“It’s a nightmare my mother used to have. It usually happened on the same days she would put me in the bathtub. She always woke up saying the same thing and her eyes—her pupils—they’d be huge. Giant. They’d fill up most of her iris.”
Juke listened to me with an intensity I appreciated. His attention swathed me; it swallowed me; it held me through the conversation. We were sitting in an alley. Juke was finally ready to talk to me about his family. His mother had abandoned him, as did mine, and he was finally ready to talk.
Of course, that meant I had to talk first.
“What did she say?”
“Everything is dark. Please let me die.” My hand twitched a little when I said it. The words reminded me of cold water filling giant tubs. It reminded me of screwdrivers and machetes and drills. It reminded me of my mother peeling my skin back, slow and cautious, looking for something, watching my blood dry and float away like dust. I left out those parts of the story.
“Everything is dark…please let her die?” Juke leaned his head back against the concrete wall, taking the words in. He didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t even know what it meant. But the sentence held even more weight without context. It held the world.
“What was she afraid of? Like, honestly? It sounds like she just wanted to hurt you.” Anger pulsed through his words. We were both silent. Juke was always finding something to be enraged about. There was more of an empty feeling when I thought of Alicia, when I thought of what my mother should’ve been, what she was, what she became. I got to see the old her, maybe a kinder or more sympathetic woman, in small snippets of sanity that she’d express. Clarity. I wouldn’t excuse the death of my father, her constant abuse, her stalking. Still, I couldn’t seem to bring myself to despise a woman who seemed to be tied to the edge for most of her life.
“I don’t know, Juke. Who really knows? I hope it never caught up to her. I hope she at least escaped it.”
I’d taken to visiting Juke alone in the dark alley, bringing him fresh clothes and toiletries. He refused to seek any sort of help. Outside of my assistance, he seemed comfortable with stealing whatever he needed, maybe more. Part of me was worried he was actually robbing people. A gold chain hung around his neck that I’d never seen. He smelled like some type of cologne he definitely didn’t have the money to buy. You definitely wouldn’t think this boy—handsome with a fresh lineup and an overall neat and clean appearance—was homeless. Even his skin glowed with health and defiance.
It wasn’t like anyone was about to bother him; Juke and Osh weren’t easily bothered. They were just too big, too imposing, and too quick to fight. Osh had some legal trouble already from breaking a boy’s jaw at school (for reasons he refused to explain to me), and Juke stood behind him. It took a village to take down Juke physically. His mother abandoning him was a different type of sting. You blame yourself for everything when a parent disappears, loving or not. You blame yourself for all their horrors, their issues, their losses, and demons.
I knew from experience, of course.
“Did your mother ever say anything odd? Did she ever make you feel like this would happen?” I hesitated a bit but asked anyway. We were sitting on the dirty ground, wet from the constant rain we’d been getting. Juke seemed to take some peace in seeing me get dirty, in watching me let my guard down for him. Often, he’d stand over me instead of sitting with me.
“Nah, not really. She wasn’t…she wasn’t anything like your mom. She cared about me. That’s the weird part. My momma was my best friend…honestly…other than you and Osh.” I nodded. There was nothing in me that related to the statement, but I nodded.
Noah was the only friend I claimed. Yeah, she was aggravating as hell. She thought annoying me was hilarious. She often put herself in situations that required a lot of screaming, fighting, or cursing to get her out of. She always expected one of us to do these things for her, and we always did. Still, somewhere deep in her chaotic and venomously bored brain was the most caring person I’d ever met. Noah had attached herself to my fate and refused to back down. Her level of dedication just didn’t exist in other people. I’d scour the Earth for her. And she’d let me, of course.
Juke stared at me until I felt so uncomfortable I had to shift on the dirty ground. A strand of my hair found its way around his finger.
“Did you eat today, Astor?”
“…Why?” I felt him let go of my hair, but he kept his gaze.
“You ever just feel like you’re not really human? Like you just don’t fit in with everyone else or like…like you can do things. Or…something. Like some type of monster? Sometimes, I…” And he stopped. Suddenly. So abruptly that the pause was punctuation in itself. I felt him staring at the side of my face.
Some things were worth talking about. Opening up about. Our mothers running off, it all fit very nicely into the “I can relate” category. We could nurse each other through something like that. The subject of being a monster was one I wouldn’t touch. I looked at my hands, slightly dirty from the alley ground, and felt too exposed.
Did I ever feel like I wasn’t human? Of course. Every time my mother woke up with those doll eyes and screamed for me to let her die, for someone to let her die, at least. Every time I fell or scraped my hand on something and had to watch dust seep out of my skin instead of regular, liquid blood. Every time I waited months to eat and then was filled with the strangest desire to gorge, to consume everything around me. Every time I felt like the Earth was sitting on my chest, but I couldn’t cry.
I felt like every beast he could imagine.
“No. Do you feel like you’re not human?” This time, the pause said a lot. It filled the air and seemed to strangle both of us. The same mental gymnastics that I’d gone through played in the silence and then died. His nervous laugh almost stung.
“No. I guess not.”