He's on his way home from school, happily clutching a big blue birthday candle.
His mom looks at him lovingly, "Happy birthday."
The car spins out of control and he screams. His mom grits her teeth and slams her foot on the brake pedal. A truck speeds towards them, horn blaring, but it's too late; she reaches for him and cries, "I love "
When he wakes up from the coma, she's already gone.
" you," his dad whispers angrily, cheeks wet with tears.
The boy starts to tremble in his hospital bed. "Dad?"
"Why are you alive, when she's " his dad's voice breaks, "she's "
"I'm cold," his voice is barely above a whimper.
His dad presses his fist against the boy's bruised chest. "I loved her," he gasps, leaving the room.
The boy curls up, hugging his knees. He wonders dully if the doctor's monitors reveal his broken heart.
A year later, he's alone in his room.
"Remember how when I was little if I had a nightmare you'd wake me up, and then I'd fall asleep in your arms?"
He pretends not to notice the silence.
"I had a dream that you died."
His voice trembles. "Please wake me up."
No one answers him.
So he keeps his eyes open for as long as possible because he knows he's going to wake up alone and trembling, a victim of his own imagination.
And when he finally falls asleep he listens to his blood pulse through his veins and imagines little men marching through the walls wearing tiny swords and bloodthirsty smiles. In his dreams they cut his skin to the rhythm of his heartbeat.
Maybe that's why his wrists are covered in scars and he's terrified of blood.
Poor little boy is too scared to live and too young to die.
The day of his tenth birthday, he comes home to find his dad passed out on the couch. He sits on the floor and listens to the music drifting from the radio.
All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?
His dad wakes up as the violins start playing. He looks at his dad and whispers, "That's a sad song, isn't it."
There might have been tears in his dad's eyes. "Yeah," he reaches for another bottle, "it is."
He locks himself in the bathroom and stares at his reflection in the mirror. He counts the tears on his cheeks.
He's too pale, too skinny; sometimes he pretends he's a ghost.
The night of his twelfth birthday, he finds the blue birthday candle and he starts to cry. His dad swings his beer bottle at him and yells to "be a man."
"But I'm not a man, Dad," his voice is high and scared, "I'm just a boy."
And that's when his father's fists hurt the most.
He's a broken boy; he wears long-sleeved shirts to hide the bruises and whispers prayers when his dad's not listening.
His creative writing teacher assigns their first project three days before his birthday: Write a letter to your past self. After an hour of class time, all he has written on his page is this:
dear past self,
it's not worth it.
The teacher walks by. "What's not worth it?" she asks.
But he puts his head down on his desk and pretends she's not there.
Three days later he's standing in front of the bathroom mirror, counting his scars.
His mother was thirty-four when she died.
So he grabs the razor and pretends she lived one year longer.
He drinks his dad's coffee and stares blankly at the newspaper's bloody headlines. Eight soldiers died in a suicide bombing yesterday.
The boy smiles.
It's perfect, isn't it.
On his eighteenth birthday he tells his dad he's dropping out of school.
Of course, his dad's been drinking since six o'clock and doesn't intend to stop.
"What are you going to do, then?"
"I'm joining the army."
His dad looks at him. "What about your friends?"
He avoids his gaze. "You can't miss what you never had."
A couple hours later, he wonders if his dad will remember anything when he wakes up.
He wonders if his dad will miss him when he's gone.
His commander calls him the most reckless soldier he's ever seen. Then he slaps him on the back and gives him a cigarette.
For too long he's been drinking the Middle-Eastern concoction of blood and sand; he's forgotten what life tastes like.
And he likes it that way.
The kids of the neighbourhood call him an old bastard and say he's got no heart.
He wants to tell them that his heart was broken when he was their age. That they should be careful, because hearts are more fragile than they think.
But instead he yells at them to get off his lawn, and they go on believing they'll be happy forever.
Fifty-seven years ago he might have believed it too.
He closes the curtains and lights a lonely birthday candle, its colour long-faded.
Sometimes he half-convinces himself that this is just a nightmare, that she'll wake him up soon enough. But hell, he hasn't fallen asleep in her arms since he was six, and he can't remember what it felt like.
For eighty-nine years he's been knocking on death's door, but he could never find a way in.
He was on his way home from school.
The car spun out of control and he screamed. His mom gritted her teeth and slammed her foot on the brake pedal. A truck sped towards them, horn blaring, but it was too late; she reached for him and cried, "I love "
He snuffs out the candle.