June 2, 1988 – Portugal
We were kept in a building with tall ceilings and ceramic tile floors and white paint-chipped walls that towered all around us like a prison. A prison with no locked doors or barred windows because no one was ever brazen enough to try escaping.
No one but me, of course.
I wanted out, and I wanted my brother out with me.
No one in The Order but our father, and my mother, knew that Victor and I were half-brothers. Our father warned us never to tell anyone, never to talk even in private about our relation. And we never did.
When we were just boys we were taken away from our homes, from our normal childhood, from our mothers and our meals and our fantastical imaginations and everything we had ever known, except for each other. From our games in the field with our friends, and apparently a half-sister I don’t think I ever knew. Was she the girl with wispy blond hair and big doll-like eyes who played with us in the field behind my house in Germany? The girl who clung to Victor when she skinned her knee and ripped her dress? I didn’t know. And I never asked. I didn’t give a shit about any sister who I never knew—all I cared about was my brother and my father and my mother and the secret we shared and was vital that we kept.
Four years of brutal training had passed in The Order. I was eleven-years-old. Victor and I didn’t grow apart in our time there, we simply grew up very different.
Victor may have been The Order’s favorite, the rising star, the boy who would one day be Vonnegut’s Number One, but just as I did, Victor kept our father’s secret, never questioning why our father—an equally skilled assassin just as my brother is today—would lie about such a thing to The Order that he served with such allegiance.
Despite the secret he kept, Victor was the most disciplined, the one with the most promise. We were so different by then that even I began to wonder if the secret we kept was true.
At eleven-years-old, I wanted to be…eleven-years-old. My older brother, who slept soundly in the room next to me, wanted to be everything that our father expected of him. I wanted to go home—Victor was home. Every day I thought about my mother and talked about her as though I was never going to see her again—Victor never spoke of his mother. I wasn’t cut out for this life, whatever it was destined to be, even though I tried hard to show my worth—Victor was a natural, a machine, he took to everything as innately as an infant learning to crawl.
On this night, I ached in my bed from the cracked ribs I’d sustained the day before; the broken thumb; the swollen bottom lip—my punishment for not hitting my target on the first shot from two hundred feet away in near darkness was to walk a ‘gauntlet’ and be beaten by twenty other boys, most of them bigger than me.
I knew I would never be as good as Victor, no matter how hard I tried. And finally, after four years of grueling training, I had had enough and decided to make a run for it.
The floor was cold underneath my bare feet as I made my way quietly to the opened door of my room, the fabric of my pajama pants swishing about my ankles the only noise. My ribs hurt so badly that I struggled in a slumped position down the dark hall, barely lit by the moonlight pouring in through the windows that lined the high ceilings. A guard sat in a chair at the far end of the hall, the back of his head pressed against the wall, his eyes closed. I didn’t know it at the time, but the guards that watched over us were never really sleeping on the job, it’s just what we were led to believe, in case one of us ever tried to escape.
I crept into Victor’s room and woke him.
“Victor, I’m going to leave this fucking place,” I whispered as his eyes crept open, “and I want you to come with me.”
Victor sat upright in the center of his small bed wearing the same stark white pajamas that I was wearing.
“What are you talking about, Niklas?” he said in a quiet voice laced with concern. His eyes darted from me to the opened door, then fell on me again. “You can’t leave The Order; this is our home, our life.”
Straining from the pain, I carefully sat down on the edge of his bed.
“You can barely walk,” Victor added, making note of my condition as if it would end the discussion. “Now go back to your room and go to bed. Never speak of this to anyone. I would never tell, but the others here, they will and you know it.”
“No, Brother,” I said as if to remind him of our blood, hoping it alone would change his mind. “I want out of here, and I know you do, too.” I wasn’t confident in that belief, I just wanted it to be true.
Victor shook his head. Then he reached out his hand to me, laying it on my shoulder. He peered in at me through the darkness of the small bare room equipped with only a bed, a metal desk and a three-drawer side-table where he kept his clothes and toiletries.
“If you run,” he warned, “they will catch you”—I felt his bony, boyish fingers gently dig into my shoulder—“and I can’t bear to see you suffer the punishment they will inflict on you.” Even at such a young age, Victor always spoke with sophistication and elegance, unlike normal children. Most of the boys in The Order did—even in that aspect I often fell short. My favorite word was fuck. Still fucking is.
I shrugged his hand away from my shoulder, biting back the pain that simple action caused my ribs.
“I don’t care what they do to me,” I snapped. “I’m not afraid of them!”
Victor pushed air through his teeth to hush me, his eyes widening in the blue-gray darkness. “They will hear you,” he whispered harshly, grabbing my shoulder again.
“Why are you so afraid, Victor?” I asked, feeling my heart sink into the soles of my feet. “Why won’t you come with me?”
He looked at me and I could see in his face something that I already knew, but never wanted to believe: he wasn’t afraid and never had been; he was willing, utterly accepting, and wanted nothing other than to succeed and excel in The Order, to make our father proud, no matter the cost.
“I want to be here,” he said. “Niklas…in time you will feel the same way; you will understand that everything we are put through is going to make us stronger, it will make us men. It will give our lives purpose.” He didn’t sound like my brother anymore, the boy I played roughly with in the field in Germany—the words coming out of his thirteen-year-old mouth were the words of our trainers and his mentor. And our father.
Victor paused, looking once more at the doorway. “You are my brother,” he said with devotion, but then with a sigh he added, “and that makes you my only weakness. It is why it is forbidden to have ties like ours, why we can never tell our secret—because ties make us weak, and weakness gets us killed.”
I shoved away from him and rose into a stand, straining under my own wounded weight.
“Then why don’t you just tell them that I’m your brother? Or turn me in as a traitor—tell them whatever you want!” I lashed out, though I kept my voice to a whisper. “They favor you…Brother”—I couldn’t hide the resentment, the pain, from my voice—“they would believe you, and I love you enough that I’d go along with whatever you told them, and they’d kill me, and then you wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore.”
Victor shot up from the bed, the sheet that had covered him stirred by the brisk movement, falling slowly against the mattress. He stood in front of me, glaring into my eyes. I had never seen him so angry, so controlled by emotion—I thought I was looking into the eyes of a stranger. It frightened me. But mostly it made my stomach swim with guilt.
“I would never, Niklas, in my short or long life, do anything that would cause you harm.” He stepped up closer, his toes touching mine, the warmth of his breath on my face coming from his nostrils. “If you think I could, then perhaps you are not my blood, after all.”
And I knew he meant what he said, I knew that my brother’s loyalty to me would be unwavering for years to come, that he would do everything in his power to protect me, even if it meant risking his position in The Order. And risking his life.
But at eleven-years-old I was stubborn and chose not to listen.
I left his room without anything but my white pajamas. I crept down the hallway, past the guard pretending to be asleep, and walked right out a side door and exited the building into the warm night air.
I got as far as the fence.
No one came.
I slipped through a section in the fence where it met the brick wall of the front gate of the property—I was skinny enough I could push my body through it.
No one came.
I walked as quickly as I could down the street made of broken asphalt.
Still no one came.
I thought I was free. Every step I took, the closer I got to the lights that reflected off the surface of the lake from the small town nearby, I felt like I was going to finally live the way I wanted. Images of when I was boy, playing in the field behind my house with Victor and our friends and our maybe-sister, Naeva, I began to feel like I was reclaiming the life that was taken from me.
But it was the guilt of leaving my brother behind that stopped me in my tracks.
I was a boy, dressed in stark white pajamas, standing barefoot in the center of a moonlight-shrouded street in Portugal, a calm breeze blowing the thin material of my pants against my bony legs; I was hunched over slightly with my arms crossed over my midsection. I was an out-of-place smudge on a painting, the one thing in the picture that did not belong—I didn’t belong anywhere, really. But as I stood there, seeing Victor’s face in my mind, that guilt he’d planted there before when he was so hurt by the things I’d said to him, it grew so much that I suddenly felt suffocated by it. I couldn’t leave my brother in that place.