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He likes to pretend he’s just like everyone else. That it didn’t affect him. That at night he doesn’t wake up screaming. But he’s not, and it did, and he does.
He blinks his eyes open in the wee hours of the morning, his vision red for a moment as images from his nightmares linger, and then it clears and he’s left looking up at his bedroom ceiling, the off white paint soothing; so different from the bright, vivid red in his dreams. The red of blood, made brighter with imagination and fear.
He can’t say he remembers much from when it started. He can’t say that the day it happened was crystal clear in his mind—not like the people in movies or in books—because it wasn’t. He doesn’t remember what he had for breakfast or what he talked to his friends about. He recalls it as any other day, lost among his typical routine. He went to school like every other weekday with his older brother staying home sick, and on his way home, they grabbed him; a gloved hand over his mouth and another over his eyes whilst an even stronger set of arms held him in place. He remembers being lifted off the ground, hushed voices surrounding him with unintelligible words, and he remembers struggling as he was stripped of his possessions; and then, in an over-exaggerated, heightened sense of awareness that only traumatic memories can give, he remembers a small, sharp pain in his neck before the world became hazy and his consciousness was enveloped by nothingness.
After that, all he knew was pain. He remembers freezing, begging for something to warm him, begging for his family, begging for any sort of kindness or help. He remembers them laughing, mocking him for his weakness, and he remembers, more than anything, the sharp, biting pain of cool metal making fine incisions in his skin.
They had kept him shackled, the rough, rusty metal of the cuffs wearing away at the flesh on his wrists and ankles. He couldn’t go far, could only just reach the bucket they left for him in the corner to do his "business" in, as they had put it, snickering at the loss of all his dignity and self-respect. The room he had been in was damp, lowly lit with no windows or any sort of decoration.
At first, even though he’d been scared, he had grumbled when he was alone at how cliché it was. And then, as time wore on, as he screamed louder with every new thing they did to him, he found himself realising why such things were cliché. People couldn’t hear him scream or see him struggle. They couldn’t see him give up and wish for it all to be over.
The routine set in after the first few days. He would be woken by the harsh chill of cold water thrown over his naked body, then he would be forced to his feet and his wrists would be pulled high above his head until he was forced to stand on tippy toes if he didn’t want his shoulders to dislocate, and his legs would be bound together so he couldn’t kick out. There were three of them; all men from what their voices told him, but they wore the masks of monsters, and so all he could see was their eyes, pupils blown wide with drugs or lust for what they were doing. He wasn’t sure and he hadn’t dared to ask.
Once he was bound, one of them would punch him in his gut, and he screamed later on with the first punch as it impacted old wounds. Then another would step up, examine his trembling form closely, methodically, before his small, sharp knife would be pressed deep into his skin and he would draw it across his skin in a straight line. He would then pull back after making his incision before the third would step up, cigarette in hand, and place the lit end against his skin, taking a drag as he did so to hold it in place longer, to burn him as much as possible. And from then on, as though that had been a countdown, they would randomly cut, hit, or burn him, with no set pattern or order, laughing and sneering the more he sobbed.
He hadn’t remembered this out of any particularly clear memory, but because it was repeated so often, because the routine was ingrained in his mind. He would see blood every morning on the walls or the floor, and as the days wore on, the smell would intensify as it covered his cell more and more. After a while, when he looked on the verge of death, they abandoned him for a few days, leaving him enough food to keep him alive with some water, and they would return when he wasn’t likely to die from blood loss. This happened whenever he seemed close to what he viewed as his only form of freedom. Eventually, the water became burning disinfectant. They always laughed about wanting to keep him around, how he was so much fun as he wailed from the sting of the liquid on his tender scabbing and scarring flesh.
His food tended to vary. It was always just scraps of whatever they’d been eating, just enough of what he needed to keep him from passing out before they had their fun. Each day became worse; old wounds increasing the pain of new ones, and after weeks of simply burning, slashing, or beating him, they brought new toys. It always started out with the same routine, but then once they had enough with them, he would find himself being lashed, ordered to count them whilst roaring his agony as they ripped through his skin, or he would find a metal clip attached to a point on his body, biting into him, before a battery would be flicked on and he discovered a whole new world of pain as electricity surged through him.
His shoulders, as you can imagine, had been dislocated a great many times as he lost the will to hold himself up under all the agony. But the physical pain, though the worst of all his pains in the moment, was not the only pain the three men had inflicted upon him.
No, they had laughed at him, told him how no one would be coming for him, how they weren’t even looking for him, and how his family had moved on, not holding out any hope for such a weak-willed, sniveling little coward. They had broken not only his body, but when no one arrived weeks into his captivity and torture, his spirit shattered along with it. He no longer begged for his family or for kindness, he begged for it to be over. He begged to die, eventually refusing even to eat what they left him, and they discovered the fun of force feeding him.
He stopped caring about getting out. He started goading them, trying to make them go that little bit too far, that tiny bit further to killing him, but they just chuckled and ruffled his blood-caked hair fondly, like he was their friend.
The passage of time was strange in his limited world. He judged a day by the times they came to visit him. Once a day they visited, except those days they left him to "heal," and so he could not accurately give a length for how long he was there. Not from memory. But he had known he had to have been there for several months when they arrived.
He had heard voices and at first, he had thought it was "them" arriving, and he curled in on himself, hoping in vain to stave off the torture just a little while longer. The door had opened after a lot of smashing and yelling and light from torches had filled his cell, almost blinding him after so long with just the tiny, dim light of his cell. He remembers yells for paramedics, remembers a police badge being flashed in his face, and remembers hands on him, gentle and kind and soothing. It was the kindness he had so begged for at first that he had not found, and even with his broken spirit, he had found himself reaching out for that kindness once again.
And he had found it, wrapped in a blanket by paramedics, carried out by a police officer, and finally, finally able to see daylight.
He had thought it was over, had thought he would be able to go home and everything would be alright. But it wasn’t. His mind was his enemy as he began to flinch at every loud noise, every laugh, and every touch that he didn't see coming.
His parents had been so happy to have him back, staying with him every day in hospital, and his older brother tried to cheer him up, regaling him with stories from school. When he discovered how long he’d been gone—four months—he’d been devastated and thrown a fit, screaming about how they had left him there, how they had let them do that to him for so long, how they were supposed to protect him. It had destroyed his mother. He had watched her break down in sobs, apologising, promising to never let anything happen to him again, and his dad had taken hold of him, holding him still and letting him scream against his chest until he was finally just crying, asking why they hadn’t come for him, and his parents just held him, apologising desperately, begging his forgiveness.
And they had returned home after his physical therapy ended; after he was able to walk on his own using a single crutch. His friends had come to see him, but they didn’t know how to behave and he didn’t care about stupid football or school. He didn’t want to hear about their lives and how they had been happy and taken care of. He had tried and failed to go back to normal, but every time they laughed, he would get angry, thinking them laughing at him, or he would cry in shame for the same reason. His parents always had to rush them away and they came less and less until, finally, they gave up, and he couldn’t help but be grateful.
His first few nights of freedom, he had slept soundly, not dreaming at all; dead to the world. But once his body was no longer lacking in rest, the nightmares began to come, reliving his experiences in his mind, and he woke up with a scream, the sight and smell of blood permeating his first few waking moments early in the morning long before even the sun rose.
His parents always came to him, his brother often just steps behind. In time, they learned that he didn’t want them touching him right away. He just wanted to cry and curl up, and they would wait; wait for him to relax his protective ball before they took him in their arms and soothed his fears away. As he was settling down to sleep again, his brother would often stay with him until he was sound asleep before he left to get his last few hours of sleep. Some nights, when the loneliness terrified him, laying alone in his room, he crept from his bed and slept with his brother; and on those nights, kept warm and safe by the older boy, he slept as though dead to the world.
He could no longer go to sleep alone without some sort of light, a child's night lamp put into the corner of his room, and he had a small stereo with which to fill the silence; light music playing to sooth him, reminding him he was no longer there. That he was safe. He tried to pretend he was fine, that the scars marring his whole body weren’t there, that it never happened. His therapist said it wasn’t healthy and it wouldn’t work.
It didn’t, but he still tried. Because pretending was all he had.
He was eleven years old, almost twelve, and his life had been hell for four months. Four months that had stripped him of his innocence, had made him scared to step out of his house alone, which kept him from school and from his friends. Four months that, for the rest of his life, would be apparent to the whole world in the physical marks left on his body. Four months which could dictate the rest of his life. He couldn’t be a lot of things because of nerve damage. He couldn’t play on a football team again without risk of tearing something vital…
He likes to pretend he’s just like everyone else. That it didn’t affect him. That at night, he doesn’t wake up screaming. But he’s not, and it did, and he does.
He’s eleven years old, almost twelve, and he’s been through hell.