II.

There is a teenager who lives in the park. At least, the boy assumes he lives in the park. When shadows prevail and everyone is at home, he sees the teenager on the bench, cigarette hanging low and loose from his mouth. It used to seem like a threat, but now it is more like an art. 

The teenager has dark hair and eyes like the smoke of his imperishable cigarette; never focused, never constant. It is fascinating, and though his friends always stay away from the danger, he finds himself talking to the teenager. And the teenager talks back. He asks the boy questions sometimes, and he always answers honestly. It brings an understanding (if not piteous) look to the smokey eyes. He quite likes it.

("I've seen you go to his house." The smoke-filled boy tilts his chin towards the white house at the end of the pale street, a picket fence from his. The child shrugs. 

"He likes me."

The teenager looks at him, chin still sideways. "Is that so?"

"He does. He always tells me I'm good. That I do good."

The cigarette burns a ring into the atmosphere.)


Once, the teenager brings him to the other side of the park. The trees are coal-sketched and the sky is glass splinters scattered in the leaves above their heads. They shoot down two birds, and the boy only cries at the first one. It feels okay afterwards that. 

They take them back to the sandpit. The teenager gives him a raven feather as a souvenir, and he loves it, but when he goes to the house next door it is lost. He is rather disappointed about that, but as he's been told, it's fine. He's a good boy.

He doesn't always like it; the pain, the sadness, the unscratchable feeling of wrong. But kids lie; adults do not. Adults always know what is good and what is bad; his neighbour knows too, and he doesn't lie. Being good is hard, but it is always worth it.

("You never seem to be around." His mother put him in bed, hands making habitual tucks and smoothing inescapable creases.  "Where are you all the time?"

He winces when his colourful knee hits her back, but he then smiles. His second tooth is missing. "I like the park. And I like going next door."

"Maybe you should stop going next door so often," she says, the tips of her eyebrows meeting. "You might be disturbing him."

"He waits for me to come over. He thinks I'm a good boy. He likes me.")

His neighbour is, despite what the teenager might think, a very nice man. His hair is like the end of a used cigarette; dark grey and dappled with white flecks. His veins are prominent - they aren't etched into his skin but raised like scars, from the back of his hands to his bony ankles, and all in-between. 
He is gentle, and always apologizes when he does something which might hurt. He tips the scale of age more towards his mother than grandfather; but wrinkles gather on his forehead more often than not.

Sometimes, the man does hurt him. It's like the sky on a stormy day; the blue of his sky-filled eyes fades to grey and the sun has no use. In those moments, the boy is scared. But later on, the clouds evaporate and he apologizes, holding the boy softly. 

("You musn't tell your mother," the neighbour tells him, nursing a cup of tea. 

The boy pouts, and shifts on the cushions. He winces briefly. "Why not?"

The man smiles. "I'll tell her myself. When she knows how much of a good boy you've been, she'll give you a treat."

His eyes widen. "Have I really been a good boy?"

"Such a good boy," the neighbour says softly. "But you'll have to be better before I tell her. You'll need to keep coming over, but soon you'll be the best boy in the world. Okay?"

The boy thinks about it; thinks of pain and bruises and smiles and candy-kiss treats. "Okay.")

He knows he musn't talk to his mother about what occurs behind the pale walls of this house, and so he lies. He thought lying is bad, but he's been reassured that sometimes, it is good. If all turns out well in the end, it doesn't count.

His mother says he's a bad liar, but really, it's when he tells the truth that his voice shakes.

So all goes well. He doesn't utter a word, and neither does his neighbour, and neither does the teenager. (He wasn't exactly supposed to tell the smokey boy, but those eyes couldn't tell anyone, could they?)

The tasks get more strugglesome, and he aches and strives. He has to be strong about this; but it's getting harder. One day, he cries and his mother can't fathom what's wrong. What's worse is that neither can he.

("That's a beauty," the teenager remarks lightly, finger and thumb almost encircling a scratch on his lower lip. The child winces. 

"Don't. It hurts."

The teenager takes his fingers away and instead rests his palm on the boy's leg, absently. A flinch later and he removes it, a look of surprise tinting his eyes something almost constant.)

 From what I understand, he never realized that there was ever so much fear, so much darkness in the world. He's never even thought about it, and it's only when he's brushing his teeth in the toilet and his mother runs a hand through his hair - two things hit him.

The first is a jolt of pain, as her hand had run through a knot and tugged at his scalp, which was already sore from previous pulling. The second happens simultaneously along with the first - a slam of realization.

He panics - oh, he panics. He screams and it isn't intentional, he doesn't mean to but the scream is like a monster in him, and he can't control it. He screams and screams and keeps screaming, screaming until his breath runs through and then he gathers it again and screams over. 

His mother shakes him, pleads with him, but all he can hear are the screams - everywhere. His own screams, the monster's screams, screams of people he doesn't even know, screams of people he does know, screams of cigarettes and of dead birds. He screams and he doesn't need to know why. Somewhere riddled in these screams are terrifying sobs.

It is the first time that he doesn't let his mother near as he cries.

("Your mother talked to me about something," the old man says, in a voice as soft as a snake gliding in dead leaves towards its prey. The boy's breath catches.

"She did?"

"She said you were acting funny. That she felt something was wrong." His face is not soft; is it something like fire reflected in ice.

"Oh."

The neighbour tuts at him softly, a mirthless smile on his lips. When the boy looks at his eyes, he cannot see anything in them - they are opaque. "We agreed to not let your mother know anything, didn't we?")

His mother takes him to a doctor, because he always starts crying when she tries to ask him what's wrong. The doctor seems nice, but his lip begins trembling when she begins coaxing him to relay what worries him. 

Eventually, he stammers out something like 'I feel sick all the time' before he clams up, tears leaking from his clenched eyes. 

He knows the doctor thinks he's a whiny little kid, even though afterwards his mother tells him he's her big, brave boy. He used to believe that, but now he feels small. He feels smaller than five, or even four - he feels zero.

("We did," the child mumbles, and he stands up, already knowing his punishment.)

//

The End

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