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The Many Murders of the Self

Content Warning: Child Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence.

I

The first one to die is the little girl. The executioner watches her from behind a curtain made of bobbin lace, delicate white threads interwoven in a fine translucent layer that, in normal circumstances, would not hide anyone. The child can’t be seen, not yet. She’s lying on the colorful carpet on the floor, in front of the sofa, building blocks scattered around her like the pink petals of the bougainvillea blown by the wind outside the house. From there, the only visible parts of her are two tiny feet with one tiny sock, the other one lost amid the toys.

The executioner did not expect a toddler to be this small.

At least she’s not one anymore—a one-year-old is too close to a newborn, that would have made her harder to kill. At two and a half, the little girl has been alive for enough time, and she inspires no pity in the executioner. Her scraped knees squirm, and the sock almost slips out of her foot. The carpet ripples, a wave of thick fabric pushing the blocks away, yellow and blue and green rocks washed away by the sea. The executioner looks around, at the three seats of the sofa, at the dogs barking outside. The animals know something is happening; the animals know she’s going to die.

The shadow covering the girl moves away, taking human form. A man, forty, wearing a polo, zipping up his pants, taking the strands of carpet hair from his clothes, putting his glasses back in place.

The little girl is still there.

The executioner steps closer, invisible to him, but not to her.

“There,” the man says, lifting the child by the armpits, light as a pillow. He cleans her and brushes her hair. The girl’s eyes follow the executioner, who decides she can’t be human. She’s a rag doll, a wind-up toy, a wooden figurine. She’s made of papier-mâché. She lifts her arms when the man dresses her up, one wrist on each sleeve, then screws her eyes shut while he wipes her face. “Nothing happened, see? No reason to whine.”

The little girl has been silent the entire time.

The man goes to the bathroom; the dogs keep barking outside.

The rag doll is still on the floor. Sitting, legs open, staring at the toys. The executioner stands behind her. The little girl, she does not move. She does not talk. She’s a puppet without a puppeteer. She simply stares at the braided carpet, at the back of her knee, red with allergies, at the red crisscross on her skin.

The executioner pushes a pillow against her face.

The doll twitches, her feet flutter, her toes quiver. She doesn’t fight back. She keeps silent, accepting, unresponsive, then lunges, face down.

She is finally dead.

“Your mother will be coming soon,” the man calls, still in the bathroom. The executioner glances at the closed door, at the tiny little corpse. No pulse; no oxygen; no pain. “What will you tell her?”

The executioner is paralyzed, waiting, knowing, not out of experience, but of instinct. This has happened in another life. This will happen. It’s always happening. It has to keep happening. It will happen until the end of times.

A new girl moves under the pillow, pushing aside the cocoon of dried skin wrapped around her, removing the arms and legs and belly and neck and head from the other child. The dead child. The first doll is gone, replaced by a newer, fresher doll. They’re extremely alike: the same cheeks, the same nose, the same eyes, the same size. The hair pulled into twin buns. The buttoned dress. The dead cocoon crumbles, a whirlwind of paper skin. The new girl rises, looks at the bathroom door.

She has no memory.

She can smile, she can laugh.

“We played with the blocks,” she says, with the characteristic pronunciation of small children, doll-like. Pla-yee-ed with the blo-oh-cks. “The boys helped me.”

The man hums, appreciative. The child offers the executioner a knowing smile, as if saying: leave it to me now.

The executioner disappears.

II

They meet again very soon; the copy is starting to glitch, strange, unchildlike. More than just a killer, an executioner has to be an engineer, a mechanic, an illusionist, a teacher, a manager, a ventriloquist. The execution murders, then resurrects. It paints the murdered back to life, but the farce has to be believable. It’s almost a work of art.

The girl is four now. Her hair floats around her, full and fluffy like a dandelion head, her skin has the regular glow of a child who eats and exercises and plays and is exposed to healthy doses of sun. Nothing extraordinarily good or bad. Then, what? What is the problem? The executioner kneels by her side to make eye contact, but the girl’s eyes are lost somewhere in the wall. A line of minuscule ants climb there, around the peeled door frame, one, two, three, four, five . . .

“Why aren’t you speaking?!” The child’s mother asks; demands; attacks. Her voice is furious at the bad duplicate of her child. “I asked you a question.”

The copy is a malfunctioning robot. If only the executioner knew how to fix her, she would have already been fixed, but the executioner can only build from scratch. To kill, then revive, operational flaws must be listed while the mother screams at the nonreactive child:

—Sudden and chronic bouts of distraction (endearing at first, then amusing, but ultimately unnerving for adult onlookers);

—Worrying abstraction (the copy fails to understand her figure as human, real, alive);

—Incapable of crying (pleasant most of the time, disturbing once in a while);

—Needlessly compliant (noted only by the executioner);

—Absence of pain or distress (same as above);

—Extreme forgetfulness (she forgot about the first men and his sons, which is good, and she forgets any other men, which is also convenient, but lately the forgetfulness has extended to otherwise harmless and mundane events, like special occasions, meals, etc.);

—Distant, unfocused eyes (adults don’t like a child who won’t smile).

The mother turns around. The executioner covers the child’s mouth with one hand, pressing it against lips and nostrils and eyes. The child jerks, a defective electronic device, beeping, uncorking, dismantled, piece by inoperative piece, and her corpse falls down. The mother doesn’t see the stranger in the room, with the shadow hands dropping the small body of her fake child. The wooden boards creak. The snakeskin shatters in a whirlwind of fluttering flakes, and the second copy begins to laugh.

Everything is funny to this new girl; ha-ha-ha.

III

The second copy is just as useless as the first one, and the executioner is forced to come back. Little time has passed, and the child is still laughing, the sound reverberating behind her milk teeth. Two of the lower incisors are missing from their bright red sockets, and she does nothing but joke as a hand goes up and down her thigh. Men come and go, unrelated, arbitrary, and the executioner does not know how to avoid this flaw in her design. Some people are capable of smelling the dried pieces of cocoon, like the released pheromones of a crab, and they follow the scent, understanding her deepest secret: she’s not a person. She’s not even her own child.

This is just a temporary substitute for a dead toddler, gone long ago. An empty yet giggling shell of a black widow spider, attracting overgrown mates to her anatomical grave. Those are not legs, torso, neck, legs. That’s not a mouth. That’s not a head. It’s a walking skin-made burial who will get in trouble again.

The executioner sits in front of them. The man freezes in time, unaware. The child turns around, her smile growing.

Once again, she dies.

IV

Let’s call the next victim “the child.” At this very moment, the child—the strange, flawed replica known as the child—is eight. Average health. Short hair. Not tall. A bit overweight. In that wonderful, liminal space of juvenile androgyny that makes most people look twice, trying to find out if it’s a boy or a girl they’re looking at. It forces them to study the bike or bermuda shorts, the loose t-shirts, the sneakers, the baseball cap.

They’re still not sure, most of the time.

The child is full of energy and life. Almost wild, but not feral—the child does not know how to scream, complain, cry. At first glance, the executioner is confused; this is the perfected clone, a superior copy in every sense, but there’s a reason the ceremonial black hood of death is there, waiting to be worn.

The executioner complies, but waits.

The child seems to have mastered most of the issues with its previous incarnations, and acts remarkably like other children should act. The distraction is still present, but the child has been deemed quirky (“she’s an air sign!”)—so is the abstraction, but, it seems, no one really cares that the child does not look at the mirror, could not name their physical traits (like hair color, nose size, height, weight, mouth shape). The child is still extremely cooperative, but this is seen as a quality (“she never causes any trouble!”), and the absence of distressing emotions is understood as happiness (that’s what it means, right? When children don’t ever complain or cry).

Then, surprise! There is another child.

We could call them the twins. One and two. The good twin, the bad twin. No one knows there are two of them, of course, but the child is a professional who learned with the nest to erase memories and deplete the mind, and, together, the twins have refined his technique to admirable precision, with a talent the first teacher could have never dreamed of.

If the executioner had not waited, the child would have gotten away, again, with that. But the executioner is patient. The child(ren) is (are) so talkative they talk to any adult they meet. They don’t even bother anymore with brief touches or grooming strangers—until they’re sent to summer camp. The twins are excited, at first. Well, one (the child) is (has to be). The camp will save the child’s mother a lot of money, and will allow her to rest from the weight of motherhood for a while. The child understands. She has been trained not to complain. The shadow twin awaits.

It is then, during the almost three months of summer camp, that the executioner finally understands. The child(ren) is(are) used to many things. They still exude the animal scent, perceived only by those who seek it, the scent that seems unbearably attractive by these few but present adults, that says: I know. I know what you’re searching for. I’m an easy prey because nobody cares. Nobody will search for me. Nobody will ask about bruises or pain or discomfort. I’m a rabbit who knows how to play dead. I don’t fight or flee; I just fawn and freeze.

And, until then, the scent, the pheromones, the permanent target sign hammered into an infantile body, the doll pieces, ball-jointed, plastic, all of it was easy to manage for the child. But the camp—and the executioner is not sure anymore when the camp started and when it will end, has it been like this for the past two years they didn’t meet? Will it continue until they meet again?—reveals a new challenge, one even the child’s vast potential fails to deal with.

The executioner sharpens the blade.

In their inexperienced naivety, the twins have believed, until now, that all they had to do were simple yet sophisticated rituals of forgetfulness: any time a bad thing happens, or a bad thought arises, they close their eyes. Forget. Forget. That is not real, says the bad twin. That never happened. The good twin agrees. That is not real. That didn’t happen. I breathe and I eat; I can’t complain.

And it works. Until it doesn’t, because they are not aware yet that things can get worse.

It’s the last day of summer camp. The executioner has surveyed the situation, and decided it would be no good to kill the child before it ends, but now the child is glitching. Spasming. Hurting. Its small vessel is filled with pained articulations, abrasions on the knees and hands, green and brown fingermarks, a sore throat and mouth, inner thighs that ache. The child can no longer stand to see cameras or take pictures or undress or look at other children or touch certain things or eat others or feel certain smells.

“I’ll deal with this,” the bad twin tells the child and the executioner. “I dealt with it the whole time. You can leave.”

The executioner waits until the bad twin settles in their shared body, until it jams the insides of arms and legs with its essence, then slits their throat. Blood spills from the gaping wound, revealing white bone, ruptured veins and arteries, splashing the floor like water sprinkled from a hose on a summer day.

The child walks, alone again, out of the camp. Only one twin is dead.

V

An interlude—

Up until the age of ten, the child (the replica known as the child, weaned off her shadow twin by the executioner’s blade) is strikingly competent at behaving like a kid. A kid anyone might enjoy. A fun, active boy who will do any sport or physical activity, who hates pink and romance and girly things. An eccentric, polite girl who will help clean the house, parent the adults around her, etc. A comfortable one-size-fits-all for all biases an adult could have.

There are, however, downsides to the facade.

Despite the executioner’s efforts, some issues have survived the murdered twin. The child loved swimming, going to the beach, to the public pool—those days are long gone. The child refuses to even wear a swimsuit. Despite the effort to construct the perfect image of relaxation and malleability, the child will jib like a horse if forced to undress, or take a bath with other children, or wiggle like a worm when hugged by non-threatening family members.

Sometimes, in the silence of the apartment, when nobody is looking except the attentive, omnipresent eyes of the executioner, the child turns on the computer and joins a chat. The child does not know yet that this kind of communication will turn obsolete in some years; the mother is not aware of the child’s doing; the child does not fully comprehend the reason behind this strange desire. It’s almost like the deceased twin is back, possessing their once shared little hands.

Using the keyboard, the child turns into something that no one would recognize. It’s a shadow itch. A parasite. How old are you? The question comes, white background, Arial font. Twelve, the child lies. Twelve is so old, the child thinks. No one will ever see through the farce.

The executioner could have told the child that the men know. Maybe not that they are talking to a eight-nine-ten-year-old. But they know. They ask: what do you look like? What’s your name? Where do you live? Do you live with your parents? Do you have siblings? What do you look like? What, what, please, do you LOOK like?

The questions are boring and amusing at the same time.

Redhead. Blonde. Brunette. I have freckles. I don’t have freckles. My eyes are blue, green, brown, black. How tall are you? Very tall, the child types. 130cm. 140cm. Maybe not that tall (the child is not very aware of proportions or what an average height means, there or anywhere else).

Do you touch yourself? Touch yourself for me. I can teach you how.

(Pause: the child laughs. They’re so stupid. Clowns, really. Not a single brain cell.)

Put something inside you and take a picture for me. I don’t have anything to put inside me, the child says, playing Pokémon on another tab. Anything. I’ll teach you. Go see if there’s a banana in the fridge. Or a carrot. A cucumber. The child goes to the kitchen. Yeah, there’s a banana. Can you swallow? Show me until where it goes. Take a picture for me.

The child unpeels the banana, takes a bite, throws the yellow peel into the trash can, takes another bite.

I don’t have a camera. Close chat, swallow banana, join another chat. In less than one year, the child will be dead.

End of interlude.

VI

We’re in another country right now. It doesn’t matter where or why. Hooded, armed, vigilant, the executioner walks between trees, a small jungle trapped between school walls. The greenery is exuberant, the earth brown and moist and full of life, the distant high-pitched laughter of small children from the nursery is bucolic, warm, so unlike the child. But the executioner is not even close to the preschoolers in the beginning of the long, steep street, or the primary school right above, or the private university at the end of the slope.

Today, the target is in the central section of the enormous educational complex for students of all ages. Inside, there is a Methodist chapel in the entrance, right in front of the parking lot. There are cobbled paths to guide the way, stone steps leading to a substantial building for middle and high school classes, several courts, a sports hall. And, between every building, on the stripes that separate the students by ages in the gargantuan complex, green areas, dense, perpendicular, Atlantic. The right place to go if you don’t want to be found.

The executioner stops to watch.

There, in the middle of a circle of ravenous eyes, is a creature. Something more animal than human, something aberrant, something vaguely girl-like. This abomination was born out of the child’s carcass (the child would have been eleven by now): it pretends to be the mother’s daughter, it pretends to be a student who belongs to this beautiful place.

The executioner sits down.

The group is composed of around twenty boys of varying ages. One or two are eleven, others are twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. They come from different classes. They are of different heights. One of the younger ones is short, smaller than the creature, but it leads the shapeless mob like a maestro, physically restricted by his age (unlike the creature, he has not reached puberty yet), but no less creative with his excesses. Others are glad to have an doll to test. It will come in handy in the future, when they brag about having already lost their respective virginities, or, in some cases, having at least touched everything there’s to touch.

It’s not a human girl, but it counts anyway, yeah?

The executioner crouches to observe the creature, fascinated by its repulsive appearance. It does not look much like them. Unlike the real girls from their real class, the thing has breasts, visible breasts that are definitely there, under the white or blue t-shirt of their uniform, breasts that no one has given a proper bra. Even more unlike them (or any women they have met), its waist tapers and then widens to shelter hips that are so large they have never seen anything like it, with an even more sizable behind.

Since they have never seen this kind of fullness, they decided that the creature is disfigured, ugly, fat. They didn’t even know girls (animals/things/creatures/etc.) could have private parts that were this dark. Despite its hideousness, they believe it was made for that—it’s a natural-born succubus, tongue-tied, accessible, easily subjugated with its inferior size. If it squirms, they hold it down. When it walks by, they grope it, fondle it, follow it around. The teachers pretend they don’t see when the boys enter the girl’s toilet after it.

Anyway. This is just a day. One of many in this long, long year.

The executioner looks around the mob, and sees specters of previous murders. Shell after empty shell, lying around the creature like an offering to an unseen god, an altar of death. The smothered little girl, the asphyxiated copies, the throat-sliced twin. The crumbling corpses seem to chant: kill, kill, kill. The executioner stops for a second, divided.

Mercy comes by witnessing how obscene is the sadism of those students that grows with the creature’s evident pain. It stopped speaking when its accent and language became part of the freak show. Its face froze in a nothing mask. Its eyes are emotionless like they don’t reflect light, like an ancient, inscrutable moose.

Loathing comes because of its weakness. The executioner feels disgusted by the creature’s failure, who keeps attracting those types, now with a neon target blinking on its lower back.

The executioner kneels behind the creature’s head, cradling it, a guillotine made of flesh. There are two boys holding the thing’s hands, another holding its ankles. If they continue for too long, the creature will throw up again, and they will laugh, laugh, laugh.

The executioner places sickle against neck, watching the curved blade disappear into the esophagus, soft like gelatin, and hugs the creature’s dismembered head.

VII

(The creature is stubborn. It grows back the missing head. The executioner returns, beheading, quartering, stabbing. During the last trimester of the year, the executioner came back several times. Then, the year ends. The mother agrees to transfer the creature to another school, where no one knows what happened to it. The creature finally rests, but the new copy still carries its empty shell.)

VIII

At twelve, the teenager has lost count of how many people have been inside her body. She finds it amusing when older men approach her, follow her home, offer her money, send her messages on social media. She kind of likes it. You’re a creep magnet, her friends joke, and she laughs, agreeing. They have no idea. When they meet again, the executioner lists her new flaws to justify her upcoming murder:

—Promiscuous behavior (she hides it from her friends and family, but the executioner sees all);

—Reckless hypersexuality (strangers, old men, teachers, boys who are almost leaving their teenage years, never her age);

—Persistent apathy (the sociable child has been almost forgotten);

—Morbid fascinations (she seeks lives like hers; she wants to know how many people who were twelve or eleven or ten or . . . or . . . or . . . etc. have been treated the way she has been treated so far. It’s frustrating at first that the only ones she finds are dead, but those articles are always filled with sordid details: what was done, how much it hurt, how many people did it, how cruel they were);

—Unreachable (people her age describe her as mysterious; her “affairs” see her like a man-eating monster pretending to be twelve, wearing back her plaited skirt and ignoring their pleas to see her again).

But, more than her flaws, it’s her design that is malfunctioning, bothering everyone. Her body struggles to sleep. Her taste buds fail to understand food; everything seems made of polystyrene. Her brain sends electric waves of pain to her head, body, limbs. She hates it when she’s touched outside of sex. She’s lost all interest in school. If you give it rat poison, she would drink to see if she would die.

Deep down, the teenager knows—wishes—believes—dreads—that she’s only alive when her coin-operated body acts on its own (or other people’s) desires. She’s only the artificial being born out of the creature’s dissected corpse. She pushed away the cage of ribs, she swam the pool of organs, then stepped out, still hearing her predecessor’s growls.

“Die, die, die,” she tells herself, scratching her arms until blood sprouts. Her nails turn into scissors, into pocket knives. “Die, die, die.”

The executor turns on the kitchen gas, and gives her what she deserves.

IX

This night is different. The new copy, thirteen, lies on the floor. Ground. Grass. The executioner is not sure. It might be in a parking lot or a condo or a park. It might happen in the witching hour or late in the night. There are two men over the teenager. Young men, college-aged, but she didn’t want them. They met a few months ago, when she was out with her female friends, and she hated them right away. Something hungry and despicable and corrosive dripped from their faces. I know that look, she thought.

The teenager ignored them, now they’re making her pay for her disdain.

The executioner wears the black hood again. This time, the copy worked a little bit too well. The teenager was at her best friend’s birthday party, having fun, maybe even real fun. Organic, age-appropriate fun. She wore her second favorite black skirt, an equally black turtleneck, fishnet stockings, Mary Janes. When the two men arrived, she didn’t know they had a plan.

Something is happening tonight. Something that never happened before.

The little girl did not know better. Neither did her copy, or the other copy, or the (yet another) copy-of-the-copy. The child had the twin. The creature had her reptilian subconscious, yearning to survive.

The teenager? She knows what’s going on. She’s not like the creature, who was punished for its own vile deeds. She’s not an ignorant toddler. She’s not even part of a team, like the twins. She’s awake. She did nothing. She didn’t even look their way. She was there to meet her (same-aged, beloved, perfectly fun) friend.

One man is holding her down, the other is in and out of her. They take turns, they insult her, they slap her. When she closes her eyes, they open her eyelids with their fingertips, forcing her to watch. Blood drips from her nose to her throat, and she chokes. She has already tried to fight and struggle. She bit one of them. Nature still made them bigger and stronger than her.

One of the men wraps his hands around her neck.

“Tomorrow,” he says, panting, “your parents will find your body in a ditch. What do you think of that?”

The executioner looms behind him, looking at her. The teenager stares at the executioner, then at the man. Indifferent. Full of freezing disdain.

Deep inside, the executioner knows she’s relieved: kill me, kill me, yes. There’s a macabre pleasure painting her empty expression. She feels prehistoric, exhausted, detached. The man lets go of her neck when her lips turn purple, and the executioner takes his place.

The girl’s eyes are wide open. The executioner chokes her, trying to disintegrate her trachea, but something sparks inside of her. She jolts, kicks, bites, no, no, I’m not going to be fucking dead. Only when I say so. Not by your hands.

DIE,” the executioner repeats their movements, chokes, slaps, grasps. “WHY WON’T YOU DIE?”

The men are leaving, unaware. They know she’s still breathing, but they like to joke that they left her for dead. The girl smashes her elbow against the executioner’s face, who rolls to the side. She’s standing up now.

They’re alone in this wasteland. Grass. Ground. Floor. Whatever it is. Wherever they are. The last thing the executioner sees is the stone in her hand, stone against head, nose, eye.

Blood sprays both of them, and the executioner stumbles and falls.

The teenager strikes the executioner’s forehead again, and again, and again, scarlet pouring from a gap. She breathes heavily, filthy and nauseating, but she’s still not dead.

She kneels down, removes the black hood, and covers herself. On the floor lies a person, not a man, not a woman, of unspecified age. Short hair. Some years older. The girl recognizes her own face.

X

Years have passed since then. The executioner shriveled, skin turning into translucent ash, layers of bone, muscles and veins whirling with the night’s breeze. I cleaned my skirt, knowing I would never wear it again, and removed the dirt from my hair. Limping, I returned to the house—my house? My friend’s house? Which house, again?—and turned on the shower, watching as the water ran pink between my feet. I would not stop bleeding soon, and sometimes I still bleed, here and then.

The hood waits on my bed. Dark, battered, medieval, a dead sack of fabric with slits for eyes. When I was there, watching as the executioner killed and remade me, I never noticed there were eyes behind the mask. I just thought it was an endless, faded black.

Today, I know the executioner was right. They were flawed, the replicas, the original, all of us are. It’s painfully obvious to me now, when I find myself again in a situation where I call for the executioner, hoping for the release of ignorance and non-existence, anything that can take me.

It never comes. The release ended when I killed him, her, me.

Tonight, I glance at the hood again. I’ve been saving it inside a drawer, far from my other clothes. My hair is short, almost shaved. My limbs older than before. Around me, I see their corpses, encircling me in silent communion. You have to go back, they say. For us. For you.

You know what to do.

The hood is cold and comforting, and I turn around, looking at my unblemished hands. There is nothing but this endless, pitiful loop.

Still, I will return, because they are right—I know what to do.

About the Author

H. Pueyo (@hachepueyo on Twitter) is an Argentine-Brazilian writer of comics and speculative fiction. She’s an Otherwise Fellow, and her work has appeared before in F&SF, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Fireside, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, among others. Find her online at hachepueyo.com.