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I step onto the rubberized steps of the school bus. I sit down in the front seat across from a guy at least five years older than me. Believe it or not, this grown adult on a bus full of teenagers and kids is just another student.
I talk to him on the ride home, since he always addresses me first. Tattoos of card suits cover his knuckles and patchy facial hair borders his broken, toothy grin. One day he brings me a stack of Dreamcast games to borrow after I told him I own the system only a few days prior. He explains the titles to me and suggests I play them all to get a feel for each one- describing Sonic Shuffle as approximately "Mario Party with Sonic and really weird", but apparently worthy of experiencing at least once. I take the stack home.
I step off the bus and feel light-headed as usual. I approach my front door and nothing feels real anymore. The thoughts in my head become distant and ill-defined, vague and unclear. I turn the knob and step inside and I'm met immediately with the harsh glare of my mother's boyfriend. He stares at me like a perceived threat- I look awkwardly back at him, like a short, fat fifteen-year-old in a sweaty hoodie would. His head turns to watch my every move. I creak up the stairway to the attic where I live, my mind at least comforted by the escapism the games I carry will provide, until I reach the final step and turn to find my room completely vacant sans my bed.
I stand there on the red shag carpeting, staring blankly at the empty room before me. I look at the side room to the attic, once my makeshift closet, now covered with a nailed in board of wood. I think nothing. I feel nothing. I accept it as it is. My mother's boyfriend approaches the stairwell and smiles at me, informing me that he took the liberty during the day to make some changes to my living quarters. What he hopes to accomplish is never made clear. His reasoning is never explained. All he does is smile as his eyes stare piercingly straight into mine and a thin coat of sweat slickens his forehead.
The next day I tell the 20-something on the bus about the night prior and I hand him back his games. "I'll kick your stepdad's ass." he tells me, a welcome threat, even if I know it doesn't really mean anything. That night I inform my mother's boyfriend of my newfound ally while he stalks me around the house, breathing down my neck. "Oh yeah? I'd like to see him try. I'll kill him. I'll fucking kill him." he responds with a manic smile, inches away from my face, the sweat on his face dripping down his chin.
I go downstairs to use the bathroom. Within minutes I'm on the floor, pinned down by my neck, my windpipe being squeezed by a man more than twice my age. His greasy olive-colored skin moist with the same constant perspiration that shined every time he attacked me. He berates me while strangling me in front of my younger sister. I ask her for help but she joins him and berates me too. Eventually his ease lessens and his voice takes on a disturbing saccharine tone, the pitch increasing. "Go take your shower, Camden. Go take your shower, okay?" He instructs me like he's attempting to calm a child.
I go to make a bowl of cereal but find the milk in the fridge has expired. I dump the remaining bad milk down the drain. My mother's boyfriend beats me with the empty jug, smacking it across my face, screaming at me for dumping the milk. He drops the jug and grabs a frying pan and pulls it back. I wince in fear and he smiles wildly, sweat dropping from his face to the floor as he breathes heavily as if experiencing some kind of erotic pleasure. I stare back at him, afraid and disturbed, but full of a bubbling rage I didn't know I possessed. A rage that flooded my veins any time he assaulted me, a violent, primal wrath that would end in death if uncontained. A wrath that, like always, I swallow and forget.
In my empty room I think of the things I used to like. I think of my life before this happened. I think of the way things used to be. I never really got along well with my mom's boyfriend, but I had learned enough about him to skirt by for some time- imitating and mirroring his own behavior. Parroting back his linguistics. Reducing myself into a clown he was free to mock in order to build a relationship that would let me live as peacefully as possible. And so, for one year, I accomplished that. For the entire year of 2010, life, for the most part, went by without a hitch- at the cost the (already estranged) relationship between me and my biological father, who I would mock and insult constantly. Reporting back these events to my mother's boyfriend shielded me. I would do as he told me and in return he would treat me like more of a person. Just a little bit.
In my room before it was vacant, I stared endlessly at the remnants of the past. Plush toys and figures and books and comics, reminding me of the last shreds of childhood innocence I used to possess. I stare at the toys on the shelf, toys I once smiled at, only now they stare back at me in a way I find simultaneously mocking and hopeless. It was all over. All my happy memories were shattered glass on the floor, incapable of repair. The manga I used to bring to school as a sixth grader, the comics I loved to share with friends, collected dust and faded in the sun. Attempting to read them again filled me with an intense anguish. I cried every night when the house emptied as my stepdad would drive out to pick up my mom from work. I'd cry while watching what little of the sunset was visible from my partially-boarded window. I'd sob and beg to go back. Begging to return to only a couple years prior. Begging to feel free again. Begging to feel like me again. I'd plea with God, whoever or whatever he or she or they or it was, asking to take me back. Even if it was just a year. I wanted to rewind desperately. I wanted to return to a point where I could change the course of time, if possible, and somehow soften the blow of what was to come. I wanted nothing more than to experience the progression of life the way other kids did. I wanted to grow up with my friends, graduate with my friends, live life as it came. But instead I felt hollow. I felt soulless. I felt like everything I had loved had been taken from me, every positive emotion had been stolen away, and the cartoons and characters I was obsessed with faded into the back of my memory.
I sit here at my desk. I'm 24 now, and the events I just described were ten years ago. I stare at the plush toys and manga on my shelf- worn with age and faded from the sun. Books long out of print, from defunct publishers. The memories of the past sealed in their pages. The anguish I felt then is weak, almost entirely replaced by nostalgia and bittersweet fondness for the time I spent with them as a child. Broken glass glued back together to the best of my ability, albeit chipped and cracked in places I can't fix. I look into the eyes of a plush doll I've had for 12 years now and I see instead a refugee like me- a survivor. The hollow feeling remains and has remained ever since, but my soul has long returned.