LIKE FATHER LIKE CHILDREN
By You Lin
Content Warnings: Death, murder, violence, child abuse, (physical, mental, sexual), rape, revenge.
There are four of us: formless, nameless, lifeless. They call us One, Two, Three and Four – we call us One, Two, Three and Four. We are nothing; we are everything. We are restless. We are stuck. We are dead.
No one knows that. No one knows that we’re still here, existing, not existing. No one but us, and perhaps the men who brought us here in the first place.
But now you know. Now, you’re here: in this cold, dark place where the bloodstained floors creak with age, and the ceilings scatter poisonous asbestos powder at the slightest disturbance.
We’ve been here for a long, long time.
We don’t know how much longer we will be here.
Maybe just a couple more days.
What we do know is no one has ever got our story right before, and we are here to tell you – if you will listen, if you stay long enough to hear it.
A warning, though: no one has ever stayed long enough before. We doubt you will.
Trust us. And don’t hate us when we finish. Because you will think of us as cruel and hateful and a dozen other insults you could come up with.
It’s okay, though – it’s not like we don’t already call ourselves all those names when night falls and the world slumbers, oblivious to our cries for help.
We can take it.
Our story starts with One. One: our guardian angel, our level-headed parental figure, our ringleader. No one knows where they came from or what their past looks like. No one knows anything about them because One is private and secretive and keeps their cards to themselves. Maybe that’s why they’re also among the most stable of us – ignorance is bliss, but in One’s case, bliss is art and deflection.
Oh, we can’t begin to tell you how creative One is. They once told us the carousel was a tree with its leaves on fire, and stars used to spill from the rotating centre. There was an entire galaxy trapped within the spinning horses and gilded carriages, they said, drawing us into their beautiful world where gravity is defied and rules broken. It’s crazy, it’s unbelievable, it’s ingenious – but it’s also what makes them, them: an artist, a storyteller. None of us believes them, but we love how they see the world in colour. We love how they tell us the most impossible things they can think of. We love how they still look at the world like it’s something beautiful.
We love that their creativity and curiosity still wrap around us like a soothing balm, even though it’s been decades since its flames were stoked with air from a living body.
Today, it’s the Ferris wheel that catches their attention. What is it? Three asks, drifting closer to them. Three is a barely contained flame, a hastily annotated book with its pages folding into one another as if the owner had simply left for a stroll to clear their weary mind. What is it, One? we chorus after her like a group of preschool kids hot on their heels. They smile; we’ve always loved that smile, even when we were still alive. It reminds us that we still have each other, unlike some of you out there who have no one despite living in the utopia we could only dream of.
What does the Ferris wheel remind you of? they ask.
The Christmas ornaments our nanna used to put out. Two jumps excitedly, sharing a look with Three.
They’re doing the twin telepathy thing again, Four groans. He’s always pretending to hate our antics, even when they secretly thrill him. Or maybe our quirks are just another experiment he runs through his complex, ever-active mind.
It does look like a Christmas ornament, One sighs wistfully. We wouldn’t know. What do Christmas ornaments even look like now? Are they still made from age-old fabric and knitted by calloused, loving hands? Do people still prance and sing in the middle of busy streets, colourful headdresses bouncing in their hair? We don’t know. We want to know.
What do you think it looks like, One? Three asks, breaking eye contact with her sister. Out of the four of us, the twins – Two and Three – are always more in sync with each other than anyone else. It’s like Four says, a twin telepathy thing.
I think it looks like a black hole, One says slowly. A vortex that sucks everything in, swirling the colours and pixels until they all become one black pool of nothing, they reply.
We nod. That’s what we thought we would become when we died. We thought we would scatter into the darkness, fusing with the churning abyss that was once alive. We never thought we would wake up and find ourselves here again. Here, their hideout. The place of our nightmares. A haunted amusement park long abandoned but never quite fully.
Never fully abandoned because we’re still here, existing, not existing. Haunted because we’re us. We’re not human. We’re not ghosts. We’re memories – we’re the past.
We’re not going anywhere, are we?
I think it looks like Kacey’s eye, Four says belatedly, breaking the whimsical spell we inadvertently found ourselves in. All of us flinch. Kacey: Kacey, the doorkeeper; Kacey, the manipulator; Kacey, the beautiful-good-cop-with-eyes-that-sparkle-like-rainbows-who-pretended-to-be-nice-when-she’s-a-word-One-never-lets-us-say.
We know better now: Kacey is not nice. None of them are nice.
No one but the four of us is nice. Look what happened to us because we are.
We were what we used to be because of our parents; now, though, we are what we are because of the meth they used to cook in the basement of the haunted house. It makes them happy, we think – the meth. We want to be happy too. Once, Three asked Eric, the man who oversaw everything, if she could have some, if we could all have some. She’s always been so brave, so outspoken, even when she was but a sack of bones and blood towards the end. We admired her – we still admire her. She’s a spitfire that rages through the grounds, breathing life forcefully into every being that comes her way. I think we’re all a little too protective of her. We love her, we think. You’re annoying, we tell her instead. Not that she minds.
We looked like we really needed some meth at that time. We were holding on by a thread. We were barely alive. We needed to forget: the blood, the screams, the cries. We needed to forget the stale darkness and the chains clanging noisily on our wrists and ankles. Even the haunted house upstairs wasn’t as scary as its basement, we used to say. Nothing was scarier than the basement – it was where everything happened, where we were reduced to shells with no souls.
Where we were beaten to pulp and burned with cigarettes and broken light bulbs.
Where we were tied on the ground while men, so many men, pushed in and out of us, blood trickling down our thighs.
You don’t want to know all the horrid, unjust, violent things they did to us. You think you do, but you don’t. Really. Turn away now, we’re begging you. We might not be strong enough to hold it all in.
We’re never strong enough anyway. We wouldn’t be here if we were.
Oh, by the way, Eric chained Three upside down after she asked and hit her again and again and again and again on the stomach with an iron thing with spikes until she bled so much she passed out.
She was hung upside down in front of us for three whole days.
Four came later. He was brought in by his dad, who had done something to wrong his buddies. Four was a peace offering, a new plaything for them to experiment with. They’d never played with little boys before.
We’d never seen little boys before.
We weren’t sure if we even liked little boys.
We watched him kick and scream and fight, but we knew that, like us, he would succumb. Eventually. We knew that he would give up, and when he did, he would have no one. We pushed our bread to him that night when they were all asleep, the smell of urine and vomit thick in the air. That was our peace offering. A peace offering for a peace offering. If we hadn’t been in that place, we would have laughed.
‘How long have you been here?’ he asked us, munching hungrily. We shrugged. We didn’t remember. We couldn’t even remember our own names.
‘What are they going to do to us?’ he tried again. Once more, we shrugged. We didn’t know. We didn’t know if they would hurt us until we died. We wish they’d killed us instead. Maybe that would’ve been better.
‘Does it hurt?’ This was spoken in a whisper so low we had to crane our necks to hear him. Three reached out to hold his hand. Two held hers, and One held Two’s. Together, we formed a united front, a line of prisoners breathing together in the dark. In, out. In, out. That was the position we stayed in the entire night and all the nights after until we died.
Sometimes, even now, Two gags involuntarily. She’s the only one who doesn’t puke after having penis after penis shoved down her throat; it’s incredible. It’s terrifying. We ask her how she swallows the thick, disgusting semen. She tells us she imagines it’s cold, oversalted broth. Her mother’s broth, she adds, swiping a finger in her mouth. We don’t think she realises she does that all the time.
We miss our moms. We hate our moms. Our dads were the ones who brought us here in the first place, and our moms were the ones who let them. At first, we used to imagine them bursting through the doors, superhero capes flying behind them as they unlocked the chains binding us and led us back out where there was sunshine and laughter and life. We forgot they were only humans. We forgot that no one was going to come for us because we never even had a life outside this place.
Still, we hoped. We prayed, even when none of us believed in God. We prayed and cried and prayed and cried and prayed and cried until all that dripped down from our eyes was blood we didn’t even realise was there in the first place.
When the basement blew up, it was unlike anything we’d ever seen. It happened so quickly – flames licking our faces as we eagerly turned in their direction. Please kill us, we begged. Please destroy this vile, disgusting place and the vile, disgusting men in it. We didn’t care that there were innocents running around above us. We didn’t care that there were babies, teenagers, adults and the elderly screaming above us. We didn’t care. We wanted them all to suffer. They didn’t deserve this, but we were tired of doing the right thing.
We didn’t deserve this either, we thought. Why should they be any different?
We thought we knew pain. We thought we would grow up to become artists and fashion designers, doctors and lawyers. We thought a lot of things, but we were wrong, just like we always are. This hurts more. This – dying. Being burned alive. We heard bones snapping; we smelled flesh charring. The men who hurt us screamed. We screamed. Theirs was a scream of agony. Ours was a scream of freedom.
Finally, we thought. This is it. The end.
We were wrong about that too.
We woke up. We were not strong enough to live; now, we know we are not strong enough to die either. We are stuck in between. We hate it. We resent it. We’re tired of it.
We hear them praying for us. We see our pictures in newspapers. The four victims, the poor, poor abused children. We ball our fists. We stomp our feet. We’re not abused; we’re broken. We’re not victims; we’re playthings. They don’t know us like we do – they don’t know One’s talent at sketching and building sculptures out of mud when the men are not looking. They don’t know Two’s eye for fashion, her sharp sense of what’s trendy and what’s not (Kacey was really the only one among them all who had taste). They don’t know Three’s wide knowledge of the sciences, her desire to change the world, her passion to touch hearts at their most vulnerable. They don’t know Four’s quiet rage, his studious air, his photographic memory. They don’t know us at all, and yet they act like they do.
It makes them feel better.
And then, they forget about us. They always do. We’re dead, our bodies buried under nameless graves; they’re alive, their lives stretching ahead of them unconditionally. We envy them; we hate them. We want revenge because we were supposed to go to heaven, because those men were supposed to be the ones punished.
Why us? we ask every day. Can you kill the dead? We wish we knew.
We wish we had just faded, not just for our sakes but for the poor, poor victims who came after us.
We don’t know why we did it or how we did it, but it feels good. It feels so, so good to hurt someone, even if they had nothing whatsoever to do with our eternal imprisonment. To put a dent in this world full of innocents who simply happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time… We think we know why they did it to us now.
But we’re not them – we promise. Our victims did it all to themselves: the first one jumped off a bridge, the second walked right into oncoming traffic, the third’s grandma chopped him into pieces (don’t ask us why). All of them died, and we made it happen. We like that we made it all happen.
It makes us feel powerful, the way we should have felt when we were alive.
And then, there comes Kacey. Kacey, the doorkeeper; Kacey, the sweet woman who tricked us into a false sense of security and pushed us down the stairs. Kacey, the woman who smelled of flowers and expensive wine. We thought she was dead. We’re mad that she isn’t.
Make her light herself on fire, One screams.
Behead her! Two and Three demand in unison.
Push her off a cliff, Four snarls.
We do none of those. Instead, we watch as she walks down the musty basement stairs, her fingers trailing lightly over the iron instruments they used to torture us years ago. We watch her inhale. We watch her florid pink skirt flutter in the breeze that finds its way through the cracks in the wall.
There are rattlesnakes here; we know because we’ve seen them, slithering in the dark behind the rusty warning signs, slumbering in the long, thin grass sharp enough to make anyone reckless enough to venture into our territory bleed. What Kacey is doing here, we don’t know. Does she regret what she did to us? Does she wake up screaming at night from the image of our faces, pale and bloody? Is she here to revive the operation rendered unalive after our deaths? We know nothing about her, but we know that today will be her last day alive. That, we revel in; that, we know.
We see them coming way before her – the rattlesnakes. Our rattlesnakes: prized, vicious and trained for battle. A breathless gasp bursts out from her rosy lips, drowned by the hissing of the impatient snakes. They are hungry for prey; we are hungry for revenge. Nothing can stop us now. The hissing grows louder, enveloping her curvy frame. Zzzzzzz… our snakes go. Zzzzzzzzzzzz… we echo.
And she screams. In fear.
She is afraid of us.
Us, the four kids she used to taunt.
We’ve never seen a more beautiful sentence.
Kacey screams and screams and screams as the snakes hiss and hiss and hiss. One by one, they wrap their scaly lengths around her, squeezing, biting. They’re eating her from the inside out, Two whispers to us.
That’s her intestines, Three points out. I’ve seen a picture of it in a medical textbook before.
Ew, we say in unison, but we also laugh together as our captor, our jailer, our gatekeeper dies a slow, venomous, painful death.
We laugh. And laugh. And laugh. And laugh. Even as the snakes leave, sated.
We laugh for so long we think it might have been hours, or days, or weeks, even. We laugh, and we realise that maybe we’re actually kind of like them: the men, our abusers. At the end of the day, they were once our fathers, too, weren’t they? Maybe some things are just meant to be. Maybe we’re all just the same.
And maybe, just maybe, being the same as them isn’t that bad after all.
You Lin: You Lin is a writer whose pieces explore darker themes consistent with the fragments of her identity. Her work has been published by Archer Magazine, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, and The Minison Project's Pop-Up Pride Issue, among others. Locally, you can find her work at Malaysian Indie Fiction and NutMag Volume 7: Inheritance.