by Andrew Vachss
The first time I heard a message, I couldn't obey. I could hear it, but I was distant from it, the way I am from people talking. They think I can't hear them, but I can—I just can't get close enough to say anything.
The messages don't come from inside my head, no matter what the doctors say.
I was small when I first heard them. I couldn't do anything to stop them. Any of them. The people, I mean, not the messages. I can stop people, sometimes, but I would never stop the messages.
No matter how much I screamed, my parents would still leave me with her. They acted like they didn't understand, because I couldn't talk then.
By the time I could talk, I was too scared.
Ellen burned me. Just to show me she could do it. My babysitter. She was in charge when my parents would go out. Sometimes she would beat me. Spanking, she called it. She would do it real hard until I would cry. Then she would tell me I was a good boy.
She showed me how to do what she wanted. If I didn't do it, she would hurt me. Sometimes she hurt me anyway. She liked to do it. She would get all sweaty and close her eyes. Later she would laugh.
My parents liked her. My mother told my father he only liked her because she wore her blue jeans so tight you could see her panties right through them. My father got all red in the face and said how reliable she was. My mother said how hard it was to get anyone to watch me.
Ellen made me lick her. And she put things inside me too. When I got older, she took pictures of me.
She said if I ever told, they wouldn't believe me. And then she'd get me good the next time.
Cut out my heart and eat it.
Sometimes Ellen wore a mask. Sometimes she burned things that smelled funny.
Her eyes could cut me and make me bleed.
She had a tattoo inside her leg. On the high, fat part where her legs came together. A red tattoo of a cross, like in church. The cross was upside down. Where it would go into the ground, it went inside of her.
I told on her. One night, just before my parents were going to go out. I was five years old and I could talk. I was so scared I wet all over myself, but I told.
They looked at each other—I've seen them do that a lot, ever since I started watching them. But when Ellen came over, they told her they weren't going out that night and she could go back to her house.
Ellen looked right at them. Right in the eye. "Is Mark telling his crazy stories again?"
"What stories?" my mother asked her.
"His Devil stories, I call them. He told me his kindergarten teacher was a monster. How she wore this mask and carried fire in her hand. It must be that cable TV. My Dad won't let me watch it."
I could see it happening. I screamed so loud something broke in my eyes. Then I couldn't see anything.
They put me in a hospital. A lady came to see me. She was very nice. She smelled nice too. She came a lot of times. Every day.
After a while, I could see again.
I wouldn't talk to the nice lady at first, but she promised me Ellen could never get me. I was safe.
So I told her. I told her everything. She said she would fix it.
Everything would be all right.
When they came back a couple of weeks later, they had the nice lady with them. She sat down on the bed next to me and held my hand. She said they looked at Ellen. Without her clothes on. And there was no red tattoo like I said. It must be my imagination, the lady said. She had a sad face when she said it.
I knew it then. She was with Ellen.
I was already screaming when they showed me that first needle.
I was in the hospital a long time. Sometimes my parents would come in there with the lady I thought was nice. After I took my pills I would get dreamy. But I wouldn't sleep, not really. Just lie there with my eyes closed and listen to them.
"We could get sued," my father said. "Ellen's father hired a lawyer. He said false allegations happen all the time. A witch hunt, he called it."
It scared me, the way he said it. I didn't look.
They tested me, to see if I was stupid. When they found out I wasn't, then they said I was crazy. I had to talk to a doctor. I told him about the messages. He was the first one. He said they came from inside my head. I told him "No!" and he pushed a button and some big men in white coats came in.
Later, they started the drugs. Haldol. Thorazine. All kinds of things. I learned to take the pills. Otherwise, it was the needle.
Some of the attendants, they gave you the needle anyway, even if you were good. They liked to do it. But it was the nurse who gave the orders.
She was with Ellen.
They let me go home sometimes. My mother would make me take the medication. I got older and older, but it didn't make any difference. I still had to do what they said.
I cost a lot of money. I heard them talking. A lot of money.
"Paranoid schizophrenic," my mother would say. What the doctors told her, like a religion.
Ellen's picture was in the paper. Her father was arrested for having sex with his daughter. A little girl. Nine years old. I was eleven then, and I could read good. Ellen's picture was in the paper because she told on her father.
In the paper, they said Ellen was a hero. For saving her sister.
When I asked my mother about Ellen, she slapped me. Then she started crying. She said it wasn't my fault—I was born this way. I knew she meant the messages. Then she called the hospital and they came and took me away.
The medication has side effects. I know what they call it. Tardive dyskinesia. My face jumps around. My whole body twitches. My mouth is so dry and it's like it is stuffed with cotton. My hands shake. I'm dizzy. My stomach is upset. I hate it.
When I stop taking the pills, they give me the needles.
They never catch me not taking the pills. It's just that I act different without them. And they can tell.
Act. That was a message I got all the time. Act!
I'm an out-patient now. I live in a room. My parents moved away. I don't know where. I'm an adult now. Twenty-three years old.
I get a check. From the Government. Every month. It comes to where I stay. I pay my room rent. I eat in restaurants, but I don't eat that much. I'm not hungry much.
There is a television set in my room. I always leave it on. Messages come through it for me.
I don't take the medication very often, but I act like I am. Nobody looks that close.
They send you cues. That's the message, to watch for the cues. I go out, looking. The subways are the best. There's all kinds of crazy people in the subways. People never look at me that way. I look right. I'm careful.
I look carefully. At everything, I look. There's a third rail. It's death to touch it. If you look down, down into the pit, you can see the other tracks. Water runs between the tracks, like a river. You can see the things people throw there. Sometimes you can see a rat, watching up at the people.
The messages are everywhere, but they are never spoken. Not out loud. They come through things.
You have to watch them from behind because their eyes can burn you.
The first time, in the subway, the train came through the tunnel. Shoving through, too tight for the tunnel, like Ellen did to me. When the train screamed, I knew I was in the right place.
From behind, they look alike unless you look close. If you can see their panties, the outline of their panties, under their skirts or their slacks, then that's them. That's how you know them.
The first time I saw that, the train was screaming in. I was jammed in behind her in the crowd. When I pushed her, she went right under the wheels. Then everybody screamed like the train.
Nobody ever said anything to me.
The message comes to me anytime. Especially in my room, where the medication doesn't block the signals. When I hear the message clear, I go out. To do my work.
I'm on a witch hunt.
© 1993 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
This story appears in Born Bad by Andrew Vachss.