Page 1 of Before (After 5)


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part one

BEFORE

When he was little, the boy used to dream of who he would grow up to be.

Maybe a policeman, or a teacher. Mummy’s friend Vance read books for a job, and that seemed fun. But the boy wasn’t sure of his own capabilities—he had no talents. He couldn’t sing like the kid in his class Joss; he couldn’t add and subtract long numbers like Angela; he could barely speak in front of his classmates, unlike funny, loudmouthed Calvin. The only thing he liked to do was read page after page of his books. He waited for Vance to bring them by: one a week, sometimes more, sometimes less. There were periods when the man wouldn’t show and he would grow bored, rereading the same torn pages of his favorites. But he learned to trust that the kind man would always come back, book in hand. The boy grew taller, grew smarter, an inch and a new book every two weeks, it seemed.

His parents were changing with the seasons. His dad grew louder, sloppier, and his mum grew more and more tired, her sobs filling the night, louder and louder. The smell of tobacco and worse began to fill the walls of the small house. As sure as the dishes overflowing the sink was the smell of scotch on his dad’s breath. As the months went on, he would sometimes forget what his dad looked like altogether.

Vance came around more, and he barely noticed when his mum’s sobs changed in the night. He had made friends at this point. Well, one friend. The friend moved away, and he himself never bothered to make new friends. He felt like he didn’t need them. He didn’t mind being alone.

The men who came that night changed something deep within the boy. What he saw happen to his mum made him harden, and he grew angrier as his dad became a stranger. Soon after, his dad stopped stumbling into the small, filthy house at all. He was gone, and the boy was relieved. No more scotch, no more broken furniture or holes in the walls. The only thing he left behind was a boy without a dad and a living room full of half-empty packs of cigarettes.

The boy hated the taste the cigarettes left, but loved the way the smoke filled his lungs, stealing his breath. He found himself smoking every single one, and then he bought more. He made friends, if you could call a group of rebels and delinquents who caused more trouble than they were worth friends. He began to stay out late, and the little white lies and harmless pranks the group of angry boys would play began turning into more serious crimes. They turned into something darker, something that they all knew was wrong—the deepest level of wrong—but they thought they were just having fun. They were entitled and couldn’t deny the adrenaline rush that came with the power they felt. After each innocence they stole, their veins pulsed with more arrogance, more hunger, fewer boundaries.

This boy was the softest one still among them, but he had lost the conscience that once made him dream of becoming a fireman or a teacher. The relationship to women he was developing wasn’t typical. He craved their touch, but shielded himself against any type of emotional connection. This included his mum, to whom he stopped saying even a simple “I love you.” He barely saw her anyway. He spent almost all his time running the streets, and the house came to mean nothing to him except for the place where the packages occasionally arrived. An address from Washington state was scribbled under Vance’s name on these packages.

Vance had left him, too.

Girls paid attention to the boy. They latched on to him, long nails digging crescents into his arms as he lied to them, kissed them, fucked them. After sex, most of the girls would try to wrap their arms around him. He would brush them off, placing no kisses or soft caresses to their skin. Most of the time he was gone before they caught their breath. He spent his days high, his nights higher. Hanging out in the alley behind the liquor store or in Mark’s dad’s shop, wasting life away. Breaking into liquor stores, making unforgivable home videos, humiliating naive girls. He had ceased being able to feel any kind of emotion outside of arrogance and anger.

Finally, his mum had had enough. She no longer had the funds or the patience to deal with his destructive behavior. His dad had been offered a university job in the United States. Washington, to be exact. The same state as Vance, the same city, even. The good man and the bad man together in the same place again.

His mum didn’t think he could overhear her speaking to his dad about shipping him off there. Apparently the old man had cleaned up some, though the boy wasn’t quite sure. He’d never be sure. His dad had a girlfriend, too, a nice woman who the boy was envious of. She got to see the benefits of the new side of him. She got to share sober meals and kind words that he never got the chance to hear.

When he arrived at the university, he moved into a frat house, out of spite against the old man. But although he didn’t like the place, moving his boxes into the decent-sized room that would be his, he felt a slight twinge of relief. The room was twice the size that his room in Hampstead had been. It had no holes in the walls; there were no bugs crawling up the sinks in the bathroom. He finally had a place to put all of his books.

At first, he kept to himself, not bothering to make any friends. His crowd came together slowly, and with it he fell into the same dark pattern.

He met the virtual twin of Mark, all the way over in America, making him start to think this was the way the world was just supposed to be. He began to accept that he would always be alone. He was good at hurting people, at causing mischief. He hurt another girl, like the one before, and he felt that same storm coursing up and down his spine, fighting to destroy his life with its wild energy. He began drinking the way his dad did, being the worst type of hypocrite.

He didn’t care, though; he was numb and he had friends and they helped him ignore the fact that he didn’t have anything real in his life.

Nothing really mattered.

Not even the girls who tried to get through to him.



Natalie

When he met the blue-eyed girl with dark hair, he knew she was there to test him in new ways. She was kind, the gentlest spirit he had met so far . . . and she was infatuated with him.

He took the naive girl from her tidy, unblemished world and swept her into a dustpan, then scattered her across a dark and unforgiving world that was completely unfamiliar to her. His callousness made her an outcast, exiled from her church first, then from her family. The gossip was harsh, the whispers traveling from one judgmental Bible-clutching woman to another. Her family wasn’t any better. She had no one, and she made the mistake of trusting him to be more than he was capable of being.

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