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Dress-Up Day
by Andrew Vachss

Also available in Russian (

I am an only child. When I was real small, I thought I was the only child there ever was, because I didn't know there were any others. When I finally started going to school, some kids from big families would tell me how lucky I was. To be the only child. They would have so many kids in their families that it was hard for them to get any attention, or have any privacy. I never told them the truth. I would just nod, like I understood what they were saying.

A lot of kids thought I was stupid at first, because I nodded a lot when they talked. But the teachers knew different, because I could read and write faster—I mean, I learned to read and write faster—before the other kids did. Math too, I was quicker.

I did understand what the other kids were saying. About being an only child. By then, I knew I wasn't the only child. And I listened to other children, so I knew that we weren't all alike. But even the ones who were wrong about me were half right. I did have a lot of privacy. Even when I was very, very small. I remember the privacy. I used to cry and cry for my mother, but she never came. It wasn't until I was older that I understood she wouldn't come. She wasn't even in the house. When she was in the house, she usually had a man with her. They didn't want to see me. If I kept them from seeing me, I would be okay. If they saw me, one of them would hurt me, usually her. One time, this man—all I remember about him was he had red hair—he told my mother not to slap me. He said I was just a baby and I wanted my mother. That was a natural thing, he said. My mother told him to mind his own business. She said I wasn't his kid, so shut the fuck up. The red-haired man slapped her then. Real hard—she went flying. He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her back and slapped her again. He asked her, did that feel good? Did she like that? My mother licked her lips where they were bloody and said something to the man I didn't understand. She was on her knees. The man turned around and went out the door. He never came back. I remember that night especially well. It was the first time my mother ever burned me with a cigarette.

It was always like that until I stopped being stupid. I had to live in the house with her. That was the law. But I stayed away from her. And she never came in my room in the basement as long as I didn't make any noise. I got pretty good grades and I read a lot. I knew the only answer was to be very strong. I tried a lot of things to be strong, but none of them worked. I asked the school nurse once: How come I never got any bigger when I lifted weights and all? She looked very sad. She was very nice. I don't remember what she said, not much of it. But I remembered one of the words, and I looked it up. Malnutrition. From when I was real small. Before I could get food for myself.

Everything changed when I got to be thirteen. I got bigger. Not as big as some of the kids, but not the smallest, not even close.

The next year, I'm not sure why, girls got very important. Different boys did different things to have girlfriends. I really couldn't do anything. I wasn't good at basketball, I couldn't dance, and I didn't really like to fight. And, of course, I never had money to get very nice clothes or buy girls presents.

That's when I got the idea about stealing. I read everything I could about it. I studied it. Then I started. I only took money. Cash money. Never anything else. Sometimes, I would go in a house at night and there would be no money. That was okay. I knew that would happen. It would happen if someone were to break into my mother's house too, I guess.

I never spent the money. I mean, I never spent a lot. So nobody noticed. But I always had a little. I mean, enough. I bought some nicer clothes. But I still had plenty of money left. And I thought all the time about being stronger. My mother didn't hit me or hurt me anymore, but, sometimes, one of the men she had would if she asked him to. So I spent most of the money I had on stuff to make me stronger.

I don't know how it happened with Darla. She was in my class and all. I had known her for years. Not really known her, but ... well, it's a small school and I guess I knew just about everyone. I never went up to any of the girls. But Darla asked me a question once. In the library. And I talked to her. After a while, she said she was real thirsty, so I asked her could I buy her a soda and she said yes.

After that, it just ... happened. I don't know how. But it was the best thing in the world. Darla was my girlfriend. Not my secret girlfriend either. Everybody knew. I bought her a lot of nice stuff. Once she told me I shouldn't do that. Her parents were worried, she said. She was just fourteen, and she shouldn't be getting such expensive stuff. It was just a CD player, but I guess it made them nervous. So I stopped. I met them and everything. Once they met me, they liked me. I told them I got the money for the CD player by mowing lawns and washing cars and other stuff I knew kids did. I told them I had saved up. They said that was fine, but I shouldn't spend so much money on a girl at my age. I said all right, and they smiled.

I bought Darla an ID bracelet. Sterling silver. She could only keep it at school, because her parents would get upset, but that was okay. She always wore it at school, and everyone knew it was mine.

A couple of times, her parents said I was maybe spending too much time with Darla. Calling her too much. I guess maybe they were right. But I wanted to be with her all the time. I said they were right, though, and they felt better. I could tell.

Darla and I were going to be married someday anyway, and then I'd be with her all the time.

I don't know who did it. I don't know who to blame. Maybe it was the guidance counselor. I saw my file, the one she kept. I wasn't really curious, but I had already broken into the school. Lots of teachers leave money in their desks. In my file, it said: Attachment Disorder. And the words "unhealthy relationship" a lot. About me and Darla. So maybe it was the guidance counselor. It could have been Darla's parents too. But I know that it wasn't what she said—that she just wanted to have dates and stuff with other boys and maybe we were too close and she was too young to make a commitment. I know Darla would never say anything like that unless someone told her to do it.

I didn't say anything. I didn't go back to school the next day. I had to think things over.

It's Friday now. The last Friday of the month. That's Dress-Up Day at school. Girls can wear makeup and high heels and boys can wear suits and all. Some of the boys don't do it, but all the girls do. I knew Darla would be all dressed up, but not with my bracelet. She gave that back. I have it with me. I always have it with me.

I'm getting dressed up too. I have a full set of camouflage gear that I bought. And an M-15 rifle. It looks just like the ones they used in Vietnam, but it doesn't fire on full-auto—you have to pull the trigger each time to make it shoot.

I have four full clips. I taped two to the rifle, like it showed me to in this book I bought through the mail, and I put the other two in my belt.

I don't know who did this to me and Darla. But, after today, it won't matter. I'm going to fix everything, and then they'll be sorry. They'll never know why. I know what I have to do when I'm done.

And when they come here to tell my mother, they'll see where I started.

© 1999 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.

This story appears in Everybody Pays by Andrew Vachss.

Proving It, the first Andrew Vachss audiobook collection


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