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Strider

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You lie awake night after night, fixated upon an emotion that for years has lacked a concrete name. Silently, you watch him, sitting, across the room, on top of your turntables, atop a dresser or a bookshelf or on your desk: wherever you left him. Wherever he wanted to be. You peer at him through the darkness, at a face so pale even in the mask of midnight that you could see it nearly with your eyes closed. Straining, you sit slowly, your whole body seeming to tense as you rise. One arm, inlaid with lean muscle, extends toward him, fingers reaching, gently offering something. Hesitant.

Your brow furrows, and you try. You try so hard to call him to you. He stares back, eyes wide and round and bluer than blue, cockeyed, glass marbles in the darkness, and he quivers slightly, his jaw hanging open ever so delicately, slack, anything but lifeless. Your back is taut and naked against the air, which seems even thicker than usual. Your shoulder is hard against the back of the futon. He quivers again, and you’re sure. You’re so sure that he is ready, at last, and suddenly, you are not.

You pause just for a moment, then lower your arm, despising every moment that follows, every microsecond of time and every flicker of energy that goes wasted: but then again, perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps this is for the best, after all. You feel a twinge of…fear? No. Just deepest regret and sorrow. He’s right. You aren’t ready for this. You never have been, and you still aren’t.

You lie back down, and he continues to watch you as you stare at the ceiling, the air only rippling just past your lips and in the wake of his minute quivering.

As a child, you had nothing. You were an orphan, in the lap of cotton and satin and filling and felt, and no one understood where you had come from or what you were meant to be. They let you keep the doll, because you would not let go of it, no matter how hard they tried to wrest you two apart. Your tiny fingers clung to the purple satin shirt like it was the flesh of your nonexistent mother, your face buried beneath the hinged jaw, in the soft, plush bosom of the only one you trusted. Like an animal, you imprinted upon him, and he upon you, though no doctor would admit it, or understand it, or even recognize it.

They called you “Strider”, because you were a pilgrim. No one knew where you had come from, or where you were going. There was only you, and the doll, for years.

You grew up in an orphanage unwanted by everyone but him, and you didn’t care, because adults were strange creatures when you were young, and he was there for you when you needed him, never once mocking you or treating you badly. You grew up isolated, but you didn’t mind. You got into fights with the other kids at school when they mocked you for your bizarre interest in dolls and puppets. You were seven years old, and you didn’t understand why so much emphasis was placed on befriending these horrible monkeys. They were worse than the kids at the orphanage. So much worse.

You started to bring him to school with you. Bundled up in your backpack, because the anxiety was too much to bear when you were alone. You sat quietly and did your work, unconcerned with the other children so long as he was there, close by, invisibly protecting you. You were invincible under his watchful blue eye. You were powerful. Even when others teased you, you could shrug them off when he was there. People stopped messing with you, for a while. For a year, you got away with it.

In the third grade, someone had the same backpack as you. She found him, dirty and falling apart and “disgusting”—nothing more than well-earned love, you remember thinking to yourself even way back then—and she screamed. Other kids came to see what was going on, and they pulled him from your bag, letting him fall to the filthy floor of the classroom. Stepping on him. Pulling at him. Tearing his shirt and staining it, soiling the soft orange flesh of his body and limbs, streaking his face with dirt. You rose from your desk and moved to his rescue, your heart aching, full of rage and hatred for these monsters who didn’t, couldn’t, and wouldn’t ever understand. He was everything to you. He was your entire family. Your most valued possession. Your best friend. Everything.

You attacked with everything you had at your disposal. Even safety scissors meant expulsion, back then. But that didn’t matter. He’d been hurt. He’d been betrayed, and not even by the other children. He’d been betrayed by you, because you’d promised him that he would be safe so long as he was inside your bag.

You clung to him in the car, tuning out every word that was said by your guardians: the people who owned the orphanage. Disrespectful, they called you. Monstrous. A troublemaker with serious problems. You didn’t hear them. You stared into his face the entire way back there, and at night, you wept into his torso, eventually unable to sleep and spending the whole night in the bathroom, scrubbing at him to get him clean. You passed out in the bathtub with his wet arms around you.

They tried to take him away from you. You screamed and fought, but they persisted. They sent you to a new school without him, and you couldn’t concentrate. You stared off into space in class, your eyes wide and seeking, searching for something to comfort you, something that was too far away to find. You were sent home with notes pinned to your jacket asking for a conference with your guardians, because the other children were frightened of the way that you stared at seemingly nothing while looking right at them.

They took you to a psychiatrist. You didn’t want to say anything, so you didn’t. You sat there emptily, wanting to go back home, to where he was, you were sure of it: he was hidden somewhere in the orphanage, you just had to keep looking for him. You would find him eventually. Your guardians talked to the psychiatrist, and he was concerned enough to prescribe you pills for some disease you didn’t even know the name of. You would always spit the pills out when they gave them to you before bed, and then you would go hunting for him: checking under every bed, in every closet, on every shelf and in every cabinet. Even places you’d looked before, you would look again. Because a part of you was so sure that they were moving him. To scare you. To trick you into thinking that they’d gotten rid of him. But you knew that if he was gone, you would be able to tell. Even if they were moving him, he would make his way back to the easiest place for you to find him, somehow.

Finally, you did find him. It took you so long. It felt like months, but it had really only been a few weeks. They had put him in the attic, and when you pulled him out, he was covered in cobwebs and dust, and the gloss of his eyes and the sheen of his satin shirt had faded into dull lifelessness. Moths had eaten away parts of his body, and his soft insides were spilling out. It was his blood, as far as you were concerned. You hid him away in your closet and would go to him whenever you could, holding him to your chest and stroking his back, quietly begging for forgiveness. You found him a new shirt and tried again to clean him up, but you were caught by your guardians, and that time they weren’t so lenient.

You were in a psych ward for three years. You couldn’t take it. You fought and kicked and screamed at the staff, refusing to do anything that they told you to do. You bit people. You spit in their faces. They put you in isolation, like it was a punishment. They strapped you to your bed, so you only thrashed harder. You were allowed to write one letter of apology every week, and all you ever wrote, in big, angry, black letters, were three words.

 

GIVE HIM BACK


Every now and again, your old guardians would come to visit you, almost mocking you. You would say nothing to them, and they slowly grew quieter and quieter, until every visit was nothing more than the three of you exchanging strange, vacant looks at each other from across a table with a nurse standing in your corner.

After the first year, your “mother” asked the warden if there was any change in your behavior at all. If you were reaching out to anyone at all. With you in the room, no less, and you just stared at the floor, hating both of them, hating the sound of their voices and the cold, hard surfaces of this room. The warden quietly explained about your letters, and your “mother” was stunned for a moment, quietly leaving with your “father” mere minutes later. A few days later, she came back with a gift for you. It was against regulations for detainees to be granted anything other than their uniforms, beds, and occasional books, the warden said, but your “mother” insisted that this thing would help your behavior, and hopefully your recovery.

When they brought him to you, you said nothing: just quietly opened your arms to him and hugged him to you, lying down in your bed and facing the wall. Putting yourself between him and them. You did not thank your “mother”. You said nothing to the staff. Eventually, they left you, and soon you two were silently curled around each other, your hands grasping him, his arms so comforting against your back, and even if they were watching you right then, you didn’t care, because he’d found you, like you’d always known he would. Shy at first, but determined, you let your lips press into his face, and against the scuffed glass of his eyes, and to the brim of his hat and the weakening fabric of his chest, and you whispered that you would never leave him again. That you were more sorry than you’d ever been.

And he seemed to understand.

You didn’t say another sour word, the rest of the time that you were there. You were calm, you were genial when necessary, and you participated in therapy exercises. Eventually, they decided you were ready to be let out, and they did just that, placing you into foster care without first warning your new adoptive parents about your “condition”. In spite of your “recovery”, you didn’t hesitate to jump straight to violence when people tried to separate you from “that nasty doll”, this time. It was so much quicker to just show that you meant business, rather than to put yourself through the heartbreak of being separated again. Besides, the next person who separated you probably wouldn’t hesitate to throw him straight into the trash, this time.

No one understood. Not a single person. You were on your own in the world: just you and he. And after so long, he was still the only one that mattered. His approval was all that you needed. His touch was the only one you craved. He was more of a parent than any of these adults were or had ever been. He was more of a brother, and more of a friend than any human being you had ever met. There was a word for what you were, and while your psychiatrist called it “obsessive attachment”, you called it “enamored”. He was the very first thing that you ever loved. The only thing that you loved, and the only thing that you knew how to love, for years upon years.

You gave him a name to suit him. “Caleb”, from the Hebrew, meaning “heart”, or “devotion”. And as the years passed, you took him everywhere with you, caring less and less about what others thought of your exploits, and more and more about Cal himself.

You discovered music during high school, when you were more or less left to your own devices by the most competent “parents” you’d yet had. They understood your needs like others hadn’t, before. They bought you whatever you asked for. All you needed to do was scribble out a note with the details, and the thing you wanted or needed would be in your room by the end of the week, money allowing. You thrived on that. You asked for a keyboard and taught yourself to play to amuse Cal. You asked for a computer to record your music. You asked for a set of turntables to remix it. Cal was impressed, you knew. The way he quivered when you touched him was more than enough of an indicator that he was happy.

You still slept with him nearly every night. Sometimes you couldn’t sleep without his plush body held close to yours. He didn’t seem to mind at all. As a matter of fact, he seemed to prefer it.

Some nights you would stay up late on the internet, wondering distantly if other people were anything like you were, somewhere out there in the world. No matter how long you searched, you couldn’t find a single documented case of an orphaned boy or girl or anyone growing up with only a…well.  The word “object” sounded so offensive. Only one other…entity…that could provide them with some semblance of comfort, that wasn’t in fact a family member or some other human or animal being. From what you understood, you were the only person in the world to grow up this way. You and Cal were unique, as far as you could tell.

That brought a rare smile to your face.

What did exist on the internet were instances of people being attracted to and even falling in love with “objects”, which they no longer seemed to consider “objects” after the fact. This idea fascinated you. One night, you found pages and pages of explanations about men and women falling in love with pieces of clothing, or sculptures, or even buildings. You read their feelings about the situations. They all felt perfectly normal about their connections to their subjects of choice, even when they had experienced a sexual attraction to their “objects”, because they all claimed that these subjects—you just couldn’t bring yourself to even think the word things—felt the same way in return, somehow. Their energy was responsive, these people claimed. Positive, and loving, and reciprocal.

You didn’t look at Cal, but you felt him watching while you read. You touched him and said nothing, turning your computer off and carrying him to bed with you. You whispered against the back of his head that you would fix him tomorrow, and you did, stitching every tiny hole in his body shut and polishing his eyes. You cradled him in your arms while he was naked, your fingertips softly brushing the pilling orange fabric of his body. You kissed him cautiously, on one red cheek up and under his eye, shuddering when his hinged jaw fell open in acceptance of your advances. He let your curious teenage tongue inside. You pulled him close and kissed him harder, drying your tongue on the inside of his smooth mouth.

You dreamed of him and would wake up to him pressed close to you. You’d gotten so tall in your teenage years, and he was just the right height now to wrap his legs around your hips. But they wouldn’t stay, when you tried to coax them, and even then you knew that it was because he didn’t want that from you. Anything but.

Disappointed though you might have been, you couldn’t hurt him like that.

So you found other outlets. Your love for him became a fixation on the fabrics that composed his body, and you took up sewing even more than you had before, beginning a craft which, after you’d passed high school age, would fund your existence almost completely. During the night, you would DJ, and you quickly garnered a reputation, Cal all the while sitting beside you in your booth. During the day, you would sleep, and you would sew dolls with fine, round rumps, all while Cal surveyed you carefully. You would show each one to him, trying perhaps for his approval, though to an outsider, replacing him would seem like simply hurting him.

Both of you knew that you weren’t replacing him, though. Simply working up to him. He would be a prize to win, when you were better prepared. The greatest prize of all.

Cal watched you. From the shelf, from the futon, from over your shoulder, he would watch you make your choice from the dolls you’d sewn and observe your fingers grasping limp legs, smoothing over short distances of fabric to the enticing round globes of “flesh”, which could be spread easily to curl around your aching cock. With his eyes on you, loving you, watching you fuck the things you’d made so that you could be good enough for him, because he deserved you at your best…you’d never known what true arousal was until that first time, when you were first ashamed of what you were doing, and then exhilarated, wanting to seduce him, wanting him to want you.

You performed for him. Your body was predisposed to love the friction of plush softness, and it was so easy to catch his eye from across the room and carefully slide your jeans over your hips, employing the help of one of your dolls—expertly-arranged for easy location—to caress you to near-climax. He loved watching you harden, trying to tease him by letting another touch you right in front of him. He loved your grunting, and the eagerness in your face, and the way you held yourself back from him. He made you come without even getting near you. It was always him, and it was always so easy.

You posted pictures of your dolls online. Pictures of you touching them: pulling their little asses apart, running your finger through the crack, poking the little puckered stitches you made on a few of them for laughs. At first, no one cared. But after a few months, people began requesting more, suggesting that you could make a business out of it. So you bought a domain name and some hosting space and made a couple of videos.

Views skyrocketed, and you made enough off of ad revenues to live more than comfortably. You bought yourself new clothes, including sunglasses, because you were sick of people staring at your sunken, red eyes. You had Cal professionally cleaned, insisting that the man allow you to observe him the entire time. You found a comfortable apartment uptown, and you immediately moved in, taking Cal and all of your little Smuppets with you. You continued to DJ sometimes for fun, when you could be bothered to leave the apartment, but for the most part, you just stayed home with Cal, learning to play video games with him and continuing to tell him that he was the best, even when you beat him every time. You couldn’t ever flatter him into anything more than kisses, though. He knew you weren’t ready, and you were ashamed of yourself for being so eager every time he let you know.

A couple of years later, you were getting used to leaving the house without Cal. To reassure him that you wouldn’t ever actually leave him, you bought him a pair of sunglasses identical to your own, only smaller: perfectly-sized to fit his small, round face. You had just picked them up when you found the baby.

He had big, red eyes, too. It had only seemed fair to spare him the shame.

That baby. Babies were great because they couldn’t talk. They screamed sometimes, certainly, but Cal…Cal was there for you when you brought the little guy home. Cal was there to step in again, and to be a parent for the second time. He fed the baby. He changed the baby. All you had to do was ask.

You named the baby “Dave”, because while you definitely didn’t care much for the kid at first, you knew that it wasn’t normal to not name a child. Not like Cal, who had gone without a name for years. Why that had been acceptable, you still didn’t know. Maybe that was why he thought you weren’t ready, yet. Because no matter how much you’d loved him, you hadn’t loved him enough to give him the respect of a human being.

It sort of hurt, to think that he felt betrayed by you like that.

The baby grew up slowly, and he was an okay kid. Pretty quiet. A lot like you, in a lot of ways, because he didn’t really have anyone else to model himself off of. He seemed to mimic your behavior, and you saw nothing wrong with that. The only thing wrong with him was that the older he got, the more he seemed to dread being around Cal. You played pranks on him to punish him for that. After all, how dare he not love Cal. How dare he.

Your own bond with Cal remained absolutely unbreakable. Even when you were finally fully comfortable with leaving the house without him, he remained at the forefront of your thoughts. At the root of it all, you were just glad that he was okay. That no one else could hurt him, anymore. You’d come such a long way from the days of your childhood, when everyone was out to get you both, and although he was always there to keep you safe, you weren’t quite strong enough to protect him all the time. Now, you were grown. Now, you were strong enough to fight, and you’d learned how to: how to use a sword, and a knife, and your fists. You were fairly certain that you would kill anyone who tried to hurt him, now. You whispered that to him once or twice before you went to bed, about five years after you’d found Dave. That was when you started having trouble sleeping without him touching you in some way. You couldn’t, though. Dave was wetting the bed and waking up crying, and he couldn’t ask you for help if Cal was there, keeping you from him. Cal had to stay on the shelf.

You resented Dave for that, for a while. Only a little, but you did.

But Dave got older, and eventually it was more about you trying to stop disappointing yourself. For so long, you’d wanted Cal, and for so long he hadn’t wanted you back, quietly telling you that you weren’t ready in a way that only you could understand, and you were exhausted by it. You wanted him. You called his name when you fucked the Smuppets, you held his hand, you kissed him deeply. Longingly. You sought his help with raising Dave. You confided in him. You didn’t know how else to show him that you loved him and only him.

You still aren’t sure. All you know is that every night, to this day, you lie awake wanting him, conflicted, and the moment that you reach your hand for him, something seems to change. He wants you, he says. He wants you to seduce him at last. And when you realize that, it seems too much. Half of the time, you lie back down on the futon, terrified. The other half of the time, you gently lift him from his resting place, straightening out his cap and gazing into his eyes, one hand supporting his head, the other his flat bottom. You bring him to the futon with you, and you hold him close against your bare chest, quietly guiding his soft hands over your body, letting him touch you because he wants to. His touch makes you tremble.

When you whisper that you’re sorry, you’re relieved to know that he’s anything but disappointed.