When you see evil as a victim, it becomes less of what it was. Char was a monster to me, but I know his father. I know the kind of life he led and I know about his own abuse. It does not change my hate of him, but it does kinda. It is hard to fully commit to hate when you see it as a victim. It becomes less the face of evil, and more of a product of evil. A continuation of an overarching problem we face as humanity.
But when I saw Malice, I never knew the boy he had been. I never knew what made him the way he was. I only saw the darkness in his soul. I only knew the face of pure evil.
There were kindergarten schools all over the city, but 20th Street wasn’t one of them. They were first through sixth. When you made it past sixth grade, you went to junior high. Junior high was seventh through ninth. Then high school finished you out from tenth to twelfth. It was a different system from what we have now. It was a subtle difference but a big one.
The oldest kids set the tone for the entire school. When the oldest kids are in sixth grade, and they are still in one classroom, all day, you get one type of school. Relationships are less important. Girls hit you at seventh. Your social life really begins when you get to seventh grade. When the highest grade in your school is ninth, though, there is a marked difference in the type of school you go to. Here, the older kids are growing into bigger bodies. They are getting more physical. They are getting more aggressive, and they are getting more confident. It changes the dynamic of the entire school.
Elementary school was first through sixth, but when Less went to middle school, she was not bussed to the other side of town anymore. She was not on the north side of Milwaukee anymore. She could walk to school. It was a seven-block walk but it ended at a school that was almost all white. She walked into a different world. She walked into a different crowd.
Less had hated school since she had begun to hate, and that was young. When she was in third grade, back at 20th, the teacher had talked about failing her. Every year after that, her teachers either discussed it with my parents, or did it. When she got as far as junior high and she was accepted by the crowds there, she basically gave up. She was there for the socializing. She was there for the rougher kids. The bullies recognized her and brought her in.
She used to laugh about the kids her friends threw into the trash every morning. She used to talk about the smoking, and the knives. The fights her friends got into and the blatant disregard for any authority. She talked about how the nerds were treated and she laughed.
Now, we had been latchkey kids since I was in third grade and my mother went to work. We had simple rules to follow. When we got home, we locked the door and didn’t unlock it for anyone or anything. We were to never leave the house for any reason other than an emergency. We were never allowed to have friends in the house after school when my parents were gone. Chores. Dinner. These sorts of things, too. The life of a latchkey kid is pretty boring. When I came home and the rules were being broken, it shook me up quite a bit.
I got home and yelled for my sister. She went to school on this side of town. Since she made it to seventh grade, she had always beat me home. But this time she did not answer my call. She was not sitting in front of the TV watching music videos. She was gone.
Guardian went crazy. How did this happen? What had occurred, exactly, because he was getting mixed messages. The house had been unlocked. That meant she had at least made it this far. She was not answering when I called, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t home. Guardian went to her bedroom.
He knocked respectfully. He had been hit for knocking too hard once, and never did it again. But when there was no answer, he opened the door. This was against all the Laws of Less, but he did it anyway and saw her backpack on her bed. He went to the balcony. He yelled across the street to Beauty, asking if she had seen Less.
She was sitting on her porch listening to her boombox and she turned it down long enough to yell that she had not seen her since the morning. Beauty went to high school. She did not walk home with Less. None of the Benders did, either. Guardian was panicking. Then, he checked the bathroom.
It was locked.
He knocked, asking if she was alright. The door banged open and Malice walked out.
Malice was tall for a ninth grader. Lean, and looked as if he was starved. He had a gleam to his eye as he scanned the house, as though he was looking for something soft to squeeze. Like he was searching for something to hurt. He shoved Guardian once, then twice, before slamming him against the wall and snarling through filthy bangs with black eyes out of a pale face.
“He’s my little brother. Don’t hurt him, Malice,” Less said.
Malice smiled and shoved me again. He stepped back, and I saw what he was wearing. He had on a dingy black jean jacket with heavy metal pins and a few tears. The jacket was fading and ripped in places, a rotting piece of armor for a vile piece of a knight. His pants were filthy. They were falling apart, too, and his t-shirt was stained. He was the very image of a monster, and he laughed at me and made for the door.
When she walked him to the door, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. I had never seen my sister kiss anyone. It was deeply sexual and graphic. Malice grabbed her breast and she giggled. He looked at me, winked, and disappeared out the back door.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“That was my new boyfriend. He is in a gang and I am with him now.”
“Is he a Bender?”
“No,” she said. “He is something else.”
I tried to shake it off. Tried to not think about him, but every time I looked at my sister, I saw the boy’s hands on her and heard her giggling. Things had changed.
It was just days before the end of my first quarter of sixth grade.
When the quarter ended, we got our grades. I was getting all A’s. Less was getting all F’s. Her teachers told my parents that it seemed as if she was not even trying to listen in class, as if she had a different agenda.
My parents went into action. They sat us down for one of their lectures and started with me.
“Oh Jesse, you are doing so well. We have never seen you work this hard. You are such a good boy. Maybe you are a gifted kid after all.” Then my mom turned to Less and dropped my report card in her lap.
“Look at that,” Rose said. “All A’s, looks like he will be passing sixth grade.”
“Well, Less, you started two years ahead of him, isn’t that right?” Mumble said. He turned to my mother. “Then she failed fourth grade, didn’t she?”
“Yes, Mumble, a matter of fact she did.”
“Then Jesse was just one year behind her, right?”
“That’s right, Mumble,” my mother said. She seemed to be gloating, as if she were enjoying Less’s failing grades.
“Now it looks like if she doesn’t get her shit together, she is going to fail seventh and he will have caught up with her,” Mumble said. “How will that look, do you think? Your little brother in the same grade as you. Your little brother in your classes, hanging out with your friends.”
“Well, he might be more popular than her,” Rose said. “Maybe she won’t have as many friends as he does.”
Whenever they set us down for one of these lectures, Less pulled the left side of her hair over the left side of her face and picked at the ends. This time her right eye glared at me, hateful and vicious. I think that was the moment when it came to her just what she needed to do.
The next day, when I was standing at the sink doing dishes, I heard her walk past me to the door behind me. To this day I never stand with my back to a door. I can’t. Not anymore. I heard the lock turn. Heard the door swing open, but I thought nothing of it.
I thought Less was going to the basement to get the laundry. She was trying to help me. She must be, because laundry was my chore. I even thanked her right before impact.
I was slammed into, my face forced into the dirty dish water, and I was held under.
I slapped, I gasped, and I fought, but my head was being held by a hateful hand and I was not coming up. Fingers curled in my hair and I was jerked out of the water.
I gasped for air before feeling a slow burning in my back above my kidney. It burned like acid. I screamed and fought to turn around to see what it was. The fingers locked in my hair refused to let me. I fought and struggled, but the person behind me was stronger and meaner than me. The burning quit and before my eyes I saw the blade of a knife.
It was not a switch blade. It was not a butterfly knife. This was a folder with a thumb assist. The first inch of the knife had my blood on it and I heard a laugh behind me. Then directly in my ear I heard a whisper, a harsh vile whisper that, sitting here, I can hear in my ear again.
“You’re gonna fail sixth grade.” Chuckle. Not a laugh but a chuckle. “You’re going to fail or I am coming back and I am going to take this knife and slit your throat.” He smeared the knife and the blood across my neck. “Do you think I will do it?” He stepped back, and I fell. My knife wound stung as soon as I hit the ground. I looked up to see Malice standing over me.
He slowly turned the blade before my eyes. It was crimson with my blood. “Look at it. This is the knife I will do it with. Do you believe me?”
And I did. I looked into his eyes and saw true happiness for the first time. Not the anger and rage I had seen in him the days before, but true joy. The pain he had given me was a delight to him. I realized then he was never happy unless he was hurting something.
Our mother moved us out of that neighborhood and out of Milwaukee. It was a work-related move, but I think she was looking for a way out. She had looked into the eyes of Malice, too. Had seen what Billy Badass was doing to me, and she knew the souls of her children were at risk.
Thinking back on it, I could have told Billy. I could have told him about Malice and how he threatened me. Could have asked him to defend me, and he might have done it. Billy was my guy. He would have protected me. But Billy was not a killer.