Five easy steps into the darkness, and one chance at redemption. Jack, in six moments.
It's a slippery slope
He is three years old.
He stares at the man's hand. It is huge in his vision, the creases and wrinkles and rolls of skin like a foreign planet his Mama and Pa are going to take him to.
But they are, because this man says they're dead, like that birdie he found two weeks ago, dead like the annoying bugs his Pa is always swatting.
But people don't die. He wants to say. People don't, only bugs and birdies.
The man says a lot of things. He says:
"You can come with me or you can go to an orphanage."
"I really don't care."
And he says:
"But maybe you could be useful."
He doesn't like the way the man looks at him, can't explain why that gaze makes him feel like squirming and shrinking and hiding.
But Mama and Pa are dead and he doesn't want to be alone.
Big eyes clouded with trust and innocence, he slips his little hand into the man's and they go on an adventure.
And you can fall
He is four years old.
Uncle Virgil stares expectantly down at him. The hand on his shoulder is getting tighter with every millisecond of his silence, reminding him that he cannot fail. But he isn't looking at Virgil; he is seeing the nice old man's kind eyes and craggy face. He is hearing the soft voice, asking him a question.
His Uncle's hand squeezes so hard it hurts but he knows he can't cry out. He remembers Uncle Virgil saying:
"No one cares about anyone but themselves." And "Don't ever expect anyone to help you out the goodness of their hearts."
So he swallows against the tears and reminds himself that this old man is Playing Pretend just the same as they are, and no one really cares.
He Pretends to be the Orphan and Uncle Pretends to be the Orphanage Director.
"Sam?" The Director asks.
The Orphan has been silent for too long. His head jerks and he makes it look like he wasn't listening but he is now.
"I asked, young man, what it's like at your orphanage?" The Kind Old Man asks. "Could you benefit from my money."
He Pretends, and tells himself later that it's not lying.
And you can slide
He is six years old.
That's not too old for Pretending, but it's getting harder. Sometimes he knows the people he plays with don't know it's a game, but he tries to ignore this. Uncle Virgil always has so much fun when they play. Uncle Virgil says he's very good at it.
He's been left alone in the room aboard the luxury starliner. He thinks Uncle will be in that room he Pretended to wander into two days ago, breaking into the safe behind the painting he Pretended to accidentally knock over. Uncle has been teaching him how to do that; he likes the clicking noises.
And the climb back up is long
He is nine years old.
He is escaping, but not quietly enough. Some of them wake up.
"Where are you going?" A boy asks him. In the darkness he can't see who it is.
"Leaving." He says. He is leaving this slave camp for mining boys. It only took him a week after Uncle Virgil sold him to get the entire layout in his head and now he's going to the rendezvous.
"Take me with you." The boy says.
"Take us with you." The boys say.
His head bows and his eyes shut and his hands clench. He turns away. "I can't." It is pleading, begging them to understand.
"Why not?" They ask.
I'm not strong enough. He wants to say but doesn't.
"Why not?" They ask. Their voices are rough and gravelly and in the ones who have been here longest liquid rattles every time they breath. Breathing hurts, here. Why does it hurt to live?
It is full of obstacles
He is twelve years old.
He's used to it, finally. Used to the lying, and the selfishness. The risk and the gain and the rush of a job well done. He can't imagine any other life. He can't imagine the future beyond the next job.
This is the first time Uncle Virgil has trusted him to break the safe himself.
He doesn't have much time. He's already blocked the camera with the balloon they're giving out to children in the party room below. That innocent accident has given him more time than just taking out the cam.
Who expects a kid with a balloon to steal access codes from a near-impregnable safe?
He cracks the safe, disables the backup mechanism that would have incinerated the codes and his face, and takes what he wants.
In the party room he will nod to his Uncle, and they will quietly slip away, and the job will be done. He will tell himself he is feeling the rush of a job well done. And when he uses the ship's shower on the hottest setting for half an hour it is not because he's trying to burn off all the dirt and shame and lies. Not at all.
(He's still not too old to Play Pretend.)
And things you can't do alone
He looks at the dragon's paw, and remembers that Virgil isn't here anymore and he's living with the ghost of his Uncle, and what he should have been.
Draycos slides up onto his skin and settles around his shoulder like a representation of the burden he just took upon himself. Settles there like destiny.
"My name is Jack." He says and savors it. He's tired of being someone else.
But you can make it.