His frown grew even deeper when she returned, dragging two pale, miserable looking figures with her.
"What's this shit? I told you to bring one!" He rose from his chair, taking a step forward. Trembling, his wife shoved the twins between them.
"I tried, but they... I told them, but they don't let each other go." Shrugging helplessly, she pointed at the children, avoiding to look at them as much as they avoided to look at the tall, menacing men. Charles gave an impatient growl when he saw how they had dug their finger around each other's arms.
"Stop this bullshit. Caroline, separate them!"
"Come, my dears," she almost sang to them, her mind trying to ignore what she was doing and why. She was a mother, a young mother with pretty sons, a mother telling them not to eat their ice-cream too fast. Scolding them because they were playing with their food. It was fine. Everything would be fine.
But no matter how much she pulled at their arms or tried to force herself between them, they only held tighter, their short, dirty fingernails digging into white skin until the first small drops of blood trickled from the tiny wounds.
"You are as useless as those bastards," he snarled and took a step forward. Without a warning, he slapped her and she lost balance, falling to the floor with a cry. She began to weep. He, however, focused on the twins. Their thin legs stuck out from old denim shorts. The gashes from the last punishment were already healing, as he noticed with a snort of discontent, but to see them trembling satisfied him. Until he saw their faces. Pointy and pale as they were, the way they stubbornly stared at each other was irritating. Like they tried to shut themselves away from the world around them. Their thin lips were tightly pressed together, but they showed an attitude he would never allow anyone to show to him. Defiance. Obstinacy. A behavior he did not tolerate, not from those worthless beings. He seized them by their shoulders and tried to push them away from each other, but like his wife before, he failed. They didn't say anything and didn't move, yet he felt the air of persistence around them growing. A scornful growl escaped him. As suddenly as he had hit Caroline before, he slapped them. Nodding with grim approval, he noticed that the impact at least broke their eye contact. Only for a second there was a gleam of sheer fright and panic emitting from them, and something in him snapped at this sight. His mind was set he had to see it again, he would make them look like this again. Whenever he wanted.
This time, he wouldn't try to loosen their grip. Instead, he wrapped his big, strong hand around Mike's upper arm and began to twist it. Soon he had reached the limit of the joint, and he went on, slowly, almost hearing the bones grinding against each other. The boy howled, but his hand didn't let his twin's arm go, his fingers dug even deeper into the skin. Gabriel, too, began to cry.
"Please, Michael! You must obey, he will break your arm!" their mother suddenly whimpered, watching the scene with horror. Somehow, she had to stop this. "Please, it's for your own best, listen to your father..."
For the first time after the man's return, Mike spoke, in a manner none of them had dared before.
"He is NOT our father!" the small boy cried out. The unexpected outburst, the voice surprisingly firm and angry, even stunned the man for a moment. "A father is good! A father is not happy to hurt his son! You told us, Mom! Today you told us!" Mike looked imploringly at her terrified face. "Michael, darling, be quiet, please..." she whispered, casting an anxious glance at her husband. But the boy had opened his mouth again. "The story, Mom! About Abraham. And God. They love their sons. They are fathers! He," the boy turned around, facing the man, his little face flushed and angry, "he isn't a father! He is the devil!"
Charles' expression became blank and he turned pale.
"What did you just say?" His voice was low and he spoke slowly Caroline knew it too well. He was more enraged than before, and she, too, would have to suffer the consequences. Why couldn't the boy just keep quiet?
Mike sensed the change in his father, too, but couldn't really place it. He still glared at him, took a deep breath and lifted his chin. His brother still clung to him, silent and trembling as much as Mike himself.
"You are not our father, you are mean! God is everyone's father. He loves us, too! I hate you!" he yelled, putting all the pain and fright he had felt in his short life into his little, high voice. Gabe gazed at him, then at his father, and nodded, now completely hugging his twin.
Their mother averted her eyes, looking at the carpet. She couldn't bear watching her husband and her children stare at each other like that. They would regret Michael's words. All three of them. She knew it.
"Hold them," he suddenly ordered, and the twins, more a bundle of two children, almost stumbled when he pushed them into her arms. She caught them just in time before they fell to the floor. She put her arms around their shoulders.
"Charles, what are you doing?" However, he didn't react to her call and left the living room. Nervously, she listened. When she heard the bathroom door, she sighed. There was no gun in the bathroom, he wouldn't shoot them, and she relaxed a little bit, still holding the twins. Both of them remained quiet now, only occasionally sobbing; for once, not of fear, but of anger and frustration. They didn't cling so desperately to each other like a moment before, but again, they held hands. He, with all his strength and scorn, hadn't been able to separate them. The corner of Mike's mouth twitched. Today he had kept his promise. Today, for the first time in his life, he felt a strangely warm, thrilling emotion triumph.
The bathroom door opened, and the man yelled for his wife.
"Bring them in here!"
She stood up at once, took Gabe's free hand and pulled him along. Of course, his twin followed, as she thought. There was no need to make both going, one was enough. As they came closer, she heard the discomforting sound of water, and she shuddered. Charles was filling the bathtub, and she could guess what would happen next.
Confused, Mike looked around, realizing that they had never been in this room before. Actually, they only knew their room in the basement and the living room. Even on the few opportunities when they could sneak out of their prison they had only stayed in the large, bright room with the soft carpet and the comfortable couch. They had their own little bathroom in the cellar, a narrow shower and toilet. It had always been like that; he couldn't know that their father had built it in while they were infants. So they basically had an idea what a bathroom was for, but this one looked so different. Bigger, warmer. With a big basin instead of a shower, and even here was a little carpet. And a sink like the one he had seen in the kitchen, but the same pink color like the toilet and bathtub. His mind was torn between his bewilderment caused by the differences, childlike curiosity and also amazement when he discovered more and more weird things. And tension as he watched the man as he stood at the sink, filling a cup with water.
"Darling, what are you doing?" their mother asked her husband timidly. Mike looked over his shoulder. The door had already been shut, and his mother was directly behind them, blocking the way outside anyway. So trying to make a run for it wouldn't work. He turned to his brother, who shrugged, his face showing the restlessness Mike felt. So Gabe was thinking the same. Something bad was about to happen, different from the usual beatings. That was scary.
Whether their father answered or not, Mike didn't know, he was too busy thinking of a way to escape. The courage from before was gone and he already couldn't remember how good he felt after yelling at that man. When he and Gabe looked at him again, he had just finished adding something from a dark red bottle to the water. "You can't make them drink... no, you can't poison them! Charles, this is..." their mother was just begging weakly, and they lifted their eyes. What did she mean, poison?
"Shut up, silly woman. I won't poison them. It's too hot to drink, what do you think I am, a monster?" Mike didn't understand sarcasm. He heard the words, they didn't match the way the man treated them, and they didn't match his grin. Slowly, he tried to take a step back when his father kneeled down right before him and smiled. Almost as friendly as their mother when they were alone. But so friendly that it didn't seem real and honest.
"So, boy, which one are you? Michael, right?" Like his smile, his voice was different from usual; sweet, yet not sweet the way Mike knew it. He clasped his twin's hand even tighter, trying hard to control his breath while he wondered where the strong feeling from before had gone. Now, he couldn't find it anywhere.
"So, Michael," the man continued, "you know about the Lord? Your mother has taught you about him. Isn't that fascinating! I say, it is fascinating, Caroline, don't you agree?" He chuckled when she answered with a low, shy "yes". "You know, Michael, she told you a lot of very important things. But you haven't understood something very important. God loves all his children, but..." All of a sudden, he laughed, raised the cup and threw its content into the boy's face.
Mike gave a shrill cry of pain as the steaming hot liquid burnt on his skin and in his eyes. He staggered against his mother's legs, spitting when he tasted the bitter flavor of aftershave on his tongue. Tears ran down his cheeks and vigorously, he rubbed his eyes and face. With both hands.
"MIKE!" The panic-stricken shriek made him realize what he had done.
"Hold him!" the man bellowed and his wife followed at once, seizing Mike by his shoulders just when he was about to jump at his father. Gabe was struggling against the man's firm grip around the tiny waist, but the grown-up didn't even need to use much of his strength to hinder him from any escape.
"Listen, Michael." Unimpressed by the shouts and cries, he spoke on, like a father explaining his child how a car works. "It is true that the Lord loves all his children. He loves me. He loves the mailman. He even loves your mother. But you, you are not his children." Gabe's yells stopped abruptly when his head was pushed under water for the first time. He tried to breathe, swallowed more water and coughed, kicking with both his arms and legs. But the strong hand held him down easily.
"GABE! What are you doing, leave him alone!" His face felt hot and red and his eyes were still teary from the mixture, and he didn't comprehend what was happening. But not hearing his brother's voice and only seeing his limbs fighting against the man's hold was horrifying. Something bad happened, but he couldn't do anything to help his twin.
"CHARLES! You can't drown him in hot water, are you..." Caroline cried, too, yet she didn't move or let go of her son.
"Shut up! Don't be foolish, it's not hot. And see!" He pulled the boy up by his hair, holding his face in their direction, like a hunter would present his game. "The water is ice cold and your son alive, satisfied? How are you, boy?" With a grin, he grabbed Gabe's shaking chin and made the boy face him. "All good?" Gabe didn't answer. His throat and chest were hurting badly with every breath he took, but he inhaled as deeply as possible. With quivering lips, he sobbed. "Mike..."
"Rude brat, no manners at all." Again, he pushed the child's face under water, even longer this time.
The brother could only stand and stare, sobbing as he heard the splashes from his twin's struggles. Although he couldn't grasp the concept of drowning whatever had happened to them so far, as painful as it was, there was never something like drowning he sensed it was bad and dangerous. The look of his brother's face was scary. Scary and terrifying, and he felt how his own throat became tight.
"Darling, please..." was all their mother said, and her husband ignored her. Just when the intervals of the kicks had become longer, he pulled the boy up again.
"Look at this, Michael. Do you see him?" This time, all defiance had vanished from Mike's face and eyes. He felt so weak, like he was about to die. The absent-minded, pale face of his brother scared him. He nodded. Anything, if he could only stop this.
"God doesn't love things like this. He is no child of the Lord. You are no child of the Lord. Nobody loves you." He forced the boy under water and drew him out again. "You are bad," he shouted into the ear of the heavily panting child. "You are disgusting. You are not to be loved. Do you understand, Gabriel? You are not to be loved, not by anyone, and you will stay under water until your dear brother understands that, too. It's his fault."
"I understand!" Mike cried out. Anything. But his brother didn't hear him. Sobs mixed with Gabe's desperate gasps for air, his chest moved too fast, his lungs and throat felt sore. The world around the little boy became blurry and when he coughed, water spurted from his nose. Bad. Disgusting. Hated. Mike's fault. His belly hurt, and then, he couldn't hold back anymore. With the next violent sob, the contents from his stomach forced their way outside and, as he still hung limp in his father's grip, he threw up. The bitter tasting mass blocked his nose and made breathing harder than before. He spitted and panted heavily while the sharp smelling liquid ran down his chin and splashed into the water. "Gross," the man only stated. "Do you see this, Mike? What your behavior did to this one? So filthy." And again, Gabe's face was forced downwards, again he swallowed water, now mixed with his own vomit. 'Help me.'
"I said it! I understand! Stop!"
His head became light. He thought he heard his brother's voice, but no words. 'Why don't you help me?'
"I don't know." The man shrugged. "You belong to the devil, so you probably are lying."
"I don't! Please!" He couldn't hear his brother anymore. No struggle, no splashing water. More tears flowed from his eyes, but they didn't affect the man anymore than his pleas or sobs. He had forgotten about his mother. She stood still and remained silent.
"Then say it again so I can believe you. Say it to his face." The man shook the boy violently once he had gotten his head out of the water. Mike gulped at the sight. Like a wet, white doll his twin hung there, his shirt sticking to his skinny body. Water was running from his nose and unlike before, his chest was only heaving very slowly.
"Gabe..." He swallowed hard again. But at least his brother's eyelids fluttered, and finally, he could see the familiar blue eyes again. This made it easier. And yet not. Even his young mind understood that the things that were happening were cruel, and now he learned that words could hurt very much, too.
"Too slow." He was about to lower the limp, pathetic figure once more, but finally, Mike could free himself from his mother's hands. He darted forward, reaching for his brother. "NO!"
"Stay where you belong, filthy creature!" Mike didn't see the kick coming, and the shoe hit him hard in his stomach. With a whimper, he collapsed on the tiles.
"So, what are you?" the man demanded impatiently, shaking the boy he held in his hand.
"Bad. We are bad. And... disgusting..." His cheeks were bright red, burning with humiliation and still irritated from before. The floor was cold.
Mike wanted to scream when he heard his name. His twin's voice was so weak, he wasn't even sure if Gabe had really said it or if Mike just wished he did.
"And? Hurry, before he goes diving again."
The small boy lifted his head, his gaze fixed on his brother's half-opened eyes. "Gabe? You hear me? He's right. Nobody loves us, not mom, not God." He thought he saw him blink, but maybe he was mistaken. "We are not to be loved..." he finished, suddenly feeling too exhausted to worry or think about what the man wanted him to do. "We are not to be loved." Repeating it was not hard anymore.
"Good! Why did it take so long? Poor Gabriel. You could have been with your brother so much sooner. Too bad Michael didn't care enough. How sad it is, to be one of those not to be loved. Take them away." Effortlessly, he lifted the little boy out of the tub and dropped him on the floor, next to his brother. Mike crawled over to the still figure, threw his arm around him and cradled him as tightly as he could. He shivered his twin's body was colder than the water that dripped from his hair and clothes. And he smelled weird, but that was not important. Mike could hear Gabe's low, weak whimpers. He would be alright. Just sleeping, and he would be alright again.
"I love you, my angels..."
His mother's words, once the man was gone. However, they bore no comfort; it didn't even feel right that she was still there. Mike wanted her to go away. But instead, she wrapped his brother in a towel, took him into her arms and patted his hair. "Don't worry, my Gabriel. Everything will be fine. Mommy loves you so much. Daddy loves you so much. You are our little angel..." Hearing her sing to his twin was weird and he felt how his stomach began to hurt as he watched her leaving the room, not even looking at him. Quickly, he stood up and hurried after them.
Now, the whole evening was like a bad nightmare. Both their minds were still processing what had happened, and parts of the cruel memories were already fading. An act of mercy by their subconscious, trying to shield two little children as much as possible. But no matter how unreal the cruelty of that man felt now that they had returned to their basement, Gabe being cleaned and dried by his mother, and now, both huddled together under the blanket the feeling of horror just didn't want to disappear.
"Mike... I know what dying is like," the younger twin suddenly whispered, like he had forgotten about their argument and his accusations. "It's blurry and hurt ins the chest. And it's wet," he explained with a calm, earnest voice.
"I died, too," Mike answered. He remembered how his throat had tightened and how difficult breathing had become when he had to see what was done to his twin.
"I died worse." Nothing but a simple statement. "I want to die again."
"You die, too, and when the pain stops, we can go to the other place together."
Mike thought about that. It seemed convincing, and their mother had told them that dead people go away to the other place. But then, she had also said that she and God loved them. And that was a lie, so the other place was probably a lie, too. Maybe they wouldn't be able to go together after all.
"I don't want you to die," he finally said. "I want him to die. When I'm bigger, I'll beat him until he dies. You'll see! Hey, what are you doing?" he exclaimed when something wet touched his cheek. Gabe giggled. "You taste like salt. You are crying. Crybaby!"
"Am not!" Quickly, he licked over his brother's cheek. Wet and salty, too. "You are a crybaby!" They laughed and giggled together until the tears stopped. Mike pulled his brother as close as he could; finally some warmth returned to the fragile body. He was already half-asleep when Gabe spoke again.
"You are right. To die is not fun."
"Gabriel, darling, stop pulling at the carpet, you will tear a hole into it," their mother warned the young boy, not for the first time during the last few minutes, and her voice grew less soft. "And hold still!" she added, now clearly annoyed when she almost cut into his ear. Carefully, she moved the blades of the scissors along his temple. "Michael, get away from the window. Sit still, I said!" Being more and more unnerved, she turned his head back in its prior position.
"He wants to watch TV," Mike stated absent-mindedly. He had followed his mother's word and moved away from the window, but he was still staring outside. Like his brother, he had grown lately, and could look over the windowsill without climbing on a chair. Or the sill itself. From where he stood, he saw another house, the fence between, a bit of the garden. But the most interesting sight was the small part of the street. In summer, a row of bushes and trees had blocked his view, but by now, brown and bright yellow leaves had fallen from the branches, building a colorful cover over the gray sidewalk. Sometimes, other people went by, tall like his parents and those he had seen in TV shows, some smaller, more like him and his brother. A young boy just passed by, with a four-legged creature. A dog, as Mike remembered from a TV show and one of the picture books their mother had given them about a year ago. The other child seemed to speak with the dog, and the way he smiled, he had apparently a good time. Mike shrugged. Never having seen other living beings but his parents and his brother, he didn't understand what was so great about dogs. They looked strange; what was it good for to walk on four legs? But he liked the teeth. Yes, he really wished he had teeth like the big neighbor's dog, then he could tear their father to pieces like nothing.
"I'm sorry, angel, no TV, not anymore." Her mood had changed. Now mellow and gentle, she hugged Gabriel from behind and kissed his cheek. Mike watched the little scene, feeling weird about it, but certainly not in the slightest envying his brother for the sudden tenderness he received. Obviously, Gabe wasn't very happy about it, too. He squirmed, stretched his throat as long as he could, turning away from her. "You smell strange again," Mike explained as a matter of fact, and his twin nodded. "And he thinks that your eye is funny, because it looks like his," he continued after catching a glimpse of Gabe's face although it showed a disgusted expression, the corner of his mouth twitched.
"You are very rude boys. Wait until your father returns! I'm sorry, dear!" The harshness changed to her old softness within seconds and she embraced her son even tighter. "Don't be afraid, dear, I won't tell him, I promise." Mike withstood the sudden urge to pull her away from his twin. Over the last months, her behavior towards them had become different. In the past, the few hours they had spent with her had been fun and warm. She had made them food, read books together and every now and then, they had been allowed to watch TV.
Not that the time upstairs was always unpleasant now. But he would have preferred to spend them without her. And sometimes, when she changed from nice to unfriendly and back all the time like today, he was even relieved once they were back to their basement. At least he could talk with his twin when they were alone. During the last year, Gabe had become quieter and quieter whenever their mother or the man were around. He still talked to his brother - although not as much as he used to - but after a while, he had stopped completely when they weren't alone. Yet Mike never had problems to understand his twin's thoughts, so it had become kind of a habit that he talked in his name. Most of the time they were thinking the same anyway; therefore, he didn't mind. Only the way their mother reacted since Gabe stayed silent with her irritated him at first. All this hugging and kissing, the kind words, even treats, his brother received from her. It didn't make sense to him she sometimes seemed to forget that he was there, too. However, it didn't take him long to realize that his brother was more annoyed with her behavior than happy. So all that remained when he watched them was a mix of mild annoyance and the impulse to tell her to leave him alone. But he had given up on telling anyone that. It always made things worse for Gabe. And he would never forgive that she had told tales once. His tongue felt along his front teeth. Gabe had turned to his brother and flinched in his direction as she had buried her head in his soft hair, silently weeping. The quick grimace revealed two tooth spaces. Stupid, lying woman. She had told him they had knocked over and broken one of her tea cups. His chain of thoughts was suddenly interrupted by the ring of the telephone. Immediately, their mother jumped up, almost dragging the young boy with her, who finally managed to escape her hug. She stopped and looked sceptically at Gabe. Then she seized a book from the shelf and put it down on his lap. "Here, darling, be good." Gabe shrugged indifferently and started looking through the pages. Mike was ignored, but he didn't mind. He usually didn't care much... maybe she knew that, maybe not... it didn't make a difference.
"Yes, Mom, no, I'm alright. Yes, really, just a little cold." Slightly, she slurred her speech, and was still sniffling. "No, of course, I pay attention to my health." She had returned, dragging the telephone cord after her, and smiled. Not at the children, but at the bottle of the table. Holding the receiver between her ear and shoulder, she opened the bottle and refilled her glass as she spoke on. Nothing out of the ordinary these days. Bored, Mike had turned away before she had left the room again. A look at Gabe told him that his brother was already absorbed in the book. Pulling a face at his back, Mike walked back to the window and stared outside, thinking of last week. Again, it had only been his fault, he hadn't paid attention, but still...
"So, Michael, you played with my belongings, and broke them?" During the last two years, they didn't always understand why they were punished. Sometimes, the man found a reason, but most of the times, it simply happened. On days like this, they knew it would be extremely bad. They that is, Mike had given him a reason, and the man was delighted about it. In those moments, his scorn didn't descent on them like a thunderstorm, and it was not as quickly over. Sitting in his chair in a comfortable position, the legs stretched out, an amused smile on his face this, and the occasional flashes of joyous anticipation, all these things told them that a long night awaited them.
"Come over here," he demanded, but not from the older twin. Again, it would be Gabe who had to expect whatever sick and painful ideas the man had come up with. Of course Mike, too, received his share of most of these things, but always it was his twin who suffered more. If the man didn't find anything to blame Mike for, they could be sure he would come up with something. This evening, the boy himself had offered him another opportunity. His demeanor made it impossible to miss the gleefulness. Mike was angry. He had never forgotten Gabe's pale, silent face from the last time Mike had talked back to his father. From that day on, he had avoided provoking him. Yet, for the first time since two years ago, he couldn't swallow his anger any longer. He seized his brother's shoulder and pulled him back, taking a step forward in his place. "It was my fault, not his, ya got it? And I don't give a fuck about your belongings!" he declared as firmly as he could with his shaking voice. Expecting his father to lose his temper now and be over with it, the boy took a deep breath, ready to face whatever might happen to him for the insolence he dared to show. But he was mistaken the man didn't yell at him. All he did was stare at the young boy who fought hard to keep his glare steady. Mike began to count the seconds passing. 29...30...31... Lost with the numbers, the large fist smashing against his face hit him out of the blue. His eyesight failed him for a few seconds bright, white light flashing through his head blinded him. Until a foot kicked his ribcage, he hadn't even realized he had fallen onto the carpet. The air was pressed out of his lungs, and he gasped, giving a low, pained whimper. "Stop whining! And speak proper English in my house!" The loud voice right next to his ear startled him. More a reflex than thinking, Mike turned around, his small fists raised, and he hit the man's face. The impact was not very strong, but the angle unfortunate with a scornful, glowering cry, the man covered his face. Blood dropped from between his fingers.
"Fucking bastard, he broke my nose! And a tooth!" he cursed with a weird, nasal lisp, causing more blood to spout out of his nose. It sounded so unlike him. Mike, still dizzy from the blow before, didn't catch much of it, but unfortunately, Gabe did. And giggled. Horrified, Mike tried to warn him, to tell him to shut up, but his lungs hadn't fully recovered yet and it was too late anyway. The young boy could only watch through blurred eyes how his twin was punched in the belly by a bloody fist. "Woman! Get me my fucking toolbox!" he bellowed, and she hurried out of the room. "NO! The small one lying in the kitchen, not the garage, silly goose!"
When she returned, Mike had just recovered enough to get back on his knees. Still holding his side, he slowly crawled towards his twin. He only saw the man's wide back, and Gabe's legs kicking under him. Their father had pinned the boy down with his knees. "Get away from him!" he more croaked than shouted, gritted his teeth and stood up. Taking one, two swaying steps, he jumped forward, leaping at his father, and drummed with his fists on the man's back. "Stop!" He was still too small. Seven years of fear, pain and seething rage still weren't enough to achieve anything against the man. Unimpressed, he shook the boy off like he was nothing more than a beetle. Once more, Mike hit the floor - this time, he landed next to his brother, but not close enough to touch him. When he tried to sit up and crawl forward again, his mother suddenly sat behind him and held him by his arm. "Mom!" he implored, close to tears. "Be quiet, Michael, you've talked enough today," was all she had to say. She smelled bad again... too much of her "medicine". Her voice sounded like she didn't realize what was going on. But her grip was still strong enough to stop him from getting away. As so often before, all that was left for him to do was watching helplessly. Terrified, he saw his father's right hand around Gabe's lower jaw, the strong fingers pressing the joints, forcing the mouth open. His twin's hands hit against the arm, trying in vain to push him away. Not hasting for only a moment, his father picked a pair of flat tongs from the small toolbox, lifting it to the boy's forcefully parted lips.
Despite the man's whizzing breath and grunts, despite Gabe's shrill cry, Mike thought he could hear the disgusting, grinding sound when one small, white tooth was slowly pulled out. His twin coughed and Mike's stomach turned it was too much like the choking, gargling breaths from that day Gabe had almost been drowned in the bathtub. Thick blood mixed with saliva flowed from the corner of the boy's mouth and ran along his face, dripping on the white carpet. The tooth was dropped to the floor, but their father had already raised the tool again. His distorted grin mirrored the relish he felt when he, even slower than before, twisted and pulled at a second tooth. This time, Gabe was quiet, and Mike was forced to listen to the noise, like stone grinding on stone, and the metallic smell of blood filled his nose. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." The tooth along with the tongs were thrown aside, and with a satisfied grin, their father stood up. Carefully, he felt for his lips. "The bastard is lucky, I think it was only a nosebleed and a chapped lip after all." He walked back to his chair and sat down, not paying any more attention to the boys. At first, Mike thought Gabe was unconscious. But then, his twin turned his head and gazed straight at him through teary eyes, his small chest heaving rapidly. Half of the small face was smeared with blood, the half-opened mouth quivering from the pain. Maybe it was only his imagination, but Mike was sure his brother blamed him. "Still thinking it was a good idea to defy me, bastard?" Mike lifted his gaze when his father sneered at him. The glee had returned to the man's face and he smiled maliciously at the boy. Reluctantly, Mike shook his head.
"Take them downstairs and make me a drink, woman. And don't forget to clean this mess up. I don't want to buy a new carpet because of those things."
In the end it had been Mike, who had carried his brother downstairs. Under the amused eyes of their father, their mother had gone to the kitchen, brought a bucket of water and started to scrub the blood out of the carpet frenetically. Nobody had said another word to the twins or paid any more attention to them. Certainly nobody helped them. So Mike had shouldered his brother and dragged him out of the room and down the stairs, almost tripping over his own feet. Gabe had been awake, but neither moved nor spoken. The wounds had healed quickly they had looked worse than they were, however, the twin hadn't spoken for three days, even not to Mike.
Sighing, the older twin stared at his hands. Small scars, almost vanished bruises. Although the days had been rather peaceful since the night Gabe had lost his first two teeth, the beatings had never stopped. Mike looked at his wrists. Especially on the right one was a large, dark mark, the skin over his knuckles scraped. Two days ago, he had been called, went upstairs, only to be pushed back immediately. Nothing special, a regular treatment. Fortunately, his arm had covered his fall. By now, he had to admit, his curiosity about the rooms upstairs had almost vanished. Their room might be less nice and a lot darker and colder, but apparently, it was the safest place in the world for them. The man rarely came downstairs. If he only stopped torturing Gabe, life could actually be bearable. And if the nightmares would stop. Dreams of darkness, only filled with the sounds of beaten flesh, ripping skin and exploding skulls smacking, tearing, cracking. Of cries that were neither his nor his brother's.
His own, sudden scream brought him back from the depths of his silent thoughts. Pain emitted from his leg through his whole body, and he already felt blood wetting his skin and running down his calve. He turned around and faced his twin. Wide-opened, dreamy eyes watched him with mild astonishment.
"Does it hurt?" the boy whispered, sounding surprised. Mike followed his brother's gaze and looked at his own leg. The scissors - the ones their mother had used to trim their hair had been thrust into his upper leg, right were the shorts ended, half sticking out of the flesh. He flinched with pain when he touched it, not able to pull it out. With one hand, he held firmly to the windowsill. "Of course this hurts, dumbass! Why did you do that?" he pressed through his teeth. Then he saw his brother's own leg. Blood flowed from a fresh wound and already dripped on the carpet. "Gabe... No! Stop that!" he shouted when his twin reached for the metallic tool. "Gabe, why?!" Why would his brother do something like that? Gabe's voice was so unnervingly calm... it was creepy. "When he hit me yesterday, I didn't feel it. I mean, I did, but I didn't feel it. The fist hit my face, it burnt. I felt it did. But the pain stayed. And suddenly, it was gone." The blue gaze suddenly became focused. "Mike, I'm scared." The bitterness in the last few words made his anger disappear. He bit on his lip, seized the handle of the scissors, and pulled them out in one go. More blood streamed from the reddish hole. "Don't be scared. You just getting' used to it. Maybe you stop being such a crybaby," he weakly teased him. "But this did hurt?" Gabe nodded. "Yeah. A lot. But... I like. I don't know being hit and not having pain. But this I knew. And I like. Thought you would, too. But..." His small, thin face looked oddly grave and disappointed when he continued. "You did not like, do you, Mike?" The older twin snorted, almost laughed. He didn't know what he could do otherwise. He wasn't even sure what his brother was talking about. Probably, Gabe wasn't either. But his leg surely hurt. "I don't see how you like that. Doesn't he hurt you enough? Do you need more?" The sad, desperate flash in his brother's eyes made him regret his words at once. Looking away, he searched for something that he could press on Gabe's and his legs to make the bleeding stop. The other twin's voice now was so low, he almost didn't hear him. "Hurts differently. Like comfort. Looked at the blood, my blood. I did that, all alone!" Gabe finished, oddly proud. "I'm sorry, Mike, you didn't like it. I'm sorry I also liked to..." Before Mike learned what else his brother was sorry for, a shrill yell from behind interrupted them. "MICHAEL! GABRIEL! OH MY GOD! What are you doing?!"
Their mother had returned from the kitchen after a long talk with her mother. And the first thing she saw now were the twins, both their legs covered in blood. A red puddle had already formed on the carpet. She couldn't comprehend the situation; she only knew she would have to clean up the mess before his return. That, and that Mike was holding a pair of scissors, the tip red, and pointing at the other twin. "GABRIEL!" Hurriedly, she rushed to her younger son and hugged him. With one hand, she snatched the scissors from Mike's hand. "BASTARD!" she shouted, "What are you doing, you little... you devil..." Shocked, the boy stared at her. Yes, she sometimes was angry with them. But this disgusted tone he he had experienced that only with their father. The seething, hot anger in his body became stronger and flared up. Yet, "SHUT UP!" was all he could manage to hurl at her. As amazed as he was a second before, she now looked at him, bewildered by the surprising force such a young, little voice could contain. Both, mother and son, glared at each other for a moment, then she began to cry. "I love you, I love both of you, you are my angels. Why do you destroy my life? Why? I was so happy before you came. I love you... I gave you all I have, but you..." Gabe, grossed out by his mother's closeness, pushed her away, and flew to his brother's side, hugging him dearly, as if he was looking for protection. "You, too, Gabriel? What have I done wrong? Why do I deserve this?" Sobbing uncontrollably, she covered her face with her hands and cried. They could smell the red liquid she was fond of so much lately coming from her. The words only confused them. What had they done? The wounds? Mike didn't understand. Why did she cry when she said she loved them? He loved his twin, and that didn't make him cry. And Gabe neither. He didn't like that man, and cried because of him. Although not that often anymore. His young mind couldn't connect her words with her actions, and not with what he felt when he looked at her in moments like this. Finally, he shrugged. This was weird, Mike wanted to leave. Right on cue, Gabe's nose softly nudged against his cheek. "Okay, come." Together they limped back to the cellar door, helping each other to descend without falling. Once downstairs, they would treat their wounds and wait. Until the flesh healed. And until the door opened again. With a sigh, he looked at his twin. 'Why can't I understand all her talking when I understand you so easily?' he thought. When Gabe shrugged and smiled at him, Mike smiled back.
"What are they talking about?"
"Psst!" Gabe sat behind the door, listening. They had expected their father to come for them once he returned. After all, they had again ruined his carpet. The old bloodstains from two weeks ago were still visible. Musingly, Mike scratched the bandage that now covered his leg. This was strange. Normally, he would already have been here. Or would have sent their mother to get them. Even if that man would think of another way to punish them, he should at least be shouting. But nothing, and not good at all. The longer they would wait, the more time he would have to think of something really nasty. After a while, they heard them speak in their normal voices. Growing impatient, Gabe had finally sneaked the stairs up and cowered careful not to make a noise as close as possible to the door, his ear pressed against the wood. A few minutes later, Mike was so restless, he had to hold back or he would have jumped from his bed, climbed the stairs and pushed his brother away from the door. Suddenly, it was Gabe who jumped and hurried back to Mike. Throwing himself on the same bed his brother sat on, Gabe pulled the cover over his body and faced the wall. Not a second too quick only a moment later the door opened, and both their mother and their father were joining them, looking thoughtfully. However, even now the attack they had thought unavoidable did not happen. Instead, the man only circled the beds, took hold of the frame and shook. He nodded at his wife who followed the signal and went upstairs again, closing the door behind her.
"And? Do you hear me or not?"
The twins looked at each other. It was unusual to hear his normal voice, without rage or mockery. They were even more puzzled when he spoke on, talking about nothing of importance, only commenting on today's dinner and what he wanted her to cook tomorrow. All of a sudden, he raised his voice, yet not against them. "DO YOU HEAR ME, WOMAN?" The door opened, and she returned. "I heard you, but only when I stood close to the door, and I didn't understand what you said. Not until you shouted, I heard that very clear," she answered in her usual, meek manner. He shook his head. "This won't do then. Well, I know what we have to do." That was all. The pair left again without even looking at the children, and of course, the twins didn't dare to ask. Finally, they were alone again.
"Hey, what was this all about?" Mike gave his twin's shoulder a nudge. "What did they say?"
Gabe turned around and looked up at his brother. "Couldn't understand much. Something about someone coming. And he doesn't want that, but doesn't want that without a warning, too... something like that," he reported what he had overheard and shrugged, his face mirroring the blank expression of his brother's. Very odd. Anyway, in the end, nothing good would come out of it, not for them. They knew that much for sure.
The next few days were peaceful, actually just the way the twins preferred them. They didn't mind much that they had been locked into the basement without being allowed to go upstairs. Their mother brought them food, checked their injuries or brought new bandages for later use. She never stayed long or talked much with them, and rarely visited them more than two or three times a day. Only occasionally, she petted their hair or gave Gabe a quick hug.
By the end of the week, she looked changed. Her breath didn't smell and her hair was nicely trimmed. In the evening, she visited them again; this time, he was with her. The twins knew that the last, calm days wouldn't last long and were just the quiet before the storm. To their own surprise, they felt almost relaxed. The waiting was the worst. Whatever would happen now, it would be over in an hour or two and they could go back to their own little, dark world. They kept quiet and sat still when their father stood in front of them and inspected their faces. "Michael, go to your own bed," he ordered, his voice telling them more than his words that he wouldn't allow any backtalk. Reluctantly, Mike did as he was told. The mattress was hard compared to the other one, but after all, it wasn't a surprise. It was warmer to share one bed, and less lonely. His eyes followed his father's hands, expecting them to rise against his brother anytime. He felt more and more anxious when it didn't happen. At a quick command, their mother handed her husband a collar and a leash, similar to that he had seen around the dog's neck. The collar was roughly fastened around his twin's neck, a bit too tight at first and the boy gasped for air. To Mike's surprise, their father loosened it a bit. Then he pushed the boy back on the bed. "Lie still." Gabe obeyed. The man attached the leash to the grate of the bedhead. "Sit up," he barked, and the boy tried, but the short range hindered him. "Good so far. Lie still," he repeated the second-last command and seized Gabe's hands and pulled them over the boy's head. Gabe turned to his brother, scared. Mike could see his twin was about to cry for help.
'Don't move. Don't scream.' His lips formed the words without making a sound, but his twin understood and closed his eyes. Their father continued with the legs, tying them to the opposite end of the bed. After that, he walked over to Mike, repeating the procedure with the older twin. Only that Mike now didn't have someone to look at for comfort. His arms and legs were stretched out in their full length and he was unable to move them. The leash left just enough range to turn his head. When their father didn't block the space between the two beds, he could see his twin, who stared back at him. "Mike..." was the only spoken word. 'Will he kill us?' was what Mike could read from his brother's face. He shook his head, hoping he was right. After speaking a few short words with their mother, the man returned, placing himself between the boys again. He watched Mike's face and grinned. Then he covered the boy's eyes with a piece of duct tape.
Not prepared to be short of his eyesight, unable to see his twin, Mike thrashed around, pulling at the ropes. "Mike, what's happening?" Hearing his brother call out for him, Mike wanted to shout back, but before he could, another piece of tape sealed his mouth. He was about to panic, trying desperately to loosen the bounds, even screamed. But the knots were strong and his voice couldn't leave his mouth. His own blood rushing through his head deafened him. "Go on like this and you will strangle yourself."
'Calm down!' whispered a very small and weak part of his mind. He had to. Forcing himself to breathe evenly again, he tried to relax. From that moment on, all he could do was listen, and pray to the god their mother had once told them so much about. Pray that nothing horrible would happen to his twin while he wasn't even able to help him afterwards. He heard how his twin put up a similar fight, being cut short in the end when he called Mike's name. The older twin couldn't stop trembling, with fear and with rage. He knew that his brother felt like he did right now, and he wanted to hurt the man so badly. For all the pain he had caused, and for taking away the only thing they had in this life each other. Footsteps echoed through the basement when the pair left; he heard how the light switch was turned off. Neither the father nor the mother had bothered to cover the boys's bodies. Still wearing their shorts and t-shirts, the cold soon made them shiver. Hopefully, this would be over in an hour or two, or at least tomorrow. After the first hour, his back began to hurt, and the ropes painfully cut into the skin of his wrists and ankles. Unable to move and ignoring the pain as much as he could, he focused on the sound of his twin's tensed breathing.
"Is this really necessary, Charles?"
"I told you it is. Stop complaining. After all, it's because of your mother. How long did you say she wanted to stay?" He sat down in his favorite chair and had already put on his reading glasses. She put a glass of cognac on the small table standing next to him. "She said something about a week. Maybe longer if I need her..."
"Well then, it's easy, isn't it?" Picking up a book, he leaned back, putting his feet on the coffee-table. "If you feel sorry for those bastards, make a good impression. And do something about the stains on the carpet if you don't want her to stay until Eastern next year."