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One~Two~Three~Four~Five

He is six years old.

He is six years old, and his mother is yelling at him.

She calls him names he doesn't understand entirely but knows are bad, and tells him he's terrible. He breaks everything he touches. Life was so much easier before him. Why did he do these things? She wishes he were gone.

He sits quietly on the kitchen counter and looks at his battered tennis shoes, not saying a word.

He’d just wanted to help, that was all, but his mother hadn't wanted him in the kitchen with her. He'd snuck in while she was out answering the phone, and he had tried to mix the bowl that was on the counter. He'd pulled out the sliding shelves in the bottom cabinet and used them like stairs to get onto the counter, then he’d gotten hold of the electric mixer his mother had been using. He'd wanted to use it, too, but it had sparked and smoldered at his touch, and now, even though it is unplugged, the beaters keep spinning.

And his mother is yelling at him.

She tries to pick up the mixer and it snaps at her like a dog.

"Make it stop," she says.

He doesn't know how.

"Well figure it out!"

He can't. He puts his hand near it, and his fingers get caught in the beaters. He pulls them back with a yelp. The skin is broken and starting to bleed.

"I'm sorry-" he says.

"Sorry doesn't fix things," she snaps. "Go outside. Don't come back in until I call you."

He slides off the counter and goes to the backyard while she tries to figure out what to do with the mixer.

The sun is shining, and the sky is clear everywhere but over their house. Over their house, there is a dark gray cloud that casts a shadow over the entire yard.

He cries. He doesn't want to cry; even at six, he knows crying is something that only babies and girls are allowed to do, and he doesn't want to be considered either. But the tears don't listen and stream down his face anyways, though he doesn't make a sound aside from the occasional sniff or hiccup.

He just wanted to help.

Dad arrives home. He watches as Dad exits the car and waves to him. Though Dad sees him, Dad doesn't wave back and just goes inside. The door slams, and he hears his parents yelling. They yell his name a couple times. Something inside smashes loudly enough for him to hear across the yard. He buries his face in his crossed arms.

They hate me.

It is the first time he's ever put words to the thought, but not the first time he's felt it. And he knows unquestioningly that it is true.

Mom and Dad hate me.

He gets to his feet and walks towards the front yard. There are no gates, either separating the front and back yards, or separating the front yard from the rest of the world. He doesn't think anything of it now, but later he will wonder if his parents didn't want him to leave, didn't want him to wander off and never come back.

He walks onto the sidewalk and picks a direction at random: left. He walks, and walks. Dogs watch him silently from their yards. Cars drive by, some slowing down as they pass him, but most not.

There aren't any people out in his neighborhood; it's still midday and everyone is at work or at school. Technically, he should be in school, too, but he'd been kicked out for the week for scaring other kids. He doesn't know what he did to scare them, but they were afraid. Afraid the same way Mom and Dad sometimes were.

A terrible, painful feeling claws his belly, but he doesn't know the name of it. He walks for a long time and doesn't stop, even when he's hungry and tired and his legs start to hurt, because the feeling is telling him that he deserves to feel hurt and tired and hungry.

After a while, he is completely lost. Wherever he is, it's full of tall, impossibly tall, buildings and bright lights and streets full of people and honking cars jam-packed in the road.

Good, he thinks. Mom and Dad won't find me here.

If they looked.

Why didn't they like him?

He'd only wanted to help. . .

Every now and then, people on the sidewalk will stop him. They start off concerned, but then they look into his eyes and suddenly decide that he's probably fine. His parents must be around somewhere, after all. No need to worry about the creepy little kid on the road. He's fine, they make themselves think. And they hurry away.

He doesn't mind; he's used to it.

Finally, when he can walk no more, he stops and sits on the curb beneath a streetlight. It's dark out now, but the area he's in is well lit by shops and signs and lights. He is tired, and though the weather out is comfortably warm, he still feels cold. His stomach gurgles and growls, demanding attention. He's long since stopped crying, but his face is still streaked and sticky, and his eyes feel hot.

"Hey there, champ," says a voice nearby.

He glances towards the source, then looks back at a spot on the road. A smiling man is watching him.

"What'cha doing out here?" the Man says.

He doesn't answer. The teacher at school showed the class a movie about not talking to strangers just last week.

"Not a talker, ehy?" The Man approaches and stands next to him. "Whatcha looking at?" he says, crouching beside him.

The Man places a hand on his shoulder, and he wiggles away. He bolts, but the Man grabs his arm.

"Alright, kiddo. Don't worry, I just need you to hold on a second-"

He stops struggling and glares at the Man, full on. The Man's jaw drops, and his grip loosens. "Shit," he breathes.

But the boy doesn't hear; he's already running down the street. After a second, the Man chases after him.

"Wait!" the Man shouts. "Hold up!"

He doesn't. He's not stupid. He runs and runs, easily navigating between the few people on the street. When he glances back, he no longer sees the Man, and grins to himself. He doesn't notice that he's run into the road. When he looks up, the headlights and grill of a truck fill his vision.

He freezes.

Something hits him. Not from the front, like he was expecting, but from the side. The Man and he go rolling onto the sidewalk. Before he can do anything, the Man stands him up and looks him over, checking his head and eyes and saying, "Jesus kid! Are you alright? Are you hurt?"

He shakes his head, but cannot speak. His hands are shaking.

"Jesus," the Man says again. "You nearly gave me a heart attack." He stands up and takes the boy’s hand.

"S-sorry," he says.

The Man walks him down the street, and he's too shaken to resist. There's a black van parked along the curb up ahead. It's not until the Man slides the back door open and starts getting in that he tries to break away again.

"No, no you don't."

The Man grabs his wrist and pulls him into the van while other people, people he hadn't noticed before, but are wearing the same black suits as the Man, casually walk past and close the van's door. They get into the front seats and start the engine.

He yells, but the Man puts a hand over his mouth.

"Okay, you're gonna have to be quiet now," he says cheerfully. "Because, while I don't mind yelling, my friends here who are driving-" he gestures to the man behind the wheel and the woman in the front seat, "get nervous and they'll crash us and we'll all die. Do you want to die?"

He makes a negatory, "uh-uh" sound.

"Okay then. I'm gonna let you go, and you're gonna be quiet, and we'll all be happy, got it?"

The Man lets go. The boy turns around and looks at him. The Man breathes in sharply.

"What?" he says.

"Your eyes, kid," the Man says, staring.

"What about them?"

The Man opens his mouth to say something, thinks better of it, then smiles and says. "They're cool, is all. Anybody ever tell you that?"

"No."

"Well they should. What's your name?"

He tells him.

"What were you doing out so late by yourself? And why were you crying? Where's your mom and dad?"

He doesn't know what to say. The movie was vague on what actually happened after the kidnapper got you. Was this normal? Should he lie?

"I ran away," he says, deciding that there was nothing left to lose with the truth.

"Why?"

He's silent.

"Come on," the Man says. "Go on, tell."

"Mom and Dad don't like me," he says. His throat gets thick and he feels pressure building up behind his eyes and nose.

"What makes you think that?"

"Because I broke the mixer and mom told me to go and she and Dad yell and- and-" He's sobbing. He can't talk; he's so ashamed to be crying in front of a stranger.

The Man pats his shoulder.

"Anton," the Man says to the driver. "Pull over." To the boy, he says, "Are you hungry?"

He nods.

"Come on."

The Man takes his hand and they exit the van. He, the Man, the driver Anton, and the woman whose name turns out to be Joanne all go into McDonald's and have dinner. There are hamburgers and chicken nuggets and the Man shows him how ketchup can be put on french fries and, after all of that is gone, there are milkshakes, which his parents would never let him have before.

It is the best meal he's ever had in his life. By the time they leave, he's quite okay with being kidnapped. They go back to the van, and he hops inside happily.

"So then," says the Man. "You feel better?"

"Yup!"

"Good. We're going to make a little stop to see some friends of mine, okay? They want to meet you."

"Who?"

"Just some friends. I spoke to them on the phone and told them about you. I told them what a nice kid you are, and how interesting your eyes are. They want to meet you."

He is unsure, but the Man seems nice, and Joanne and Anton all smile at him and tell him it's okay. They don't look at his eyes, but they still smile at him, so he smiles back.

"Okay," he says.

* * * * *

The Man's friends are in a tall building in the middle of downtown. The front is an office, but they go in an elevator, then down a few long hallways, then into another elevator, and then more hallways until they come to a clean, white room with smooth floors and walls and metal tables. The people there wear white coats and cold doctor's tools they use to check his heart and lungs and ears and eyes and everything else doctors are interested in. They all smile at him and tell him what a brave boy he's being.

"When was the last time you went to see a doctor?" one of them asks as she fills out a clipboard.

"I don't remember," he answers. It's a lie, he does remember; it was back when he was a baby and his mom tried to smother him under a pillow. But when he tells people he remembers that, they call him a liar and tell him babies don't remember things, so he doesn't tell the doctors here.

The Man stays with him the entire time, usually talking to the doctors running around. The Man stops talking occasionally to say something comforting or give him a piece of candy.

The tests take forever. Some of them are boring, like standing in front of the X-Ray and laying down inside the big clunking machine, others hurt, like when they draw blood (and they needed a lot of blood). At one point, they have him just look at stuff. Mirrors, radios, TVs. The TV breaks just like the one at home does when he looks at it. Another time, they have him look at a vial of strange, black liquid. The liquid is gunky and it makes his ears ache just by being around it. When he looks at it, it starts to bubble, and everyone has to rush out of the room quickly while an alarm sounds.

“Sorry,” he says.

“Don’t be,” says the Man, gesturing to all the people in lab coats excitedly filling out clip boards and peering into the examination room window to see what the black stuff is doing. “They love when this stuff happens.”

Sometime during the tests, they lift up his sleeve and find the bruises.

“Did that happen on the street?” says the Man.

He shakes his head. “No. Dad did that last week.”

“Oh,” says the Man. He doesn’t talk much after that.

Eventually, he finally gives up. He's so tired - all the walking earlier has finally caught up with him. Sometime after the third blood drawing, he falls asleep.

When he wakes up, he's in a different room. It's a room with floral wall paper and a TV on the wall and couches and a coffee table and a desk by the door where a woman is writing things in a book. Someone has put him on a sofa and put a blanket over him. He sits up and yawns. The woman looks up, and smiles. Everyone here smiles at him. He's not used to it, but he likes it.

The door opens and the Man enters, along with Anton and Joanne.

"Hey, champ," The Man says. "You feeling okay?"

He nods and yawns.

“Good, good. I’ve got to tell you, kiddo, you gave my friends quite a treat. They’re all going gaga over you.”

“Why?”

“You made all their tests do funny things. They like when that happens. It means you’re special.”

He tries not to smile, but the smile breaks out. Nobody’s ever called him special before. The Man sees and chuckles. “Don’t be shy. Everyone here’s glad we found you, right guys?”

“Definitely,” says Anton.

“Totally,” says Joanne.

“How did you find me?” he says.

“Special tools,” says the Man. “Special tools for finding special things like you.”

The front door, the one by the TV, opens, and his parents walk in looking agitated. His stomach sinks.

“You called them?” he says.

“Had to, kiddo,” says the Man. He rises to greet Mom and Dad. “Mr. and Mrs. Campbell! Pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise,” says Dad. His voice sounds dead compared to the man’s. Mom walks over to the boy and grabs his arm. He winces; she’s grabs the spot where the bruise is. She says, her voice as dead as Dad’s, “thank you for finding him.”

“No trouble, no trouble. He’s certainly an interesting little guy.”

“Yeah,” says Dad. “He’s something alright.” He turns to go, but Anton and Joanne are standing casually in front of the door, blocking the way out.

“One moment before you go,” says the Man. “Just when, exactly, were you going to call the police?”

“Excuse me?” says Mom.

The Man has an edge of steel in his voice, though the smile never falters. “We checked the reports for missing children- that was the first thing we did, actually. He told us he’d been missing since around noon at least, you must have noticed he was gone. So when were you going to report him missing?”

“We don’t have to listen to this-“ says Mom, her grip tightening around his arm. He yelps.

“Step aside,” Dad says to Anton and Joanne.

“Why?” says Joanne. “Or you’ll finally call the cops?”

“It is none of your concern-“

“Oh, but it is” says the Man. “You don’t even know how much our concern this actually is. Anton, Joanne, grab them.”

“What-“ says Dad.

Anton is a head taller and twice as thick with muscle. It’s no trouble for him to pin Dad’s arms to the side. Joanne is faster and stronger than Mom, too. She grabs Mom’s wrist and twists until she lets go of the boy, then she twists Mom’s arm around her back.

“Where to?” says Anton.

“The man is looking at Mom and Dad with cold, cold eyes. “Memory reconstruction,” he says. “Michael’s already got the appropriate papers. He’s expecting them.”

They nod and lead his protesting parents out the door.

“Seeya, kid,” says Anton on the way out.

And he can do nothing but watch, eyes wide. He’s going to start crying again. He can feel it.

“Don’t start that again,” says the Man. “They’ll be back soon, I promise.”

This does nothing to help. It’s not until the woman behind the desk, who had been silent through the entire exchange, comes out with a package of ritz crackers and a hamster from a tank behind the desk that he calms down.

“Don’t worry,” she says, plucking the hamster out of its plastic terrarium. “Your parents will be fine, I promise. And she doesn’t bite. Hold your hands out like this.”

The woman has an open face and while she doesn’t look at his eyes, she is smiling at him. He finds himself believing her, and does as he’s told. For the next half hour, he plays with the hamster. After that, the woman, whose name, she tells him, is Claire, brings out a clear ball and places the hamster (whose name is Niblet) into the ball. They let the hamster run around the room and start playing with a box of giant legos that Claire brought from home. The Man watches this all with amusement.

“I have little cousins,” is all Claire says on the matter.

After three hours filled with hamsters, legos, coloring books, and connect four, his parents finally return.

They enter, unescorted, through the back door and when she sees him, his mother bursts into tears.

“Oh honey!” she says. They both rush at him and envelop him in a hug. They kiss his face and tell him how worried they were about him. To the Man, they say, “thank you for finding him!” and this time they sound like they mean it.

“My pleasure,” says the Man.

He breaks away from his parents.

“What’s wrong?” says Mom.

“Who are you?” he says.

“It’s us, Son,” says Dad. His father has never called him ‘son’ before. His mother has never called him “honey”. He looks to the Man.

“What did you do?”

“Nothing,” the Man says.

“Yes you did! What did you do?”

The Man shrugs. “We just reminded them of how much they love you. They’d forgotten, but now they remember.”

“But they don’t,” he says. To his parents, he says, “you never did. Not ever. I remember.”

“Of course we love you, honey,” says his mother. “Why would you even say something like that?”

She wraps her arms around him and hugs him for the second time in his life.

“Thank you so much,” says Dad to the Man again. “I don’t know what we would’ve done if anything had happened-“

“Don’t talk like that,” says Mom. She stands and holds the boys hand. They’re leading him to the exit.

He breaks away again and goes to the Man. “Wait!” he says.

“What?” says the Man. “You don’t like them like this?”

“Promise!” he says, breathing hard.

“Promise what?”

He looks up, his eyes wide and afraid. “Promise they won’t change back.”

The Man pats his head. “I promise.

Dad comes over and scoops him off his feet, and carries him out to the car. They go home. Bruises heal and aren’t replaced. Food is more plentiful, and comes at regular intervals, and while his parents still dislike looking at his eyes, they do look at him.

* * * * *

This all happened a little over twenty years ago, and he doesn’t remember any of it.

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