Dassa came to care for Milo when she was twenty; he was the newborn mistake her whore of a mother passed off to her:
"Take care of him, won't you? He's your brother. You know I'm no good for that, take care of him, won't you?"
Yeah, mom, she'd said, gritting her teeth against righteous anger as she took the one month old bundle into her arms. Yeah, I will.
Her mother would die of lung cancer two years later anyway: it was for the best that Dassa was to take care of Milo. She was born to be a mother, regardless of what both the doctors and her infertile uterus had to say about it.
She got herself a steady job and she spent her paycheck on baby bottles and pacifiers.
- Bibs, cribs, little jet-plane mobiles to coax him to sleep at night -
Kaize - the good brother, the kind brother - helped out too, of course, because playing the role of a single mother was too hard, especially for a girl with a double shift and with/out/ a college degree.
It didn't matter though, because Dassa loved Milo.
Milo, with his soft baby cheeks and his wide baby eyes. Milo with his chocolate hair (just like Kaize's) and his curious hands.
For a little while, Dassa even began to believe that everything might be okay again.
He was four years old and sharp as a whip, sitting by the window sill and looking over at her with wide, shining eyes. Dassa paused in the doorway, frozen mid-step by the foreign gleam she saw within the depth of those beautiful baby-blues.
Ice pooled into her stomach and settled there, heavy, terrifying.
"What're you doing, Milo?"
He beamed at her.
"Playin', Auntie. Will you play with me?"
The gears in her head began to turn regularly once more and she crossed the soft carpeted floor to stand over him. "What're you playing...?"
He gestured to the window sill and she shuddered:
He'd been collecting flies.
They were organized into neat little piles, and most of them were still twitching, but none of them flew; he'd ripped the wings off and pushed them to the side.
"Silly, aren't they?" he hummed, tilting his head and watching the frantically crawling insects through lidded eyes.
Dassa couldn't speak, couldn't move. She could do nothing but watch as her beautiful baby boy lifted one of his hands and slammed it down on an escaping insect.
"Bye, bye, Mister Fly!"
He filled her ears with his soft bell laughter, and something inside her broke.
When Milo was seven years old, he watched a sixth-month-old kitten be hit by a car.
He'd been walking back from the grocery store with Dassa, his beloved Auntie, when he'd heard the tell-tale shriek of car brakes. His head whipped around just as Dassa gasped and reached a hand out to cover his eyes.
Milo pried her fingers away and stared at the scene with glowing fascination.
Two minutes ago, he thought, that kitten had been alive. It had been stalking a butterfly across the street, it's fuzzy tummy brushing the ground, its bottom in the air, its tail curled excitedly.
Now that kitten was a clump of fur and splintered bone.
He smiled: Just like a bug splattered on the windshield.
Dassa started dragging him away then, her grip on his hand painfully tight. He didn't mind, though, because Auntie would never mean to hurt him. Auntie loved him, and he squeezed her hand back even as he craned his neck to look over his shoulder.
She'd tried, he knew, but she couldn't sweep him away in time to keep him from hearing the devastated shriek of the little girl who'd just discovered what had recently been her new pet kitten.
Milo giggled. "Auntie," he asked, swinging their hands and staring with his wide, childish eyes up at Dassa's strained face. "Can we go for ice-cream?"
She forced a smile, told him maybe later, and he hummed the rest of the way home.
Dassa sat at her dinner table that night, reflecting on the way he danced through the rest of the day, happy, content, and she tried to convince herself that he had forgotten, somehow.
He'd thought of it over and over again:
That car was coming, and the kitten was alive.
The car went by.
The kitten wasn't alive anymore.
It made him happy.
Milo was frantic.
"No!" he screamed, angry because Auntie's eyes were wet and her face was white. He hated her for crying; he hated when he cried, hated it when he was the reason and it was her fault anyway!
"You have to, Milo. We can't have these incidents happening - "
His eyes flicked to the bottle of pills she had clenched in one hand. No, he didn't like the pills. The pills made him feel cold and empty, like he was made of nothing at all. He didn't WANT to -
"No!" He shrieked, his voice hitting too high an octave and shattering.
"No, no, no, nononononoo!" She took a step towards him and he hissed like an angry cat, his hand whipping out and slapping her straight across the face.
Her head turned with the impact and red bloomed painfully under the smooth skin of her cheek.
Milo whimpered, drawing back and scrambling behind the sofa.
Auntie took a deep breath and he could tell she was trying to keep calm by the way her lip trembled but her voice remained still. "You're twelve years old, Milo!" He shrank into himself at the sharp edge in her voice.
"You're too old to be acting like this!"
"Like what?!" He gripped the faded blue fabric of the couch, fingers scrabbling desperately and eyes darting back and forth.
"W-was it the neighbor's dog? You hated that dog! It was always barking at you, I hated it!" He slammed his fist down and watched the horror slide back into Dassa's eyes.
"You set it on FIRE, Milo! You tortured that poor animal and you killed it and you're lucky I'm allowed to keep you here at all! They wanted to take you away, Milo!"
Her eyes had filled up and were spilling over, crystalline tears that caught at the tip of her nose and made the fly-away strands of curly brown hair stick to her flushed cheeks.
Milo was clinging to the back of the sofa like his life depended on it.
Rage boiled in the very depths of his soul and he made a sound in the back of his throat that was so feral it made Dassa retreat a few steps.
"They can't! They can't take me away!"
He saw the fear in her face, realized he was scaring her - /he/ was scaring Auntie, and his snarl fell hard from his face. He whimpered again, whined like a kicked puppy.
Dassa's slender shoulders hunched forward suddenly, head bowed; the pill bottle dropped from her hand and rolled next to her feet.
He leapt over the couch and threw himself at her, arms wrapping tight around her ribcage, face buried into her chest as he let out a relieved sob. Her hands flew to his head, stroking his hair and rocking him gently. He listened to her soft angel-voice, the soothing, broken words that spilled like nonsense.
Milo turned his head, rested his ear right over her heart, and looked down at the pill bottle.
With dangerously narrowed eyes, he discreetly kicked it under the dish cabinet when Auntie wasn't looking.
Milo came home from school to find Dassa sitting at the dinner table with three people he'd never seen before.
Seventeen and fiercely possessive of his aunt, his hackles were instantly raised as he scowled at the three faces when they turned to look at him.
Dassa sipped her tea, calm and composed. Her eyes were cold and locked away, but Milo didn't notice, too preoccupied with glaring at the strangers.
His Auntie had many odd friends, and he'd been able to tolerate them all because she liked them so much, but these three were probably the strangest he'd ever encountered. Two men and a woman, and they smelled like death.
The tallest one - Milo recognized him as the leader by his contemptuous smirk and expensive suit - spoke first.
"So this is the brat."
He was foreign, his words sharp with a British accent that only managed to make Milo recoil further.
"Cool it, Ace, don't be a jerk." The other man, small and delicate with pale eyes and a nervous smile, glanced over at Dassa, who had remained silent. "You don't even know the kid."
"You smell." Milo spoke bluntly, lips set into a thin line.
The woman laughed. It wasn't a pleasant sound, nothing like Auntie at all.
"He has a nose on him, though, doesn't he?"
Milo scowled and dropped his school bag with a thump, walking around the table and standing behind Dassa. "I don't like you," he said, pouting at them as he leaned down to rest his chin on the top of his Auntie's head.
Dassa spoke for the first time: "Milo, these people are going to take you away for a while."
Auntie's voice was like iron and he felt, perhaps for the first time, that there was no way to escape this one, no room for argument. He stared at her as she stood and turned to look at him. There were dark circles under her eyes and tired lines around her lips.
He sounded like he was three years old again, frightened by a nightmare.
"They're going to teach you things..." She seemed to falter, like she didn't know how to correctly word what she wanted to say. "So that you fit better." Her hand came up, soft and warm, to rest against his cheek.
"You know you've never fit here, in this world. They're going to take care of you and maybe if you do everything they tell you... I'll see you again soon."
Milo's mind churned and then came to an abrupt stop. He did not speak. He did not think. Dassa had packed his bags. The haughty foreigner was throwing them into the trunk of a shiny black car. Dassa kissed his forehead.
I don't want to...
Don't make me leave...
Dassa disappeared around the corner and Milo watched his life become a tiny pinprick against the setting sun through the tinted glass of the car window.
Dassa had been right, he knew, because in her world he'd be called a psychopath. They'd lock him up in a jail cell or a padded room or an electric chair. They'd put him on the news and they'd do a television special about the darkness of his mind.
In /his/ world they just called him a professional.
He sucked on the candy in his mouth, balanced precariously on the inch of concrete outside of Dassa's apartment window. He was several hundred feet off the ground with mid-December winds whipping at his clothes and hair, but there was no fear of falling.
There was no fear of anything at all anymore.
The windowpane was cold when he leaned his forehead against it, his breath fogging the glass as he stared into the world he'd never understood. It was warm inside, glowing with love and happiness. His fingertips drew distracted circles into the frost and he watched, a silent spectre.
Dassa hadn't changed much.
She'd grown older, of course, but with a kind of impossible grace that made Milo smile, happily. She was lovely, and the streaks of gray in her hair or the crow's feet in the corner of her eyes did little to diminish her beauty.
Her life, it seemed, /had/ changed, though.
There were new people in her house.
They weren't like him. They didn't set the neighbor's dog on fire, they didn't rip the wings off of flies.
They didn't smile and laugh when someone's seven-month-old kitten was killed by a car.
There was a new baby, too. A cute, plump little creature that giggled and kissed her cheek just like he used to. And Auntie stared down at it with all the love and none of the pain that Milo remembered. She tickled it under its fat little chin, gave it eskimo kisses and tucked it into a crib that might have been Milo's once upon a time.
The spectre at the window felt his heart twist with more hatred than he had ever felt in all of his life.
Dassa retreated and the baby remained, mischevious and curious and wobbling on inexperienced feet.
It stood and looked around, bright blue eyes fiercely determined; its gaze settled on Milo at the window.
Milo squinted. He thought it might be a boy; it was wearing footie pajamas with trucks on it instead of disney princesses.
The little boy cooed, hands curling around the jail-bird bars of his crib. Milo tilted his head and tapped a finger against the glass of the window, watching the bright smile grow larger.
"Froo!" said the child.
Milo imagined that happy smile smashing onto the sidewalk five stories down, and he grinned right back.
He might have done it, might have snuck in, silent as a shadow. He might have taken that evil, terrible child and flung it out of his and Dassa's life forever, but his angel was returning with a baby bottle and a smile.
"Cody? What're you still doing awake?"
She hummed, crossing the room; she passed the bottle to reaching hands and peered out into the darkness in attempt to see what had caught his attention.
Nothing but the wind and the stars and a hollow emptiness in her heart.