Broken, Part III

The woman was stirring, moaning. She looked up at me, and then at Vincent. She maybe looked at the knife, too, because something spooked her. She back up against the wall, and curled into a ball.

Slowly moving across the room, I set the knife on Vincent’s belly because there was no reason to approach her with a weapon in my hand. She was scared. No, terrified. Petrified that I would kill or hurt her more than what she had already endured. Truthfully, she was already hardened by what he had done to her. I could see it in her eyes. She wasn’t all there anymore, but still a part of her feared something. Maybe she feared living on just to suffer more pain at the hands of a madman.

When I reached her, I stopped. She turned her face away from me, cowering form my presence. To lessen my effect on her, I kneeled to show that I wasn’t a threat. It didn’t work. I thought maybe a touch might prove that I had no ill will toward her, but as soon as my fingers barely grazed the fine hairs of her skin, she flinched. Therefore, I decided to try a different approach, one that I was certain would work.

I stood and said, “Nothing I say will make you trust me, but if you give me just a—” Immediately, Vincent interrupted me by planting the knife deep in my shoulder. He and I both fell forward, landing on the ground next to the woman. She scurried back as far as the chain tether would allow her, and she balled up even more.

The pain seared, and I couldn’t feel my fingertips. My arm was going cold, numb. He had done considerable damage. He pulled the knife free, and I rolled over, determined to make sure he didn’t get another chance at me.

He screamed, “You!”

I kicked out for his shin, hoping to snap one of them. It didn’t work, but it did stagger him enough to make him fall backward. Apparently, he was still a little drunk from the fall earlier.

I scrambled up, favoring my arm. When I was over him, he tried swiping at me with the knife, but I wasn’t scared of it. If he was trying to stab me, perhaps that would be one thing, but a bit of sliced skin was hardly a concern for me. Luckily, he only managed one good swipe before I kicked him in the groin. He coughed, loosened his grip on the knife, and then I kicked it from his hand. He winced as the knife clanged against the wall.

It’s funny how things in life are always a sort of mild grey rather than black and white. For instance, I had originally been very disgusted by his weight and health. Now, as he struggled to keep his breath, I was happy and thankful. He wasn’t healthy enough to fight back without a weapon. To be fair, he did have powerful legs, but as soon as I straddled him, he wasn’t strong enough to get me off. After hitting him in the face, he was out cold again.

Looking at the table to see what had gone wrong, it appeared he’d cut through some of the straps. My desire to show compassion to that girl had caused me to make a huge mistake. I left the weapon with him, and for that I paid dearly.

There was no way they would hold him again, but at that point, it no longer mattered. With my arm completely useless, I knew it was impossible for me to get him back up there.

After walking over to the knife and picking it up, I said, “You don’t have to trust me, woman. I’ve done some pretty nasty things. You don’t have to fear me, either.”

I barely recognized my own voice. So strange was the man inside me that I wasn’t certain I could trust my own words.

She didn’t flinch when I neared her again. It was as though she knew, despite her self-preservation, I wasn’t going to harm her. I felt like she still didn’t trust me, and she had a right not to, but at least we were making progress. I offered up a bit more reassurance when I reached up and removed the inch-thick cotter pin holding the chain to the ceiling.

“There,” I said, and stepped back. “You’re free.”

She looked up at me, more timid than ever I’d seen of someone. She was as a child might be when confronted by a stranger. I don’t know how long she’d been down here, but her soul and will had been broken, reducing her to distrust all, no matter if it was God himself standing before her.

I returned to Vincent and knelt down. He was still sleeping, but I knew I had to get to work soon because he’d wake up and put up another fight, which was something I really wasn’t in the mood for.

As I retrieved the knife from my belt, the woman stood. The skin around the wrist where her hand had been removed was crudely sewn shut. It was red, and looked sore. She winced, but didn’t reach for the stump. No, she reached for her crotch, and judging by the way she held her knees together as she walked, taking her hand wasn’t the only fucked up thing her did to her.

The woman walked as far as she needed, and then dropped to her knees. She started to cry, deep heaves as she probably recalled all the disturbing things he did to her. As I sat there, I felt for her, which was something I didn’t think would ever happen. However, I couldn’t help thinking about how my wife and daughter felt at the hands of these maniacs. How scared and broken they were before these fuckers killed them.

She raised her hand, and pounded her fist into Vincent. She hit him repeatedly until she no longer had the energy. Surely, it did no damage because her body was broken, probably more broken than my emotions. She probably just didn’t have the strength to make him hurt. At least that’s what I thought, anyway.

“I’m Oliver,” I told her, and tried to give her a smile. I couldn’t. “I know… I know what you went through, even though I can never know how you feel. He… he took my wife. Not him directly, but he let them have her. Let them have their way with her. Then they killed her, but they made her suffer first. Tortured her. Broke her.”

I felt the heat burn my face as hot tears rolled down my cheeks. I couldn’t meet her eyes, but I knew she was watching me.

I continued, “He was the one…” I had to pause, because this was the worst part. It was all bad, but this made me who I am today. “He hurt my baby. My little girl. Wrapped his giant hands around her frail little neck, and he…”

It was there I cried. I hadn’t talked to anyone about what happened because I didn’t think anyone could possibly understand, but this woman knew. She had been in their place, and no doubt, had I not shown up this night, maybe she’d have ended up with rings around her neck as well—if not a bullet through the skull.

She reached out with her hand, her fingers shaking with either fear or malnutrition—or both. I looked at her for a moment, and didn’t need to ask what she wanted. I handed her the knife. She looked at the blade, and then at Vincent. The contempt twisted her face, turning her from a broken albeit beautiful woman into a monster. I knew what she wanted to do, so I laid next to Vincent, wrapped my good arm around his neck to hold him still, and nodded to her.

She didn’t hesitate to get to work stabbing him. He woke up on the first one that entered his leg, and he screamed. No doubt the guards would come running if he kept it up, so I placed my numb hand in his mouth. I wondered briefly if he could remember the taste because as he bit down during his muffled call for help, all those memories of what he did to me came rushing back.

She stabbed and stabbed, and he called out in pain. Most of her attack centered on his penis and hands, and I don’t blame her. Those were a source of pain for her. They were the things that destroyed her.

Soon, he wasn’t screaming any more. Vincent had gone limp, but she continued to stab him. She let out a whimper of anger each time she stuck that blade into his body.

After pulling my hand free from his mouth, I inspected the teeth marks he’d left. I was bleeding, but not bad. It probably would have been painful if I could feel it. Thankfully, I couldn’t.

The girl finally stopped stabbing him, leaving the blade buried deep into his crotch. I looked at her, and she looked at me. Her face was striped with strands of his blood, which also spackled her chest and arms. He was as good as dead, and even though she clenched her teeth in anger, I still detected a small amount of satisfaction written on her face.

“I’ll help you get out of here,” I told her, but she nodded to refuse. I said, “What?”

She nodded again, and pulled the knife from its fleshy sheath. I thought perhaps she meant to kill me, but she instead brought the blade to the left side of her neck and cut through her own carotid. The blood squirted a couple times, and as her body weakened, she dropped the knife. She laid down gently onto the sealed concrete, and bled out until she passed away.

I watched her for a long while, and I longed for the kind of peace. The sounds of silence after death. All of life’s problems for her were gone, now. Perhaps I didn’t condone suicide, but the way this girl looked now, was beyond perfect. She had endured so much, and now that she had confronted and killed the man that hurt her, she finally stepped out of this horrible world to find peace in whatever laid beyond.

As I stood and headed for the exit, I knew that one day it would be my turn to enjoy that eternal sleep, that moment of peace. For now, though, I had one more stop to make. I had to go see the man that started all this pain and anguish. The man responsible for so many lives lost, including my beautiful girls. It was time to see my father.

Broken, Part II

As you might’ve guessed, the people that ruined my life were part of a crime organization. I didn’t much care about the organization itself. It was the people that happened to be a part of it that concerned me. Namely, specific people on my list that I have killed or would eventually kill. At that moment, I had only one person in mind, and that was Vincent. Vincent Gianulias.

It was still warm out when I arrived at his address, sticky even. Maybe it was just me, maybe it was because I no longer had the protection of the gun with me. I had to leave it in the car because neighborhoods like this don’t take too kindly to the sound of gunshots in the middle of the evening.

Vincent’s house stood on the east end of town in a gated neighborhood. Most of the wealthy people lived in this area. I can’t say for sure if all of them were as dirty as Vincent, but if I had to guess, I’d say that most people with a pretty penny to pinch have fucked someone at some point in their life to get where they are today.

The perimeter had a modest amount of security, but I didn’t expect much resistance. In my endeavor, I wasn’t starting from the bottom and working my way up murdering their ranks. Vincent had no reason to believe that I would be coming for him. Everyone I killed was dead and gone. They had no recognizable connection because all those evil pricks had such hefty criminal records that anyone from any point in their life could be picking them off. Vincent might have increased his security, but because of the kind of man he was and the things he did in that house, he favored his privacy. His paranoia was my advantage.

Contrary to the lives of monsters in general, and as I mentioned before, my beef was only with the people responsible with murdering my family and leaving me a broken wreck of a man. That said, I took no issue with the guards, and I didn’t really feel the need to kill them, so I slipped into the house through a jimmied window without detection.

Most of the rooms were dark, which made it easy for me to move around. What didn’t make it easy was the fact that I had been here before this night. The last time I wasn’t an intruder. I was Vincent’s guest, and as a result, those damned off-cherry scented candles he used sickened me.

I made my way through the kitchen, and wasn’t the least bit surprised what I found on the counter. Two severed hands. One looked like it belonged to a young woman, the fingers slender, long and delicate. I wondered if she, too, was a pianist before this fate of hers, but I didn’t dwell too much on it. The other hand looked as if it belong to a man, one considerably higher in age with knotted knuckles that resembled the roots of an old oak tree.

When Vincent was eating my hand, he spoke about how much he liked arthritic joints. The inflamed tissue around the knuckles were especially yummy, which he likened to veal or filet minion. Lightly salted, naturally full of flavor.

A normal person might rear in disgust, but I didn’t have the luxury of being a normal person. I was special. When you endure something horrific, no matter what it is, you become either desensitized or less vulnerable to stimuli than your average person. People who experience famine are less likely to complain about having to eat liver. Those that are poor are more likely to accept a modest place to stay, even if it’s a cardboard box full of holes. Me? Well, I’m more likely to not care if there’s a half-eaten hand sitting in front of me, because nothing will ever compare to watching a grown man chew and suck the meat right off my fingers while still attached.

I moved into the living room, and some of the stink of cooked flesh had finally thinned. The sofa sat in the middle of the room, and directly in front of it was a large television. Tucked in the corner was a small oak and glass table topped with a dying plant. I guess when you’re too busy killing, you don’t have time to keep things alive.

As I moved through this room toward the next, I heard a door open and close. The sound of the footsteps indicated that the person was either ascending or descending stairs. There was nowhere for me to hide, so I needed to decide which location to monitor. Either he was coming from the basement or the second floor. A few more steps echoed through the room, and I positioned myself at the top of the basement staircase. I wasn’t sure if he was coming this direction, but I knew that I could see most of the second-floor stairs from the reflection in a nearby grandfather clock, which meant this was the safest place to wait.

My intuition proved to be accurate when he arrived at the head of the basement steps. When his eyes met mine, they widened with surprise. He intended to call out, to alert the guards, but he didn’t have that free moment. I struck him hard in the chest with the full force of my body weight, and he choked on his own breath. He slammed hard against the wall, and tumbled back down the stairs. I quickly followed after him, expecting to fight, but the fall had either knocked him out or killed him.

I checked his pulse. Alive. Good.

The fact that Vincent was overweight bothered me. It wasn’t because I had to struggle to drag him deeper into the basement or because I had some deep-rooted issue with people who were overweight. I was strong enough to handle men twice his size, and I didn’t give a dsmn about how he looked. When someone murders your family, your thoughts and ideals shift. No longer do you care about someone’s weight, their acne, or if some asshole cut you off in traffic. That stuff doesn’t matter because you just don’t care anymore. You generally only have one thing on your mind. Murdering the mother fuckers who did you wrong or killing yourself, and to be honest, there’s no shame in taking the low road.

Anyway, his weight bothered me because it was a physical testament to the amount of food he ate. More specifically, the amount of human flesh he consumed. I don’t know how much he had to eat to become this disgusting creature, but it had to amount to a lot of people.

After some effort dealing with his dead weight, I was finally in the middle of the dark basement. I dropped him, and heard his head smack against the concrete—or whatever material from which the floor was made. I headed back toward the stairs, tripping over his body in the process. He moaned, and I kicked him for good measure. He grunted, and moaned again.

Quickly, I walked to the wall where the light switch was at and turned it on. The entirety of the basement lit up, and revealed what I can only imagine was his torture chamber.

On one entire wall, he had an assortment of stainless steel cutting, ripping, pulling, and snipping tools. All of them were so clean they reflected the rest of the room pretty clearly. Across from those dark utensils, he had a table, complete with an industrial drain. The wall adjacent to the weapons had different bins containing an assortment of binding equipment.

My eyes finally reached the other side of the room, and that’s where I saw her. She was barely an adult, maybe nineteen or twenty. She was chained nude against the wall, one arm hanging from a high-slung handcuff, the other hanging slack by her side, probably didn’t bother shackling it since he had removed her hand; it was likely the one I saw in the kitchen. She was either passed out or dead, because her face hung down. The only thing keeping her upright was her good arm.

Next to her was a man, and he was most certainly dead. He was propped against the wall, one eye stared blankly toward the ceiling, the other cut out and missing. One of his hands was gone, too. He wasn’t as old as I had thought, and he was in good physical condition. My guess was the inflammation in the hand upstairs was some reaction to the cutting. I didn’t know, though. I never was good with biology.

The smell down here was reminiscent of nearly rotted meat mixed with a fresh cut of steak. It was metallic from the amount of blood he spilled, but it was also slightly sweetened by the solvents he used to clean up. He apparently liked Pine-Sol the best.

There wasn’t much time left before Vincent would wake, so I wrestled him from the floor, threw him over my shoulder, and walked him to the table. I wasn’t graceful when I tossed him onto that metal slab. The sound echoed through the basement, and he grunted as I wasted no time using the straps to tie him down.

The wall of tools drew my attention, and I didn’t have to study them long before I knew what I wanted. After picking the large knife from its perch, I heard someone behind me. I whirled around, heart hammering, and I expected to find an alerted guard. Instead, I found something much worse.

My Final Gift

When we need an escape from our dreadful reality, we often find solace in our dreams. The problem is that sleep only accounts for part of our life. The rest of the time, we spend it suffering the aftermath of whatever haunts us the most. Luckily, and with the help of a few drinks, I found a way to dull those feelings. However, they did nothing to deter the memories. In fact, they seemed to amplify them the more drunk I got. So, for me, there was never peace. On the night everything changed, I’d fell against the pillow and was seconds away from venturing into the Sandman’s kingdom when the phone rang.

Frustrated, I slammed my fist into the pillow with a muffled thump, and picked up the receiver. “Who the hell is this?”

“There’s a car waiting for you outside your house. It’s time.”

“Babe, is everything okay?” my wife said, which startled me.

I dropped the phone as everything went silent except for a deep ringing in my ears. A burning sickness emerged in the pit of my stomach followed by the all-too-familiar numb lips and cold face. I scrambled out of bed, the twisted sheets struggling to hold me. When my feet finally hit the wood floor, my heart played the rhythm of madness as I looked upon the bed in disbelief.

Alena said, “Honey?”

I took a deep breath, wiped my hands down my face, and picked the phone off the floor. “Y—yes. Everything’s fine.”

“Alright, well, come back to bed will you?”

My eyes drained. “I will. I just need to get a glass of water.”

She murmured her acknowledgement, already barely awake enough to respond. I set the phone on the cradle, and stood at edge of the bed.

The cool moonlight turned the otherwise colorful room into a black and white wonderland. Provocative as it may have been at that moment, it couldn’t detract my attention from my wife. Alena was as beautiful as ever. She had her palms pressed together and snugly positioned under her soft cheek, which pouted her lips. Although her hair appeared colorless, it splayed across the pillow and above the comforter like a great phoenix rising from ashes. In that moment, she was a phoenix. Returned and although sleeping—the waking world’s preparation for death—she was most certainly alive and in that bed.

After a solid soothing breath, I wiped the wetness from my face and made my way to the front door. Before opening it, I peered through the peephole. A black sedan that looked to be of an expensive make, quietly waited at the curb. Clouds of exhaust bent on embrittling the environment billowed from the back of it. The incredibly black tint allowed no view of those inside, but I knew. I knew.

After grabbing my keys and stepping out, I turned and locked the door. Suddenly, I felt eyes on my back. The chill caused my skin to tighten around my shoulders, leaving a sour tingly feeling between them. I dropped the keys in the planter and walked to the car.

The rear door slowly opened as I approached it. Though the tint left me no vision into the cabin, I wouldn’t have seen anything anyway. Inside, an inky blackness devoured the moonlight. I reached inside, and I felt nothing as my hand disappeared. When I pulled back, it reappeared. It was as if a preternatural void or a living creature of pure darkness was contained within that vehicle.

“Get in.” I recognized the voice from the phone, which wasn’t the first time I’d heard it that night.

I nodded, and stepped inside. I was in a seat with darkness all around me. The neighborhood had gone. The moon was gone. The house, the bench where my wife and I exchanged our first kiss, and the flowers she planted last spring were all gone. Worst of all, she was gone once again.

I felt someone grasp my arm. My skin burned and an icy numbness traveled to the tips of my fingers. It reminded me of the man I’d met earlier that night. His frigid stare from those frozen sapphire eyes perfectly matched his frosty voice. After our deal, we shook hands, and that same prickly feeling lingered long after he’d gone. Now, it was back and consumed every inch of my body.

He said, “It’s time.”

I left just then, never to return.

On the day we exchanged our vows, I told Alena that I’d give my life for her. She’ll never know that was the reason I left her all alone and will probably never forgive me, but that’s okay. What was important was that she finally escaped her sadness and moved on with her life.

I still see her from time to time, but I can’t leave this eternity of darkness. Despite how horrible it is and how painful it can get, I’d gladly do it all over again if given the chance. Although it hardly measures my love for her, I sincerely hope with each passing moment in this timeless place that she enjoys my final gift to her. A full life of lasting happiness.

The United States of Max Carter

He walks alone, but strong.
He walks alone, but strong.

Max Carter laid on his bed with the coverlet draped over his head and the beam of a flashlight bearing down on the cream pages of a novel. His body warmth kept him toasty on this cold winter evening as he read each line carefully, soaking in every detail of an alternate universe created by his favorite author. Perhaps to some it might seem boring, but for him, it was an imperfectly perfect evening. It was certainly much better than the alternative, so he was thankful for that much.

In all of the stories he read, he typically became the main character (so long as it was a good person). He liked to experience the life of someone faced with hardships and triumphs so that he may laugh and cry with all of them. He liked to romance the lovers and dream with the dreamers. More than anything, he liked to save people even if he could never find the courage to save himself.

As he read himself into his illusion, he softly whispered the words. In his story, he was a man who had just become the president of the United States. The election ended, and the inauguration completed. Now he stood in the oval office at the foot of a glorious desk. The great picture window masked by thin white curtains cast a soft glow of the sun’s warm embrace into the room. He looked down to find a small note telling him to check the drawer for instructions.

“I wonder what’s in there.” Max whispered to himself as he turned the page.

The edge of the page grazed the sheets and made a subtle hollow sound that reminded him of the time he used to lay his head on his mother’s lap. She would stroke his hair, and sometimes her wrist or forearm would lightly touch his ear making a similar noise. The thought of it sent a wave of warm chills over his body and prickled his skin with gooseflesh.

That was the only thing he could really remember about her. He looked away from the book and at the clean white fabric of the coverlet hoping he could withdrawal from his memory a hidden snippet of his mother. That was his practice every time something reminded him of her, and each time he hoped he might find even the smallest thread that might lead to a larger tapestry depicting the woman who brought unequivocal warmth to his heart. However, he found nothing this time (as with every other time) because he was too young to remember her before she went away.

His eyes fell back to the pages of the book, and as he absentmindedly began to read the words, he raised his hand to his young face. The tip of his second digit lightly passed over his cheek, the fine clear hairs tickled his touch. As it reached further north, his hand began to tremble.

His finger found its destination. There was no hair in that spot, and the skin was puffy and slightly raised. The smoothness was still foreign to him, but it had been there for some time. Most times, he avoided looking at it in the mirror, and often refused to touch it. However, the thought of his mother sometimes brought him to recognize its existence upon his face. However, it was never good memories that followed.

He traced the scar from the upper part of his cheek to his eye. He gently passed over the mangled lower eyelid, feeling every bit of roughness, slope, and incline. He dared not to touch his sightless eye, though it wouldn’t matter much if he did. When he reached the other lid, he barely touched it because that was the worst one. The scar continued north to his scalp. His hair parted away from the mutilation as if shunning the part of his body that could no longer produce those long dark fibers. When he finally reached the end, he’d traced toward the right side of his head just above his ear.

Ache seemed to drive forth from his chest. It spread from deep within and wide across his body. Max’s eyes began to burn, and a thin line traced his eyelids. Small tears formed, and he felt the soft tickle as they rolled to the edge of his eyelashes and leapt off.

He brought his head back up and looked blurrily at his book. The pages looked distorted like the ocean floor in shallow waters warped by turbulent currents. He couldn’t read the words, but he saw in his mind what the book represented, and it saddened him. He knew it was only his imagination that he was the President. Reality offered a truth he continually denied through ritual, but one that he held on to dearly because that truth was something that hurt and frightened him.

Max closed the book and pushed it aside. No matter how hard he tried, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to read even one word and enjoy it. The last thing he wanted to do was destroy the only thing that brought comfort and joy to his world.

He took a deep breath, and then threw the coverlet back. The cool air nipped at his skin as if the room had filled with millions of tiny ice crystals that hungered for human flesh. He shook with a violent shudder, and crawled to the edge of the bed.

When he put his feet on the frigid surface of the wooden floor, his skin felt slightly numb. He looked around the room he’d always known to be his, but he never really felt like it was actually his. At one point, it was his home, long before in a time when he was too young to comprehend the world. Now, it was as foreign as a country on the other side of the world. One ruled by a vicious man who liked to make his people suffer.

Max walked to the door and laid the left side of his face against the cool painted surface. The unintelligible voices of the television echoed from the first floor where his father sat, probably with a cold beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The place where the subtle stench of sweat and something sour resided.

Tired didn’t quite explain how he felt at that moment as he listened to the television, one that reminded him of his terrible life in that foreign place. Well, he was tired, but he was also dejected. He felt imprisoned.

He breathed deep, and sighed. He wondered what President Max would do in his place. Would he continue to allow the dictator of this foreign nation to treat his citizens this way? No, what president would? What virtuous person could allow anything like this happen to anyone?

For a long while, he thought about how the president might stand up to a criminal. After all, evil people were still just evil people, but he wondered where the president might get the strength to be bigger than those people. He wondered how he might gain that strength and push himself to rid the country of its rain and clear the skies of those dark thunderheads.

The answer wasn’t one he liked. When reality finally fell into the matter, he was nothing but a little boy. Not even a teen and a runt who was barely tall enough to reach items on the tall counters in the kitchen. Not old enough to drive a car. Not wise enough to best adults in the game of life. Just a little boy with a blind eye and love for books; neither of those made for a very good leader or president.

Finally resolving to defeat, he began to think about his book again, which excited him. His books always did that for him. He began to imagine where he left off with President Max in that oval office, and wondered what kind of instructions he might find in that secret compartment. Maybe they were instruction on how the man might sniff out spies or perhaps it was a joke offered by one the assistants.

Maybe the message was simple, and he spoke the words aloud, “There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty that makes human nature rise above itself in acts of bravery and heroism.”

That was one of his favorite quotes by Alexander Hamilton. He read it once at the beginning of one of the books on his shelf. He could never remember which one. Back then, it really resonated with him, but he wasn’t quite sure why. Now he knew. He needed to rise above himself, take charge of his situation, and liberate himself from this terrible foreign nation. He had to be brave, and although someone other than the brave typically asserts heroism, he would be his own hero; he could assert it for himself because he was both the people and the leader.

That was it. That had to be what President Max was going to find in that desk, and even if it wasn’t, that’s what normal little Max needed. Those were his instructions, his direction in life. To be as strong and as heroic as a president should be. To stand against opposition and fight for the people that matter. True, at this point Max was the only person that mattered, but he stood to gain immeasurably from it, and he felt as though if he could do this for himself, then what might he be able to do for other people in his future. What might he accomplish by taking that first step toward salvation?

He quickly pulled his Ninja Turtle themed backpack from his closet and filled it with the necessities: a jacket, some clothes, the novel he started reading, and, of course, a pack of grape flavored Bubble Yum.

He opened his door, and the hinges betrayed his silence. The squeal seemed to scream like an alarm to alert the warden that a prisoner was about to escape. He paused mid-step with the door half open, and listened. The television continued to blare; now more clear than before. He still didn’t know what the man was watching, but after too long, it was obvious his father didn’t get up from his seat.

As he started down the stairs, he descended gently. Because the wood floor was old and he was getting heavier, he didn’t want it to call out and warn his father that he was coming. He couldn’t have that happen. Capture was not an option.

Each step down the stairs was another step toward freedom, and when he reached the ground floor, he swam through the darkness toward the living room. He stopped just shy of the door, and peered into the room.

Just as he’d imagined, there sat his father—an enemy of the state. He was watching late night television, a movie with some woman wrestling with a man in her bedroom. The cool condensation of the beer’s green glass glistened from the warm glow of the screen. Sinuous threads of smoke snaked from his other hand. The man lifted it a moment later, took a drag of his cigarette, and followed it with a swig of his brew while he blew the smoke from his nose.

The man was a dragon, a formidable foe for any hero—especially for Max. Just looking upon that man paralyzed him. He wasn’t just scared or terrified. He was damn frozen inside. He knew what it meant if he was caught trying to escape, trying to leave that prison. He knew what the man was capable of doing.

A few years ago, his mother had died. Not by any natural causes. No, it was his father. Well, it was his father’s fault, of that he was sure. They were fighting one night, as they always did, and she drank too much as a result. He didn’t blame her for trying to numb the emotional and physical pain that he caused her because there were times Max wished he could drink himself stupid to make the abuse hurt less. What Max didn’t agree with was that she stole the keys to the car, and tried to leave that night. She was too drunk to drive, and died in a terrible car accident.

Meanwhile, as she tried to escape their prison, Max was the new target for his father. Of course, Max was small so he could hide anywhere he wanted, but that night he hid in the wrong place. His father had chased him through the house, and Max found himself cornered in his bedroom. He scurried under the bed, a cockroach of a boy trying to flee the foot of an enraged human. He wasn’t fast enough, however, and his father grasped his legs and pulled him out.

The bed was made of wood, an old job put together by Max’s grandfather. It was sturdy, but it had its faults. None of them really concerned anyone except the night when Max’s father forced him from under the bed. As he passed under the bottom frame, a loose nail protruded an inch down. It first caught Max’s cheek, and when Max started crying to tell his father to stop, the man became more enthusiastic about pulling him out. The nail dug deep, and as his father pulled him out, it tore up through his cheek, split the eyelid, sliced a fissure through Max’s eye, and reentered through the other eyelid. Max tried to turn his head to get the nail out from digging under his skin, but it continued to cut all the way back until his father pulled him out completely.

Max now stood there in the soft glow of the television, trying to remain hidden in that corridor. His hand was once again gently touching the puffy skin of his scar, which had reversed the paralytic effect his father had by reminding him of why he was there in the first place. He dropped his hand, and step backwards to allow the shadows to consume him.

He went to the front door, and disengaged the lock. He pulled it as slow as possible to keep the hinges from ratting him out, and when it was open enough, he slipped into the wintery night. Once he closed the door, he ran as hard and as fast as he could down the street until the thin cold air burned his lungs, forcing him to stop.

He looked back at that foreign country lead by an evil tyrant, and was pleased with himself that he’d finally escaped. He bravely saved himself, a boy who was destined to live as a prisoner unless someone did something about it. He did something about it. President Max liberated normal Max, a brave hero.

Max turned and headed down the street. The frigid weather chilled him to the bone, making violent shivers quake through his body, but he pressed forward. He wasn’t done being brave or heroic, and he had a much more terrifying moment’s in his life that would require him to continue being brave. That night, however, he conquered one of the darkest dictators in his life, and though he may have more to face, he knew that he could face anything after having finally freed himself of the thing he feared the most.

“Welcome, President,” he told himself, “to the United States of Max Carter.”