The very first time I did it, a long scar ran down my back, so thin it was almost invisible, trailing from between my shoulder blades down to my tailbone. It was barely there, but it burned; oh yes, it burned so much that I thought my skin was being torn apart. It left me writhing in pain on my bed for two whole weeks, unable to comprehend anything; I was helplessly stuck in a pain-filled stupor. But I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t do it again.
She was my grandma and it wasn’t her fault that she got stage four bone cancer. I loved her and I really thought that she was going to…go, so it was pure instinct that I wrapped my arms around her in a I-guess-this-is-the-last kind of hug. And that was when I felt someone draw a line down my back. At first it was kind of ticklish, but then it started to heat up till the line seemed to throb and I could even imagine it scarlet and oozing blood. By then, I wad already trapped in the the cold, cruel darkness that held me with its claws, tightening ever so slightly every second, crushing my ribcage, forcing me to scream and thrash around. I wanted the torture to end; I screamed for release, for the end, but all it did was laugh at my feeble state, the darkness taking on the face of a hideous monster with wide, half-crazed orbs staring down at me laughingly; his sinister grin stretched too far across his face, showing glistening red flesh slick with fluid. He smiled even wider as he stalked towards me, showing me his needle-thin teeth. I thought I was really going to die. A life for a life; it all made sense.
However, the next day, when I was finally released from my prison, my grandma was leaning over me, feeding me her famous chicken soup.
As you can see, my family was equal parts horrified and amazed that my hug could cure anyone, anywhere. My father—a natural businessman— wanted to make it into a business; selling hugs to the sickly wealthy for a huge sum of money. My mother vehemently disagreed; they had many fights over this.
“Rafe shouldn’t go through this; he’s just a kid! Don’t drag him into your schemes! This is his power; not yours. If anybody is to decide what he is going to do with it, its him! Not you!” I heard my mother scream at my father, desperation and frustration creeping into her tone. I closed my eyes as I wrapped my arms around my 7 year old body; this is all my fault, if only I didn’t have this gift, then perhaps they wouldn’t have to fight.
“Are you dense, Alice? Think of how much they will pay us! He’s a strong boy; he can take it! He’s just a kid! He can’t decide for himself! He almost gave a hug to the neighbour’s kid! Am I just supposed to let him hug anybody and everybody? Hmm?” My father hollered back; I could imagine him gritting his teeth, his fists curled up at his sides, skin stretched painfully thin over his knuckles. His eyes would flash dangerously as his lips would curl up in an unflattering sneer, his head tilted up in distaste, like he couldn’t believe this useless, brainless woman was telling him what to do with his son. He was already at his breaking point, any more shoves and he was going snap. Hard.
“No! I will not let you do this. I am getting a divorce and Rafe is coming with me! He wants to help others! There’s nothing wrong about that! Kindness should be free and not something you have to pay for!” My mother replied shakily, her voice cracking, trying to keep the sobs out of her voice. I could imagine her; shoulders slumped forward, her dark eyes blazing with the fiery justice of a thousand angels. Though they were tear-stained, they stared at my father with pure determination. The steely determination and strength was evident even in her voice; she was not going to give in this time.
“I don’t think you want to do that.” My father’s voice was deadly calm, much like the calm before the tropical storm. Nothing was good when my father was calm; it meant that he was giving you a second chance before you reach Point Of No Return. There was a blaring moment of silence before a loud bang resonated throughout the room, tearing reverberating holes in the patchwork of silence. No one moved; I didn’t even dare to breathe. A scream resounded; the sound bouncing across the four walls; the pitch frighteningly familiar; it chilled me to the bone; my blood froze as the sweat rolling down my back turned into an icicle. There was a soft thud in the room before something clicked in my mind; a truth I refused to acknowledge. The pin-drop silence that followed afterwards was even more deafening; it held the intangible musk of triumph as well as the sickening stench of iron and grudging defeat. Then, before I could react, there was a soft click.
“Go save your mother.” His tone was curt and commanding and his eyes were cold. He knew I was listening from the very start. I ran into the room and the sight of my mother crumpled on the floor in a unsightly pool of scarlet forced a strangled cry out from my throat. I wrapped my arms around her, not caring if the blood was getting on my clothes, not caring about the cold pair of eyes boring into my back. But no, she was dead. There was nothing I could do. Now tears were falling freely down my cheeks and sobs were bubbling up in my chest. No, no, no, there has to be something I could do. I whined; I screamed; I cried.
She was gone; and there was nothing I could do.
“This is all your fault; if you hugged her earlier, maybe she could have lived.” My father’s deep voice wormed into my ears, gripping my heart tightly and squeezing it till I wanted to claw it out. I could hear the smirk in his voice but what was I—a seven year old—supposed to know? Yes, it is my fault. Why didn’t I save her? Why couldn’t I save her? Why? Why am I so useless? Now what? What am I going to do? I gripped her shirt as I pulled her closer to me, her lingering warmth seeping into the marrows of my bones.
“Get away,” My father snarled, “Scum like you don’t get to touch her.”
“But you—,” My voice was small, but it made my father look at me in the eyes. Before I could finish my sentence, a stinging pain blossomed in my cheek. I was too shocked to even say anything and all I could do was dumbly stare at my father, my brain unable to process anything. The pain in my cheek was nothing compared to the agony in my heart; it seemed as if my heart broke and the minuscule fragments were digging relentlessly into the very fibre of my being; it was slowly tearing me apart, nerve by nerve, eating me inside out; just like how guilt was eating away at my conscience now.
“No, sweetheart,” My father murmured, caressing my cheek softly, a wicked, mocking glint in his eyes, “you did.”
For years I believed him; it was my fault that my mother died. Soon after, my father made me hug person after person, all rich enough to fork out a substantial amount of money to pay him for my services.
When I looked at my reflection, only lifeless, stone grey eyes the colour of a stormy, hazy afternoon sky stared back at me. I stared at myself hours after the fever ended, to see what scars were drawn on my skin. Scars, I realised, varied in both thickness and length. And over time, I learnt how to cope with the pain; the monster and the prison were nothing compared to the ones in real life.
“Rafe, stop staring,” My father’s harsh tone was like slap on the cheek. I quickly looked away from the sickly children lying on the beds in the children hospital, not daring to meet his calculating gaze.
However, I found my eyes straying back to the children lying on the bed. Some were wide-eyed, filled with oblivious naivety, their grins revealing a sliver of their broken minds. Some had eyes filled with despondency and fear; the eyes of one who had seen too much. Some were slumped forward, heavy with exhaustion, but they refuse to close their eyes; afraid of what they would meet if they did; afraid of falling asleep and never waking up.
My heart broke for them as I gazed at them helplessly. I could help them and I should help them, but Father would never allow. We were only here for the rich man’s son.
The hug was painless. The stares we got from the other family; not so much. Every muted whisper and disdainful gaze thrown at me pierced my very soul. They shook me to my very core. They were the last thought on my mind as I succumbed to the fever.
As I tried to sleep after the fever, images of the children kept coming back. Those whose mind broke from their very existence; those who didn’t deserve it; those who were too young. My mind kept going back to those children, over and over again. They haunted me; it was as if the scene were burnt into the skin behind my eyelids. I wanted to scream and tear the images out of my head; to get back the ignorance and obliviousness that I didn’t know was that valuable a few hours ago. But I knew it was wrong; I shouldn’t be wishing this; I shouldn’t be closing my eyes and hoping it will go away as it will not be going away. My heart ached as it pounded against the walls of my ribcage, threatening to break through it. I had to do something. My mind suddenly converged on the solution that had been teasing me at the edge of my thoughts; it was bold and reckless, but it would finally put my heart to ease. Would I regret it?
That one word solidified everything. I grabbed my sling bag and stuffed everything I needed in it. Toiletries, clothes, a few chocolate bars, a half-finished bottle of water. Deal with the rest later, I told myself, staring at my bag. Changing into jeans and a shirt, I snuck out of the house. Throwing a last glance at the place I grown up in, I made my way to the same hospital.
“Hi, can I borrow a piece of cardboard?” I asked a homeless man outside the hospital.
He grunted a faint yes as I took the biggest one and scribbled two words.
The two words that I yearned to scream to the world.
The two words that will give meaning and purpose to my life.
The two words that will finally make my mother’s sacrifice worth it.