—Don’t go—she said. Leaning on the door frame as if she was about to fall down. I understood that she was worrying about me. She could’ve stopped me, but she didn’t. Only the words: “Don’t go.” A lump in her throat, no strength to say more than this. And I left her standing there in her white t-shirt and washed-out jeans. This is how I remember her in that moment.
I can’t say that girls are any easier now. I think we were just unlucky. Me and Bolo. Other guys already had it covered—sports jocks with deep voices. I don’t know what was wrong with us. Fourteen year old virgins from a small town, trying to get under girls’ bras or between their legs. Maybe we were just trying too hard. We played Nintendo, roamed in the forests, and spanked our monkeys like it was a race.
For a long time, we paid no attention to Zośka. Maybe it was because we’d always known her. We’d lived in the same neighborhood all our lives. She was much taller than us, and had manly hands with short, stubby fingers. She wore boy’s clothes and was always kicking a ball around and telling mucky jokes. She was massive. Once the roof of a shed collapsed when she stood on it.
One day everything changed: I noticed her leaving her block in a very short dress. She’d dyed her hair black and wore a new bra. Our mate Zośka had become a woman. The race was on. We followed her around like lap dogs, but she only laughed at us. She was two years older than us, and to her, we were just brats.
Spring came and the town’s thoughts turned to the disappearance of a young child, his picture covering the streets. The third boy to go missing. But we had something else on our minds. Zośka’s legs, arms, lips—and what she could do with those lips. We took her to the cinema, played games of pool, and we couldn’t wait for the summer so we could swim in the quarry. Zośka in her swimming suit—now that would be something! Bolo asked me to back off, he even begged. He tried to bribe me with ten of his best mixed tapes. I think he really loved her.
Our only fear was Mr. Scar. He lived in a big, dilapidated house on the outskirts of Rykusmyk. His shaven sideburns made him look like an old soldier from American movies. He always wore a short denim jacket and dirty shoes covered in mud. He didn’t have a family, and nobody knew his age or if “Scar” was his real name or just a nickname. He barely ever visited our town. He used to drive an old Russian four-by-four, buying gas bottles, sweets, and many fish-hooks. I really don’t know what was wrong with him, but his cold stare could make you feel terrified.
Mr. Scar had just one eye. He lost the other whilst working in the mine—the screwtop of a mineral water popped into his face. His teeth made him look like a monster, and so people were surprised when he appeared in our local shop with a smile like from an American sitcom. As a gift to Zośka, Bolo promised to steal his new false teeth. I didn’t want to be outdone, so I promised to bring his glass eye. Zośka laughed at us and, as always, didn’t take us seriously. But whilst I was leaving, she finally realized we were pretty serious. “Don’t go”—she said. But I left.
Mr. Scar’s house was next to the forest. The ground floor was made of concrete, but the rest of the structure was made of wood. And it had begun to rot. The chimney was falling apart, roof tiles were in disarray and there was no light in the windows. You could get there via an old stony road, but we didn’t want to be noticed, so we chose a way through the surrounding fields. We laid flat on our bellies. Bolo took out some binoculars and scouted ahead, then passed them to me. Seen from a shorter distance, the house seemed even more obscure and abandoned. If it wasn’t for Mr. Scar’s car, we’d have been certain the house was actually abandoned and we had just made up the whole Mr. Scar thing. In that case we could have just gone back home.
I thought someone like Mr. Scar should have a dog or something. I saw the remains of what looked like a dog house and many random things were just strewn around—rabbit cages, some wooden boards, and old car parts. I looked at Bolo. He was trying hard not to look scared, but I knew he was. I think we both waited for the other to say: “Let’s go home,” but neither of us did. And then it all began.
If I could say anything about Bolo, it would be that he was an unhappy kid, as was I. We only became friends because there were no better options. Bolo’s shoulders were narrow, his belly was soft, and his legs were crooked. He spoke slowly and was always uptight, like he was constantly defusing a bomb. And I thought he would never be able to manage his life, even if the golden fish appeared to fulfill his dreams. Nowadays he’s a timid shell of a man with two kids and a wife who doesn’t love him and who he doesn’t find attractive.
I know he keeps thinking about that night, and that he regrets what happened.
We crept around the house. Mr. Scar lay in his bed. There were three glasses on his bedside table: one with his glass eye inside, one which contained his false teeth, and one with vodka in it. It was dark and the objects within the room formed dark shapes. Bolo wanted to enter through the door, but I noticed a window was open on the first floor. I helped Bolo to climb inside, and once he was up he pulled me in through the open window. The floor creaked. I looked around at the furniture; it was so old it could probably remember WWII, and all the pictures were of people who had probably died years ago. The room smelled odd, something old, like a mixture of sweat, cheap perfumes, and death. I don’t think Mr. Scar spent much time on the first floor. He probably settled downstairs and didn’t bother venturing upstairs.
There was a chair and an old wooden rocking chair in the corner. The carpet was full of cigarette burns, and there was a broken coal trolley next to an old oven and many canvas book covers. I was surprised that there was an old typewriter on the heavy table. And a violin without any strings. Next to the wall there were many tools: fishing rods, a couple of axes, and some baskets that smelt of fish. We were careful not to damage anything.
When we got to the kitchen, there were a couple of buckets on the floor and a table with a plastic tablecover. I kept checking on Bolo and looking around. He walked like an ape, hunched with his arms dangling toward the floor. He was trying to catch the air with his nostrils, and squinting his eyes as if to hide them from sight.
If you asked me to recall some memories from that day—apart from the steel door and the knocking we could hear from the other side of the building—it would be the hazy dusk, the horrible smell, and sweets wrappers all over the place.
I felt like I had discovered Mr. Scar’s weakness. He obviously loved candy: Snickers and white chocolate, but above all, he loved cola-flavored jelly sweets.
There were piles of jelly sweets wrappers next to a badly burnt oven and a sink full of dirty dishes.
Standing silently in that fucking dimness, we were able to hear Mr. Scar’s snoring from the other room. We decided it was now or never. Bolo and I were desperate to just snatch what we wanted and run all the way back to Zośka. Bolo went first. Mr. Scar was lying on his back, wearing only underpants and a tank top. His veins were bulging, and he had small but strong-looking muscles and many scars on his arms.
I was right behind Bolo. He was almost there, right next to the glasses that contained our prizes, when suddenly Mr. Scar sat up and looked around through a sleepy haze.
We scurried behind the door. Mr. Scar just sat there for a little while and mumbled to himself. Finally he lay back down and went back to sleep. I checked on Bolo; he was shivering. There was another door behind him on the other side of the room. We didn’t know what to expect there, but there was no chance for us to go back the way we had come. At this point we were so afraid, we’d stopped thinking of the eye and the teeth. Bolo crawled to the door. I followed him.
The room we entered was small and darker than the rest of the house. The blinds were drawn and there was lots of stuff on the windowsill, but the floor was clean. There was no furniture apart from a little stool. A second door on the left led back to where we’d already been—the part of the house with the burnt oven and the stairs. In the middle of the floor was a trap door, no bigger then a square meter but locked with a shiny new padlock. I checked it thoroughly. Bolo kept pointing at the door on the left, while I concentrated on the padlock, struggling with it in my hand.
And so we were sitting in the darkness, gathering our strength and catching our breath, Bolo with his scared face and me with the padlock in my hand. And then came a knocking. A very quiet, soft knocking coming from somewhere beneath us.
Now when I try to remember what happened that day, I think I might have heard some strange noises, the terrifying moan of a weird creature, something between a child and an animal. Maybe I just imagined it.
The imagination can sometimes go crazy. But what I’m definitely sure of is that Bolo escaped, not waiting for me. Unseen like some kind of ghost, he ran upstairs. Once there he jumped from the window and, after crashing to the ground, he ran.
At the police station he cried like a baby.
I sat there, still crouched down above the trap door. I decided to knock back. Then a stronger knocking came from the other side. The person—or whatever it was—seemed to know it wasn’t Mr. Scar knocking, and knew that there was someone else in his prison now.
Knock, knock on steel.
He must have been very weak, the knocking was so soft—more like tapping. All the leaflets I’d seen in town suddenly came back to me. How strong could a seven-year-old child be? Instantly I wanted to save him, but I didn’t have the key.
I started thinking. The layout of the house was such that it was possible to get from the prison to the other room and then to the kitchen, from the kitchen to the bedroom and back here.
I prayed to God and tapped the trap door with a stool. The sound lingered in the air longer then I’d hoped.
Mr. Scar was awake, shouting. I ran to the other door, then into the kitchen, and I crawled under the table. I saw his shadow approaching, but I’m sure I got to the bedroom with one jump and remained unseen. Mr. Scar was already there, standing above the trap door, still in his underpants and a tank top. He held the stool and rattled the padlock. Hidden under the bed, I managed to crawl to the bedside table, took the eye out of the glass, and ran down the stairs, then burst outside where a rain like shards of glass fell on me.
I hurried through the fields, but the time it took really scared the shit out of me. Once I made the forest I hid and felt as if I could stay there forever. The ground was damp and cold, like a dungeon. The shadows of the trees resembled sharp knives and fangs, and every rustle sounded like the massive figure of Mr. Scar just about to catch me and take back his eye. It was only when the sun began to set that I heard the drone of passing cars and built up my courage to go back home.
The police felt sorry for me. I told them the truth, every word. Well, the part with the stool and the stolen eye, I kept to myself. In fact, I refused to admit that I’d stolen the eye. I don’t think they believed me, but it doesn’t matter now. Bolo was at the police station a couple of hours before me.
Mr. Scar was arrested the same night, while I was still in the forest. They caught him in his yard in the middle of burying the body, sweaty and panting from exhaustion, dirty from the blood and mud. The cop who had put him in handcuffs later told everyone who’d listen that Mr. Scar was very calm and even offered his help in digging up the body. His only eye, the real one, was as empty as the dark hole in the ground next to where he stood. The kid’s body was returned to the parents.
And I know now what it means to feel remorse.
• • • •
My parents did the best they could for me. They didn’t want to let me out of the house, so I waited two days before visiting Zośka. The whole Mr. Scar story had spread like wildfire. Everone in Rykusmyk knew. Zośka was home alone, in her tight jeans and a low cut blouse. She let me in this time. We stood in the corridor next to the open bedroom doorway. I had a speech prepared in my head but found myself tongue-tied. I just handed her the eye. And I only managed to stammer that I needed to go back home. I only wanted to sleep.
She looked at me like no other before nor after, pulled me closer and pleaded: “Don’t go.”
• • • •
Author’s Note: This story is set in the 1990s in Rykusmyk, a small town in Poland. The name of the town is a play on words. In Polish, “ryk” means “scream,” and “smyk” means “small child”: the town where little boys scream.