Your skin is wearing colors you’ve never even heard of. Violent pigments, corpse colors of death.
You poke at something you foolishly think might be a bone, visible when it shouldn’t be, and that terrifies you so much you have to shut your eyes. Or maybe you just fall unconscious.
The next thing you feel is pain, different this time because it’s on purpose. There are hands on you and you’re ready to fight but your mind says no more.
Those hands aren’t squeezing you, or pinching you, or yanking you around. Those hands are slithering something that feels like gauze onto your skin. There’s a grunt of effort as the person turns you over and you recognize that voice is your mother’s. You know you don’t have to fight.
She wraps you up, all your ugly corners, and carries you, which is something you can’t remember her doing. Maybe she did once, but that memory’s been sifted into the unknown.
She carries you and you have time to be quiet, to rest, to think.
You feel foreign in your own skin.
(You’ll get used to that).
She takes the money and motions at you, lips moving, soundless in the raging storm. Who is she talking to?
Your eyes are falling shut as someone picks you up. Their hands press into your wounds and you try to growl at them, but like everything else, your voice has betrayed you.
“No one’s gonna want him,” a new voice says and you make the hazy connection of what this means.
People throw broken things away, so your mom threw you away.
You’re ten-years-old when you become a museum.
A fresh bruise on your knee, a swelling in your left eye, all for the world to see, and nod, and keep moving.
You realize early on that no one visits the orphanage for adoptions, but there are always coming-ins and going-outs. Four children, then two, then one, then three. You’re the constant variable among them because they die, you don’t. Still the bad dream.
You become an exhibit; you’re always under someone’s watchful eye, whether it be the wide, subfusc gaze of a child who sits across from you so you can be the last thing they see as they die, or the people who pass you on the streets, the ones who throw rocks and dirty looks when they find you standing on tiptoe, ravaging through their trash.
Most of the kids grow too sick to move, and because corpses aren’t entertaining to look at, you venture outside of the orphanage as often as you can.
You are not one to gamble, but survival is a game and you are the unwitting player. So you often stake your chances on the baker whose trash is usually full of day-old bread. His hands are rough and his legs are swift and he’s left you spitting blood before, but the shadow of your ribs pressing through your shirt makes you play this game again and again.
You wait until dusk, when he’s scrubbing ash from the brick oven, and sneak behind the building to grab what you can find. Your heart is a wild thing, alive only on the occasion when you have to protect it. Graceless and dumb, you knock over the trashcan when you try to escape with your treasure, but what you lack in strategy you make up for in speed.
When the backdoor swings open and the baker’s shadow fills the cobblestone cracks, you run, faster than than the wind, and head-butt him in the stomach as you pass, making him too winded to throw a stone. This is not a strategy you’ve come up with on your own, rather, it’s acquired knowledge. You learned long ago that stupidity comes at a price. Daily you pay the currency of pain and gain these tidbits of survival. The world is your tireless teacher.
You return to the orphanage, a jungle of garbage and germs, and take your loot to the basement where you eat in the dark. Your hunger makes you greedy; you eat too much too fast and throw it back up. You take deep gasps of air, wipe your mouth against your dirty shirt, and take smaller bites. It tastes like nothing and sits in your stomach like a log, but that feeling is all you need.
Once you’re done, you turn and almost run into one of the other children, a four-year-old, the newest one to arrive. She’s slumped against the wall, a mere outline in the dark, gray hands lofted towards you in a wordless plea for some of your bread. She isn’t moving.
You both knew it was already too late anyway.
You’re eleven-years-old when you stop being Isaac.
The orphanage is full of ghosts and you can hear and smell and taste them in the little things each child leaves behind. One child arrived with pocketfuls of candy, another with a baby blanket, and yet another with the bitter scent of cigarettes on their hair. Once they’re gone, you take their things and increase your lifespan in this house of dead things.
During the night, you actually hear one outside your door, the shuffle of its movements, the groans of its agony. You bunch up under the child’s baby blanket and wait, each muscle tensed for a haunting, and when the sounds stop outside your door, you reign in your breath and let it hover in your lungs.
Time drips, one second, two, and the floorboards creak with heavy steps. Not a ghost, a monster. A large hand flips you onto your back, fingers pressing into your skin.
It’s the man who owns the orphanage, gnarled mouth and too-big nose barely visible in the dark. His words touch and slur in his mouth. He smells like alcohol.
“Get up. Let’s go.”
You go and you let him keep one large, angry hand on your shoulder, guiding you roughly down the stairs into the dark womb of night.
When you’re standing in sufficient darkness (the yard where the beetles skitter across your ankles and stick to your ice-cold skin), he hands you something you can’t see and says, “Dig a hole and put that inside. Don’t even think about coming in till you’re done.”
You don’t know what ‘it’ is, this thing in your hands that feels like a trash bag and slumps with wicked weight. You can barely hold it up.
The man throws something to the dirt, and after straining and squinting your eyes, you make out a shovel.
“Make yourself useful,” he says. “Go on.”
You stand there in your dumbness until his big hand flicks out, swift, and your face suddenly burns from cheek to nose.
“I’m not going to tell you again.”
He leaves, you stay. You dig the hole.
When you return, the man sees the dirt on her knees and the blood-dry in your nose and stretches his mouth wide in a laugh. “So you can do what you’re told after all! You’ll make a good tool.”
You go back to your blanket and your pocket candies but not back to the ghosts. Nothing is waiting for you in that room, no monsters are lurking in there.
You’ve learned that monsters look like men and they don’t hide under beds or in closets waiting for you to close your eyes. They materialize in broad daylight, sometimes carrying a lighter, other times offering you a shovel. They always know how to smile.
You fall asleep that night, not as Isaac, but as tool.
When the child dies, you’re near the banister, eating and vomiting because you never learn your lesson, and suddenly you hear the owners of the orphanage speaking in hushed voices. The woman asks what to do with the dead body. The man doesn’t set his drink down even to talk to her.
“Is that brat still alive?”
“You know, the one with the burns all over his body.”
There’s a silence of recognition, both for her and for you, before the man adds, “the monster,” and that recognition turns sour in the pit of your stomach.
You vomit again.
“Living off scraps you scrounged up just because we didn’t feed you? Disgusting doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
You glare at her with eyes like lightning, hoping somehow she’ll catch fire and burn to ash. Of course she doesn’t. She leaves you burning instead and sneers that you have the gall to look at her with such eyes.
“Bury this for me.”
She kicks one of the black plastic bags at you, one of the many you’ve seen that spread a rank, rancid odor throughout the orphanage. It slumps with a heavy, dark weight and sags in the mud.
“What is it?” you ask.
The knot falls loose and a child spills out with all the ugliness of poverty etched across their body, eyes as empty as their future had once been.
“My husband said he made you do something like this before, so go on, make yourself useful. It’s a job fitting for a monster like you.”
That word suddenly makes no sense to you. The monsters are the ones who sup and smile, the ones who feast on souls and lick their fingers clean of the evidence. But you aren’t smiling, so what makes you the monster? Is it the burns that aren’t your fault? The disfigurement wrought by someone else’s hand? Monsters don’t bleed, but you do. Your wounds never truly close. The word monster climbs down into your throat and makes a throne out of your heart.
“What’s with that glare?” she says and her voice falters. She almost looks scared. “Do as I say.”
You take the shovel. You dig the hole.
She stays and watches with a hesitant expression. You are thinking of that word monster and what it can do for you. This is the first time you’ve seen her glass face crack.
Your sides still ache from where she pushed you, but the pain means you’re still alive, you still have a chance.
So briefly make peace with the throbbing in your head and the sting in your ribs. The time for revenge will come, when someone else will hurt as much as you have.
You’re twelve-years-old when you learn what can kill you and what cannot.
Bullets can kill you. Self-doubt cannot.
Starvation can kill you. Kindness cannot.
A broken heart cannot.
You won’t let it.
So you dig the holes, and you bury the bodies, and you learn to live with the ghosts. They float through your mind and rest on your eyelids when you sleep. They’re reminders of those who came before you, the children who lived without living.
Time sits on your shoulder. The days pass and you can feel something coming. Something is talking to your restlessness, telling you it’s almost time to wake up, even though you don’t remember ever falling asleep.
And then the day comes. A storm rolls onto the orphanage, shaking its foundations and battering its windows. The backyard dirt chokes on rainwater and becomes mud. The woman sends you out late at night to bury a girl who only spoke in whispers and you feel the rain crawling down your back.
You dig a hole, you bury the body; you know the routine— single-purpose tool that you are. From the window you hear the man and woman laughing over their icy drinks and smiling their icy smiles, and when you feel the shovel smack against a body that’s been buried there long enough for all the flesh to have sloughed off the bones, time becomes real to you.
You are still here, and when your own body eventually gives out on you, you will still be here, under the dirt.
How long are you going to stay here? What happened to the storm inside you?
There was once a time when your heart housed thunder and your blood was lightning, when you sparked like fire and burned. It was what kept you alive when that man tried to blaze you down. It was what kept you coming back when the baker put his hands on your throat. When did you learn to accept suffering as part of life? How long have you been sleeping?
The lights turn off inside the orphanage. The empty black holes where the little girl’s eyes once were haven’t been covered over with dirt, but you throw the shovel down anyway and go inside.
Your plan is not a complex one. In reality, it’s simple defiance. You intend to sleep, leaving the body half-buried and the shovel out to rust, and if they put their hands on you, if the woman hits you or throws you to the ground, you will swipe back at her. If she tells you to bury the body, you will refuse. These little clouds will create a storm.
You track mud into the house, down through the halls, and you notice a light still shines in the TV room. The man isn’t around but his movies are, and for some reason, you grow curious and wonder what he finds so fascinating about them. You stand and watch.
There’s a man and a woman and another man, the latter of which only appears on screen when there are shadows to cover him. He complains about carefree people and their disgusting smiles. His clothes are shearing and his face is dark; the only thing bright on him is his grin and his knife when it tears into the other man and his woman.
Once they’re dead, that’s the end. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing complicated. He hated them, so he got rid of them- that’s all.
It dawns on you that this is the answer you need. This is where the storm starts, what turns men into monsters. They find and they feast, and since you are a monster, it only makes sense for you to fulfill your role.
So you take a knife, and you find their room, and you make ghosts out of them, all your anger resting on the edge of that knife as you push it into their flesh. They die without a sound; your body throbs with the thrill.
Freedom becomes a thing you can carve into existence.
So you take your freedom and leave the house of ghosts behind, not knowing where you’re going but not caring to look back. If you walk long enough, you might reach the city and whatever awaits there.
In an hour you reach the dirt road, and upon the dirt road you take the life of a woman who steps out of her car, takes one look at you, and cries out in fear. Her face is the same as the murdered woman in that movie and she sounds the same when she screams, too.
You have no reason to kill her, but there’s also no one to stop you, no one to tell you no. That’s what freedom means, giving into an impulse without daring to question it.
The rain rakes its claws down your back, soaks your shirt, and drinks your bones, so you take advantage of the shelter she’s left behind.
There’s no one to keep you from sitting in her car or falling asleep on the seat or looking up with hot eyes at the early morning and what it brings.
What it brings is an old man with papyrus skin and sealed eyes; an aimless cloud of a human, drifting back and forth in front of you like he’s lost. The rain has passed and under this blue sky is you and this man. Two wandering clouds.
He asks if anyone is around, and you make a sound, in spite of yourself, alerting him to your presence. When he turns, you notice something is off about him and soon you learn that he is blind. He can’t see you, unraveling in your wet bandages and soaked-through with blood. His face isn’t interested in you and you aren’t interested in him, yet you still find yourself following him to his shack in the woods when he offers you bread.
He covers you with his trench coat, he passes you a roll of bread, he perches himself at the corner of your heart and knocks on the door.
“If you have nowhere else to go, I wouldn’t mind if you stayed here with me.”
You don’t understand why he says this, so you ask why, and his face says I’m lonely but his mouth says, “If you don’t want to, you can leave whenever you like.”
This is new. As the boy who’s been told too many times to take his grief elsewhere, now you’re being told to stay.
Kindness can’t kill you and you have nothing to lose but a place to sleep, so maybe, just for a little while, you’ll take him up on his offer. You’ll stay.
He’s your blue sky, after all.
One of the trivial things he asks you is, what do you want to become in the future? You look at him blankly before remembering he can’t see your expression.
“Nothing. I’m stupid.”
He raises his head and lowers his bread.
“Who told you that?”
(Who hasn’t told you that?)
“I can’t read,” you say.
The old man shakes his head very slowly, sadly. Your heart shivers, and for a moment you feel less monster and more human. It’s a cold feeling and it grows steadily, like mold, and you wonder what you can do to get rid of it.
You can’t rip it out or tear it up. You can’t stab it till it lays bleeding. You think of killing the old man with his willow-skin face and spring-soft voice, but that won’t get rid of this shiver.
So you find someone else to kill, a man walking across a bridge, laughing into his cellphone. Just like the woman, his face falls to pieces when he sees you with your knife. He looks at you and doesn’t like what he sees, but it doesn’t matter because he looked at you. Not with dead, graveyard eyes that feel nothing, but eyes that acknowledge the monster in you. You meet his expectations and rip him to pieces.
When you return to the old man, you tell him what you’ve done, eager to see his reaction. You balance his fate on the edge of your knife. If he shows you an expression of fear, just like all the others, you’ll kill him. If he doesn’t, then you won’t. It’s as easy as that.
But as it turns out, the old man shows no expression at all. He listens with quiet attention, nothing visible stirring his features. When you finish, he goes, I see with a kind of hushed wisdom and asks, “What do you want to do now?”
This is a variation of the question from before, the what do you want to become in the future? question, but you still have no answer.
His question feels like a hand pressed against your back, guiding your steps, urging you to walk forward.
And so, you don’t kill him.
When you don’t answer him, he just nods his head, slowly, knowingly, and you think the corners of his eyes bunch up with sympathy.
He smooths his coat around your shoulders and urges you to rest.
For the next few days, you fall to sleep wrapped in his coat, your dreams passing through you like water, and you wake up each morning to the shiver that won’t go away.
This old man is blind, but he sees you.
If you can’t cry for him, somebody, or something should, even if it’s the sky. You don’t know how to cry for someone you just met, but once you go out looking for him, after days of him not returning from his usual morning strolls, you see his body dragged up from the river, covered in cloth, and surrounded by police.
In the alleyway nearby, you see a man and a woman crowded around a wallet, passing around five dollars. The man has the old man’s walking cane and he breaks it in half. His laugh is loud—raucous and ugly as can be—as he gloats, “This was all he had on him. He was such a waste of time, I threw him in the river.”
Anger burns in your chest.
You take the knife you found in the old man’s house and decide for yourself this is what I want to do - drive careless, stupid, happy people to despair and kill them.
The woman dies first, then the man, and you stab them until the tight coil of fear in their muscles unwinds and becomes empty, until you become empty, and your storms go quiet.
There’s a loud ringing in your head and you realize that sound is your laughter, loud and raucous and ugly, like a soul vindicated. The word monster now has a painful home inside your bones.
At twelve you become Zack—just Zack—and everything falls into place.
You’re thirteen when time starts to mean nothing and everything is measured in how many murders you can get away with. Six by age thirteen. Nineteen by age fifteen. You lose count by age eighteen.
You’re an adult now; your body knows it before you do. Everything you wear is too tight. Sometimes, even the word human feels like just a clever ruse, a nice outfit that’s too tight around the shoulders.
Even as an adult, you’re still playing games, but now you revel in them. You count down from three and see how people fair, how fast they run, before you catch and kill. Survival is a game and they are the unwittingly players.
You corner a man in an alley after he leaves a casino with a pocketful of cash. His smile fades the instant he sees your knife and feels you tugging on his sweater. He clasps his hands and folds over, his whole body praying Please don’t do this, please have mercy, and you laugh because it’s just so damn funny.
Mercy is the luxury that slipped through your fingers years ago.
Where was mercy in the orphanage or the garbage cans? In your mother’s eyes or her boyfriend’s lighter? You deserve things, too, but nothing in life is given to you, so you must take it by the throat and make it yours.
You bury your knife in his gut and the blood feels like peace soaking through to your skin.
You take his hoodie.
You take his wallet.
You take his shoes— and they fit you just right.
(But you can’t take his happiness.
That can never be yours.
You can get him to stop smiling, but isn’t that because you’re jealous?)
You’re nineteen when you become the floor master of B6.
The priest finds you when the police are hot on your trail and extends to you both his hand and his offer. He promises you a place all your own, an entire floor in a strange building, where the laws bend beneath your blade. It is here where you can kill without the worry of capture. You’re skeptical at first, but when the first victim arrives (the priest calls them sacrifices) and you dash his face against the wall and slit his throat, no one comes to arrest you.
For a long time, perhaps even a year, living becomes easy.
At your request, the priest brings you the same snacks the woman who gave birth to you (whose face and name you’ve forgotten) used to give you, and you slowly fill your floor with the things you pick up. One of the sacrifices dies with a pocketful of gum, another with a bag that contains a ratty blanket, and yet another with a book that was so well-loved the pages have come loose. Once they’re gone, you take their things. Even in this building of dead things, you are not struggling to survive. Not anymore.
Soon you have a blanket, a couch with the stuffing escaping through its torn, cushiony flesh, and magazines and newspapers that you use to trace the letters, just as you did when you were a boy.
On B6 you are given a home, you are given a weapon, and you are given an ample measure of freedom that would be entirely complete, if not for the one rule you eventually break.
Do not attack other floor masters.
And with the breaking of this rule comes the abrupt end to your cushy life on B6.
You don’t remember the day or hour when the intercom announces, The girl on the bottom level has been selected as a sacrifice.
All you know is that you’re going to kill her.
You’re twenty when you make a promise.
“My life for yours,” is essentially what you tell the girl from the bottom level, because by the time you meet again on B5, you’re a sacrifice, too.
She wants to die.
So you bind your fates together.
You’re on B4 when you remember her name.
Her name is Rachel.
In a wasteland of people—the woman who gave birth to you and the man she was seeing, the orphanage proprietors, the people you’ve killed, the blind old man—Rachel is the first name you keep within arm’s reach, sheltered in the safety of your memories.
The priest once mentioned that, according to his Bible, a person is given a new name once a momentous change happens in their life. Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Simon became Peter.
And for you, Isaac became Zack.
For some reason you remember the priest’s words when Rachel becomes Ray, and you call to her for the first time when you’re among the gravestones.
Maybe she believes in the same strange stories as the priest because her eyes sparkle for the briefest of moments.
She comes to you when you call.
You’re on B3 when Rachel saves your life.
The first time, she shuts off the electricity chewing through your system, the second time, she fashions a bomb out of wiring and battery to blast through the chamber of poison smoke.
She seems to think nothing of it, nothing of the fact that she carries an entire life, twenty whole years of mistakes, in her young hands and still deems it worth saving.
But this is only because you have a bargain. Nothing more. She wants what she wants and you want what you want and there is nothing but selfishness at the center of all this. This becomes apparent when she starts ordering you around, directing you like a puppet through the spiky maze laid out before you on B3. Telling you jump here, run there, duck, step, go. Move as I tell you to, do I say. There’s only so much you can take before you revolt and refuse to be wielded by someone else.
For a moment you start to believe that Rachel is just like all the others who came before, but when given the opportunity to shoot you in B3’s gunroom, she refuses.
Neither of us are tools. To kill and be killed are our own choices.
She tells you this, and you have to laugh. This is all you’ve ever wanted to hear, because it gets exhausting telling yourself I’m not something that can just be used and thrown away, and trying to get others to believe it.
And so, you start to think this girl, Rachel Gardner, might see you as something more than a means to an end.
This becomes apparent when she shoots B3’s floor master and saves your life a third time.
You’re on B2 when you become a god.
Or an angel.
Or whatever entity rests in the in-between of human and monster.
You’re an angel in the eyes of the deranged priest who owns this floor, but you’re something higher to Rachel who peers at you with eyes gone wild when you’re trying not to succumb to your wounds. You’ve never seen an expression like that on her face before. All this time, she’s been nothing but a soul ripped to shreds, functioning only on the dregs of what’s left. A girl with a heart two sizes too small, though you think it might be growing for you. Even while you’re bleeding out, she’s looking at you the way no one ever did.
(You’re making this too complicated
Isaac Zack. This isn’t like you at all.)
So you reach out to make certain, to make absolutely certain, that you finally mean something to someone.
And she doesn’t pull away.
She’s worried about you, and you find that laughable. She really has no idea what makes a monster a monster.
Before you go under, you almost want to tell her, I’ll become fire for you, but you’ve never put much stock in words anyway. She’ll know it when she sees the embers in your eyes.
You ask her what’s the point of all this, and she says she’s willing to do anything because you’re her god, the one who will enact judgment over her by way of blade and blood. She looks at your power to destroy and marvels it as something wondrous.
This makes no sense to you.
Gods don’t only destroy things you want to say as you watch her hands bring what’s broken back together, sewing up more than just your physical wounds. They create stuff, too. She’s more of a god than you could ever be and she doesn’t even know it.
But you don’t tell her this because, after all, what does a monster know about God?
You’re on B1 when you become Zack, just Zack.
(No, that’s not right.)
You’ve always been Zack, but now Rachel knows it too, and when you tell her desire me, wish for me, look at me, the fog over her eyes vanishes and she sees you. She looks at you, all your ugly corners, and she keeps looking at you. Then she takes things a step further and reaches for you.
This makes you happy.
And not just for a little while.
This is a feeling you’ll retain.
(Keep it close to you and never let go.)
You’re almost out of the building when you become human.
Somewhere deep down you’ve always known you’re human, that all those abstract terms like angel or god or monster were just fancy decorations on an otherwise boring boy’s life. But when Rachel says it, when she plucks the word monster off of you and crumples it up in her trembling fist, you feel something change inside you.
As she bleeds out in front of you, the sacrificial lamb of your promise to each other, you wish, for the first time in your life, that you really were god or an angel or a monster, because then maybe you could stop this. You could fly her away or override her humanness or undo her hurt— but no, you can’t because you’re Zack.
Monster face and a human body. Broken halo and indelible scars. No angel wings, no godlike strength.
And all human Zack can do is hold her as she lays dying in his human hands, his human voice swaying over her, trying to make a promise.
Don’t make me a liar. Don’t die on me. Don’t finish this before I’m ready.
Which are all other ways to say, don’t go before I’m ready to let you go.
You’ve fought for your right to breathe since you were born and watching that same right snatched from Rachel’s hands without her even putting up a fight goes beyond the coastline of your understanding. To kill and be killed is no longer her choice to make. Her fate, in its critical moment, is decided for her. Like a tool reaching the end of its usefulness.
Everything else in life has been taken from you, ripped from your hands as you were forced to watch it go. Somewhere along the way, you decided to never lose anything again, but you can’t even keep promises to yourself.
And that’s why you want to keep this one.
I’ll fight for you. And if I can’t fight, I’ll die with you.
But whether it’s luck or God or something else you don’t understand, death never gets its chance. The priest carves open a path through the lake of fire and tells you you have one more chance. So you seize that chance and limp forward with your human body—battered and broken and bulleted with holes—till you reach the exit.
The outside world welcomes you with firetrucks and police cars, and you finally understand what you have to do to keep this promise.
As Rachel rests in your arms, fragile as a dream, you make a choice.
You trade your freedom for her life because you’ve weighed both on a scale and she wins out.
You’ve never given anything to anyone before, but things have changed.
Your fates are bound together.
You’re twenty when you get a death sentence.
You spend a year with your life sliced into preordained parcels of time that tell you when to wake, when to sleep, what to wear, where to go. The fate you’ve evaded for nearly a decade has finally caught up with you. Your freedom is gone.
Still, your thoughts aren’t bound, and you often find yourself thinking about Rachel. Every dream tastes like her.
During your trial you plead guilty; you confess everything. Even now you have nothing to hide, no lies to tell.
They repay your honesty with a death sentence. Death is the most suitable punishment for you who walks in sin. You aren’t surprised to hear it, but only because it doesn’t seem real. Someone telling you how and when and where you will die twists inside you like a joke.
They keep the information on Rachel meager, nearly nonexistent. You learn that she’s alive and nothing more. When they ask what you are to each other, what form your relationship took on, you can’t answer. You don’t understand it yourself.
She’s her and you’re you and that’s enough.
The word ‘us,’ never existed between you and her, because neither of you are broken people. Your pieces are not made to fit into each other like a puzzle. You’re meant to stand on your own feet, unshakable and unwavering, to make your own choices for your life and what lies beyond it. You were always meant to do this, and she is, too, because you’re both human.
Painfully, beautifully human.
And as long as she’s reaching out her hand, you are too.
You’re twenty-one when when you realize you’re wanted.
(No, that’s not quite right.)
Rachel never stopped wishing for you, even when you were miles apart.
You carve out a chance to escape the prison and you succeed. You barely make it out, but just as with everything in life, you bite and scratch and claw until you hold freedom in your hands like a prize.
You do not escape unscathed. The cut in your forehead drips blood-hot into your eyes, but nothing is going to obscure your sight, nothing is going to deter you from your course.
It isn’t easy finding the rehabilitation facility or the room where you know she’s there, waiting, but you manage it, even with police and sirens and guns aimed at your back. You make it with minutes to spare, a bandit under the moon’s sapphire eye.
And when you shatter the window and see Rachel’s face, it’s the same as it was a year ago. The girl who kept God on her tongue, though she herself looked more like a church’s stained glass, stares back at you, utters your name, but doesn’t clasp her hands together because she no longer has to pray for you to appear. You’re right in front of her.
For the first time in your life, you reach out your hand for someone else and it does not come back empty.
Rachel reaches out and takes hold, smiling and crying, all at once.
She becomes your halo.