Author Note: This is a gift fic of sorts, inspired by a picture drawn by Donnie Kashie over at Stealthy Stories. The original idea came from that picture, but several of the images I used were inspired by pictures drawn by The Ghost, including a view of Mikey based on some gift art she drew for me. And this story was patiently beta-read by the awesome Pi90Katana, with my thanks. So this story is dedicated to all three of them! Love you guys, hugs all around!
There was so much blood- that's what I remember the most. So much blood on my face, my hands, everywhere and it was dark. I was stumbling through the sewers, afraid, alone, confused and hurt, not just physically hurt but mentally too. I could never believe how much emotional upset can cause pain worse than the wounds on your body before. And somewhere beneath the fear and the hurt was a spark of anger that given time for the dominant emotions to subside would get bigger and bigger…
…If I didn't wander the sewers getting more lost, more scared, until I curled into a fetal position on one of the dirty ledges and died of misery.
It had started innocently enough, as these things often do, several months before the blood and the fear. At the time, it didn't seem like something that would lead to a pivotal moment in my life. Sensei went on one of his foraging missions and returned with books- precious books. People don't often throw their books away; they take them to charity shops or give them away if they don't want to keep them. On the occasion they're disposed of by throwing them away, there are usually pages missing or water damage, something that negates the enjoyment. In my eyes at least, it was a great find.
My brothers and I rooted through them, wrinkling our beaks a little. Almost all of them were textbooks, the others a few classic literary tomes. I guess someone was having a clear out of their old study guides and didn't feel like taking them to a second hand book shop and selling them.
Mike eventually took a copy of 'A Catcher In The Rye', slightly dubious about its entertainment value but willing to give it a try. Leo took a history book, something he was interested in anyway. Raph decided not to bother taking anything until Sensei used the texts as a study aid for us, probably in a few more years judging by how advanced they seemed.
Which left the rest of them to go through at our leisure, should we choose. But I'd already made my choice, even before my brothers did, grabbing the book before they could. You have three siblings; you have to be quick if you really, really want something. The previous evening they had teased me about being too smart and although it wasn't malicious and no more than they received in return (although for different reasons, the thought of saying Mike was 'too serious' made me laugh even back then). I knew it wasn't malicious but it did make me wonder a little if I was missing out on being a kid by filling my head with learning instead of fun. So I decided to take the only children's book in the pile and spend some time immersed in fantasy. I knew it was a children's book because of the title; 'Child Psychology'.
Hey, I may have been smart but I was also a kid. Cut me a break!
An hour later Splinter found me struggling to understand why a purported child's book was so complicated; what half the words meant and why there were no real pictures. He didn't laugh at me when I explained but he got that amused look on his face when we did something he thought was particularly cute, explaining to me that it was a book about kids, not for kids.
I nodded, finally understanding. "So what is puh-see-cholly-gee?" To me it sounded like some far off distant land where elves rode unicorns and it rained chocolate sprinkles. Or maybe it was just that I had been looking forward to a story along those lines.
Splinter got our most precious book for me from the shelf where it was kept out of reach of sewer trickles and sticky fingers, leaping nimbly to retrieve it. The dictionary, the book we needed more than any other thanks to our language limitations – Splinter's first language was Japanese and everyone in our little family learned most of our English from television, radio and newspapers.
He explained the meaning of 'psychology' as best he could from his own knowledge and the dictionary definition , also correcting my pronunciation– he'd heard some variation on the small TV with the broken colour control so that the picture was too bright, although we knew no different then.
I was enchanted. The idea that you could learn more about what happens inside a persons mind and the way they would think and act by knowing their psychological predilections was fascinating.
I don't know if I just noticed it more because of my sudden interest or if it was a coincidence, but suddenly psychology seemed to be everywhere. Criminal profiles of serial killers in our old magazines. Victim profiles on daytime chat shows. The way the characters on after school specials started talking about appealing to the predictable behaviour of their targets. Psychology!
I struggled through the book with a lot of reference to the dictionary, which Splinter let me use only after I gave my solemn oath to treat it with care. I began amateurish attempts to profile my father and brothers, to their alternate amusement and irritation. Mike would often throw himself across the couch and ask if I wanted to hear about his mother, having realised the similarity between psychology and psychiatrist. Raph would either tease or threaten me, depending on his mood. And Leo didn't like the idea of me probing his mind at all.
"That refusal to open up tells me a lot about you," I'd tell him, writing in my notebook and trying not to smirk at his discomfited expression.
We were all fascinated by humans and I guess my interest manifested through wanting to understand them, what makes them tick, why they behaved as they did. But I couldn't judge for myself because I had never met a human. None of us had, save for Splinter, and they remained a great mystery to us all. Our curiosity manifested in different ways. Mikey immersed himself in pop culture, Leo studied human history and Raph asked Splinter endless questions and cast doubt on the assurances of behaviour that we saw on TV and in books.
I got frustrated with psychology in the end. There's only so much you can learn from only four others. I began to daydream about meeting an actual human to test what I had learned, see if it was accurate.
Or at least use them as a measuring stick; find out how different we really were, if our strangeness was emotional and intellectual as well as physical and cultural.
But that was just a pipe dream and I let it go. There were other things to distract me by then, the main one being that Splinter finally let us leave the lair alone. We were allowed to go into certain sewer pipes unsupervised – and on the understanding that we were never, under any circumstances, to go beyond the specified areas. Splinter had found half a tin of white emulsion on one of his nightly forages and brought it back to the lair, using the paint to mark the end of our wandering space. It seemed at the time like miles and miles of pipes, when in reality we were maybe five minutes from the lair at any given point and in the tunnels that were used only for water runoff and never inspected.
This previously unheard of freedom distracted me from trying to work people out and I spend most of my days for a while playing chase or hide and seek in the sewer pipes, keeping quiet in the places we had been told to, where there were grates high above leading to the street. It was like being the Lost Boys in Never-Never Land, where we could run and play with no adult to watch us and where we might never grow up.
I'm supposed to be the smart one. I should have known better.
Not long after that, we realised that it would soon be Father's Day. In previous years we had made something between us, usually with plenty of arguing over every step. We had such different ideas of what would make the perfect gift. Leo wanted perfection, I wanted symmetry, Raph wanted better materials and Mike wanted to add every colour and sparkle in our possession. This year would be different. We decided to give him individual presents – and with our expanding world, we could now go out and see if we could find anything suitable in the pipes.
We spent vast amounts of time huddled together out of range of Splinter's preternaturally sharp ears, wondering about the things we might find. We knew that Splinter went further afield than us, but we reasoned there must be treasures in our play space too. Mike concocted a wild fantasy about finding a puppy that had fallen down a manhole and wandered to our lair. The rest of us were slightly less dramatic but not always less fantastic.
It became a competition between us. Who could find the best gift? What would it be? Or maybe we would find something that could be altered, manipulated into the perfect present for Sensei.
Raph was the first of us to find a treasure, the smug look on his face giving him away the moment he returned to the lair. We could hardly wait to escape Splinter and crowd into Raph's room to see.
Raph leaned back against the wall, hands tucked behind his head, smirking as he saw us trying to scan the room without being too obvious about it. Leo got tired of the game first. "Where is it Raph? What did you find?"
Raph took his hands from behind his head, opening his right hand to reveal a stained, wet, crumpled and very welcome twenty dollar note.
"You didn't find that!" Mikey made a snatch for the note and Raph yanked it from his reach. "No one just throws away twenty dollars!"
"Maybe it was an accident," said Leo thoughtfully. "But we can't trace the owner. I say Raph gets to keep it."
Raph grinned widely but I felt uneasy and competitive. The stakes just got raised and I had the feeling that our friendly competition just got a whole lot less friendly.
The next three days we barely saw Mikey at all. He stayed in his room save for training and meals and his favourite shows. It wasn't exactly usual but it had happened before. He'd get engrossed in some little project and think of nothing else for hours before abruptly losing interest and either abandoning the project altogether or getting some perspective on the time he was spending on it.
After three days, Mike sneakily asked us to go into his room while Splinter wasn't looking and we knew he had his Fathers day present all ready.
"Do tell Mike," said Leo dryly as we crowded into the room, noting that Mike looked ready to burst in excitement.
"Here!" Mikey showed us what looked at first like a pile of paper, loosely bound with string. Leo took it and Raph and I leaned over his shoulder, while Mikey regarded us anxiously.
It wasn't a pile of papers; in fact it was a work of art for a kid of his age. He had taken twenty sheets of A4 paper and bound them together with a thin piece of green ribbon from who knew where. The papers represented a book, printed in Mike's best writing and carefully illustrated. The story was about a turtle with super powers who had to keep the secret from his brothers, although his father was his confidante. It relied on Batman for the relationship between father and son – it was Bruce and Alfred all over again – but the story itself was fun and kinda cute, surprisingly well written.
Mikey was beside himself with excitement, but Raph seemed down on the gift. "You didn't even find that!"
"Nope, I made it."
"My present's better," muttered Raph.
"Cost of groceries for a week, twenty dollars." Mike winked, making a clicking noise and pointing at Raph. "A child's hard work to show his love? Priceless!"
Leo and I exchanged looks. Twenty dollars was precious and Mike's gift was hokey enough to be a keeper. But neither of us had a thing.
Two days before Fathers day, Leo arrived back in the lair using all his amateur ninja skills to avoid Sensei. I knew that Sensei had realised he was there, but chose to pretend he hadn't. When Splinter went to the kitchen to begin dinner, we all raced to Leo's room to see what he had turned up.
We could never have guessed, not in our wildest dreams.
"Flowers?" Raph began to snigger. "Oh man, you're such a girl!"
"Sensei likes flowers," said Mike, sticking up for Leo as he always did.
"How did you find flowers?" I asked. It seemed unlikely that they had fallen through a grate.
Leo looked slightly guilty. "I, uh, went a bit further than the marks."
"You went past the boundary?" I stared at him in shock. "Leo, Splinter's gonna kill you!"
"Not if you don't tell," replied Leo, glaring at us. "And it was only a few steps so I could pick them up. I think they fell down a manhole."
"Thrown down more like." Raph darted forward and snagged a card from the bunch before Leo could stop him. "Oooh! To P, I love you always, L. Who's P? Tell us – L!"
"Someone must have thrown them away," said Mikey, already lost in fantasy. "This L brought P flowers, but they fell out somehow and he was so bummed, he threw the flowers down an open manhole. But they made up again and now they're all loved up and the flowers are a good gift for Sensei! And he needs them more than P!"
Leo snatched the card from Raph and tucked it into his belt. "I think the flowers will last for a week or so – they're from a shop, look, they're all wrapped in plastic – and they're a good present!"
"They're a great present Leo," I said worriedly. I was the only one of us who had no present for Sensei. And Fathers day was in two days.
I spent the next day combing the sewers. I knew I could make something and Splinter would like it, but it wouldn't be as good as what Mike had made. And to beat the money or the flowers, it would have to be something extra-special. I couldn't face giving a normal present in the face of all the good things the others had given.
But there was nothing. And nothing. Followed by more nothing.
That night, two days before Fathers day, I grew desperate. I had an hour before I was due back and I had searched our allowed areas and come up with nothing. I needed something. Something great. Something better than anyone else had come up with.
And that's why I left the boundaries.
I didn't mean to do it. I was at the mark on the wall and thought I saw something shiny in the water. And Leo had gone a few steps outside to grab the flowers – so I took those few steps to see what the shiny thing was.
Broken glass as it turned out. But it emboldened me to go further.
I'm not going far, I told myself. A few steps. Just to see what I can find. It's important.
I had a piece of chalk with me that I had absently tucked into my belt while colouring earlier. I used it to mark where I was. Safe enough, I would be back soon and the damp would remove all traces within hours.
I don't know how long I spent scouring the sewers. Logic tells me it was maybe half an hour; memory says it was two hours at least. When you're a kid, time goes slower. What I realised was that I was out of the allowed area and no one knew where to find me. I myself had found nothing of value. I would have to admit defeat.
That was when I heard voices heading my way.
I scrambled up a pipe and onto another at the roof of the tunnel at a spot where it broke off at a 90 degree angle to another tunnel. Splinter had always said that if we did nothing else, we must hide from humans. Voices meant humans.
When they arrived, I was stunned. People, real people. Two girls, one blonde, one brunette. Gold dripped from their ears, necks, wrists. They were clad in fashionable clothes and they tip-toed around the worst of the sewer junk. I guessed them at about fourteen years old.
"I can't wait until I get a place of my own," said the brunette. "No more creeping around in the crap down here."
"No sweat," said the blonde. "Better than the park at least."
As I glanced down, I noticed the graffiti on the wall. How had I not realised before? This was a place for teens to come, out of the rain, to do – whatever they did.
I was getting my answer. They were messing around with a spray can and a plastic bag, getting high off the fumes. The smell hit me and I grimaced. I didn't know what they were doing back then, but I knew it smelled too strong.
"Man!" The blonde laughed, sounding weird. "That's good."
"Totally," agreed the brunette. "Gimme some more."
"Hey! I bought it!"
I clung to the pipe, trying to breathe through my mouth and still my heartbeat in case they heard it. Sensei's warnings came back to me in a flash.
You must never be seen, never be discovered… if the humans find out about us they will never accept us.
But a shadow of doubt lingered in my mind. Perhaps Splinter was wrong. Perhaps these two girls would like having me as a secret friend, like in the stories we sometimes read or saw on TV. The children in those kept their secrets and accepted their friend's differences and all.
I didn't plan to take that chance, but it was something nice to think about while I waited. I didn't dare move right then, not with the two girls doing whatever they were doing not too far away from me.
I even indulged in a little fantasy. I would introduce myself and they would like me right away. They'd be interested in the stuff that I liked and come back every day so that we could talk. And they would bring things, new books maybe, magazines, something I could give to Splinter for Fathers Day. I might tell my brothers eventually, but in my daydream they were my friends and mine alone. They were my secret and I theirs…
I saw something gleam dully on a ledge down below.
It was some distance from the two girls and would be out of their sight, but from the height I was at, at the corner of the tunnels, I could see it. I dismissed my fantasy and tried to see what it was. More broken glass? I didn't think so. Whatever it was, it was too small to make out from where I perched.
The two girls were laughing at something and the slightly hysterical tone made me think they weren't about to stop any time soon. I took my chance and put my fledgling ninja skills to good use. Splinter hadn't taught us much actual combat yet, but the art of silence and invisibility had come in handy for all four of us at one time or another, usually while pranking each other. I pulled my way along the pipe, careful not to make a sound, feeling ahead of me in case there was any debris I might dislodge and attract attention to myself.
In no time, I was around the corner, away from the girls and their laughter, directly above the sparkle that had attracted my attention. I craned down as far as I dared to get a closer look.
I blinked, a grin breaking across my face. It was a pendant of some kind, half the chain still attached. What was more; it was a big silver thing with what looked like a snake and a dagger on it. Not a girly pendant, and even if it proved to be, then it was still something I could work with.
Forgetting the girls now that their laughter had trailed off and they were out of sight, I swung off the pipe, hitting the ledge with a soft thud. I snatched the pendent, turning it over in my hands. It was better than I had imagined, a dagger but not a snake, some kind of Celtic band circling it instead. And if Sensei didn't like it, then he could pawn it for money and that would be better than Raph's twenty dollars.
I tucked the band carefully into my arm pad, where it was less likely to fall out than my belt, realising that I'd been gone too long and would have to get home before anyone noticed I was…
The sound made me jerk backward, looking around hurriedly. Even as I realised the scream had been playful rather than fearful or threatening, my foot came down over fresh air and I tumbled off the ledge and landed on my butt in the shallow, murky water running through the sewer. My hands flew back to stop me going any further and the left landed on something sharp, lacerating the palm. I gave a cry, part pain, part disgust, part delayed alarm from the fall.
I pulled the hand from under the water and looked at it, hoping that the water hadn't infected it too badly. The slashes had been washed clean but seemed deep and as I looked, they welled up with blood.
"I heard something! Back here!"
My eyes widened and I bolted to my feet, looking around wildly. I had never been to this part of the sewers, I was out of the area I was allowed in and the only way I could retrace my steps was to get through the two girls who stood in my path.
Before I could decide what to do, the girls rounded the corner and stopped dead as they caught sight of me.
For seemingly endless seconds the three of us merely stared. I had no idea what they were thinking but I was torn. Part of me wanted to flee, Splinter's warnings ringing in my ears. Another part of me wanted to find out more about them, see if the things I had learned from the psychology books were really accurate. The biggest part of me, the part that was still a child, wanted to say hello, ask if we could all be friends.
"I think I'm hallucinating," said the blonde faintly.
"Uh-uh, I see it too." The brunette shook her head violently, her earrings glinting in the meagre light.
"Eeeeeeww!! What is that thing?"
The tone of total revulsion brought all my childish fantasies of new friends to an end in a hurry. I tried to smile at them, show I wasn't a threat, but it was hard. I was desperately hurt by their reaction to me.
"What's it doing?"
I raised my hands slightly to show I wasn't trying to hurt them, taking a couple of steps toward them, trying to think of what to say. The book had claimed that showing a lack of aggression was likely to calm down a situation that was uncertain, a friendly remark could diffuse things, that people were essentially talkers rather than fighters…
I only noticed the bottle that the blonde held as she swung her arm forward and let it fly. It tumbled toward me, clear, heavy glass with a red label advertising its contents. I had no interest in what it held right then. I tried to bring my hands up and duck away, but the bottle hit me on the side of the head, sending me dizzy and staggering. It fell and broke beneath the water running down the sewer. A second later I fell too, my hands tying to break my fall but skidding on the gunk hidden by the sewer trickle. My head hit the floor, sending more stars across my vision and I landed right on the now-smashed bottle that had knocked me down in the first place. It slashed into the right side of my head, opening more cuts. I opened my mouth to yell and water rushed in, choking off my cries before I could make them, stinging the wounds newly opened on my face.
I sat up, spitting sewer water out of my mouth, looking at the cuts on my hands that had once more been washed clean but weren't going to stay that way long. The skin around them looked puffy and angry. Water ran down my body and at the side of my head I could feel the pain from the new wounds and something thicker than water slowly ooze down around my cheek.
Tears started up in my eyes. I was hurt and bleeding, sitting in sewer water; I just wanted to go home…
I'd almost forgotten about the blonde until she took a step forward, her designer trainers splashing through the water, the light reflecting off her face set in a look of delighted malice. She looked like some golden angel, about to deliver swift justice to the unworthy.
The two girls ran for me, beginning to laugh. I scrambled to my feet and fled, no longer caring which way I was going, even if it was further from or closer to home. They had already hurt me once and I knew if they caught me, it would be bad. They would maybe dunk my head under the water, cut me open, burn me with their cigarettes. Torture me, because they could get away with it, because I wasn't human, just some freak creature living beneath the sewers.
They would do it mostly because it was fun.
I could barely see through the tears of terror and rage in my eyes, feeling my heart beat wildly in my chest, adrenaline lending wings to my feet. The shouts and calls of the girls seemed to stay behind me the whole time, echoing from the tunnels, laughter ringing in my ears until I had no idea if they were behind me, in front of me- if I were about to run out of the sewer and into the custody of those who lived above ground, the ones Splinter had always warned me about who would take us prisoner to see what could be learned about us. And they too would be laughing, laughing because hurting me was funny.
I rounded a corner and slipped on the wet concrete, going down yet again and flailing to keep my grip, taking the skin off my knuckles. There were so many small wounds on my body, all leaking blood and getting infected by sewer water every time I fell. I was in an ecstasy of terror, afraid that any moment I would feel strong arms lift me up and then I would be trapped. And I was lost.
"Where is it?"
I cringed, trying to hold my breath, swallowing down air as it tried to escape my throat in gasps. The voice had come from behind me I was sure, but the acoustics of the tunnels made it tough to say for sure.
"I don't give a shit, it's dirty down here. Let's go. If that's what the frogs are like, think about the rats!"
The thought of the rats may have scared them, but it gave me some strength. Splinter would find me, save me from this. He had to. Because I was lost.
I didn't dare go back in the direction I had run from and after my panicked flight I wasn't even sure which tunnel I had burst out of. Instead I trudged onwards, planning to go on a little, take a left and somehow go back home the long way around. There had to be more than one tunnel leading to our lair. Splinter would be mad, but I didn't care. I was too tired and scared to worry about how angry he might be. All I wanted was my father, my home, to be safe in the light instead of cold and hurt in the dark.
But it wasn't going to be that easy.
All the tunnels looked the same. It was impossible to keep going in a straight line- so many branched off in other directions that I couldn't keep my bearings. And by the time I decided it might be best to just turn back and just hope the girls had gone, I realised it was too late. I didn't know which tunnels I had been in. I hadn't thought to make my marks once I had been chased. I didn't know if I was going around in circles or taking the tunnels out of the city. I just didn't know.
I could feel fear creep in slowly. I was lost. No one knew where I was. I didn't know where I was. But I couldn't let myself panic. If I panicked, it would all be over. Splinter wouldn't panic. Leo wouldn't, Raph wouldn't, Mikey… well, he would give himself ten minutes for a good cry, then press on. Maybe that was the right idea, but I couldn't bring myself to stop. What if I was to stop and the lair was only around the next corner?
So I kept going, even though my legs were tired and shaky. My head hurt where the bottle had hit it and where I had cut it open; my hands hurt where the skin was cut and grazed. The blood on my hands was drying to a thick crust which I would usually have picked off with deep concentration but now it seemed only to serve as a reminder of how wrong things were.
And the light was fading. It took me a while to realise that the little light that came in through the grates leading to the streets was dimming. Night was coming.
And soon it would be totally dark and I would still be wandering, lost and alone, far from my family. I could be lost until I died. And then one day, when the others grew up and looked around the sewers, they would find my bones and finally know what happened to me all those years before.
I began to hurry as if to leave those thoughts behind. But they kept up with me, so I went faster, faster. Then I started to run. I splashed through the sewer, my arms pumping, chest heaving, breath coming in sobbing gasps. I had to get home quickly, I had to – I just had to. Little kids didn't die in the dark and the cold, even if they were turtles….
But I was too exhausted to keep running for long. Soon I was doing nothing more than a fast stumble, tears falling down my beak and dripping unnoticed onto my plastron. It was when I took yet another turn and found myself staring at another length of tunnel so long and so dark that I couldn't even see the end that I finally gave up, accepted the inevitable. I was lost. I had no food and the water was unsafe to drink- Splinter had said so a hundred times. And I had the water in my wounds. I was probably already poisoned – I certainly felt poisoned. Like there was something terribly different inside of me.
I sat on the ledge and began to sob. I let the tears come freely – who was going to tease me for being a baby now? My brothers were never going to see me again. It didn't matter if I was brave because they would never know. At the thought of never ever seeing my family again, my sobs grew louder and my vision doubled, shimmering through the tears. I didn't raise a hand to wipe them though. I just let them fall as they wanted. Then I thought of how sad it was that they would not know what happened to me. Maybe they would think I ran away on purpose. That made me feel even worse. They would be devastated and it would all be my fault. I drew my knees to my plastron and let my shoulders shake with grief. They would be hurt and it would all be my fault.
And then I thought of the reason I was so far from home, those two girls who chased me and hurt me and I squeezed my eyes closed, my fists balling in rage.
"I only wanted to be friends!" I screamed into the tunnel. My voice echoed back to me, the only reply I got. There was no one else to hear me. I was all alone.
That's the point when I went into total emotional meltdown, lying on my side on the ledge and curling into a fetal position, howling at the unfairness of it all. The tunnel returned my wails back to me, but no one came. There was only a small, frightened turtle and the mocking echoes of his terror.
I couldn't keep it up for long. I had long before run out of adrenaline and the strong emotions that had raced through my body had all taken their toll on me. Soon the sobs turned to hiccups, the hiccups to gasps and the next thing I knew, I was tired. Too tired to keep my eyes open and too exhausted to care much what happened in this unsafe place while I slept.
What happened was that I woke up to total darkness. I was cold, a chill seeming to settle in to my bones. And it was silent save for the dripping of water and the faint sounds of rats making their rounds. Not the rat I wanted to see either.
I didn't move. I just hugged myself tighter and began to cry again. Not the sobs that had burst out of me earlier – I didn't have the energy for that. Just the tired, dispirited weeping that comes from someone left totally alone and without hope. A child lost in the dark, who knows he will never again know warmth or light or love. That out in the real world, it was cold and dark and there were monsters that wore human faces. Maybe there were monsters behind all human faces.
I thought I heard a noise nearby, louder than the scurrying rats and not an echo of the sounds I made. I choked off my sobs and listened hard. There was something there all right, something quiet but real.
They've come back to find me, I thought tiredly, thinking of the teenage girls whom I had wanted to befriend. Right then, I didn't care. Whatever happened, there could be nothing worse than being left alone to die in the dark.
But I wasn't going to just go along without a fight.
There was a pipe beside me and I used it to pull myself into a sitting position, a little afraid at how my body had seized up in the cold. I rubbed at my red eyes and the sore spot on my face, accidentally opening the slashes again and feeling them drip fresh blood over what had already dried there. I didn't care about that, about the livid red wounds on my palms or on my knuckles. I just wanted it all to be over.
I used the pipe as support, dragging myself to my feet, the thin sleep having done nothing to restore my energy. I felt about a hundred years old. But I wouldn't be found cowering on the ground like a baby. I was a Ninja Turtle and I was going to be brave, even if my brothers couldn't see me.
I strained to see into the darkness, but I couldn't see anything for what seemed like an age. And suddenly there was something, a darker shadow, moving toward me. I started to shake as it approached, but I wouldn't show fear. I wasn't going to be afraid. And I certainly wasn't going to make a sound. In the dark, sounds attract monsters. I never used to believe in monsters, but I knew now they did exist and they weren't always confined to the dark…
And then there was a spark of light, a match. It had been so log since I saw any kind of light that even that tiny pinprick hurt my eyes. But my arm felt too heavy to lift to shield my eyes, so I just narrowed them as the pinprick of light blossomed into something bright enough to see by.
And when my eyes had adjusted to the light, I could see that it came from an old-fashioned hurricane lantern. And Master Splinter was holding the lantern, looking at me with fatherly concern.
Once again, tears began spilling out of my eyes, only this time they were tears of disbelief. I wanted to run to Sensei, leap into his arms and tell him how horrible it had been – but I was scared. Scared I was dreaming it and that I would wake up to find all hope dashed once more. Instead I stared at him, clinging to the pipe, tears falling unchecked, filthy, covered in blood, still not wanting to wake up because even false hope was better than no hope at all.
And then he put the lantern down on the ledge and reached out, putting his hand on my shoulder and drawing me closer. That touch, the rough fur and gentle hand- that wasn't my imagination. Splinter was here and he was real. I was saved.
My paralysis broke and I threw myself into his arms, trying to tell him what had happened, unable to form whole and coherent sentences, my words tripping all over each other in their rush to come out.
"Quiet, my son," said Splinter, whispering into my ear. "Let us go home."
Home. Safety. The sweetest things in the world.
Splinter carried me all the way home, the lantern in his free hand, me with my arms wrapped around his neck. I didn't ever want to let him go.
The lair was bright and welcoming, my brothers sitting on the elderly chair in silence, bringing home to me just how worried they had been. Splinter made me take a bath, wash off the sewer gunk, then put dressings on my cuts and wrapped me in a warm blanket although usually none of us bothered with clothes. I was tired though, so tired that Splinter put me to bed and didn't question me. I knew there would be questions later, but for that moment I was willing to forget the whole nightmare.
Splinter stayed by my side until I fell asleep. Real sleep, curled up warm and safe, not shivering and alone in the dark.
When I woke up, Splinter wasn't there but I could hear the sounds of him moving around in the lair. That was comfort enough. I rolled a little and something sharp dug into my arm. I dug underneath and pulled out a toy car, a convertible with space for batteries. It was obviously old and overused, but someone had gone out of their way to decorate it. There were four paper figures inside, slightly squished, inexpertly coloured green. The hard work of my brothers, a little something to help me feel better.
I looked over to the rickety table beside my bed. There was a remote control lying on top of my psychology book, obviously to work the convertible car. I hadn't seen it before, but it seemed improbable they found it. Must have been something Splinter used to keep them occupied while he went searching for me – and I had seen for myself that they hadn't spent much time playing.
I flipped the 'on' switch on the car and set it on the floor, picking up the control and trying to get the little vehicle to move. No response. With a frown, I turn the control over. The housing for the batteries was slightly damaged and had let the batteries come loose. I fixed it, holding the casing in place with my hand and grinning as I was rewarded with sluggish movement from the car as it picked up speed along the floor.
That was real. Machines were predictable. They did as it said in the manual, the variables measurable and the outcome dependant on the input. Not like people, who weren't like machines at all. They were unpredictable and mean and no book ever written could explain their behaviour to me.
I picked up the psychology book from the bedside table and hurled it at the bin. It hit the wall and landed in the trash, knocking the whole thing over and sending drifts of paper across the floor. I didn't care. Everything that was written in that book was a lie.
I always found it hard to believe that people were genuinely good after that experience. I suspected they wore masks, although Sensei would tell me over and over that it was fear that made them act the way they did, fear because we are so different. But I didn't understand. I had never felt different until I had been made to feel that way.
After that, I gave up my dreams of meeting humans. I was happier underground, away from the whole species, with the mechanics that were predictable and understandable. They didn't care that my skin was green, that I had three fingers on each hand, they never screamed or chased me or threw things. Not unless they were supposed to anyway.
When we brought her back to the lair, I hung behind the others just waiting for her to start yelling and throwing things. She'd already fainted as soon as she saw us, so I didn't hold out high hopes for much more. And sure enough, the screaming began right away…
And then she calmed down. Listened to our story, accepted that we were real and seemed willing enough to help us. It was strange, totally outside what I had expected. It made the point that I had learned years before – humans were unpredictable and therefore not to be trusted.
I let down my guard without even noticing, swept up as we both were in our computer hacking and plans in regard to the mousers. She was fun, interesting, someone I could talk to. It was only after our confrontation with the mousers, after I actually picked her up without her recoiling in horror, that I realised that the friend I had envisioned in my childhood had just arrived in the flesh and changed our lives.
Still, some of the wariness lingered. There were times when I was in the sewers in the dark and would suddenly flash back to being small and defenseless and lost. Or I would hear a woman saying, "Eeeeewww!!!" and my blood would run cold. Even when it was April. Especially when it was April.
I never forgot those two girls. And I never forgave them either. I always wondered what would happen if I ever ran into them as a teenager myself, no longer a child and no longer an easy target. It's a stupid question really; they wouldn't even see me. I'm a ninja; I'd have faded away and be out of sight before they could even turn their heads.
But there were thoughts I hated myself for thinking but kept cropping up in my mind, thoughts of how nice it would be to see them suffer the way they made me suffer. To see them scared and afraid and alone. To let them know just what they did to me when I was a child and laugh at them. I don't like those thoughts – they're uncharitable and thinking them doesn't even make me feel any better. But sometimes I just can't help it.
And that's why I'm standing here now, on the fire escape, hesitating instead of acting.
I went out alone as I sometimes do, on my way to see April, to ask if she has a computer part that I need. I have the money that she can use to get me a new one when the shops are open, but mine has finally died on me and I wanted to finish what I was doing tonight. Hence the late night outing.
But such jaunts are never without incident and on hearing the scream, cut off by the sound of flesh slapping against flesh then muffled sobs; I head towards the sound, quickly but not particularly anxiously. I'll stop the bad guy, save the day and be half-way to April's before the stranger even realises she's been saved.
Only when I survey the scene, the girl is no stranger.
The blonde hair is shorter and her clothes are equally fashionable but more suited to a woman than a teen girl. The face is the same though, the stance, the voice. Only her eyes are different. Cowering away from a man who outweighs her by a hundred pounds, the eyes are wide and frightened. There's no malice in them now, only fear.
She's in the same position now that she put me in all those years ago. Now she's the victim.
I freeze, looking down on her, thinking back to all those times I wished that I could make her see what she did to me. I'd always taken a vicious, perverse pleasure in imagining it, even though the thoughts did nothing to make me feel better.
And now she's here – I don't know what to do. Is this poetic justice, some kind of karmic retribution?
"I told ya to shut up," growls the man, putting his face into hers.
Those wide-open eyes plead with him. "But – but Bill…"
Boyfriend then, I think to myself. Someone she knows at least. Nothing random about this crime.
The man reaches out, his hand almost covering her entire head. Then he shoves her backward, hard. She stumbles, falls on the ground and starts to sob. The cries of someone afraid and desolate, someone who doesn't know what to do. Someone who got lost somewhere.
I could leave her. I could let her deal with him herself, this man whom she invited into her life of her own free will. Her own choices, her own behaviour, brought her to this alley on this night and I could just leave her to face the consequences of the person she is.
Instead, I leap into the alley, grabbing my bo as I fall silently, landing on my feet and using one hand for balance, the other swinging my weapon low, taking the man off his feet. Before he can let out a sound, I straighten and bounce the end of the Bo against his temple. Lights out, goodnight.
How's that for helpless?
The blonde gasps and I know in the shadows, I must be hard to see. I have no desire to speak with her I tell myself, no desire to put myself through that rejection again.
I step forward and look into her eyes.
I keep my expression carefully neutral, even when I see her pupils widen and the flash of recognition across her face, as she steps backward and take in a sharp breath.
She's not the evil witch I saw every day as I was growing up, whom I still think of with something close to hate for shattering my innocent illusions. She's just another person, the same as anyone else I might see from my hiding place as they walk in the sunlight, oblivious to me.
I turn and start to walk away.
"I thought I'd dreamed you," she says shakily, sounding on the verge of tears.
I shake my head without turning. "I always wished that I'd dreamed you."
I can hear her behind me, breathing loudly; can sense her trying to think of the next thing to say.
"So why did you help me?"
I look back at her over my shoulder. "Because no matter what you thought, I'm not a monster."
And it's true. I might be different, but I'm not a freak. If compassion is what truly makes us human, then I'm more human than she ever was. I guess I've always known it, but it's good to realise I truly believe it.
I leave that bad memory behind and go off to April's. And while I might never let her in on the secret of the first human girls I ever met, she taught me for sure that they're not all monsters behind a mask.