I leave the boy alone in the bath to change out of his old clothes, and when I return it's only to see him standing naked in front of the full-length mirror, staring down at his own body. He doesn't notice me watching him watch himself, just traces his full, chapped lips, his bony, malnourished ribs and hips, his limp penis, the scars that were left on him by that seedy shithole that called itself a gentlemen's club I pulled him out of, with a sort of distant awe, like an explorer in uncharted territory. Like some animal that can't quite understand it's really him staring back from the mirror and not some stranger. Like he's never seen his reflection before; and, who knows, maybe he hasn't.
But the shock is mutual. I can tell myself this is just what my father looked like when he was thirteen years old, but that won't make me believe it. In my mind he's always been an old bastard. . . .
"I found him."
I don't know what I expected in return when I broke the news to the old man. Did I expect him to get down on his knees, press his forehead to the floor and thank me, finally congratulate me for doing something to please him for once in my goddamn life?
But all he could do was stare with those filmy eyes at the tangled black hair, the ratty clothes, the beanpole frame of this mess, this spectre of a boy who stood shivering next to me, clinging to my arm because I'd told him I was his big brother when I raided the place, just so he would come out from under the bed.
I wonder if the old man even recognized himself. . . .
I clear my throat and the boy starts, and covers himself in his hands, looking down at the floor in modesty. I leave my jacket at the bath entrance, roll up my shirt sleeves, and take the stool from where it leans against the side of the tub; but he just stands there in silence. "Come on. Let's get you cleaned up." I get a bucket of cool water, soap and a rag, and he just watches it all bashfully through those too-big blue eyes. "Well? You aren't deaf, are you?"
No, just stupid. His voice is small, subservient, and he still doesn't want to come over to me. It's no mystery what they've done to him these thirteen years. You treat a dog like shit, destroy its self-respect, and eventually it'll do whatever you want it to, no matter how sick or degrading. Human beings aren't all that different, despite how much we want to believe we are.
"I'm not going to hurt you." I'm not going to apologize to him if I sound impatient. I don't like being in this house any longer than I have to be. I drum the seat of the stool with the palm of my hand, flash the warmest smile I can. "You do want to make yourself presentable for your grandfather, don't you?"
His eyes shoot up to mine. It's like locking eyes with a wild animal. After he's contemplated the unspoken threat for a moment, and the pitiable condition of his appearance, he nods, dumbly.
He sits down on the stool facing away from me, his hands still stubbornly between his legs like the tail of a kicked dog, and doesn't see it coming when I pour the pail of water over his head. He jumps, shivers uncontrollably, but he doesn't make any sound other than that initial, clipped whimper of shock, and even tries to relax as I start on his back.
It's like scrubbing a muddy floor. The kid has been filthy for so long he no longer smells like anything recognizable as a human being; and the dirt, when it does slough off, reveals fair, translucent skin underneath like a girl's. I scrub until he's pink and no doubt raw, but he doesn't complain. He just sits as still as possible and watches the waterfall that trickles down an artificial hillside into the bath, so unblinkingly I can't be sure he's listening as I inform him of father's strict schedule, the rules he's made around himself, the people in his household who will get the boy this or that when I leave. I know the words are sinking in; obviously, if he hadn't made himself a quick study, he wouldn't have survived this long.
But I can't blame him if he's a little distracted by the scenery, either. He's probably never dreamed of this kind of extravagance before, the sheer audacity of this waste that makes me swear, someday, I'm going to burn it all to the ground.
But to this boy, his pale eyes full of wonder, this is paradise.
They called him Reiko in that shithole apparently. A girl's name. How appropriate. Given the scars of cigarette burns and bruises that mar his fey arms and torso, the careful way he composes himself, his long hair, this kid has been treated like a girl his whole life—and used like one.
Until he killed one of his tormentors with his mind, that is. Of course, if he hadn't, we might never have found him.
But even then, at least he was treated like a human being, if only just barely. What will he be used as here?
"Can you read?" I ask him.
He tilts his head and looks up at me from under the soap in his hair. A smile forms slowly on his lips, like he's recognizing me for the first time. "No." Each syllable that comes out of his mouth is slow, lilting, coy, trying so hard to please it just makes me hate him all the more. "They told me I was too stupid for books."
Of course, that's a lie if I ever heard one. And the kid doesn't even seem to realize it. It almost makes me laugh, and he mimics my grin with one of his own so disarmingly innocent it takes all my will power not to slap it off his face. "Well, not here, you aren't," I manage to say without gritting my teeth too much. Stupid, he says. What a joke. As if he doesn't know who he is, what genius is programmed into his DNA.
It'll be a fight for father to keep the boy from searching for the truth once he starts to learn, but that's what he'll have to do if he wants to keep Reiko compliant. I almost hope the boy does figure it out, what he really is. Let the bastard deal with the fallout then. It'll serve him right.
I rinse the kid off, and his violent shudder under the cold water is some small consolation. I guess even though I know the kid's fate here will be worse than mine ever was, I still can't overcome my hatred of him.
I've always been the illegitimate son. And this kid, pulled straight off the street. . . .
He's so much closer than any legitimate heir can be to the real thing, he may as well be the real thing. In so many ways, he already is.
As he soaks in the tub beneath the waterfall, I call for something to dress him in. Something befitting his place here, and father's aesthetic. Something gray and black and colorless to reflect the life that's been systematically sucked out of this whole godforsaken compound by the old man.
Something feminine. A young lady's kimono. Because I wouldn't want to start changing things now.
And because a part of me earnestly hopes I might finally wound the old man's pride with this farce. My gift to him, to show my appreciation for everything he's done for me all these years. Not likely he'll acknowledge the slight, of course. He's too goddamn practical for that. But it never hurts to try.
Maids dry and dress the boy, comb out his long black hair and pin it up. Make him up to be a most becoming and traditional young woman, all without uttering a word about what lies beneath. No one needs to be sworn to secrecy in this household. Only the boy's pale eyes remain insolent as they take in everything around him with an unabashed wonder that only this newfound sense of safety allows him.
And I can't help but smile and think, that will change. If only he knew. Pray that he really is stupid enough for that feeling to last through all that is to come.
The lie is complete, but the old man's cloudy eyes brighten anyway when he sees the finished product. "Ah, Reiko, my dear. My beautiful granddaughter."
I don't need to fill him in. He gets the joke instantly.
Much to my satisfaction, and my chagrin.
The recognition triggers something inside the boy. A false memory. A feeling of acceptance, belonging. Love, however superficial it may be. He beams. "Grandfather!"
"Let me have a look at you." The old man beckons for him, takes the kid's wrists in his hands, traces the contours of his palms, then the fine features of that doll face that he must barely be able to see with the rough pads of his fingers, tracing over his eyelids the shape of those clear eyes that now, thanks to me, belong to him.
There is something wrong in watching the old man rediscover his teenage self, made up in the guise of a girl. Something sinful, incestuous. Something blasphemous. Something in father's touch or Reiko's small sounds of pleasure that makes me desperately want to turn away from this scene, but instead tugs bitterly at the corner of my mouth while holding me captive in my disgust. Surely, despite this act of love, he must still realize that Reiko's youth, his health and beauty, are things he will never have again, no matter how many bits and pieces he carves this boy up into. Does he despise him for it, I wonder? Like he surely must envy Reiko his healthy eyes that can appreciate this extravagance he's surrounded himself with in vain?
If he does, I know it won't be for long. And that's what finally pulls me away. The old man will pay the price for his act of hubris, in this instance just like in all the others. They both will pay.
And when that happens, I will be there to collect the pieces as always, laughing, and I won't be able to say I pity them at all.