by Christopher Arnold
The trees were dead. Every winter he spent here he watched them die and become reborn in the spring. It must have been three winters now. Rebirth? Not really. They’d say the trees die in the winter when they’re still alive and they call it the season. Shifting his gaze to the ground, he felt like crying, but he couldn’t. He knew he was expected to cry like everyone else did. They sighed, “just a boy…” in disbelief. He couldn’t remember when he last felt like “just a boy”.
The boy looked out the window again, past the skeletal trees, as birds cut a line through the pallid sky. He wondered if they would know how to fly had they never been pushed from their nest and taught to spread their wings. Would they understand what they were supposed to do? They’re animals.
So am I, he thought. I’m an animal, here in my cage.
He’d heard about neglected animals spending their lives in cages; starving, shitting and barely living in it, trembling through both brittle cold and blistering heat. They were born and would die without ever having had a chance. If someone tried to save them, they’d recoil in fear, striking out with teeth and claws, thirsting for blood because it’s primal. Maybe flying is primal too. Maybe birds are lucky. But then again, a bird in a cage is just another animal in a cage. No use for wings contained within walls.
The boy drew a line in the dust on the concrete floor. He made his fingers into a man and jumped over the line. But I’m a man. I’m no damn animal. His chin twitched in thought. High over the line, he jumped slowly and triumphantly. He wondered if he could dream tonight. In his dreams he was free. The boy devised all the pursuits he’d never know. He loved. He learned. He started a career, a family. He didn’t hurt anyone because he didn’t know how to hurt. Under cover of unconsciousness, he was contained and safe. A baby in a womb. Sometimes he’d wake, thumb-in-mouth, scared, but never crying.
In the beginning he tried to stay in shape. But before long he started laughing so hard he couldn’t finish one pushup. Belly-deep laughter shook his body down to the bone marrow. It consumed him entirely until the guard had to quiet him. It’s all pointless.
Since then, he became sedentary. Sleep no longer soothed. Closing his eyes was useless. He’d see it play out relentlessly, stained inside his eyelids, three men twisting and writhing in the dark. He never imagined it’d look like that. So easily the body breaks. No more than a bag of blood and viscera floating around a frame of bone. Ruptured, it all spills so readily. It was the gun first. He emptied the damn thing into the first man; tore him to pieces. The knife for the other two, effortless, like slicing wet bar soap with a wire. A swift gash across the throat sent the bodies to the floor. He stabbed implacably, the blade finding subfloor under the carpet and breaking off in the last man’s bowels. All three wept.
And then there were the unremittingly haunting sounds. The eruption of the gun, the tearing of flesh, the spatter of fluids, the thudding of bodies to the ground, the puncturing of the blade, the shifting of bones, the screams, gasping for air, the confusion, panic, the gurgling, sputtering and coughing. Soon it all settled into a dull vibration. He knelt down in the blood. He didn’t cry. His mouth hung open, a bottomless black pit heaving for breath. He looked down in a trance at his own body covered in the blood of three other men.
It was only the nearing calls of sirens that brought him back to his senses. Run. The boy rose on useless legs, stumbled through the house and pushed past a backdoor into the yard. He felt as if he weighed half of everything right then. He didn’t make it far, collapsing in the neighbor’s yard, pulling himself under the deck. The cops just followed the trail of the dead men’s blood he dragged behind him. Like an animal at the end of a hunt, he didn’t struggle.
He didn’t remember the interim, the years of strangers speaking in tongues he didn’t understand. The legal jargon, the shouting, the arguing. They said through the whole process that he showed no remorse, no emotion. They said he looked dead. Call it the season.
Other than the slaying, he only remembered the sentencing. That was the moment everything fell away. He recalled his mother screaming. The families of victims wept and cheered for the condemnation of the boy. He was, in their regard, a murderous beast. He figured violence was in his blood by now, but he used to hate it. He used to cry when it was new. Now violence was like drawing a breath; nothing to cry over. All he remembered of crying was the salty taste.
Life deteriorated after he stopped crying. The boy tried to cry. He thought it would make the beatings better, as they were before he stopped crying. Dad used to howl at him until his voice was raw, “Quit your crying, you little bitch.” Years later, when he did stop crying, Dad only hit harder, screamed louder. But he couldn’t cry. He couldn’t cry when Mom’s friends made her scream in the bedroom and then gave him things that made him sick. He couldn’t cry when his older brothers were killed after school. He couldn’t cry when his teachers told him he was hopeless. He couldn’t cry when his friends taunted him. He couldn’t cry when he was sad, angry or scared. He couldn’t cry, and he couldn’t sleep.
He drew a line in the dust and waited.
After they shaved his head, he was ushered into a cold, bleach-white room. There was the chair, and a gurney behind it. He floated towards the chair, vaguely aware of four strong hands around both his arms, moving him forward. The hands set the boy into the chair, and began binding leather straps around his arms and legs. He recalled being strapped into the car seat as a younger child. Motions were languid, sounds dull and heavy, his vision blurred. Am I finally dreaming again?
A third man entered the room and knelt before him. He studied the boy with eyes frigid and sad as the cold room. “He’s hyperventilating,” he said, loosening the straps slightly.
The boy wasn’t aware of his own breathing. He felt numb. The cold-eyed man nodded to somewhere behind the boy and a dark window in front of him illuminated. He could feel eyes watching, burning hot needles into his skin. He felt like an animal in a cage. I’m not…
The cold-eyed man said, “Do you have any last words?”
The boy could feel his throat making an effort. Nothing came but a choke. I’m no animal… Then speak, damn it. You’re a man, speak.
“You’ll have to speak up if you wish to be heard, son.”
The boy gripped the oak arm rests, and revolted against his faltering body, “I’m no animal”, he shouted, his own voice echoing away from him, distant and unfamiliar.
The man’s eyes grew simultaneously sadder and colder. I’m dreaming. The boy felt something porous and wet, like a sponge, being pressed on his freshly shaved head. A cold fluid dripped down from the sponge to his lips. His senses flared. Salty. His lungs were burning, and he felt an intractable chaos corrupting his body. His tongue impulsively lashed out for the salty liquid on his lips. I’m no animal.
A hood was brought down around his head and everything went black. Was he back in the cell, swaddled in his own darkness? No, I can’t see the bodies. Now there was nothing but blackness. There was the the salty liquid again on his lips. Too vibrant. This is real. His breath came ragged and primal. I’m no damn animal! He recognized the cold-eyed man’s voice, “1:09 am,” he said. The boy thought about the men he killed. He worried that he relished it. After all, he hadn’t stopped thinking about them since the moment he stilled their once-beating hearts. He took everything from them. What’s wrong with me? I can’t get to my brain. He thrashed uselessly. I wish I died instead.
Nothing was left besides an unfamiliar sound, though part of him felt that he knew it from somewhere nearly beyond recall… A whimper. He felt warm liquid streaming down his face. Tears. He wept all the tears that belonged to him. All the tears that were unjustly taken away from him. All the tears he mercilessly stole from others. Every last tear that was or ever would be his, whether stolen or lost, all spilled forth.
They were salty.