The Slow Burn
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I don't even remember what I looked like, so long has my countenance been afflicted by the blood born curse of my 'forbears.' Those of my warren (support group) tell me that this passes, with time. In time, they say, I'll come to understand the beauty within, in absence of that which was once without.
I was embraced out of spite. My features were apparently 'too perfect;' my manner 'too egotistical.' I had to be set right. I had to be shown the truth. I had to be damned, for nothing more than an effect of genetics and certain personality traits. And now, I'm supposed to simply sit back and see it for the inner-spirit-altering, (un)life-perspective- changing 'gift' so many under the streets profess it to be. All it is to me is an existence of hatred for what the change has done to me, and how I can never go back to the world I once knew.
Maybe that's what draws me here so often, to the burn unit.
Granted, I never really gave a rip about other people prior to the change. I just did my own thing: what I wanted, when I wanted. Now, I can't even eat a steak without acting like a Hollywood starlet and coughing it up as soon as it goes down. But, I don't know... I suppose these people, scarred as they are, usually through no fault of their own... I guess I feel a bit of a kinship towards them. At least they can see the perspective of life afterwards, minus the Kindred diatribe about humanity and self-reflection. But what hits me the worst is the kids: the little boys and girls who got too close to the stove, or weren't being watched closely enough by less- than-adequate parents on the 4th of July. Unlike me, they won't even have a chance to know life before the scars came.
Tonight, I found the worst yet.
Every Friday night, like clockwork, I don the friendliest face I can recall, my cousin Chris, and head to Saint Joseph's. I've come in so often now, the nurses remember the alias I gave them that first night better than I do. I just nod and smile my fake smile, following the yellow line painted on the floor to the burn unit. The cold, cheery fluorescent light gives my deformed shadow no purchase upon which to manifest. The smell of antiseptic and medicine, for a time, erases from my malformed nostrils the scent of filth and slime that I've, frighteningly, become used to in my time under the city. Maybe I come here because, for a short while, I can forget where and what I am.
I turn the corner, letting the heel of my foot rotate quite precisely upon the shifting angle of the yellow line. For some reason, my dancer's agility had survived the change; one small remnant to compound all that did not. My eyes rise from the yellow-slick road, only to see the burn unit completely empty.
Completely, save for one bed, its only occupant the small, curved shape that could only be that of a child. The hairstyle suggests a small boy, curled up in the fetal position under a blanket, his back turned to me. For a moment I think to leave, not wanting to wake the kid up. He turns to lie on his back, staring up at the ceiling and then, sensing another presence in the room, at me.
Now, they always say in that clichÈ way, that children have the faces of angels. I never put much stock into that, even after my time in the burn ward, mostly because whatever angelic qualities the child's face once possessed were wiped clean by the harsh caress of fire's tongue. But whatever burns this child had suffered were elsewhere on his body, for his face really glows with innocence. His icy blue eyes focus upon my own, then seem to 'refocus,' slightly.
'Hi.' The feeble squeak of someone who hasn't spoken in a while issues forth from the child's lips. 'Were you hurt too?'
It takes me a moment to comprehend what the child means but I realize, almost instantly, that what he gazes at is not the faÁade I've thrown over myself, but the 'real' me. The me burned by the Embrace.
I stand stock still, every instinct telling me to flee, if not for my own sake (or the child's) than for the feeble idea of the 'Masquerade' all the others lament. But the boy just looks impassive, as if the sight of me (if that is what he's seeing) offends him not at all.
My brain tries to wrap itself around the idea that this child (I'm almost certain) can see me for what I am now, and yet not a trace of fear or revulsion rests in his face. Such an innocent face...
'Erm...uh...yeah...I mean, yes. I've been hurt, too.' Carefully, almost fearfully, I walk towards the boy, our eyes locked upon each other. I grab a chair, and slide it to his bedside and, with a pause of consideration, I sit down, hoping to whatever force of fate that has led me this far, that by staying I'm not damning both myself and the child.
We look upon each other, and from this angle, I notice for the first time that the edges of gauze bandages begin just at the top of his chest, disappearing under the flannel sheets. I look back at to his serene face.
'So...what's your name? I'm Alex.' The child, almost in reflex it seems, sticks out his hand to shake.
I reach out my mangled claw to shake his tiny hand, and realize that this is probably the first time I've had any non-feeding physical contact with a mortal in how many years?
'Um...nice to meet you Toby,' I respond as I shake his hand gently, 'How...uh, old are you?'
'I'm six. How old are you?'
'Oh? I'm really old. I stopped counting a long time ago.' I try to project the best smile my face can manage. He nods slightly at this, and his gaze shifts slightly downwards. One of those famous 'comfortable silences' has fallen across the room. The only intrusion is the buzz of the fluorescents above, and the muffled mutterings of the hospital PA system.
Toby gestures to me with his chin and, almost in a whisper, asks: 'So... did your Dad do that?'
The question catches me totally off-guard. It has a completely different, and eerily accurate, meaning for me, and for a long minute, I can only gape at the boy. I recover myself, and realize that I need not really lie to the boy. I'm surprised that such a concept comes as such a shock: how long had I been playing the Kindred's game that the truth should be such an alien idea to me?
'Well...actually...yes, he did. In a way...why? Did your father do...well, did he hurt you?'
Toby nods, his face a soft block of stone, his eyes focused on what I can only guess is memory. Memory of whatever it was that happened.
'He says I'm bad, and I have to learn to be good. I don't think he means it when he hurts me. I try to be good...' he trails off, his mouth twisting slightly, gaze cast aside, as if he senses he's said too much. I feel a welling up within me I haven't felt since the first years of my change. I'm not sure whether it's the boy's story, that so closely matches my own, or the fact that I'm actually talking with a human face to face.
I find myself actually fighting to say something, but what do you say to someone in a situation like this?
'What does he...I mean...how did he hurt you?' Christ, as if I yearn to know more scars. But something makes me ask anyway.
The kid surprises me by showing no hesitation at all, and I wonder if maybe he hasn't already had to repeat this story to the cops or social services several times.
'He put an iron on my tummy and back...said I had to stop laughing all the time...'
My maw of a mouth gapes, and for a long minute, the muffled silence again falls into the room. His eyes come up to mine (no fear...not even a twitch) and he must see the shock in my own, because he takes on this look like he's done something -else- wrong.
'No...it's okay. I'm sorry I just...I don't understand why someone would do that. Have you...told anyone about this?'
His little shoulders shift up and down. 'No, not really. The nurse said she put me in here so I could talk to other kids about being burned, but there weren't any kids in here.'
'So, what did you tell them when they asked? And, um... why are you telling me?'
'Dad said to tell that I was playing with the iron and hurt myself. he said they'd take me away if I said different.' His eyes fill with fear then, and he sits up to grab my wrist, the motion washing a look of pain across his face, the burn probably crackling under the bandages as his body moves. 'You're not going to tell, are you? Please don't tell, okay? I don't wanna get taken away!'
I almost lurch away from his hand by instinct, but hold myself steady, listen to his words and it's too much. It's just too much.
'No... no I won't tell... look, uh, Toby, I have to go now, okay? Yeah...um....' I stand and turn, thrusting the image of my cousin to the forefront of my concentration, desperate to slip back into anonymity. I push out the child's squeak of 'Wait! I'm sorry, I --'
I let the hushed activity of the hospital fill my tattered ears, and eventually break out onto the street. I rush to the corner of the building and round it, safe for a moment in the unlit alley. I lean against the wall, a feeling of restlessness overtaking me. I don't understand what it is, it's almost as if...
My claw finds its way to my chest, and there - my heart, but it hasn't done that in...
I growl low, more out of fear and confusion than anger, and my instincts make me unseen as I lope away from the hospital to the nearest secluded manhole.
* * * *
I know they want to ask me what happened. Some of them can smell when you're feeling a certain way, which is surprising given the stench we all live in. But they must have a way of telling when something is and isn't their business, because they've left me alone.
Brooding in the sewer half-pipe I staked out as mine a long time ago, I repeat the night's events over and over in my head, wondering if I'll be able to erase it from my memory with a few years of busywork. But I know I won't. I didn't even need to see under the bandages. That look on his face when he moved...
My mind's eye turned back to when I first began to change. I cringe at the thought, at the uncounted nights of writhing in a shit-smeared tunnel, listening as my bones endlessly shifted and cracked, feeling my skin stretch and warp and, throughout it all, the blinding pain of metamorphosis.
But, what about this boy? Who knows how much his father has already done to him - and how much more will happen. Compared to the relatively brief scarring I suffered, this kid might go through this for years. Or, if his father goes too far, maybe not even that.
I growl again, this time in whole anger and pound my fist against the slimy concrete. I feel some finger bones snap, along with a bit of stone chip away at my strike. But I don't care. All I can think about is the child and... stopping the father.
* * * *
Trudging myself down along the narrow sewer pipe, my movement is based only on rote memory of the tunnels. My mind is firmly set in a rotating vista of the things I plan to do to that child's father. It plays out in my head like a movie with a thousand variant endings: approach the house, kick down the door, and bash his brains in; approach the house, knock on the door, and scare him to death; approach the house, punch through the door, chase him to the kitchen, knock him out, tie him up, plug in the iron, let it heat up hot, then hold it over his face while my dripping drool sizzles off the metal as I slowly press it into his eyes?
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