Jeffrey: Morning Star (Part 1)
The headache was the worst. I’ve been a little nauseous, and a lot tired the past three days, but this headache was killing me. I’d taken everything up to and including Tylenol 3, and my stupid head just kept aching. It felt like I was being stabbed in the forehead.
So waking up after a three day headache to find that day four was no better was mostly expected and completely disheartening. I reached up to rub it and hissed when my hands found strange little lumps on my forehead. Touching them sent a bolt of pain and nausea through me and I jerked my hands away hurriedly. What the crap?
My door opened and Mama stepped part way into my room. “Jeffrey? Are you feeling-”
I sat up and she screamed and threw herself back out of my room, slamming the door. Her scream rang in my throbbing head, adding a piercing pain to the aching beat. Her sudden urge to pray at the top of her lungs did nothing to ease my pain. I rolled out of bed onto my feet and promptly dropped to my knees as my mother shouted, “Jonah! Get up here!”
She really, really needed to stop shouting. I crawled over to the door, grabbed the knob, and pushed. The knob resisted turning, and the door held fast, pretty much exactly like someone was leaning on the other side. Given the loud rendition of the Lord’s Prayer coming from the other side, I could guess who that was.
“Mama, let me out,” I croaked. “I need to throw-”
She let out another shriek, tinged with hysteria, and I collapsed forward against the door jamb, banging the left side of my forehead. My vision went white and I slumped down into a heap, emptying my stomach all over my arms and chest. I stared at nothing while my vision slowly came back, trying to stay on my side so I wouldn’t drown if I was sick again.
The bedroom door opened a crack and Papa’s face appeared. I tried to sit up, turning to look at him. “Papa, wha-”
His face went white and the door slammed. I winced and fought down another wave of nausea, the smell of my last sick adding to it. I finished pushing myself up to my hands and knees, and tried again to stand up. So I was holding the door jamb when Mama’s prayers moved away a bit. A second later, the door slammed open, and Papa shoved his shotgun up my nose.
The gun jabbed forward, popping me in the mouth. “Not one word, creature. We won’t hear any of your lies.”
I shut my mouth. Papa looked scared, and a scared man holding a shotgun in your face is the next best thing to the Lord Himself for telling you what to do.
“Now you get in the basement, and if you even think about stepping out of line, I will blow you full of holes.”
I used the jamb to pull myself up to a shaky stand. Papa backed up down the hallway and into the kitchen, never taking his eyes off me. I waited until he stopped and got back in his stance before I started down the hall. I was leaning on the wall the whole way, past my little brother and sister’s rooms, past the bathroom, and into the kitchen. Papa jerked the gun at the door to my right, and I fumbled it open. I reached out and flipped on the light. Yesterday, we’d had snow, so I knew it was a cold day outside. The air wafting out of basement supported that, raising instant goosebumps all over my skin.
I took a shaky step down, then another, clinging to the railing. The moment I was clear of the door, it slammed. Well, mostly clear of the door. The rickety stairs shook with the force of the slam, and it clipped my behind. It was enough, on top of the shakiness, weakness, and grogginess that I stumbled and fell.
If you have the good fortune to have never fallen down a flight of stairs, take it from me: it’s absolutely terrifying. There’s that awful moment of over balancing, then a long, flailing drop while you slam repeatedly into the floor, wall, and railing. Somehow, I only took one shot to the head, but that was enough. I was sick all over the floor again, though this time, I managed to mostly avoid hitting myself.
Now, you may be thinking that throwing me in the basement was some kind of monster act. But it wasn’t, at least not in itself. The basement had been remodeled a few years back, to serve as a game-room-slash-gym. There was a pull out couch, an old tube style TV with an actual glass screen, a Flexblaster 300 all in one home gym, and a little shower area. While it was cold as an icebox in Antarctica, being that it was a concrete box buried underground in the middle of November in Virginia, it certainly wasn’t as bad as, say, throwing me in a closet.
For me, right at that moment, the most important thing was that shower. It wasn’t much, just a plexiglass divider separating one corner from the rest of the room and a tile floor with a drain in it. But it was hooked up to the water heater, it got decent pressure, and frankly I’d’ve crawled into a pond covered in an inch of ice to get the sick smell off me. I crawled over to the shower, got the water heated up to something bearable, and stripped off my boxers. I scooted under the water and just sat there for a while, letting the warm water take the worst of my pounding headache away and settle my stomach a little. When I felt good enough to stand, I got up, leaning against the wall for support, and scrubbed down with the bodywash Papa kept there. The smell of it was strong, almost strong enough to make me sick again, so I stayed under the spray for another ten minutes or so until the smell was washed off me.
Papa kept shirts and towels downstairs so I had something to dry off with and something to wear. I fought for control of my stomach as I cleaned up my sick from the foot of the stairs, but I couldn’t just leave it for Mama. I was taking the towel to the hamper when I glanced at the TV screen. I screamed.
The boy in the TV had black on black eyes and a little pair of horns poking out of his head. I scrambled away from the TV, panting. I reached up and felt my forehead, those little bumps suddenly making an awful sense. No wonder Mama and Papa were freaking out, I had a demon inside me!
I swallowed and shoved the soiled towel into the hamper, plucking up my courage to check the TV again. I poked my head cautiously around the edge of the screen, and found the demon staring back at me. Black eyes, lid to lid and edge to edge. Tiny little horns. I opened my mouth and got another surprise: my pointy teeth were pointier and longer. I was growing fangs! I swallowed again, and turned my head this way and that, mesmerised by the sight of the demonic visage mimicking me. I squinted and got a little closer. Could be my imagination, but I thought my skin was paler, although that could be from throwing up, a splitting headache, and falling down the stairs.
Funny, but I didn’t feel like a demon was inside me. What would that even feel like? Would I know? Or would I feel normal right up until I attacked my brother or sister? Right up until I started cursing and taking the Lord’s name in vain, profaning my Mama and Papa’s house? Or maybe I was a demon, and I was just pretending to be Jeffrey Mallory, even to myself, so I could lie to his family and drag their souls to perdition that much easier? The possibilities spun out in my mind’s eye, all of them ending with me burning eternally, many of them ending only when I’d dragged my whole family down with my tainted soul. Shuddering, I knelt down and started to pray. If it was a demon, I needed it out before it took my soul to hell. If I was a demon, I could only hope the Lord would see fit to cast me down before I harmed anyone. I shuddered again at the thought, murmuring the Lord’s Prayer over and over, cut in with the Beatitudes, and frequent simple, “Jesus God, get it out of me, please.”
The door banged open after a while, and Papa led the way down the stairs, shotgun at the ready. I spread my hands wide so that I wouldn’t appear threatening, keeping my eyes cast down. I’d thought about it while I was praying, and I knew the good thing, the right thing to do would be to rush Papa, get shot, and take the demon down to hell with me. I might be lost, but I could still save my family.
But I was scared. I didn’t want to die tainted by a demon, and killing yourself is a sin in itself. I was scared of hell, scared of what would happen to me. So, coward that I was, I stayed still and didn’t threaten Papa, risking damning my own father to save my sorry soul. A mistake on all counts, as it turned out. I still wake up from dreams where I rushed the gun and all of it ended in one blast of short pain.
Behind Papa came Brother Isaiah, our pastor. Brother Isaiah is a big man, bigger than Papa, big like a bear is big. He took one look at me and grabbed the wooden cross around his neck. “Oh Father in Heaven, I’m sorry I doubted you, brother. Has it spoken?”
“It tried,” Papa said. His voice cracked a little, but the gun stayed steady as he said, “It called out to me and Norah. In Jeffrey’s voice. Shut right up when I put a gun in its face.”
Brother Isaiah blew out a breath. “It’s still weak then. Make it go to the corner.”
I stood up slowly and walked backwards to the shower, but stayed out of it. The plexiglass was only a little foggy, but a little fog might be the excuse Papa needed to shoot me. And damned though I knew I was, I still hoped that somehow Brother Isaiah could cast the demon out of me. He stared at me, eyes wide, and swallowed visibly. “You understand me, creature?”
I nodded, keeping my eyes on his chest. I remembered from helping Papa train hunting dogs that looking people in the eye was aggressive, and my eyes weren’t anything like normal.
“Alright, well you stay right there. Brother Jonas, give me that shotgun.”
My heart rate tripled. Surely Brother Isaiah wouldn’t shoot me without trying to save my soul, would he? Oh, Father, I wanted him to at least try. I did not want to go to hell. I wasn’t sure what I’d done to get a demon inside me, but it couldn’t have been so bad that I wasn’t worth saving, could it?
Brother Isaiah took the gun and my courage failed me. I closed my eyes and turned my head away. “That’s right creature. You might be able to prey on this good man’s heart by wearing the flesh of his son, but I am righteous in the eyes of God our Father and I will not hesitate to strike you down.”
When the shot didn’t come, I opened my eyes a little. Brother Isaiah had a hand on Papa’s shoulder, gun still pointed at me, and he was whispering. Funny enough, I could make it out just fine.
“Get rope. We have to restrain it. Might could be we can still get Jeffrey back, but we have to hurry.”
Papa nodded and started back up the stairs. Brother Isaiah nodded at the couch. “You know how to work that, creature?”
“Open it up.”
I pulled cushions off, shoulders itching from the knowledge of the gun aimed at me. The couch was an old one, and the works inside were heavy enough that I needed both hands and a lot of muscle to get it out. But having a shotgun on you works wonders for motivation, and I got it out and set up in record time. As I was flipping it open, Papa came back down the stairs with a couple of tie downs from the truck.
“All I could find,” he said quietly.
Brother Isaiah nodded. “It’ll do. Creature, get that mattress off there.”
I frowned but obeyed, hauling the awkward thing off and letting it flop to one side.
“Now lay down on that frame and stretch out those arms and legs.”
Once I was situated, Brother Isaiah came over slowly and put the shotgun to my head. I closed my eyes again, breath quickening at the feeling of the barrel pressed against my temple. I couldn’t help it, I whimpered a little as images of what my brains would look like splattered on the couch rose to my mind.
Brother Isaiah laughed. “Oh, that’s clever. A lesser man might even believe you were scared, creature. Jonas, tie it down.”
Papa wrapped my wrist in tie down, knotting it off as best he could, and then looped it around the frame of the bed part of the couch. I heard a ratcheting noise, and then my arm was pulled taut as the tie down tightened up. He repeated that at my other wrist, and then tied my ankles together and ratcheted them down. I don’t know if he meant to, but I was now in the position our Saviour died in, crucified to the bed with straps and winches. I didn’t even test my bonds. Part of me was scared, not sure of how you went about getting a demon out of someone. Part of me, though, was grateful for the restraint. Even if the demon took over now, I couldn’t hurt anyone.
The gun at my temple vanished, and I heard it set down next to the bed. I opened my eyes and watched as Brother Isaiah fetched a bucket from under the stairs and and took it to the shower. He filled it in silence, and then brought it over to me. Without a word, he dumped ice cold water all over me. I shouted out in shock as I suddenly went from a little chilly to absolutely freezing.
“Yes, creature, you will suffer. We will mortify Jeffrey’s flesh until you flee his body. We will cast you out in Jesus’ name.”
I swallowed and tried not to shiver too hard.
I don’t know how long it was, I truly don’t. The lights were never turned off, there were no windows in the basement, and while they gave me bread and water now and again, it was nothing like regularly. Mama, Papa, and Brother Isaiah took it in turns to pray over me, one of them always with me. When my feet and hands started to turn purple, they let me up, making me kneel on the tile in the shower while they rinsed me down with water that felt almost scalding until the heater ran out. At some point, they fetched down handcuffs from somewhere, and I wasn’t tied up so tightly after that. They hit me a lot, trying to drive the demon out with pain, smacking me with socks stuffed with rice, taking a belt to my front and back, slapping me on the face with open hands and on the body with fists. I was always cold, either from being soaked with ice water, or because they eventually ripped the t-shirt off of me after I bled all over it. Tip for you: avoid having your back strapped to hamburger and then soaked in iodine. Further tip: having it done to your belly hurts even worse.
Of course, once the hunger kicked in, I was half out of my mind for most of it. My stomach felt like it would rip its way out of me and go looking for food on its own. My throat pretty much always hurt, because I couldn’t stop myself from screaming when they hit me, though I managed not to use words after the first time I’d begged Papa to stop. That was the beating that cost me my shirt.
One thing I remember was that somewhere along the line, Brother Isaiah brought down a stun gun. I remember it not just because it hurt, but because up to that point, Mama’s times watching over me had been peaceful, just her praying and crying while I prayed quietly along with her. She couldn’t hit me, she said.
But she sure could shock the daylights out of me.
And not a bit of it did a dang bit of good. Whenever I was up, I could see my horns were growing longer. They curled back against my head like ram’s horns, though ram’s horns aren’t smooth and coal black. I bit my tongue enough to know my fangs had gotten longer, though I didn’t bare them at the TV to check after I got whacked in the mouth with a sock full of rice the first time I did it.
The biggest change, though, was my privates. All gradual, almost so I didn’t notice, my parts were shrinking, turning in on themselves. In moments where I was clear headed, I could hear Brother Isaiah telling Papa and Mama that meant the demon inside me was a suckybus and it was changing me to suit itself. All I knew was I was ashamed to look at my own body after a while, because I had a girl’s thing and a boy ain’t meant to see that before marriage.
The last day of the exorcism, they went all out. I got strapped front and back. Mama took the stun gun to my inner thighs and my privates and the soles of my feet. Papa poured water over my face, making me feel like I was drowning. I was exhausted. Brother Isaiah had been reading me passages of the Bible the entire time, and I could tell they were building to something. If I hadn’t been exhausted and numb inside, I might have been worried. I should have been worried.
They cuffed me back down to the bed, and I was once again crucified on the frame. I hated that thing by now, the thin metal grid digging into my tender skin, cold and harsh, and covered in my blood, sweat, and piss. But they’d done all the usual, so at most I was expecting another cold water bath and to be left to shiver and ache for a while. Instead, Brother Isaiah straddled me. I quailed inside a little, thinking he was going to choke me again. They hadn’t done that much, but I hated it almost more than I hated anything else. It always felt like I was dying, each and every time, and I was terrified I was going to be sent off to hell, all my suffering for nothing.
Instead, they planned something much, much worse. Brother Isaiah picked up a little hand torch and a coat hanger bent into a simple cross about four inches tall and two across. It was actually fairly nice work, not sloppy at all, which is an odd thing to notice, but...when you’re being tortured, weird things jump out at you. So I noticed that they’d looped the metal back on itself so every arm of the cross had two pieces of metal to it with a loop with a u-bend at each end of the cross bringing the wire back to the center. The rest of the hanger, about six inches of it, was coated in duct tape and stuck out from the back of it as a handle. I’ll never forget the look of that thing as long as I live, and I can’t stand the sight of a wire hanger any more.
As I watched, my breath tightening, my stomach starting to heave, he heated up that bit of wire with the torch, making it glow cherry red. They hadn’t burned me yet, nor done anything that would leave me with obvious, unexplainable marks, though I didn’t put that together until later. I think, up to that point, they really did mean to save me, and didn’t want me to have scars. At least I hope that was it. In hindsight...maybe they just didn’t want to have to stop beating me long enough for me to heal.
The smell of hot metal reached my nose, and I was trying not to cry. I’d tapped the side of my hand on a hot pot when I was younger, and I remembered how bad that hurt. I watched the little piece of metal go from cherry red to yellow and start edging up into white. Then, faster than my eye could follow, Brother Isaiah planted it right flat on my breastbone.
I felt a wave of pain wash over me in time with a throat ripping scream. And something...broke inside me. It was almost a feeling of something tearing in my head. And just like that, I wasn’t the only one screaming. Mama, Papa, and Brother Isaiah were all screaming along with me.
Brother Isaiah flung the brand aside and clawed at his chest, throwing himself back off me and off the bed. My vision dimmed as I struggled to process the pain, and the sound of screaming was all around me. The last thing I remember was taking a shot to the head, from the butt of the gun, it felt like.
I woke up to fingers probing my chest and I tried to scream again. The pain was strangely distant, and everything felt foggy. I opened my eyes, and a strange face swam into view.
“-definitely a mutant, Mr. and Mrs. Mallory.”
“The change in eye color and the change of sex are both pretty clear indicators, although I’ll have to run blood tests to be one hundred percent sure.”
I stared at the stranger, a woman with short blond hair wearing some kind of box on her ear. She smiled at me and grabbed my chin gently, turning my face this way and that. “Maybe you’re awake this time, hmm? Hard to tell without pupils, but I think you’re focused on me.”
She turned back to Mama and Papa. “So, as agreed, I’ll take her off your hands for $1,000. You can move on with your lives and just forget this ever happened.
I stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment and then looked at Mama and Papa, shock welling up through the haze and pain. They were both wearing little boxes on their ears like the woman was, and Papa was holding Mama at his side. Neither of them were looking at me, and they both looked...guilty, and exhausted. But...being a mutant was a sin, sure, but...but they wouldn’t sell me! Not after all that! They’d been trying to save me, and if I was an abomination, I needed their help more than ever!
Papa squeezed Mama tight and nodded. “I think that’s best. I’ll get my checkbook.”
No, they wouldn’t sell me after all. As I watched, numb and unbelieving, they paid $1,000 to be rid of me.
I was unchained from the bed and wrapped in a silvery blanket. Mama and Papa didn’t look at me as the strange woman helped me out the door and into the back of a van. It was night outside, and despite the chill the basement had still carried, there was no snow on the ground, and the air was alive with the scent of greenery. All winter, then, I’d been down in that basement. Being tortured to drive out a demon that was never there.
I tell you, my faith took a hit right at that moment, smelling fresh mown grass and watching my parents close the door, shutting me out of their lives without so much as a hint that they felt bad for what they’d done to me. Not even shutting me out, though, paying to have me hauled away, like garbage.
The woman settled me and buckled me in. I felt a little flutter of panic as the straps tightened around me, but I fought it down, watching her. She smiled at me and reached up to stroke my face. “You really look extraordinary,” she murmured.
I stared at her, dumbfounded, but she quickly closed the door and went around to get in the driver’s seat. There was a grill separating the front two seats from the rear of the van, but I could see out the front and I watched, floating on a sea of drugs and pain, as the streets rolled by. I hurt too much to sleep, my chest a constant solid bar of white hot agony barely muted by the drugs, but I fuzzed out here and there, so I’m still not sure exactly where we went or how we got there, but at some point, I started hurting more as we bounced and rocked over gravel, then dirt. The track led through a field up to a huge barn that I could dimly make out in the morning light.
She pressed something on the dashboard and the big door rolled aside, revealing a concrete floored bay with little rooms off of it every ten feet or so. She drove in and parked, then came around to let me out. I leaned on her as she helped me down out of the van, and stood blinking in the light.
The area around us wasn’t actually a garage, for all that it had a van parked in it. There was a small office in one corner, taking up one little room, and across from it a room that looked like a doctor’s examination room, which she led me to. I looked around as we walked, and saw several heavy doors, eight on each side of the bay, like the kind on the walk in freezer at the gas station up the road from us, spaced about ten feet apart going back from the office and exam room to the far wall, which had a one of those heavy doors, a catwalk and a flight of stairs leading up to another of the heavy doors.at the second story level.
She helped me up onto the table in the exam room and tugged the silver sheet away from me. I let her, because while I was loathe to be naked again after finally being covered for the first time in what was apparently months, I figured she had a doctor room, she’d examined me, and she’d talked about tests, so maybe she was a doctor.
That was the point I named her Dr. Blond in my head. I never did find out her proper name, and I’m glad of it. I don’t want to know what became of her, I don’t want to find out she’s out there somewhere still. I could probably figure it out if I tried, but I have enough nightmares for now.
She poked at my burn again and I shuddered, jerking back from her. I’d been restrained for so long that I jerked too hard and nearly went over the side of the table, but she caught me, grinning sympathetically. “Sorry, kiddo...hmm...what shall we call you? You can’t be Jeffrey anymore.”
Well, I didn’t see why not. The sound of my name, after being called “creature” and “demon” for so long was like bread to a starving man. And I’d been given bread while starving, so I can tell you truthfully it felt the same. I wanted her to say my name over and over until it was just meaningless sounds and then stop and start again so I could hear it some more. I opened my mouth to tell her so, and found I couldn’t speak. Oh, not that I physically couldn’t, my throat felt raw, but I knew I could make sounds. No, the thought of talking, of using words, filled me with utter terror. I opened and closed my mouth a few times, trying to get myself to talk, and I just...couldn’t. She looked at me expectantly, a knowing look on her face. I swallowed and made a little writing motion over my hand.
“Of course,” she said with a smile. She grabbed a pad of sticky notes and a pen out of a drawer and handed them to me.
My handwriting was atrocious, and my hands were shaking from exhaustion, pain, and what turned out to be nerve damage from all the time spent in cuffs. But I managed to write, My name Jeffrey in big wobbly letters.
She looked at what I’d written and laughed. She had a nice laugh, musical, like a piano scale. “Don’t be silly,” she said. She pointed between my legs and my face burned with shame and I tried to clamp them together, realizing my wrongness was on display. “You’re a girl now. How about Jenna? Yes, Jenna. Well, Jenna, lay back and we’ll get you taken care of.”
I stared at her, eyes watering. Just like that, then. Instead of “creature” and “demon” I’d be given yet another name that wasn’t mine, and that I had no choice in. I’d have screamed if I thought it would do any good, but bluntly, screaming had become something to do while I was waiting for the hurting to stop. And while I might not like it, the fact was that I was sitting in an exam room, she was apparently going to treat my wounds, and if my rescuer, or purchaser depending on how you look at it, wanted to call me a dumb name there wasn‘t much for it but to lay back and hope she could treat my injuries with a minimum of fresh pain. I laid back, blinking back tears anyway and feeling stupid for crying over something so small after what I’d been put through, as she swung some kind of arm over me, prattling about “cellular regeneration.” I couldn’t have followed it if I hadn’t been drop dead tired, and as it was, my thoughts drifted.
I’d been rescued, sure...but I’d needed rescuing. From Mama and Papa. Who’d hurt me, beat me, tortured me for months. And then suddenly there was a doctor. I don’t know why they called her, I don’t know why they didn’t call her sooner, but at some point, they’d stopped and asked themselves if I was a mutant. Why hadn’t they called a doctor right away? Why hadn’t they just taken me to the state and given me up? I mean, I knew why they hadn’t after, the treacherous part of my brain shattering what was left of my mental construct of loving parents. Because they’d be caught, and my little brother and sister would be taken away. My brother and sister…
Jonas Jr. and Jessica. Mama had a thing for J names. They’d been my strength through it all. Even after mama had joined in, even after I’d come to the slow conclusion that I was probably going to die in that basement, I’d been able to man up and take it, knowing I was protecting them from an evil invading force. I’d been saving them, from me. And now they were alone with the man and woman who’d tortured me who knows how long past the point that they realized I needed medical care, not an exorcism. And I’d never see them again. I’d never even got to say good bye.
But what if they saw you? The traitorous voice in my head whispered. Demon I may not be, but mutants were a perversion of God’s holy work, a blight on the world sent to test us in the end times. And I looked...hideous, last I saw. I was a monster. I knew, then, that I had to save my siblings from my parents. I had to get word to the cops if it was the last thing I did. The real cops, not Officer Hendricks who drank with Papa on Saturday nights. But I knew, in my heart of hearts, that even if I did somehow save them, I couldn’t face them. I couldn’t let them see the evil thing I had become. I only hoped they hadn’t heard me screaming all that time, that my parents had come up with some lie to let them remember me as I was. I wanted someone to.
About that point a wave of ease rolled through me, muscles unkinking that I hadn’t even known were tensed. I flopped around a bit, my eyes rolling up at the abrupt cessation of most of my pain. Oh, I still ached to the bone, and I was near to passing dead tired, but the bruises all over me had faded to distant aches, the cuts on my back and thighs from the straps weren’t stinging anymore, and my chest was down to a slight tightness.
“-we go, come on, I know it feels nice, but you can’t pass out here.”
My head lolled around and I looked at Dr. Blond hazily. She looked annoyed, so I tried to focus on standing up, as she seemed to want me to. I managed something like it, and she got me the thirty feet or so to one of the heavy doors. Inside was tile floor with a drain in the center, a hospital shower slash toilet in one corner, a sink, a little two drawer dresser, and a cot. Dr. Blond helped me into the shower and spent some time scrubbing me with a soap that smelled like lemonade. I got a bit of shock when she washed my hair, not having realized just how much hair I had until she was running her fingers through the knotted, ragged mess. She dried me off with a soft towel and put me to bed on the cot. It was the softest, most amazing thing I’d ever felt in my life, the thin knit cotton hospital blanket and linen sheets felt like satin and down on my skin. The pillow...Father in Heaven, the pillow was a thick foam block wrapped in linen that smelt of antiseptics, and I wanted, right at that moment, to live atop that pillow for the rest of my life.
Dr. Blonde gave me that one night of not hurting, in a bed that felt like Heaven, and nothing that came after will ever taint the memory of curling up in it for the first time. No bed has ever felt as good as that cot did that night, and when I’m having an attack, I remember that night, and try to recapture that feeling. I'm grateful for that night, because the next morning, she got straight into it.
I woke up to find something cold and thick around my neck. It wasn’t heavy, but it was digging into me a little, which is what woke me. The light in the room was a half light, a little brighter than candles, and as I stirred, it brightened to full. I squirmed a bit, loathe to give up the comfort of the bed, but also wanting to get out and explore a little. The mirror above the sink caught my eye, and I had a sudden desire to see myself clearly. I’d caught glimpses in the dark mirror of the TV, but I hadn’t seen my own face undistorted since the day before I went down into the basement. I pushed back the covers and put my feet on the floor. It was cold, but not any more so than the floor of the basement, and experimentally tried to stand. Whatever Dr. Blond had done to me the night before, I was stronger than I had been in a long time, though I was ravenously hungry and a little shaky from lack of food. It had probably been a few days since my last couple slices of bread and sips of water, although I was so used to starving at that point that it registered only as the final bastion of weakness to my new found strength.
I approached the mirror with trepidation. I knew it would be bad. I knew. And I had to see just how much of a monster I was. But...that would be that. I could never imagine for even a moment that I wasn’t. I would know, absolutely, what I looked like now. I blew out a breath, steeling myself, and stepped in line with the mirror.
It was...pretty much as bad as I expected. My eyes were soulless pits of blackness, about what I remembered from the TV, although seeing them up close in living color was deeply uncomfortable. They lacked humanity, and more to the point, I couldn’t see anything of myself left in them. Those eyes, black and flat like a shark, were the most unsettling thing about my face, and did the most to make me look monstrous. My horns didn’t help, of course. They had curved up, following the contour of my skull to recurve along my jawline, jutting out a little past my mouth in line with my chin, starting a spiral that looked like it would curl in on itself. They were shiny and black, like the shell of a beetle, smooth as glass. They no longer hurt, and hadn’t in awhile, and I thought I could see why. They were thick at the base, with a gradual taper toward the tip, but after about three inches in from the tip, they reached their thickest point, and they were that same thickness all around after that, about three inches across. Between the two of them, I had about a two inch strip of forehead left showing, and under them it was about an inch to my eyebrows. I waggled my eyebrows and watched them mash up under the horns, watched my brow wrinkle around them. Ugly things.
And then there was my hair. When I went down into the basement, my hair had been dirty blond. It was now blue black, and it stretched down to the small of my back. I turned my head this way and that, watching it move, feeling it flow over my skin. It was very soft, although that might have been the washing, and it flowed like dark water, clinging to me like it was floating on my skin. The color was about the only thing I liked about it, and I resolved to have it chopped back to a decent length if I ever got the chance. It made me look...too feminine.
My skin was...pasty was the wrong word. Translucent? Almost white, with a look of slight transparency, like I was made of matte plastic. It gave my face an alien cast. Speaking of my face, it hadn’t changed as much as I’d expected. My cheekbones stood out sharper, my chin was pointier, but my lips...my lips were rose pink and looked like that one time I’d sucked them into a bottle on a dare. They were full, rounded, making me look like I was making a kissy face without moving a muscle. Just to see what it looked like I did make a kissy face. If I’d had lipstick, I could’ve left a cartoon kiss mark on the mirror.
I took another deep breath and opened my mouth. I goggled for a moment, opening my mouth wider...and still wider. My face stretched out ghoulishly even as I struggled to understand where in our Lord’s name the fangs went when my mouth was closed. They were almost tusks, thick, sharp, ripping teeth. With my jaw fully open, my mouth was as tall as my hand was long, and I could see that my other teeth were all sharper. Not necessarily pointier, but the edges look thin and I ran a finger over them and felt a dull knife edge of bone. I looked every inch the monster with my three inch fangs jutting out of that nightmare maw. I closed my mouth slowly, watching the fangs, and realized they fit into grooves on either side of my jaw, folding back slightly like a snake’s. I shuddered and ran my tongue over them, as I had so often before. I’d thought they felt huge, but...they were huge!
Shuddering at the now certain knowledge that I was an inhuman thing, I took to examining the thing around my neck. It was a heavy circlet, looked like it was made of metal, with a green light on it. I ran my fingers around it and couldn’t find a join, and after poking it for a few minutes trying to figure it out, I gave up. I stepped back to get a better look at the rest of myself in the mirror.
I was still pretty short, as near as I could tell. My skin was that same sort-of-mannequin color all over, except for my lips, nails, nipples, and...stuff. Those were all that shade of rosy pink. In fact the only thing that was a different color on me was the scar on my chest. It was perfectly clear, an exact imprint of the brand used on me. It was rosy pink around the edges, and raised red along the lines. In fact, the only way I knew it was a scar and not a burn was the lack of pain and the fact that it felt like a scar when I touched it. If I didn’t know what it was, I’d have thought it was a raised red tattoo. And ...well, I had breasts. Not big ones, barely raised puffy little mounds, but now that I was standing and could see clearly, it was obvious what the swells on my chest were. The scar sat right between them, making them seem more prominent somehow. .
Suddenly, I felt embarrassed. I was looking at a girl’s body! Ok, it was my body, but still. I wasn’t supposed to be looking at breasts and...things. I turned away from the mirror and reached for the blanket, before my eyes fell on the dresser. Maybe…
Sure enough, in the top drawer there was underwear, a bra of some kind, a coverall, and a pair of little things I would’ve called slippers except they had hard rubber soles. I got dressed as best I could, mostly having trouble with the bra. It didn’t have straps or buckles or anything, and I finally figured out you put it on like a shirt, over your head. Then I got tangled and had to take it off and put my arms through the holes and pull it back down. At which point I realized it was backwards. I shuddered to think of bras more complex.
The coverall did exactly what it said in the name and I felt a bit of tension go out of me at wearing clothes again. It made me feel a little more human. Well, a little more human for an abhuman monster, but I’d take what I could get. I stepped into the shoes and found they had a little elastic around the top which let them cling to my feet. Seeing them on my feet, I realized I’d seen Mama wear shoes like this before. They weren’t sneakers, but they certainly weren’t uncomfortable. A bit feminine for my taste, but I was a boy with breasts and...unmentionables, and I was wearing a bra, so I couldn’t exactly freak about the first shoes I’d owned in months. .
I pulled open the bottom drawer and found a stack of notepads, a box of pens, a bunch of sticky notes...and a Bible. My stomach twisted uncertainly as I picked it up. It wasn’t a particularly nice Bible. It had a cheap faux leather cover, wafer thin pages, and a quick look showed it was missing the Book of the Black Pharaoh and the Gospel of the Eyes Between Worlds, but it had a serviceable New Testament and I recognized most of the Old Testament. I could probably recite the Pharaoh and the Gospel of Eyes by heart after hearing them so much over the last few months, so I wasn’t missing them too much. But...this was what they’d shouted at me. This, the core of my faith, of my life, had been used as an excuse to torture me. I desperately needed God right now, but did God need or want an abomination? Was I still saved?
I was sitting on my heels, holding the Bible, when the door behind me clunked open. I set the Bible on the table and turned to find Dr. Blond smiling at me. “Sorry it’s not complete, but your people are notoriously careful with their Bibles. I’ve only seen one once before and I doubt I could remember it well enough to duplicate it.”
My people? I wondered what she meant by that. If she meant the people in my church, of course we were careful with our Bibles, they’re usually family heirlooms and they only get reprinted very rarely under special circumstances. I shrugged and essayed a smile. The look on her face told me I probably should have checked to see what a smile looked like on a mouth that could stretch to six inches tall and four across. I quickly wiped the smile off my face.
She mostly hid a little shiver and beckoned me out of the room. “Come on, I have some things to show you, and you have work to do.”
Curious about this work, I followed her out. She led me over to a table on which there was a melon and a circlet like the one around my neck. “Now, I want you to feel at home, but I also want to be clear about a few things.” She placed the circlet around the melon and turned to face me. “I’m in charge. You do what I say, when I say it, how I say it. Use your powers against me-”
Powers? What powers?
“-or try to run away, or disobey me, and this happens.” She waved a hand at the melon.
I screamed and staggered back as green mist and chunks of melon pattered against my face. My hands shot up to the circlet around my own neck, frantically tugging at it as I backpedaled away from her.
She held up a finger. “Stop.”
I froze, eyes on the remains of the melon, picturing the cloud of mist done over in red and bone.
“Good girl, Jenna,” she said, smiling at me like a dog that’s rolled over on command.
Exactly like a dog. In a collar.
I was a pet.
She watched my face and nodded. “There you go, I think you’re in the right frame of mind now. I find this little demonstration makes things so clear, don’t you?”
I nodded, shivering. Oh, Jesus save me there was a bomb around my neck. A bomb she apparently controlled with her mind. I sank to my knees, clutching at it, tears pricking at my eyes.
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, stop that.”
I twitched and shot to my feet, hands down at my sides.
Dr. Blond made a disgusted sound and my stomach turned to ice. “Just...relax. I’m not going to kill you out of hand. Didn’t I say you had work to do?”
I nodded, reaching up to wipe my eyes.
“Ok, then. Follow me.”
She led me over to one of the rooms and opened the door. It was much bigger inside than my room, maybe thirty by twenty. There was a bunch of exercise equipment and a whole bunch of stuff that might have been scanners, although I honestly wouldn’t know a scanner if it bit me. For all I can say, they were computers hooked up to the equipment to make it run. But the most important thing in the room was the smell of cooked meat and eggs. My stomach did somersaults trying to forcibly eject and go capture the food on its own. She pointed at a tray set up on a counter. “First, eat while I finish setting up.”
I all but levitated to the food. It was three generous slices of ham, two eggs, a piece of buttered toast, and a glass of orange juice. In hindsight, I dearly wish I’d had the brains to remember Papa’s outdoorsman training. Namely, don’t overload a starving stomach.
I made it through about half of the food, barely acknowledging the fork and knife, when I felt the first cramp. I slowed down, but I just couldn’t stop shoving the food in. It was real, honest, delicious food, and I wanted to inhale it.
Then the second cramp hit, and I had to stop. By the third cramp, I was doubled over clutching my stomach. Dr. Blond was watching me clinically, holding a little box thing with a dish on top. “Well, onto the treadmill.”
I stared at her for a moment as another cramp took my breath away. The weight of the collar was shouting at me. I staggered over to the treadmill and stepped on. It started a moment later, and I was forced to begin walking or fall off. Fun fact: if you’re having stomach cramps, and you haven’t moved more than ten feet on average in months other than to be tortured, walking five miles is fairly close to hell. Which is what I did for the next hour of my life. The cramps did eventually get a little better, although they mostly migrated to my thighs, calves and sides. Once I was done with that she gave me a ten minute breather, and then I started lifting weights. I hadn’t been exactly strong before I went down into the basement, but I was a dead wimp now. I wasn’t sure if it was the fact that my body was changing gender or the fact that I’d been beaten and starved for months, but I wasn’t sure what the point of making me lift weights was either way. I didn’t actually lift all that much, and my arms hurt like crazy after five minutes.
So of course, we went for an hour again. And then she put me in one of those things they use to train astronauts, the one that flips you upside down and sideways while spinning really fast. And we did that until I threw up, paused for me to clean up my mess, and then continued until I passed out. When I came to, I was still hanging in the straps and for one horrible second I thought Dr. Blond was just waiting to kick the machine on again the moment I woke up.
Instead she let me out with a smile. “This is very good, I think I’ve finally dialed it in.”
I leaned on the machine, taking deep breaths and trying not to be sick again. I wanted desperately to ask her what she was testing, but my mouth wouldn’t form the words. I settled for giving a frustrated wave. When she glanced over at me, I made an exaggerated shrugging motion.
She laughed. “Right, you can’t ask questions, can you? Well, Jenna, I’m trying to determine the range and strength of your powers.”
I cocked my head to the side and raised an eyebrow.
“You don’t know, do you?” she asked, a slow grin spreading over her face.
I shook my head.
“You’re an empath, a projector.”
I shrugged again.
She rolled her eyes. “It means you make the people around you feel what you feel.”
My stomach plummeted. Mama and Papa and Brother Isaiah had screamed and grabbed their chests when I’d been burned.
What if Joey and Jess had been in the house? Oh, Father, had I hurt my baby brother and sister?
I raised my arms, spreading them out, then bringing my hands together, then spreading them out again.
I nodded, stomach roilling.
“About a hundred feet or so when you’re stressed, which is why I’ve been stressing you. I had to-”
I lurched over to the wastebasket and was sick. Visions of Joey and Jess writhing on the floor, feeling the worst pain of my life squatted in my brain and refused to budge. An even worse thought followed on the heels of that image. Hadn’t I read somewhere that sudden shock could kill you? Oh please Father, don’t let me have killed them!
I heaved again.
Dr. Blond tapped her foot, waiting for me to finish. “Still a little queasy from the ride?”
I shook my head and held out my hand at waist height.
I pointed at myself.
I shook my head and repeated the gestures as I stood up, wiping my mouth across the sleeve of the coverall.
“Short you? Sho- oh! Little! You have younger siblings!”
I nodded and repeated the gesture for range.
She stared at me and then let out that musical laugh of hers. “Well, that’s unfortunate for them. I understand that getting that scar was quite painful.”
I glared at her, reaching up to wipe my eyes. Still, despite my horror and the subsequent nightmares, I learned a valuable lesson: Dr. Blond had no sympathy to offer, and I should expect none.
“Well, there’s nothing you can do about it now. So, let’s begin. I want you to focus on this ball…”
The ball turned out to be some weird kind of sensor that could detect emotions and feelings. I know this, because Dr. Blond couldn’t seem to stop talking about her various sensors and tools, which she called devises. Turns out, I’d been broadcasting strongly ever since they burned my chest, and the little box she wore in her ear, and the matching boxes in my parent’s ears when I’d woken up after, were some kind of shield. Dr. Blond wanted to teach me how to turn it off and on and how to point it.
Her methods were very direct. Focus, or the collar gave me a little sting of electricity. Every five minutes that went by without an increase in success, even a marginal one, bought me a slightly stronger shock. Given that I’d been tortured with electricity, having a stun gun slash bomb around my neck did nothing for my concentration. I got shocked. A lot.
At the end of the first day, I was getting shocked hard enough to knock me off my feet. On the bright side, my horns turned out to be a great crash helmet. I could hit the floor and convulse for a full minute without ever banging my head as long as I went over sideways or backward. And even then, the one time I went forward, my nose hurt, but the horns kept me from cracking my forehead.
Dr. Blond finally gave up after the eighth minute long convulsion, and sent me to bed. I crawled into my room and curled up on the bed feeling miserable. Mutating had, so far, been the single worst thing in my life.
As I lay there, a horrible thought struck me. I was an abomination, and I knew it. But before I knew I was an abomination, I’d believed I was a demon.
And the people around me felt what I felt.
What if I’d made Mama and Papa torture me? What if I’d made them do all those awful things? Were they sitting at home, trying to remember how they could possibly have done it? Trying to figure out why they had been bad people for no reason?
Had I turned my parents into monsters? I sat up in bed, shaking with the thoughts running around in my brain. If it was true, every strap, every punch, every shock, I’d inflicted on myself, using my helpless parents as tools to punish myself. I’d turned loving, caring people into medieval inquisitors against their will.
I turned and stared at the Bible beside me on the table. Never mind asking if I was still saved, I guess. I might be a mutant abomination, but I really, truly was a demon. My mind ran back to that last moment I’d exercised conscious choice, when I’d chosen not to make Papa shoot me, and I cursed myself.
I picked up the Bible and turned the pages. I found the Beatitudes after a few moments, and lay the book open on my lap.
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I caressed the page. I was an abomination, and I had committed abominations. The blessings of our Lord were closed to me, but they brought me some comfort as I realized what I had to do. I lay down, holding the Bible to my chest and repeating the blessings in my head to calm my nerves.
I lay awake all night. I prayed off and on, for forgiveness for what I had done, for what I was planning to do. Brother Isaiah once said that to ask God to forgive a sin you plan to commit is the worst kind of hypocrisy, but I had no choices left to me.
The door opened and my heart shot up into my throat. I took a deep breath, sent up one final plea for understanding, and attacked Dr. Blond, mouth open to the fullest, screaming out a deep chesty roar that I hadn’t known I could make. She leapt back, her hand shooting up, and I flinched-
And hit the floor convulsing as the shock collar pounded me.
No. No, that’s not...she was supposed to…
I struggled to my feet and lunged for her as soon as the collar let me and again, I hit the floor. This time, the convulsions went on for a minute and a half and I saw stars as my chest contracted hard enough to stop my breathing.
That would work.
Weakened, hurting, I forced my way to my feet and threw myself at her again. Death by electrical torture was not what I wanted, but to be honest, it was little more than I deserved. The collar hammered me to the ground and this time I passed out.
I came to and tried to get up again, only to find myself strapped down to a table. My breathing quickened at the feeling of the restraints and I looked around wildly. Dr. Blonde was standing a few feet away from the table, her hand on some kind of lever.
“What,” she asked icily, “is the fucking matter with you?”
I had to convince her I was too dangerous. I dropped my mouth all the way open and let out another of those roars.
She rolled her eyes and flipped the lever. I don’t know what it did, but it hurt. Every muscle, every nerve in my body caught fire. My throat closed, my breathing stopped and I passed out again.
When I came to, Dr. Blond was standing over me, holding one of my horns. I took a shuddering breath and managed a gasping, wheezing bark.
“I believe you have what is colloquially referred to as a ‘death wish.’ Am I correct?”
Shame flooded me, but I nodded. Maybe she’d blow my head off if I was honest.
She blew out a breath and jerked my head over. There was a screen sitting next to table I was on, showing four separate pictures. Each one was a room that looked like mine, and each one had a man or a woman in it.
The penny dropped. My eyes widened and I shook my head frantically, making desperate little grunting noises.
She pulled the lever. And through a wave of my own agony, I watched as four innocent people screamed and thrashed as I hurt them.
Dr. Blond reversed the lever before I passed out and I collapsed, drooling on myself, hating myself, hating her, wishing I could just trigger the stupid bomb myself.
She dragged my head around to face her. “I want you alive, and if you’re determined to die, I want it understood: I won’t kill you. I’ll drop the psi shields on those rooms, and I’ll hurt you. And you’ll hurt them. In fact,” she leaned over and picked up a little tool. She began fiddling with my collar, “I’m going to reverse the shields on your necklace. So what you feel, they feel three times as strong. I hurt you, you hurt them worse.”
She set the little tool aside and dragged my face up to hers. “Blink three times if you understand.”
Dr. Blond was suddenly all smiles again. “Excellent. Oh, and if you get any funny ideas about using your bedsheets to strangle yourself or some such nonsense, keep two things in mind: the necklace protects your neck from such things, and if you somehow succeed, I will find your little brother and sister, and I will torture them to death. Over a period of years. Am I clear?”
I blinked three times again.
“Good.” She unstrapped me and pushed me off the side of the table. I hit the ground like a sack of flour. “As soon as you can move, get back in your room. I’m sick of the sight of you for today.”
I crawled to my room as soon as I could manage and closed the door behind me, hearing the lock engage.
I’d failed. Worse, I’d tortured more people. And I couldn’t endanger Joey and Jess, so plan B was out.
I slumped over on the floor and cried myself to sleep.
When the door opened the next morning, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor. Dr. Blond looked at me curiously. “Are we going to behave today?”
And the training began again. I trained for almost two weeks, 10 hours a day, learning to control my powers. I got to where I could “bank” the field of emotions around me, pulling it in to a foot away from me. I couldn’t shut it off entirely, and if I was startled or hurt, it flared out again. I could, similarly, focus it into a narrow cone a hundred feet long and five feet wide at the widest, but I couldn’t turn it into a laser beam, or focus the field on one spot. My power was a flamethrower, not a pistol, and it definitely had splash effects.
After two weeks, Dr. Blond moved to live testing, wherein she would haul out some helpless person from one of her cells and make me feel at them. I could choose what to make them feel, but if I chose not to, or failed, I was made to hurt them. I cried pretty much constantly, which meant that mostly I made people feel sadness, self-loathing, and fear, but it was a darn sight better than a triple strength electrical shock.
Then nothing. Turned out there was a little slot in the back of my cell that dispensed a tray of food once a day. I discovered this because I lived in my cell for the better part of a week. I hoped, desperately, that Dr. Blond had gotten bored with me. I spent most of the week staring at my Bible without opening it. I didn’t deserve to be comforted. But I couldn’t stop wanting to be, wanting everything to be alright, or, barring that, wishing I could just send myself to Hell and have done.
I’d had nightmares about what I’d done to my parents for the last month, ever since failing to get Dr. Blond to kill me. Now, in the isolation of my cell, I began having new nightmares. I dreamed that Dr. Blond had killed me, that I’d succeeded. And then I fell, for a long, long time. And when I struck the ground, surrounded by the lake of fire, my flesh didn’t burn. In my dream, I would stand, and someone would hand me a barbed whip. The fires would part and there would be my family, damned to Hell by my sins. And then a beautiful man with dark curling horns like mine would step up beside me, take my hand, and guide me to begin ripping the flesh off their screaming bodies. Sometimes it was Joey, sometimes Jess, sometimes Mama or Papa, but always the barbs at the end of the whip would shred my loved one’s face as they screamed and begged for mercy. And the beautiful man with the horns like mine would whisper, “Welcome home, daughter.”
I only missed the toilet the first time. I used the bed sheet to wipe it up. Then I slept curled around the toilet after that. It was not one of my better weeks.
The door opened and I stared dully at Dr. Blond. “Well, come on,” she said, tapping her foot. “We have places to be.”
I rolled to my feet and followed her to the van.
We drove a while before ending up at another out of the way place. I wasn’t paying too much attention. We pulled into a building and she let me out of the van into bedlam.
There were people on leashes, and people in cages, and dogs and animals bigger and scarier than dogs. No, I realized as my eyes focused. There were mutants on leashes. What, some kind of slave market? Now that I was trained, time to sell me off?
There was a peal of laughter to our left and I looked over to find a smallish man leading a hulking muscled behemoth on a delicate looking chain. Given how simple my bomb collar looked, I had no doubt the chain was more than it appeared to be.
“That’s a little young, isn’t it Doctor?”
Dr. Blond laughed. “No, not at all. She’s just what I need: trainable, controllable, and above all, useful.”
He chuckled and eyed me thoughtfully. “What’s her weight class?”
“Now, now, Barnard,” Dr. Blond said wagging a finger, “You know I only play bantams these days.”
His eyes were momentarily very ugly, but then he slipped into a smile and another paternal chuckle. “Of course, Doctor. Silly of me to ask. Still, if you tire of her…” he trailed off, laying a possessive hand on his huge mutant.
Dr. Blond smiled warmly. “Of course. I’d even give you a discount.”
His smile didn’t go near his eyes and they laughed together before he walked away.
My stomach was churning. Play? Bantams? What awful thing were we here for?
She led me over to a desk and handed over some paperwork. The man behind the desk stepped out and ran a sensor over my body, then patted me down. I felt a little sick as he spent a bit too much time on my wrong bits. He looked bored.
Then I was led to a small booth with doors on both sides. Dr. Blond took my chin in her hand and smiled warmly.
“You’ve come a long way, and I’m very proud of you,” she said. “Now, do you know what a gladiator is?”
Some kind of Roman fighter, maybe? I was a little hazy on that, so I shrugged.
She chuckled. “Ah, youth. A gladiator, dear Jenna, is someone who fights for the amusement of others. You are now a gladiator.”
My stomach froze over. Her eyes hardened and her grip on my chin tightened. “Let me be plain: I’m wagering money on you. A lot of money. If you win, I’ll be well on my way to funding a new lab, new research. You will not lose. Do you know why you will not lose?”
I shook my head slightly.
She leaned in, reaching into her pocket. “Because this is a fight to the death. Losing means dying.”
I felt a spike of hope. She murdered it in the next breath.
“Remember what I said about you committing suicide?” She raised her hand to show me a cell phone. There were two pictures, side by side. Joey and Jess. Recent pictures, taken from a distance. I nearly threw up again.
“That’s right, Jenna. You’re going to go into that ring. And you’re going to kill who or what ever you find there. By any means necessary. Because if you die, the next person I send into that ring will be little Jonas, or sweet little Jessica. Child fights don’t pay as well, especially not human fights, but there are plenty of people willing to pay thousands to see a defenseless child be eaten by a bear. And we don’t want that, do we?”
I shook my head, tears rolling down my face.
She stepped back, closing the grate in my face. She reached through the bars and fiddled with my collar, popping it off. For a single heartbeat, I thought about killing her., before I realized that with the grate in the way, the worst I could do was maim her. And that meant death for my little siblings. “Good. Now get out there and make me proud!”
I turned to face the ring, fighting down waves of nausea. Damn me. Damn me straight to hell. I could end this, right now. I could stop sinning and go to my just punishment.
All I had to do was kill the two people I cared more for than anyone else in this world.
I closed my eyes and felt a wave of calm come over me. No. I am damned. I will suffer for my sins in due time. If it meant racking up a few more sins to save Joey and Jess, that’s what I’d do. After what I’d done, the least I could do was give my baby brother and sister a life.
The bell rang and the door to my box popped open. I stepped out and there was a ripple of laughter. I could imagine how I looked. Five nothing, a hundred and nothing, long silky black hair, tiny little figure. So the horns look a little demonic, and the eyes are a little weird. These people paid to see abominations fight, and I looked like a tiny, garden variety monster to them, I’m sure.
My opponent thought so, certainly. He had bright blue hair and ice blue eyes. He was ripped, a lot of gratuitous muscle showing thanks to his lack of shirt. He rolled his eyes and spun to face the crowd. “They send me to kill children now!”
The crowd roared and booed me and he lapped it up. I silently begged God for forgiveness, and then I killed him.
He never even got the chance to turn around as I dumped all my self-loathing, all my fear and horror and nausea into his head. He dropped to one knee, making a little shocked sound. I could see him starting to push through even as he fell, and I didn’t have the strength or the know how to do anything fancy like snap his neck or the time to get around him and punch him in the throat. So I did the only thing I could think of.
I bit him. I crossed the distance between us in three steps, opened that horror gape of a mouth of mine, and buried my fangs in the side of his neck. I bit down hard, harder than I needed to as it turned out, and took a chunk out of his neck down to his spine. He collapsed, spraying blood and twitching as I backed up.
Since God wasn’t feeling merciful, that was how I discovered that my body is geared towards fresh meat. Imagine picking up a piece of bread covered in mold. Now slather it with raw, rotted eggs and sour milk, then fry it into french toast with rancid butter and you can come close to understanding how I felt taking a bite out of a living person.
Now imagine you had a gun to your head and you took that bite and it was the best thing you’d ever eaten in your entire life.
I hit the deck, vomiting violently, trying to get the taste out of my mouth. It clung to my nose, copper and sweet and even as I heaved, my stomach rumbled. The crowd was on their feet, cheering and laughing and I ached to make them feel what I was feeling. Instead, I finished blowing chunks of dead mutant, and crawled back to my side of the ring to wait to be let out.
I fought four more matches that night. I survived them all with a sprained ankle and a stab wound in my side. I tasted that awful, compelling taste a dozen more times. I never wanted to eat again.
My dreams that night were fresh and new, featuring me chasing and eating my screaming siblings. That special feature ran for the next month, with occasional breaks for the Queen of Hell dream, and once or twice the good old dream of warping my parents into monsters.
That month was also the first time I had the dream where I threw myself on Papa’s shotgun. In it, time freezes, and I see in a flash, all the awful sins I’m going to commit. And then time resumes and I scream a banshee wail and charge, taking two barrels of double ought buck to the chest. It kills me instantly. The dream then plays out: Papa and Mama mourn me, and bury me, and move on with their lives, saddened but untouched by my sins. Joey and Jess grow up, forgetting their older brother until I’m just a hazy memory of someone they used to live with, a shrine of love in their hearts. Joey becomes a vet, like he always wanted to, and Jess marries a nice young man who waits on her hand and foot and spoils her rotten. And me? I burn eternally, knowing in my heart that I’ve saved my family.
It’s my favorite dream. I wish I had it more often.
Dr. Blond took me to three more fights over the next few months. I won a lot. The crowd started calling me the Ghoulfiend. I never stopped throwing up when I had to bite people. To be honest, all the vomiting I’d been doing since mutating weakened my stomach, so I could barely eat. I lived in my cell and had nightmares about the people I’d killed, the people I was going to kill, the people I was going to mind rape, the people I was going to mind rape and then kill.
I was expecting another fight when the door to my cell opened. I was not expecting a man in power armor to scream “FBI, on the ground, on the ground!”
On the other hand, I’m not stupid. I charged him as fast as I could get off the floor, bellowing at the top of my lungs.
Bastard had a net gun instead of something useful.
I saw Dr. Blond being hauled away, screaming at the top of her lungs. I’ve never asked what happened to her, as I said, and I don’t want to know. Some nightmares are better left alone.
The agent that took me in spent a good hour trying to find out who I was before he just asked me. After I finally got him to understand that I’m mute, he gave me a piece of paper and a pen and I did the one thing I needed to do, the only thing that mattered.
[My name is Jeffrey Mallory. I’m from Grimstead, Virginia. I’m a projecting empath. I accidentally mind raped my parents and turned them into monsters. You have to get my baby brother and sister away from them.]
Let me tell you, he got out of that room in a hurry. I don’t blame him in the slightest.
What shocked me is that they sent someone in to talk to me after that. I was controlling my powers as best I could, but I couldn’t imagine it was pleasant to be anywhere near me.
She sat down and gave me a gentle smile. She waved her hands through a series of motions and then stared at me. What was that, sign language? I shook my head. She pushed a netbook across the table, keeping another for herself.
I stared at her for a moment, basking in the sound of my name, and then typed, [Yes. You have to go get my baby brother and sister, I really screwed up my parents. Also, you may want to move everyone away from me, I’m dangerous.]
She nodded. “We’re sending people out to investigate. Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
I sighed and tapped it out. [I made my parents think I was a demon.]
“Oh? And what did they do?”
[They tried to exorcise me.]
Her eyes widened fractionally. “Exorcise you?”
I shifted uncomfortably. [It wasn’t their fault. I made them do it.]
She leaned forward. “Jeffrey, what did you make them do?”
I licked my lips, and then shook my head.
“Jeffrey, you have to tell me what happened.”
I stared at the keyboard. [I made them hurt me. A lot, for a long time. I made them into bad people.]
She looked faintly sick. Well, I was sickening, so that seemed fair. I managed a smile, forgetting for a moment how disturbing my smiles were these days. [I know it’s not their fault, but my siblings aren’t safe. Please go get them?]
“Just...what did they do to you, Jeffrey?”
I growled. [Why do you care? I’m not important. I screwed up, there are children in danger, go get them.]
She blew out a breath. “Jeffrey, I can’t make you tell me. But it will help me get a warrant if you do.”
I frowned. [Why? You already have me. I confessed. Go get my victims.]
“I need to scan their minds to prove it was you. Unless that scan comes up positive, they’re legally responsible for their actions.”
My jaw fell open. [Fine, whatever. They hit me with a strap, tied me to a bed, soaked me in hot and cold water, fake drowned me, hit me with a stun gun, punched and kicked and slapped me, smacked me with socks stuffed with rice, branded me, and a couple times they choked me unconscious. They fed me bread and water every few days, mostly, and they prayed at me a lot. ALL OF WHICH IS MY FAULT. NOW WILL YOU PLEASE GO GET MY SIBLINGS.]
She looked a little green. I sincerely hoped she could hold it together until she got out of the room. I’d probably lose it in sympathy, and while I have experience throwing up while restrained, it’s not something I cared to repeat.
“All right.” She stood up and put a hand on my shoulder. “Wait here, Jeffrey, I’ll be back.”
She was gone a while. An officer came in and asked if I need to go to the bathroom. I didn’t, but I appreciated the offer. She came back in with some guy, and they sat down.
“We’ve got your siblings, Jeffrey.”
I sagged. [Thank you.] I took a deep breath. [What are my chances of getting the death penalty?]
The man glanced at the screen in the middle of taking a sip of his coffee and choked. “Wh…” he coughed and cleared his throat. “Why would you get the death penalty?”
I stared at him. [I’ve killed 27 people. Virginia does still execute murderers, right?]
Dr. Harris stared at the boy. He’d known, intellectually, the Jeffrey Mallory was on probation due to exigent circumstances, but to hear...well, see him say it so flatly.
He leaned forward in his chair. Of all the counselors at Whateley he was one of the few that didn’t have a huge desk between himself and his patients. He preferred to sit across a low table in comfortable chairs. The length of this intake session had once again given him cause to be grateful for that.
“And how did they take that?”
The boy shrugged. As he’d indicated he would, at some point he’d cut off his hair to a few inches on top and a buzz the rest of the way around. The mind boggled at the complexities of shaving hair around those horns.
[About as well as you’d expect,] he signed. He’d learned the language over the last six months. Exemplar-2 came with a few perks, and enhanced memory was both a blessing for the boy and a curse. [The MCO got called in, they cleared everyone out. I spent the night in a holding cell. I told them everything half a dozen times.]
“And they ruled exigent circumstances, as I understand it.”
Jeffrey squirmed uncomfortably, then nodded. [They said my parents weren’t tainted, that they’d done...that...on their own. And apparently it’s acceptable to be a monster as long as someone threatens you hard enough.]
Dr. Harris hid a wince at the new realms of self loathing he was discovering in the boy. Whole new vistas of the stuff. “They must have felt there was reason, or they wouldn’t have let you go.”
Jeffrey smiled a little, the expression slightly bitter. [Extensive mental and physical trauma, threats of violence against a loved one, emotional and mental abuse, blah, blah, blah. Sincere contrition, I swore I’d be a good boy, and they slapped me on probation.]
Dr. Harris leaned over and picked up Jeffrey’s file. One of the first ever appeals of a favorable decision he’d ever seen, seeking the death penalty, appeal dead on arrival as no lawyer would file it. Three suicide attempts in the first two weeks, hanging, drowning, and (he winced) self immolation. Hospitalized. Refused to go with appointed family custodian, released into custody of state on a massive dose of antidepressants pending custodial review. Rehospitalized after trying to eat a gun. New custodian located, siblings transferred. Released into custody of...an aunt, it looked like. Only one hospitalization since then, pills this time.
“How is living with your aunt?”
Jeffrey smiled. He hadn’t been lying about the appearance of his smile. It stretched across his face almost from ear to ear, his puffy lips thinned down to slash, a joker grin that looked positively satanic in conjunction with his other attributes. [Aunt Thelma is nice. She takes good care of Joey and Jess. Joey’s discovered GoodkindBox and Jess wears the craziest clothes. She has friends, now, too.]
“And how did it go when they saw you again for the first time?”
The smile vanished. [They were raised the same way I was. So about as well as you’d expect.]
Harris winced internally. “Would you care to elaborate on that?”
Jeffrey sighed. It was amazing how expressive his voice was, for a boy that could no longer form words. His gestures were minimal, precise, filled with pain that he kept off his face. [Joey screamed and started praying. Jess wet herself. Aunt Thelma managed to calm them down, and they’re...they don’t panic when they look at me anymore, so that’s something.]
Harris cleared his throat. “How did they take your suicide attempt?”
Jeffrey shrank in on himself. [Joey...Joey found me. He didn’t talk to me for a week after I got out of the hospital. Jess screamed at me a lot, mostly variations of ‘how dare I take the power of God into my own hands.’ Both of them started checking on me four or five times a day. I...thought I was making their lives better, without me, you know? But…] his hands dropped limply into his lap and he gave a small shrug.
“And you haven’t attempted since?”
Jeffrey shook his head. [They...they have a hard time looking at me. But they’ve made it clear that killing myself is not acceptable, and that they need time to...feel things out. Aunt Thelma thinks mutants are,] his face took on a mild distaste, [just people with extra bits, and she’s working to help the sibs be ok with me. They have their own counselor and everything. ]
Dr. Harris leaned forward. “And what about you, Jeffrey? How do you feel about yourself these days?”
Jeffrey stared at him for a long moment, then let out a frustrated noise. He ran his hands over his horns in what looked like an instinctive gesture. [I...I want to be ok. But I just hate everything about this so much! I look like a monster, I’ve killed people, I’m everything I believe is wrong, my body is confusing and weird, and nothing...nothing makes sense.] His eyes were suddenly wet and he dashed a hand across them. [My church cast us out. Joey and Jess...have normal lives now. They don’t miss it.]
“And how do you feel?” Dr. Harris asked softly.
Jeffrey curled around his center for a long moment, then his hands flicked almost imperceptibly.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t-”
[They burned my Bible. The family Bible. It would have been mine when Papa passed on. They sent me the ashes.] He looked up and tears were openly falling down his cheeks. [It was 200 years old.]
Dr. Harris just sat there for a moment, trying to process that level of cruelty to a suffering child. His brain refused to wrap around it. “You said you’d memorized the special books. Can you recreate it?”
Jeffrey looked appalled. [No!]
“It’s forbidden?” Dr. Harris hazarded.
He nodded, still looking shaken. [Only an Elder can commission a new Bible. I’ve done a lot of things, but...no, I couldn’t. I’m outcast.]
“Have you tried...other branches of Christianity?”
[Yeah.] He smiled a little, a mocking expression on his face. [Funny enough, the churches I’d feel most comfortable in agree with me that I’m an abomination.]
Dr. Harris twitched. “Jeffrey-”
[I know, I know, that’s self-destructive, and not healthy, and I should stop saying that, I know, I know.]
Something sat up in the back of Harris’ head and called for his attention. “Jeffrey, what did you say those extra books in your Bible were called?”
[The Book of the Black Pharaoh and the Gospel of the Eyes Between Worlds.]
And there it was. “You know, there’s a local church here, the Sons of Dunwich, that I go to from time to time. I think you should look into it.”
Jeffrey cocked his head.
“If I remember correctly, they have books that sound like that. I’m not saying they’re the exact same, but...similar. And even if the theology isn’t what you’re used to, the tone should be. They’re very much about the fire and brimstone and strictness, but they have a different view on mutants.”
[I...I might try that,] he signed, his gestures reserved. [Thank you.]
Dr. Harris nodded. “Not a problem. Now, there was something you said you wanted to talk to me about, right at the beginning?”
Jeffrey nodded absently, his thoughts obviously already in Dunwich. [What? Oh, right.] He reached into his hoodie pocket and pulled out an MID. Harris’ jaw dropped open at the sight of the red border. He waved it, tapping the border. [They told me when I signed in that I needed to talk to my counselor about an armband.]
Harris shook himself. “Jeffrey, why did they give you a red band MID?”
Jeffrey stared at him at though he’d slipped a gear. [Doctor...I’ve killed 27 people. Most of them by taking a great big bite out of their throat or neck. It was a condition of my probation.]
“Naturally,” Harris sighed. He stood up and walked over to a cabinet. “And you need an Ultraviolent band?”
Jeffrey giggled. The pureness of the sound brought Harris up short and he turned to look at the boy in surprise. Jeffrey was smiling his disturbing, but genuine, smile. [Father in Heaven, no. I’m never going to raise a hand to another living being as long as I walk this Earth. I need a pacifist band.]
Edwin Harris sat in his chair, staring at the door. That boy needed a lot of help, but at least he seemed on the road to recovery. And just plain good luck that he’d walked into the office of the one counselor who was a local, and knew of a place he could go. Well, good luck and the fact that Harris was one of the two therapists that spoke sign language.
Maybe the Sons could even help him...
He pulled out his cell and punched in a number from memory. It rang twice, and then went to voicemail.
“One of the Elect of the Children of the Lord in Egypt has been cast out, and guess where he’s landed? Even better, he has a near eidetic memory, and he’s memorized their scriptures. I‘ve set him on the path. He’ll come to you. Name of Jeffrey Mallory. Fair warning, he’s as startling as some of the Elders to look at.”
He hung up and sat back, looking out his window. Maybe the Sons could help Jeffrey. Maybe not.
But Jeffrey would definitely be an asset to the Sons.