voice of the dead

i) there were deep purple rings around her eyes. rings upon rings, in fact, so dark that they looked like bruises.

ii) she was always crouched in the corner, that little girl. she rocked back and forth, staring blankly forward through her sunken eyes, whispering words that no one could ever hear. her parents desperately tried to talk to her, to make her look at them and smile and laugh like she used to. but she never really heard them.

iii) she scratched her arms, over and over and over, clawing tiny little scrapes across her skin with her nails. her fingers never stopped moving – they grouped the lines together like morbid little tally marks. some got old and faded, but they were quickly covered with fresh ones, short pink lines that seemed to scream for help more than her voice ever could.

iv) there was a very special lady that came to talk to her one day. she crouched down next to the rocking girl and spoke quietly, soothingly, talking about mundane things like the weather and the state of the economy – things that the little girl never really understood. so the words just washed over her.

v) when she had talked about nothing for long enough, the woman asked why are you scratching your arms? and the little girl froze, her breathing becoming shakier. her fingers clenched, scraping four more lines deep into her skin. a tear dripped down her face.

the dead, she whispered after a pause. her voice was barely more than a breath. i’m counting the dead.

the very special lady swallowed, looking at the girl’s scar filled arms, at her incessantly moving fingers, at her tortured, sunken eyes. she opened her mouth. she closed it. she swallowed again.

i’m counting them, she breathed again. i’m counting the dead, i’m counting you, i’m counting the dead…

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The Police

Her parents named her Despair.
She never forgave them.

Her worn black combat boots thudded across the wet tarmac. She looked around, her eyes skimming across the dilapidated buildings, the smoke toppling into the sky, the police patrolling the streets—

The police.

When Despair was a child she had always had this wonderful idea of the police – they were heroes. They saved lives. They helped make the world a better place. But the police weren’t like that, not now. Just the sight of them marching by, with their black clothes and guns and shiny police badges, was enough to send civilians running back into their houses. If they were lucky enough to have houses.

Despair looked down as she passed a group of police smoking on a street corner. Letting her short, damp hair hide her face, she sped up until she was alone again. Then she looked up and sighed; it had seemed like such a noble cause, when it had first started. The world was overpopulated, unorganized – the crime rate had skyrocketed. And all they were doing was helping.

It was a simple concept: when you were born, you weren’t given a name, but a number. That number was entered into The Computer, along with your fingerprints and all your other identifying markers. Then The Computer would determine what career you would go into, and you would be taken to School, educated solely for whatever occupation you had been given. You received a badge stating your profession that you had to wear at all times. Then, when you were old enough, you were sent wherever you were needed, and you worked. Everyone was paid the same amount, everyone worked the same long hours, and no one ever quit. There were curfews and rations and very strict laws.

And at first it had worked. The police were put in place to make sure everyone followed the rules, and things began to run smoothly. But there’s something that happens, Despair mused, when you treat people like that. After the system had been in place for a while, the government and the police had, perhaps just to justify their actions, begun to think of civilians as nothing more than animals.

Despair wrapped her arms around herself, ducking her head against the rain. She remembered when she had learned everything about The Computer, about what it did and how it worked; about how babies were just given numbers and taken away from their parents as soon as they were born. No one had names or families except people in the government or the police, the select few who were very very rich, very very powerful, and very very lucky. Anyone else who wanted to escape, who wanted to keep their children, had to go underground. Families were rare and illegal.

Despair sighed, pausing in the middle of the street and looking around. It was quiet – there were no sounds except the rain and the creaking of old metal hinges in an abandoned house.

She pulled out a cigarette and groaned in frustration as her lighter slipped out of her wet fingers. It clattered across the street, landing at the feet of a boy.

Despair blinked. He was very young, no more than four or five, and he didn’t have a badge. He was small and skinny and dressed in rags, but when he smiled at her his whole face lit up.

“Here,” he said, picking up the lighter and handing it to her.

Despair took it slowly. “Thanks.”

“That’s pretty,” the boy said, watching in wonder as she lit her cigarette. “What is it?”

“A lighter,” Despair murmured. Her eyes flickered up and down the little boy. “Don’t you have somewhere you need to be?”

His eyebrows pulled together, as though he was straining to remember something. “No,” he finally said. “I’m just waiting here for Mama, she went to get bread and—”

NO!

Despair almost dropped her lighter again as the shriek rang out, shattering the air. A woman ran out of the shadows and fell to her knees next to the little boy.

“What did I tell you?” she cried, grabbing him roughly. “What did I tell you to do if one of them ever saw you?” Tears were dripping down her cheeks, and as her eyes flickered to Despair – taking in her black uniform, her gun, and her shiny police badge – terror crossed her face. She hugged the boy closer. “I told you to pretend. I told you to tell them you lost your badge and don’t know how to get back to school. You don’t ever tell them you have a mama, not ever!”

The boy was crying now, hiding his face on his mother’s shoulder. She looked up at Despair, wrapping her arms tightly around her son.

“Please,” she whispered, “please. Don’t take my baby away.”

Despair looked at them, huddled together on the wet ground. She knew what she was supposed to do in situations like this – she would radio for backup. More police would be there in seconds. The boy would be entered into The Computer and put into School. And the woman…

Despair shut her eyes. Her fingers toyed with the radio on her belt; she slowly unclipped it and brought it to her mouth. A sob escaped the woman’s throat. There was panic on her face, but she didn’t beg, she didn’t fight. She just spoke one word.

“Why?”

And Despair stopped. Because she didn’t know why. All her life she had been raised to believe that the police were good. That civilians were bad. That she had a duty to the world, and as long as she did what she was told then she was one of The Good Guys.

A tear slid down her face as she went against everything she had ever been told. Slipping the radio back onto her belt, she walked rapidly away, leaving the stunned woman crouched on the street.

“Go home quickly,” she said, not looking back. “They’ll be patrolling this street soon.”

She walked as fast as she could, her brain running over everything she’d ever learned, questioning it, really questioning it, for the first time in her life. With each step she took she sobbed harder, until she finally reached the docks and collapsed.

She had no idea how long she sat there by the water. When she had finally cried herself out she realized the decision had been made, even though she hadn’t meant to make it.

She crawled to the edge of the dock. Pulling off her police badge, she dropped it into the water. Then went her radio, and her gun. She emptied her pockets, dropping anything that identified her as who she was. Then she gasped, lunging forward as her lighter slipped into the water.

She watched as it sank, then laughed slightly.

“Oh well,” she murmured, throwing her cigarettes in too. “I’ve been meaning to quit anyway.”

smile for me

His eyes were the brightest blue – like someone had captured the sky and placed it lovingly in his irises. They drew people in, despite (or perhaps because of) his blank stare. All the nurses adored him. They’d crowd into his room, bringing him toys he never touched and games he never played.

There was one nurse, Laura, who loved him more than any of the others. “I bet,” she’d say, “that you have the prettiest smile in the whole world, Eli. Won’t you smile for me today?” She’d crouch down next to him, ruffling his hair playfully, but he never smiled, never spoke. He’d just sit there in the corner, staring blankly in front of him, until slowly

oh so slowly

the room emptied.

They all hate you, you know. They despise you. They probably want you dead.

Eli shivered, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Leave me alone,” he whispered.

Why? I’m helping you. You like them, don’t you? Especially that one. Laura. The voice was venomous. You like her. And you think she likes you. But she doesn’t. She hates you. She wishes you would disappear.

A tear slid down Eli’s cheek. He hugged his knees to his chest, trying to shut his mind out, trying to escape. But he couldn’t.

So life went on…

“Good morning, Eli! Won’t you smile for me today?”

Ignore her. She’ll kill you. She’ll hurt you if you talk to her. It’s just a trick. You know that. She hates you.

…and on…

“Hey there, Eli! It’s a beautiful day outside. Want to go for a walk? Maybe it’ll make you smile, hm? Will you smile for me today?”

Don’t look at her. Don’t do anything. You know what’ll happen if you talk to her.

…and on.

***

They were bad that night. Worse than they’d ever been. Eli was lying on his bed, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, trying to distract himself.

He’s a worthless little brat, isn’t he?

Tell me about it. Look how sad he is. “Smile, Eli. won’t you smile for me?”

The mocking voice echoed in Eli’s ears, and he pulled the blanket over his head. Laughter rang through the room.

Aw. Look how scared he is.

Stupid little boy. Why don’t you talk to us, Eli?

Eli shuddered, putting his hands over his ears.

Maybe he just can’t hear you, hm? Talk louder.

Eli. Talk to us

you worthless little

brat. talk to us, Eli

Eli

Don’t ignore us, Eli—

Eli jumped out of his bed and ran into the hall, leaving the taunting laughter behind him. Laura. He had to find Laura. Slowing down, he started peering into rooms. She had to be there somewhere, he knew she had to be there somewhere.

After wandering the dimly lit halls for several minutes, he heard her voice. He started to run towards it, but paused, hearing his name.

“…poor little boy. I wish there was something I could do, you know?”

“You do a lot,” said a voice Eli didn’t recognize.

“But it doesn’t seem to help. He just sits there, staring at the walls. He’s a six-year-old kid, you know? He should be playing and laughing. He shouldn’t be in here.”

“I know. But after what happened to his parents, what can you expect? After what he saw…”

Eli frowned. He didn’t remember any parents. He didn’t remember anything except his room here, and his voices, and his Laura.

You don’t remember, do you? Cackling laughter rang in his head. You don’t remember what happened. Don’t you miss your mommy, Eli? Hm? Don’t you remember anything?

Eli’s hands shook as he pushed his hair out of his eyes. He heard laughter, but not the taunting laughter he was used to – a woman’s laughter, soft and warm. His chest started to ache; he felt like ice-water was running through his veins.

Remember, Eli? The voice was dripping with anticipation. Don’t you remember?

Eli slid down the wall, images flashing in front of his eyes. He saw his house again, with the vines growing up the sides. He saw his parents laughing. He saw his bedroom, with all his toys and books.

Do you remember them screaming, Eli?

Eli’s breath was coming faster now. He heard the window smashing. He heard his mother screaming, heard his father yelling that the police were on their way. He heard laughter, the taunting laughter he’d grown so used to. He heard the gunshots – just two, shattering the quiet night. He remembered the blood…

“Eli – Eli! What’s wrong?”

Eli was vaguely aware of Laura’s arms wrapping around him, pulling his head onto her shoulder. He struggled to breathe as the sobs forced their way out of him.

Get away from her, you idiot boy! What are you doing? Get away, don’t let her touch you, get away—

“Eli, calm down! Hey, stop it – stop it! You need to relax, you’re okay, everything’s okay—”

Eli struggled to pull away from her, but she tightened her grip, pulling him onto her lap.

“Don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt me, I’m sorry, please don’t hurt me…” Eli sobbed.

Laura blinked. “I’m not going to hurt you. Hey. Look at me.”

Eli’s eyes slowly found their way to her face.

“I’ll never hurt you,” she whispered, wiping his tears away. “I’ll never let anyone hurt you.” She gently pulled his head back to her shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her neck, waiting for the voices to yell at him, to tell him to get away. But the only voice in his head was his own. And he suddenly knew that even if they did yell at him, he wouldn’t believe them. He knew that Laura was good. Laura would fix everything. For the first time in too long, he felt safe.

And finally – even though she hadn’t asked him to – he smiled.

death by mermaid

The waves crashed violently against the sand, smashing into the feet of the young boy lying on the beach. He sighed and closed his eyes, wondering if he should just stay there until the ocean covered him up – if it filled his lungs and mouth until he burst, he would become one with something beautiful. And wasn’t that really what everyone wanted?

“Whatcha thinkin’ about, Sailor?”

He sat up in alarm, and she giggled, her silver hair blowing across her face. His eyes skimmed nervously up and down her body; she was young, 20 at the most, and wearing a too-big T-shirt and bottle cap necklace. A soaking wet blanket covered her legs.

“Who—I mean—um…” he swallowed. “I thought—I thought the beach was closed.”

She shrugged. “Didn’t stop you. Why are you here?”

“You’re not gonna tell my dad, are you? He’ll get so mad, I’m not supposed to be here, please don’t—”

“Hey, relax, kid! I’m not really supposed to be here either.” She smiled widely. “So tell me what you were thinking about before. You looked so serious.”

His neck was beginning to prickle uncomfortably. “Oh… nothing. I, uh… I’m taking a philosophy class in school.” He forced a laugh. “I guess it’s just kind of getting to me.”

“Ooh, philosophy. A smart boy, huh? Tell me more.”

“You know,” he stood up quickly and started to back away, “I’d love to, really, but dinner’s probably ready, and my dad will get mad if I’m late.”

“Wait, don’t go! Come for a swim with me first.” She reached towards him, smiling invitingly.

He shook his head and kept walking; just a few more yards to the street, a few more yards and—

“They all hate you.”

She spoke softly, but her voice was dripping with malice. “No one understands you, do they? No one cares. No one wants you.”

He turned around slowly. She was still sitting in the water, her cloudy grey eyes boring into him. “What?” he whispered.

“They just don’t get it. They don’t understand how special you are. You’re different. You’re better than them.” She suddenly smiled. “I understand you. I understand you perfectly.”

He suddenly realized that he was walking back toward her. Her smile grew wider.

“I even know what you were thinking about before,” she murmured. “It’s a beautiful thing, death. Mysterious. Inexplicable. Inevitable.”

He was standing in front of her now. She pushed herself further into the ocean, and he followed, struggling to keep his balance in the seething water.

“Do you want to come swimming with me?” she whispered.

Slowly, he nodded.

And suddenly her arms were wrapped around him, so tightly he could barely breathe. The blanket slipped away from her waist, and he gasped, but before he could cry out they were underwater. He kicked at her, his feet scraping against her scales, but she didn’t loosen her grip.

Water filled his mouth, and he felt like he would burst, but it wasn’t beautiful; his lungs were screaming and his head was screaming and the darkness was closing in as they swam down and

down and

d
o
w
n.