His whole life was built on lies, and the key to his survival and later, his freedom dependent on them, so he learned the value of untruth almost as soon as he learned to talk.
The first time he lied to protect himself he was six years old. He’d broken the last good plate they had, and he knew there would be a beating if his mother’s boyfriend found out. So he hid it under the sofa, behind the normal pile Al always left, and waited for the fall out.
It was weeks before his mother found it and questioned him, in one of her brief sober periods, and he cast the blame on his brother, Raphael. Raphael got a beating, and Gabriel remained unscathed. He didn’t feel guilty for it, even when he saw the bruises. That was the first time he’d questioned whether something was wrong with him.
His questioning didn’t stop, it only got worse as he got older.
He was seven when John came into his bedroom for the first time. He smelled like vodka and orange juice, and he sat like a stone at the end of Gabriel’s bed while Gabriel curled up pretending to sleep. John being this close always resulted in bad things, slaps and punches, screaming until he cried, and once a broken arm, but normally if he stayed quiet, he went away.
But John didn’t go away. He leaned in and ran a finger over Gabriel’s cheek, down his neck, over his chest, and Gabriel shivered.
“Shhhh shhhh,” John crooned, putting a hand splayed over Gabriel’s chest. “It’s alright now. Don’t be scared. Just wanna show you that I love you that’s all, baby boy,”
Gabriel looked up at him with wide eyes, his chest rising and falling under John’s hand. He didn’t say a word. He never would.
Silence became his solitude. If he screamed, and kicked and fought, it took longer and it hurt. But if he squeezed his eyes together tight, and kept quiet, it was over before he knew it.
If his mother knew, she never gave any indication. She didn’t stop it and Gabriel doubted she was sober enough to notice anything besides herself. She hasn’t spent a significant amount of time sober since before Gabriel could remember. The time she didn’t spend at work, if she even had a job, was normally spent at the bottom of a bottle, or in the throes of a heroin binge.
His early years were a blur to him, a vicious cycle of beatings, and drugs and abuse. The only bright spot in his life was his brother, Raphael.
It was Raphael that took care of him, who made sure he was clean, and fed, who dropped him off at school every day and walked him home at night. It was Raphael he went to when at 12 years old, he couldn’t stop wetting the bed.
He panicked the first time it happened, because he knew it would mean another beating, and his mother was favoring the belt recently. He scrambled out of his bed, shaking and wet, as he pulled the sheets from the mattress. He soaked up the mess as best he could and threw everything into the battered old washing machine, praying it wouldn’t wake anyone. Gabriel washed himself, crouched in the chipped porcelain tub, scared to turn the water on more than a trickle because it made too much noise.
His brother knew something was wrong the moment he saw Gabriel sleeping huddle on the couch under the threadbare blanket instead of in his bed. He was the one person who could see through Gabriel in a second.
After what Gabriel had put him through, he half expected Raphael to rat him out but instead he showed him how to clean the mess, and remake his bed with an old tarp between the sheets so it would be easier to clean the next time around. He never asked what was wrong with Gabriel, which was more than Gabriel could say for himself. The question grew louder in his mind, in John’s voice, echoing in the great vast emptiness: ‘What is wrong with you?’
With the bed-wetting, and John’s visits growing more frequent, there were very few places where Gabriel felt safe. He escaped his house when he could, and slipped into the protection of the overgrown forest behind it, hiding with his books.
The woods became his solace, his happy place, where nothing could hurt him and the world was filled with valiant knights and justice. He’d stay for hours, until it was dark, and he had to go home.
One night, he misjudged the time, and couldn’t find his way home. It was fall and the temperature had already dipped into the low forties by the time the sun set. There was no way he could get out of the woods after dark and he hunkered down shivering, and searched through his jacket pockets. Raphael always teased him about the assortment of things he kept in his pockets, odds and ends that he picked up. He was hoping he had some matches.
He was in luck. There was a crumpled matchbook in his pocket, with three matches inside. Just enough to make a fire.
He spent the night shivering, watching the fire curl and twist, until the sun rose and he stomped it out. Gabriel got home, and his mother didn’t even look up from her bottle. The fire had kept him safer than she had and he found himself setting them frequently, just to watch it dance and spread.
He was barely thirteen the first time he lit a house on fire. It was old and abandoned, and right on the edge of the woods behind his house. He hadn’t meant to do it, but the small fire he started in the living room got out of control too quickly for him to contain it.
Gabriel dashed into the woods, his heart pounding but not with fright. He’d never felt so alive in all his life, as he watched the house go up in flames. There was no other feeling inside him, not fear, not guilt, only exhilaration. It made him feel powerful.
He stayed until the house burned to ash, transfixed by the falling timbers and glowing embers. He kept it with him as he hurried home.
Gabriel knew John would come for him that night as soon as he got through the door. His mother was already passed out with a bottle against her chest, and his stepfather was sitting at the table with a syringe and a spoon.
By the time he got into bed, Gabriel was shaking so bad his teeth were chattering, and he thought of the fire, picturing it in his mind as he waited for it to happen. John came into his room with a grunt, dropping his pants on the side of the bed. Gabriel squeezed his eyes shut, retreating into himself as he reached for him.
He didn’t see Raphael’s face in the doorway; he didn’t even know anything was off until he heard his mother start screaming downstairs. She wouldn’t wake up on her own after a binge; nothing short of a catastrophe could rouse her.
John jumped out of bed, tucking himself back into his boxers, as he raced from the room, leaving Gabriel sore and bleeding on his thin sheets. His brother appeared a moment later, pulling him up into his arms and carrying him to his own small room.
Raphael sat down on the bed, still holding Gabriel, rocking like he was rocking a small baby. “I’m so sorry,” he crooned, his head buried in his brother’s curls. “I didn’t know...I… oh god…”
Gabriel savored the warmth of his brother. “It’s okay,” he responded awkwardly, not quite sure what to do or to say. “It’s-”
“No, it’s not,” Raphael finally eased his hold, and looked down at him. “He’s going to pay for this.”
The look that spread over Raphael’s face spent shivers down Gabriel’s spine.
Years later, Gabriel would admit he had no idea how two kids had pulled it off so flawlessly.
Raphael picked him up from school, and took him to get pizza and then to the arcade. When Gabriel asked where he’d gotten the money, Raphael smiled and told him to finish his dinner. After a couple rounds of Mortal Kombat and skeeball, they headed out, but instead of making the right towards home, Raphael steered them left.
He took them down a back alley, past the park and into the warehouse district of town, ignoring the stench of the homeless junkies that shook their cups at them. Finally he came to a door, and he stopped and knocked resolutely.
Gabriel looked up at his brother. “Why are we here? Shouldn’t we go home?”
“Soon, Gabriel,” his brother hushed him, knocking again until the slit in the door slid open.
“Yeah?” said a gruff voice from inside.
“John Holland sent us to … to… pick up,” Raphael responded nervously, shifting from one foot to the other.
“Go home, kid,” the man answered, sliding the window shut. Raphael knocked again, more frantically than the last time, and it opened again.
“I’m serious, kid. Go away.”
Raphael pulled the biggest wad of cash Gabriel had ever seen out of his pocket and waved it in front of the window. “John Holland,” he repeated.
The door opened and Raphael dragged Gabriel inside before the bouncer shut the door behind him. Gabriel held his breath, covering his mouth with his sleeve against the stench of unwashed bodies and stale coffee
There were people everywhere, draped across couches, huddled in corners, spread out on the floor. They all had the hungry look of an addict, wan and thin, their bodies curling in towards themselves. Gabriel didn’t make eye contact as he struggled to keep up with his brother.
The bouncer led them into a back room, where another man was seated at a desk counting money. He raised an eyebrow when he saw Raphael and Gabriel, and his hands stilled.
“What is this?” he asked the bouncer. “I ain’t running no nursery school.”
“They said Holland sent them to pick up for him.” The bouncer explained. “Waving around a wad of cash.”
Suddenly the man no longer seemed concerned about their ages. He eyed the cash interestedly. “How much do you want?”
Raphael threw the money in front of him. “As much as this will get me.”
Ten minutes later, they were back on the street, the bundle full of white powder tucked into the inner pocket of Raphael’s coat.
“Why did you buy that?” Gabriel asked, looking up at his older brother with terrified eyes.
Raphael stayed silent, holding Gabriel’s hand tightly in his own.
“Raph, what’s going on?”
But his brother still said nothing, dragging him down the dark streets until they reached home.
John was passed out on the living room couch when they arrived, and he didn’t even stir when Raphael slammed the door behind him. All of his things were out on the table, the burner still on, and the syringe and spoon next to it, empty.
Gabriel watched with big eyes as his brother dropped the plastic baggie of heroin on the table, and then, knelt to rummage under the sink. Finally, he produced a small cardboard box with a rat on it, and a pair of rubber gloves. He put that next to the drugs, and began the process Gabriel had seen John do many times before.
After slipping the gloves on, Raphael mixed the heroin with the powder from the box, putting the resulting paste onto the used spoon on the table. He heated it over the flickering flame of the burner, and the kitchen was filled with the smell of vinegar.
Gabriel wrinkled his nose, looking back to make sure his stepfather was still snoring on the couch. If he caught them anywhere near his things, they’d both get beaten for sure.
With shaking fingers, Raphael dropped in a little pill sized bit of cotton into the now bubbling mixture, plunging the syringe into it and sucking the contents into the glass tube. He flicked it with his finger to get any bubbles out, and laid it back down on the table. Raphael picked up the box and put it back under the sink, tucking the gloves into his pocket.
“C’mon Gabriel,” he said finally. “Time for bed.”
Gabriel didn’t argue. He looked from John to the syringe, and then to his brother, who just smiled at him.
“You don’t have to worry about him anymore,” Raphael told him as he followed Gabriel down the hall and into his room. Even though Gabriel was thirteen, Raphael still tucked him in every night, and Gabriel changed into his pajamas and got into bed without his usual complaints.
“Is John gunna be okay?”
Raphael kissed his forehead. “You let me deal with John, okay?” he said, pulling up the blanket. “If anyone asks, we just went to the arcade.”
Gabriel nodded. He just wanted to make his brother happy, and after all that Raphael had done for him, one lie wasn’t too much to ask. He yawned and snuggled down into his blankets.
His brother turned off the light as he walked out. “Sweet dreams.”
Gabriel closed his eyes. Like normal, he didn’t dream at all. But when he woke up, his stepfather was dead. He pretended to be sad when they found John’s suicide note; he even squeezed out a tear or two for his mother’s benefit, but all he felt was emptiness.
Not happy, or relief or guilt, he felt nothing. Gabriel didn’t have to wonder if something was wrong with him anymore.