Why did it mock him, laugh at him so? What did he ever do to deserve the disappointed gaze which fell upon him now? He had tried his best to ignore it, but even when he looked away he could feel it staring at him, eyes burning in the back of his head. He shuffled further into the corner, cross legged and emaciated he stared at the line where the walls of the room met. If he concentrated hard enough, he could ignore the filthy wetness of the bare brickwork, he could see beyond the mildew stench of the black mould which grew and festered and spread across the walls. He could even ignore the ghost like memories of the first time he was thrown in this room by his father. At first it would just be for a few hours at a time, but eventually the spells became longer, and eventually they stopped letting him out at all. He remembered the slurred and cruel words. Abuse laced tirades about learning to respect himself and being shut away ‘for his own good’.
Even despite this— if he concentrated hard enough— he could break beyond these four walls and in his mind could see other places. He saw great rolling fields of green or vast beaches of soft, golden sand, And of course solitude. Peace. He could see freedom.
There were of course things that he could not ignore. The room was cold, and his coverless and filthy mattress which was his bed was clammy with damp against his body. He could not ignore the constant pain which ravaged his emaciated frame. It wasn’t always like this; he was once a decent if average looking boy, with strong features and sharp blue eyes, but not anymore. He was now an Auschwitz cliché, skin and bones mostly; his once bright eyes were now dull and sunken deep into his horror mask face. He hated the way he looked, hated what he had become. Then of course there was him.
He couldn’t be ignored. Not for long anyway. He was always there watching. Always watching. He opened his mouth then to speak, but his parched and dry lips cracked painfully, causing him instead to murmur softly. He knew nobody would hear, as the house was empty as it often was during the day. It would remain so until they returned, usually late. That was the way it had been for as long as he could remember. When was he last outside of this windowless room? When did he last see daylight? When did he last feel the warmth of the sun on his skin, long since stripped of its youthful vitality and now covered in lesions and bruises? They were the questions to which he had no answer.
The arguments would be volatile—fuelled by drink and drugs and they would go long into the night, smashing furniture, breaking things until one or both of them had the urge to really hit something. That was when they would come. He would hear the heavy footsteps as they approached, sometimes together, or individually as they saw fit. He would wait there feeling the nausea build as they arrived. The door would unlock, and they would come, stinking of booze, slurring cruel insults as they fell upon him. Sometimes they would just use fists or feet, but sometimes they would bring things.
Sometimes even hot water which they would pour over him, laughing all the while. Once they had used a cheese grater on his back and arms. He had learned to accept it, to adapt to the situation. For if he moaned or expressed his pain then they wouldn’t feed him, and even rancid meat and mould covered bread was better than nothing, which he would often get if he yelled out or tried to fight them off.
And so he had learned to take it, to relax his body and close off his mind, to close his eyes and blot out their drunken insults and their kicks and punches and to drift away to those secret places in his head. The beaches, the rolling fields, the places that they could never take from him. He thought that today might have been his birthday, although he couldn’t be certain, time had lost its meaning some time ago. How old was he? How old would he be?
He was eighteen. The same age as him. The one who always stared, the one who laughed at him. The one he couldn’t ignore. He used to have a name, a long time ago. Nobody called him it now. But he remembered it; he said it out loud sometimes if only to remind himself.
Just two syllables. Easy to say. He did so now, the word sounding strange, deafening in silence of the windowless room with its single bare light bulb. His stomach growled and grumbled but he ignored it. He knew there would be no food. Not until after the beating when either through guilt or to preserve his pitiful existence until the next one they would bring him something. Never fresh, never cooked, but edible. He had long ago learned to ignore the taste of things, to fight back the reflexive retch as he ate.
He was tired, his eyes suddenly heavy. He wanted to sleep, and even though that filthy stinking mattress was far from appealing, it was all he had. But he knew that to get to it he would have to face him. Him and his mocking, him and his laughing. He peered over his shoulder, hoping against hope that he wouldn’t be there but of course there he was. Watching waiting. That smile, that twisted smile on his face as it always was. Why did he never sleep? Why did he have to watch all the time?
“What do you want from me” he asked weakly over his shoulder.
But as often was the case, he didn’t answer. He just watched, and grinned. How he hated that grin. He hated it almost as much as the crazy look in his eyes.
“I’m not afraid of you” he croaked, ignoring the pain of his cracked lips.
“Yes you are.”
This was rare. He wanted to talk. He usually just stared, and laughed, and waited.
But not today.
Today he seemed to have something to say. They used to talk a lot in the beginning, back when they still shared hope of escape, of freedom. But their conversations led them to realise quite quickly that they had little in common apart from a similar stubborn streak, and their relationship quickly deteriorated. There had been some bitterness on Steven’s part. Over the years he had grown weaker, his body and mind drained. Yet him…he seemed the same, thinner now of course, but he seemed to be in overall better condition. He too seemed more able to avoid the majority of the beatings, and on those occasions where they were together when it happened, he simply laughed all the way through. It was a humourless sound, and Steven hated it. To be free of that laugh would be enough to perhaps let him tolerate his life as it was, but he wasn’t so lucky. There was to be no respite.
Frustrated, Steven turned back to the wall. He had no intention of talking to him. It never ended well and he had neither the will nor the strength to engage in another battle. He wouldn’t rise to it. He would sit here in his space.
“Hey, birthday boy. Come over here. I want to talk to you.”
He tried to ignore it, the sneering goading tone in his voice. Although tempted to respond, Steven scratched instead at his matted and lice infested hair.
“Go away. I’m not talking to you”
“Hey come on, don’t be like that. We used to be friends remember?”
He did remember. Back at the beginning, before things got bad. But a lot had happened since then, now they barely spoke, for they had so little in common.
“That was a long time ago.” He said with uncertainty.
“I want us to be friends again. I have a birthday present for you.”
His heart raced in his chest. So it was his birthday! He couldn’t remember the last birthday present that he received. Maybe he really did want to put things right. Steven Slowly shuffled around to face him and saw that for once he wasn’t smiling, wasn’t laughing, and wasn’t staring. He looked…sad.
“You can come closer, I won’t bite. Come on Steven. Let’s be friends again.”
He didn’t trust him, of that there was no doubt but he was curious. He couldn’t deny it. Slowly, cautiously he shuffled forward coming to rest on his knees just out of his reach. Just in case.
“I’m not coming any closer!” Steven warned, watching carefully for any sudden movements.
“That’s ok, I understand. Look, I want to first of all say sorry for how I have treated you over the years. Both of us together in this tiny room… well it makes life hard.”
“You made MY life hard. I never did anything to you, but you hurt me. You let them hurt me. And even when I hadn’t done anything you still let them beat me, always watching always with that smile on your face.”
Steven suspected that he didn’t like to hear the truth. Well so what. He had a right to say it. It was his birthday after all. Unperturbed, he continued.
“Look Steven I can’t change the past, I know I was shitty to you, especially when the two of us should have stuck together during this….whatever this is. But that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I’m giving you the gift you have always wanted. I’m leaving this place. I’m leaving you alone.”
Steven gasped, his heart speeding up slightly at the thought. Peace at last, freedom from the laughing, and the staring. That was the worst. The way he just…observed.
“Are you really leaving?”
He smiled then, not his ‘lion about to eat its prey’ smile, but the sad smile. After looking around theatrically he pulled out a seven inch glass shard from behind his back. It had a handle made from a tightly wound strip of his filthy T. shirt.
“You and I both know that we will never get out of here.” He said, Eying Steven cautiously. “I for one can’t take anymore. So I’m getting out. My way.”
“Suicide??” Steven blurted as he recoiled in horror. “You can’t! Don’t you see? They will think I did it! They will think I killed you!”
He seemed to consider this, and then his face lit up with inspiration.
“Then why don’t you come with me? This is no life Steven, locked in this room in shit caked rags waiting for them to come back then pray that they don’t decide to beat you.”
“I can’t take my own life, I won’t let them win!” Steven replied, shaking his head.
“They won a long time ago Steve and we both know it. Let’s take away their power. We can go together. Here.”
He held out his hand, offering him the makeshift knife.
“I won’t do it”
And yet, he found himself reaching out and taking the blade. He looked at it in wonder.
“All you have to do is cut your wrists. It shouldn’t hurt too badly. As for me, I’m making sure. I’m going to cut across the throat. No WAY am I letting them get me to the hospital in time just so they can kill me their way. No thanks!”
He said it with a smile, his mouth full of yellowed leaners.
Steven opened his mouth to answer and then froze. Of course. This was another one of his ploys. The laughing and the staring hadn’t worked. He had tried it from the beginning, and for a time Steven had been his equal. He lost count of the hours they would spend staring at each other back then, each trying to intimidate the other, neither willing to back down. Eventually Steven had tired of the games, tired of the grinning, of the staring. He decided not to play his twisted game anymore, preferring instead to sit in the corner and imagine the open spaces, to imagine freedom. And so, it seemed that his great nemesis had come up with this ‘suicide’ idea instead. He had to admit, it was clever. Very clever but he was clever too, and could play the game as well as anyone. Let’s see how his grin happy roommate dealt with this little bombshell.
“Ok, let’s do it. But I don’t know what to do.” Steven said, watching his nemesis intently.
“Are you kidding me Steve? Just cut one wrist then the other and pass the knife over to me before you bleed out. Come on, work with me here.”
He put the blade to his wrist and then with a smile held it out in his outstretched hand.
Steven saw a flicker of uncertainty flash in his eyes then, perhaps realising that his plan had backfired but not sure enough to revert back to that maddening laugh, that damn stare.
“Ok” he said calmly, taking the blade back gently by the handle.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go first? I’m cutting my throat remember? There will be a LOT of blood. I don’t want it to put you off.”
“I’ll be fine, besides we might not bleed as much as you might think; neither of us is exactly fat are we? I mean look at me, I’m just skin and bone and you aren’t much different.”
Steven was playing the game, playing it well. He waited for the response.
“Well it’s your call, but if you really want me to go first, I will. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Are you absolutely sure?”
“You sound scared”
“Hey I’m just checking you aren’t going to throw up and then wimp out. But whatever, you had fair warning. You might want to turn away though.”
Steven shook his head. “No, it’s fine. You spent long enough watching me, now it’s my turn to watch you. Go right ahead.”
With a sigh he adjusted his grip on the makeshift handle and lifted it with a shaking hand to his throat. Without the smile and stare he looked just like Steven. A scared boy with no way out.
He stilled his trembling hand.
“Happy birthday Steven.”
The initial shock that his staring, smiling nemesis had actually gone through with it turned to confusion at the pain which engulfed his body. The carotid artery severed, the boy pitched forward, his face slamming into the glass of the large and ornate mirror sending a large splintering crack across its surface right up to the top corner which was already missing a long thin section. He slid to the floor and slumped to his side, his vision fading as he looked at his own reflection. Still staring. Still smiling.