quick note: i've moved this book to wattpad! i update/edit more frequently on there. https://my.w.tt/rGZ0rerR0K
I was barely six years old when I nearly drowned for the first time in my life. In Dad’s defense, the pond was much deeper than it appeared that particular evening, and when he pulled me to the surface of the murky water I was unharmed and laughing. After making sure I was okay, he started laughing, too. He took my hand, and together we ran barefoot in the dewy grass to get back to our home, which resided just a staircase away from the bank.
Upstairs, Mom was asleep. She had slept through my first near-death experience. I woke her up to tell her what had happened with a grin, but instead of smiling back she wept, holding onto my arm as if she was afraid she would lose me.
“Don’t ever scare me like that again, you could’ve died,” she repeated under her breath, her cheeks tearstained. At the time, I didn’t understand why my death would be something to cry over.
“We’re glad that you didn’t,” Dad added. “We love you.”
I remember that I just frowned in reply. They only loved me by default; they were my parents, after all. He offered me a peach from the fruit basket that sat idly on the marble kitchen counter and I broke the skin with my teeth, tasting the sickly sweet juice that danced on my tongue as I watched my parents talk to one another in disapproving voices.
“He’s only a child,” my mother told him, her voice hushed as if I wasn’t standing right next to her. “And he’s mentally ill. You have to be more careful around him. Why can’t you be more careful around him?”
I don’t remember what Dad said in return; I barely remember what his voice sounded like. I was too young to pay much attention to more than one thing at once, so I chose to focus on the rain that drummed against the window as if it was knocking and inviting me back outside.
I left the half-eaten fruit on the counter and drifted away from my family, slipping out of the front door so I could breathe in the warm summer air and let the droplets fall onto my face and hair as I ran down the stone steps to sit at the edge of the pond. The water was frigid and cloudy and coated with moss but I was at peace.
Exactly one year after that night, Dad fell victim to leukemia. I didn’t cry at his funeral. I remember that clearly. I felt an aching sort of numbness in the pit of my stomach that didn’t seem to go away whatsoever, much like a fog that refused to lift. It still hasn’t lifted completely.
A few months ago, Mom tried to fill the void he left in our family with a new man, a new house, a new life. I called him a wolf because his teeth were always bared and his pupils were always tiny pinpricks against yellow eyes, even in the dark. I called him a wolf because he was as relentless as he was merciless, but Mom seemed to see past it somehow and allowed my sister and myself to live with him. I called him a wolf because of the way he barked at me and didn’t expect me to shout back.
“Tristan, are you even listening to me?”
I glanced up from the memory, meeting my mother in the eyes. I didn’t even realize she was talking at all as she let out a soft but exasperated sigh, leaning against the wooden table. “Did you even hear a single word I just said? It’s like your head is permanently stuck up in the clouds.”
“I like the view from up here,” I quipped without thinking. “Sorry. I didn’t mean that. Um, what were you saying?”
She lowered her voice to a harsh whisper. “Just please, for once, say something to your stepfather when he comes back home. He feels disconnected from you.”
“The wolf?” She looked like she was about to cry. She probably was. My voice rose unsteadily. “No. I won’t. That man is not my stepfather. He’ll never be anything close to the man Dad was.”
She collapsed into the small wooden chair across from the one I was in; a part of the dinner set that made up most of the small kitchen. She tucked her oil-black hair behind her ear, her eyes red and skin pale. “I miss your father more than anything. I hope you realize that.”
“Then why’d you replace him with an alcoholic?” The words exploded out of me. I didn’t want to tell her how terrible the wolf was. We both knew. I hated reminding her, but I knew that he would hurt our family if I didn’t. “He doesn’t love you, okay? He doesn’t love you, or me, or Naomi, or anyone else quite frankly. He doesn’t love anything except the taste of cheap liquor on his lips.”
Her face wrinkled with concern as she paused for a moment before she rose out of her chair as if to say something, raising a hand to her mouth as if she had to stop herself from saying something she’d regret. I watched motionlessly as the wolf emerged from his room, stumbling over the hardwood. He had a half-empty bottle of beer in his hand like the stereotypical drunk he was. He looked homeless and angry and ready to kill someone, but I wasn’t afraid. In retrospect, I probably should’ve been.
I didn’t realize that I had lunged for him and wrapped my arms around his neck until I heard my mother’s shrill voice. “Tristan, stop! He’ll put you in the hospital!”
My voice was quivering but I wasn’t afraid. “Let him.”
The wolf threw me to the floor and snarled something under his alcohol-ridden breath, dropping the bottle he was carrying and letting it shatter against the hardwood floor. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to scare me or if he was just too hammered to keep himself up, but his outburst ended as abruptly as it started, and I was left to pick up the pieces.
I met my gaze in the reflection of the mirror that was propped against the wall adjacent to the kitchen, distorted from a crack he had punched into the glass, still echoing the hate he spat when he threw his fist into it. I didn’t recognize myself. It was as if someone had stolen my reflection and replaced it with the hollow shell of a person, a porcelain boy filled with missing pieces.
The abuse only grew as Mom tried to reason with him, and as his voice rose so did my intolerance. As the beast lifted his hand towards my mother, my body seemed to move as if it was detached from my mind, and when it returned I realized that I had shattered a wooden chair on his back.
He writhed, stumbled forward, and collapsed onto the hardwood floor like a fallen tree. My mother wept, and not at all because of what I did.
I let out a soft breath of quiet victory, my hand bloodied from scraping against the splintered wood, the sweatshirt I was forced to wear torn. I always wore thick clothes just to cover the scars and bruises he left, even in the blazing heat of June, just so no one would ask. I took in a deep breath of the thick air.
I was always hiding. I was tired of it. I was tired of being constantly attacked by the wolf and watching motionlessly as he attacked my mother. I was tired of being mercilessly bullied because the cuts he left looked self-inflicted. I was tired of living in a filthy house that was barely bigger than an apartment flat and coming up with new excuses when people asked just so they wouldn’t have to meet his fury. I was tired of having to pick up the pins because I just so happened to be magnetic when he needed me to be. I was tired of being tired of being.
I wanted it to stop.
I needed it to stop.
The next morning, my mother told me she was running late and asked me to get the car started for her. I agreed just to be away from the wolf’s terror. I don’t remember exactly when I slid into the driver’s seat and turned on the engine of the vehicle until I was listening to the mechanical lullaby.
The garage door was still closed, but as I had for a long time, I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel pain or hurt, or hunger, or fear. I felt nothing. I had never seen the ocean before, but the pond was as close as I could get I imagined myself floating in the middle of it. I imagined that the vast sky above and the depth of water below, safely suspended between two abysses. There was no sound except for the soothing hum of the engine and the beating of my own heart, gradually slowing as I inhaled the poison.
I tried to clear my mind by looking at the time on the dashboard. It was seven-forty in the morning but the distraction didn’t work because I could not stop thinking about that disgusting filth-of-the-earth. How dare he attack me, I thought, in front of my own mom. Then my mind wandered to her. She had single-handedly cared for me and my little sister for fifteen years, the captain of her own tiny ship. She just wanted what was best for us, which is why she works long hours at different jobs from sunset to moonrise.
My eyes shot open as the thought crossed my mind; I couldn’t leave that monster alone with my mother. I forced the door to unlock, the smoke pouring in waves from the exhaust pipe, causing me to cough violently as my body rejected the toxin that made the bones in my skin heavy.
I didn’t want to die. The thought had crossed my mind thousands of times but it was never my plan. I wasn’t ready to die.
The poison overtook my body as I staggered to the garage door opener, my body collapsing in a messy puddle before I could touch it. The carbon monoxide suffocated me as darkness swallowed me whole, enveloping me in a cloud of black smoke that constricted my throat and trapped me deeper, deeper, deeper.
And yet I was awake.
I was awake and I was no longer in pain, but I was not breathing. I was not alive but I was not dead, I assumed, I somewhere in the middle. My personal purgatory. I was sinking in what could only be described as a thick ocean of endless tar, constricting my throat and filling my lungs.
It was pitch black, but as I sank lower, it grew darker, as if I was trapped deeper in the void. It was euphoric in a sense that I was no longer trapped in a world full of hate and demons and suffering, but I was still numb. I must’ve been living in Hell and I was finally being reincarnated. It was not the end. It was the beginning.
As if time was obsolete in the oil-black purgatory, a harsh light beamed down on my face, heating my skin. I squinted to adjust to the light, just as a shadowy silhouette materialized in front of me; although the features were indistinguishable I could tell that the figure was adorned with a dark cloak. I was not alone.
I tried to scream for help but the substance I floated on filled my lungs and choked me from the inside as I drowned all over again. The figure raised its ghostly arm, extending a bone-white hand towards me. I was not afraid. I shouldn’t have been afraid. I pulled against the thick substance that held me back and gripped the skeletal hand firmly, but the moment I touched the chilling bone I was forced out.
Out of the tar, out of the darkness, out of purgatory.
Out of death.
I shot up in the suddenly unfamiliar car, my head banging against the windshield and a sudden heaviness on my shoulders. My strength was drained from my body as I gasped for air, forcing the door open, crouching over and coughing up thick tar from my sore lungs and onto the concrete floor of the garage. The engine hadn’t started yet, but the ache in my chest was gone. I stepped shakily out of the car, stepping around the puddle of thick tar, taking careful breaths.
I was alive.
I was alive, and then I was dead, and then I was awake. With that sort of “awakening,” all the pain was taken away and the bruises on my arms had faded completely. My head still throbbed uneasily, and I held a careful hand to my temple, my legs trembling as I stood and looked around the empty garage. It was real. I was real.
With a surge of newfound energy I fought to get the door that led to the house open, but Mom and sister were quietly eating breakfast, both of their heads lifting in my direction in mild interest. I was breathless and still shaking uncontrollably due to the adrenaline that shot through my veins.
“Tristan? What’s wrong?” my mother asked finally.
“What time is it?” My voice was weak.
“Seven forty-one. Can you hurry up and start the car?”
They were oblivious. That was a good thing. “I think I’m gonna be sick,” I murmured, stumbling upstairs to my bathroom and almost instantly vomiting black tar into the sink. When I met my reflection in the mirror I looked like a different person, a boy who didn’t just take his own life, but rather a boy whose throat was raw and burning almost as much as his heart was because I was alive.
I shouldn’t have been, but I was.