INNOCENCE

"It's all right," He said sweetly, "Just watch how I do it."

His lip wore a moustache in much the same way his pudgy head wore a faded baseball cap. Big glasses, the likes of which I'd only seen truckers wear before, rested on his nose. Slightly askew. I itched to reach to his face and straighten them or, perhaps, to remove them entirely and then scratch his eyes out.

He never told me his name. To me he is only The Man.

The Man gripped the shoulder of Our Prisoner, also nameless. His ribs pushed outward, like at any moment they might break free of his belly, and his cheeks pushed inward with similar force. Gaunt didn't begin to describe the damage starvation had done to the Prisoner. There were bruises, burns, abrasions, poorly-healed lacerations proclaiming the myriad other abuses he'd been subjected to. The Man whispered in his ear, something I couldn't hear. But given the contorted relief on Our Prisoner's face and the brown stream of piss splashing onto the floor I thought I had the gist of it. "It'll all be over soon," I imagined he said. And at last I understood why The Man's basement smelled so foul.

Our Prisoner whispered, "Please."

The Man nodded, like he could ever comfort the Prisoner. He reached into a shirt pocket, removing something metallic. The Prisoner watched while The Man unfolded the item, the pocket knife, with deliberate slowness. I could see in The Man's bespectacled eyes a fervor, the kind of raw excitement only children can know. He was drawing the moment out so he could savor every last drop of piss, of sweat, but mostly of blood.

The Man held Our Prisoner's head back with a palm on his forehead and pushed the blade into his exposed throat. He slid it sideways, across the trachea, until it came out the other side. It sounded like music.

Rivers of scarlet lit the Prisoner's contours and depressions like so many floodlights, or like the bulb swinging lazily just over his head. My breath caught in my throat. It was the moment I had been waiting for, ever since meeting The Man, and it was as rare and invigorating as I had ever hoped it could be.

I begged The Man for the knife. "Please, let me do it."

He passed it on to me. He removed his hand from Our gasping Prisoner's forehead and took a step back. Softly, "All yours."

Where The Man's eyes shone with excitement mine burned with fury. I plunged the small knife into the Prisoner's belly. I stabbed him again, and again, then I cut across his stomach lengthwise. Blood and bowels spilled out and his small noises were silenced.

I screamed at the corpse. It was over too quickly, I wasn't finished with him. I wanted more blood. More piss, more sweat. I got vomit instead - my own vomit - leaking from my face and coloring the stinking pool of blood and piss a still more rancid shade than it was before.

The Man grabbed my hair and held it back. He rested his other hand on my back. It almost felt like affection. But I knew better. I wanted to kill him for what he'd done to the Prisoner. I had wanted him to myself.

He said, "It takes a little getting used to. If you want, there will be more."

After expelling a little more vomit and wiping my mouth with the back of my sleeve, I stood facing him. "More," I begged.

The restaurant smelled of cigarettes and overcooked meat. It was a common haunt of mine, a diner beside a highway patronized mainly by truckers and sometimes by tourists. Something about the transience of the crowd appealed to me. Never the same face twice, and seldom a smiling one.

I sat at the bar beside a heavy woman whose most prominent features were greasy hair and a grimace that must have been a permanent fixture. The headline on the newspaper she read proclaimed, "FAMILY MAN MISSING". In a smaller typeface followed, "WIFE AND GIRLS HEAD SEARCH EFFORT".

I said to the woman, "What'd you think? He murdered or is he just chicken, abandoned those girls?"

The woman gave me a look of disapproval without turning her head. But she responded, "Knowing men? He must've run." She held the paper aside just long enough to shovel some unhealthy-looking eggs in her mouth.

I took a bite of my own unhealthy-looking eggs, too. I couldn't think of anything else to say.

A man sat beside me with a quiet grunt. He opined, "They always do run, don't they?" His sudden presence startled me. I hadn't noticed him come in, and I always noticed when someone came in.

The frowning woman, unperturbed, said to him, "Why? Some man run from you, too? Maybe he ran 'cause your cock taste nasty."

He - who was, or would soon be, The Man - said, "I don't think that one ran."

I said, "Why?"

The Man shrugged. I sensed he knew something I and the other woman didn't. There was something about him. About his countenance, or how confidently he'd said it. About those awful glasses, too big for anyone's face, or about the terrible blue eyes behind them. More than anything those eyes reminded me of a child's.

"Well, why not?"

He glanced at the homely woman, whose patience for conversation had been worn thin. She was paying more attention to her paper, now. Then to me he boasted, "Because I'm the one who took him."

He smiled. It was sweet. No, it wasn't sweet. But it would've been, had it not been preceded by a claim so hideous.

"You shouldn't kid," I said.

He looked at my plate of almost untouched scrambled eggs, sausage, and potatoes. "You gonna finish that?" Nothing he did suggested he might have been kidding.

I looked back at the woman and, satisfied she was too absorbed in her paper and meal to take notice, I leaned in toward The Man. He was still smiling. I whispered, "Can you show me?"

He took a bit of egg off the plate and, with his hand, stuffed it behind his teeth. He chewed, and swallowed, and smiled anew.

In The Man's basement, I had a Prisoner all to myself. He was naked, fastened with legs apart, arms held above his head. He whimpered for mercy. I explored The Man's shelves and cabinets and found instruments of every conceivable torture. I set upon a knife, and as best I could tell it was the same knife that killed the Our Prisoner before.

I thought it would be a fitting start to the end of My Prisoner.

The short blade hovered under his nose, tickled his moustached mouth. I moved it down, where it lightly poked his throat. The single overhead bulb illuminated his sweating flesh. He tried to wet his dehydrated lips. I moved the knife lower, to his plump belly.

He said, "Please."

"You ready to die?"

He shook his head.

I demanded, "I want it back."

He'd taken everything important to me and buried it beneath memories and fantasies of violence, death, torment. Even now there remained a depthless innocence on his face, in his blue eyes, but mine was all gone.

When he showed no comprehension I shouted, "You stole it from me!" Spit showered his face. He was a vampire, I decided, who drank innocence instead of blood.

He closed his eyes and, for the first time I'd seen, he cried. The sound of it was pathetic. He pissed, too, and it soiled my boots. I howled rage at him and stuck the knife into his navel. He gritted his teeth and bawled, but I wanted him to scream.

I looked around for something more threatening and picked up a blowtorch from a shelf nearby. I waved it in front of his tightly-shut eyes. "You'll give it back to me, you piece of shit."

Continued sobs were his only answer.

I lit the torch and pointed the flame at the knife, still embedded in My Prisoner's pale flesh. Its metal approached a lovely, glowing shade of crimson and clenched teeth turned to agonized moaning, and finally to abject screeching. I'd never heard a person make such noise, and it filled me like hot brandy. I laughed, I shrieked with ecstasy, and when I met his eyes the childlike light had fled from them. I watched his immature heart metamorphose into a cold, black, furious ember. I felt new warmth in my chest and I knew that I'd seized back my innocence.

I'd savor this. I wanted to see what The Man looked like starved. I wanted to see him without fingers. Without eyes in his sockets. Without hope. It was even better than tormenting an innocent because, in his way, The Man would understand that he deserved it. I would redeem him.

Written by Sophie Kirschner