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The Neighbors Talk This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

The boy sits on the hot cement, burning ants with his magnifying glass. He wonders how they can calmly march on, how they can stand it: the loss of someone who, just a moment before, was alive and well, how they can face death after witnessing the destruction of a life in a few milliseconds.
It wasn’t always this bad.
Before his daddy left them last year, before his mommy got lonely, and then sick.
Before he had to pretend he was clumsy all the time and had to always wear long sleeves and pants, even when it was hot outside. No normal ten-year-old had to do that.
“If you don’t bring her to the hospital, she’ll die,” he says quietly one morning, handing his stepdad breakfast and the newspaper.
His stepfather looks up from the fresh sausages and grunts. “Orange juice.”
The boy gets the orange juice.
At her funeral, tears streaming down his face as he gazes at his stepfather’s dry one, he wonders if he could have saved her.
But the neighbors do not talk of an abusive, neglectful stepfather—they speak of a long battle with illness, inevitable death, really; of a kind, grief-stricken man taking on two children who aren’t even his.
*
*
*
He hears the desperate screams of his sister as he walks through the door. His schoolbag slips from his hand quietly as he rushes to the special place his father told him about for emergencies.
Then he walks into his sister’s room, the gun hidden behind his back.
“Get away from her,” he whispers quietly.
His stepfather looks up with a smirk. “Or what, kid? What’re you gonna do about it?”
The boy brings the gun up slowly, fingers trembling and clammy. He points the barrel at his stepfather, steadies it. Stares into those dark, malignant eyes.
But there is no fear there.
“Shoot me, then,” his stepfather says. “Shoot me.”
He swallows. Curls small fingers around the trigger, ready to shoot. He closes his eyes and—
The gun is wrested away from him, and he is shoved to the floor against his sister.
“You thought you could shoot me, boy?” And the stepfather is a demon now, all crazed eyes and a manic grin, one that stretches impossibly far, one that promises torture and death.
He is pointing the gun at the boy now. He squeezes his eyes shut, ready for pain and for death.
But the gun is pointed at his sister.
And then stepdaddy shoots, and there is blood everywhere, and shrieking and crying and—
She is broken after that.
The boy watches his sister, a shade of her former self, watches as she floats through life as the shadows consume her, watches and wonders if he could have prevented it all.
But the neighbors do not talk of an insane, violent stepfather—they speak of a tragic accident, of a grief-stricken man having to take on problem children.
*
*
*
The boy calculates the angles of the blood spatter this time, the most efficient way for the bullet to kill. He wears his stepfather’s gloves, and places the barrel of the gun against his sleeping stepfather’s forehead with a grim sense of supreme satisfaction.
This time, he doesn’t miss.
A thin smile spreads across his face. It is then he learns that sometimes you have to kill in order to survive.
And the neighbors do not talk about a murderous young boy who cracked—they speak of a poor stepfather, one who had far too much on his plate, who committed suicide one dark night last week.



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