You'll wake with the weight of a rat on your chest, and it's hungry enough and you're small enough that the rat is moving towards the softness of your face and throat, all teeth. You will have seen these creatures chew babies to death in the night, and you understand desperation and necessity, but you haven't come this far to die in an alley with garbage and the hopeless. You'll crush its body because you can, because it dared try. Maybe you'll eat it. If you're hungry enough. You'll eat worse someday.
Your hair will itch as it grows out, and you'll tear red lines into your scalp as jagged fingernails chase lice. You will grow to stink of your own body, the garbage you sleep amongst, and the refuse of the world that doesn't see you. Your eyes will water sometimes, and you can smell too much, see too much, hear too much and you'll be a bit insane before you even realize what normal is. You will miss Manticore, will hate that you do, and you'll dream of showers and clear air and soil beneath your hands.
There will be a man, and his hands will be big, calloused, and he will clamp them down on your shoulders and pull you into him. He'll tell you you're the prettiest little boy he's ever seen and you will have seen a lot by then and you've never been stupid. He'll look surprised when you hit him and you won't stop, not for a long time, not until he is soft and wet beneath your fists because you will be angry and scared and fighting is something that you'll never forget.
The outside world will make you dangerous like Manticore never could. You will stop believing in the Good Place where nobody screams (people will scream when you steal food, money, clothes, when they see you near their property), where you can sleep in (you won't sleep, not deeply, not for long, not when people might take your belongings, your body, your life), where nobody gets hit (you'll get hit, you'll wear bruises like other people wear jewelry).
You're smart, and skilled and observant and you won't live on the streets for long. You'll find a place to sleep, to eat and bathe and learn how normal you aren't. There will be a woman and she will smell of cookie dough and vanilla (you'll like cookies, eat them while they're still warm, eat them until your stomach twists because you know they'll be gone soon and this is it, this is your chance). The woman will tuck you into bed and she will sit beside you and read you stories you're too broken to believe in. She will kiss your forehead and you won't know what to do with that, so you'll close your eyes and let her think you're sleeping.
You will sit in the bathtub and she will bring in pails of hot water. You will soak and never feel as clean as you remember being before. You will hear the television playing from beyond the closed bathroom door, her footsteps as she moves about, and you will slide until you are submerged beneath the water. You will stay there until your lungs ache and your eyes waver before you rise. You'll slosh water onto the floor, but she won't scream, and she'll always leave thick towels on the toilet's closed lid that you will wrap around your body and feel warm.
She will make you go to school, and you will hate that--you will think the teachers slow and foolish, the material useless, and the other children won't like you--not your eyes, too big and dark and wild; not your smile, teeth and pain and scorn for them. She will make you peanut butter and jelly and you will eat it alone, not far enough away that you can't hear the other children laughing, sometimes at you, most often not because you aren't important enough to be a joke.
There will be a boy and he will try to frighten you, to hurt you. He will scream when you break his left arm, and you will nearly break the right one too, just to hear it again. You will think that the outside world isn't always so different from Manticore. People understand pain, people respect it. Maybe, you will think, the biggest change is that you won't have to be the one hurting.
The woman will look old and tired and she will tell you that she doesn't know how to help you. She will help you pack, and will let you keep the clothes and books she bought for you. You'll leave her home and finally decide that you liked her.
The first girl you'll fuck will be crazier than you, and that's why you'll like her. She will have old scars on her back and track marks on her arms, and you'll know how to spot the damaged even when they're smiling. Her arms will be thin, but strong around your back as you move over her. She will wrap her legs over your hips and hook her ankles together and she will close her eyes and dark shadows will look like bruises beneath them. Sometimes she will cry at night and you'll pretend not to hear her, and you'll almost love her when she hits you instead of crying. When you'll leave, you won't forget your name, but you'll tell yourself that you have.
You'll travel, running but telling yourself that such is freedom. You'll memorize bus routes, train schedules, the pattern of highways and roads, towns and cities. Sometimes, you'll work--you'll be a short-order cook one week, you'll be fixing backed-up sewers the next; you'll take your clothes off for women with money and too many drinks and they'll think you're the most fucking fantastic specimen of a man they've ever seen and they'll giggle and leer and go home and you'll hate them, hate yourself, everything.
Zack will find you and you'll be shocked the first time you see him because he will look like pain made flesh, a bit of your own insanity woven through another person's body. He will growl at you, call you a fool and you'll leave with him, following the pain you think you can see.
You wish you never left Manticore, and you will see that he does, too. He won't say anything, will try to let you think you're crazy on your own, and you'll feel muscled abs beneath your knuckles and he'll huff with impact. He's not easy, not like everyone else has been, and you'll kick and spin and punch and leap and you'll think it's wonderful! fantastic! and Zack will hook your ankle with his foot and you'll both go down. His hands will be on your aching ribs and your whole world will be blood and sweat and crushed grass and the sun at your back.
You'll be face to face, and Zack will lay his hand on your neck. His palm will be warm against your barcode and you will be able to feel slight, temporary imperfections. His eyes will be horrible, and you won't look away because you'll belong with the lost and the freaks and the broken. Zack will tell you things: will tell you that he is there, that he will take care of everything, of you, and he won't answer you, not ever, when you ask him where he's been, what he's done before. The two of you will stay together for a month and you won't feel quite so alone.
Zack will start shaking one night in the rain and cold and he will shudder so hard his teeth come down on his lip and blood will fill his mouth, soak at his chin. There will be a building across the street, and you'll half-drag, half-carry Zack towards it and you'll know that he hates you seeing him like this, but you won't be able to look away. You will recognize the still and silent figure along the wall and you'll lower Zack to the Blue Lady's feet because she'll look after him while you're gone. And she does, because Zack will still be there, will still be alive when you come down and struggle white pills into his mouth and rub at his throat until he swallows and stills.
He will leave you soon after that, will give you money and a tight twist to his lips that might be a smile and he'll say he has to go to Brin, that she needs him and that you'll be okay. You'll stay in place for a while, you'll move in with a girl with full lips and dyed pink hair and will pick cat hairs off your clothes because the animal will love you, will rub its soft-furred body against your legs. Maybe Zack will come back, because your girl won't be half crazy enough and she'll kick you out of bed when you shake and cry and flail at the pillows and sheets while you sleep. You'll spend more time at the nearest church than you will with her, staring at the Blue Lady's serene face as your chest tightens and your eyes burn. You won't ever stay to listen to the sermons.
You won't ever be able to remember exactly how it started, but you'll find yourself in woods, deep and dark, and you'll track the desperate rasp of breath of the man fleeing before you. You won't be thinking, won't have to think about anything but the movement of your muscles, the air in your lungs, the memory of sharing something like this with your own and the near fear in Lydecker's eyes. The Blue Lady will be smiling at you when you place bloody teeth in her cupped hands, and you won't care that the girl who pretends you love her will scream and cry and demand things from you that you'll never be able to give.
You will have killed another, two, three, four, and Zack will find you and he'll make you leave. Not safe, he'll say, you're going to get yourself caught, he'll growl, and he'll tell you that he'll take care of everything. He will then, and he'll show up every time wildness pushes at your skin and you move into the forest with prey frantic before you.
Max will find you, and she won't be what you expected. She won't understand what you're doing, why you're doing it, and at least Zack never lied to you and said the world was better than Manticore. She'll say things you'll try not to listen to, and she won't leave you alone and you'll hurt each other--and it's crazy that the whole world makes you ache and Max won't be on your side and she'll hit you and hit you and she'll snap your knee.
You'll be surrounded by trees, and you'll smell leaves and bark and earth. You've never begged before, but you'll come close then, in Max's arms. You will be able to feel trampled grass beneath your body and you'll tell Max a story that you won't believe in any more. Max will cry, and you'll never know that she will talk to you sometimes when it is dark and quite and she aches with all that she has been and all that she has done.
You will have slept in a cemetery, once, and will have been bemused witness to a funeral. Odd, because you have been taught that a body devoid of life is nothing. Respect for the body of the dead will seem a foolish idea, but you wouldn't want to think of what they'll do to you, when they find you laying still and silent and dead in the woods. They will lay your body on cold stainless steel. Pale and naked and helpless, hands that know your body better than any lover will move over you. They will split open flesh, crack at bone and saw into your brain looking for answers. They will harvest your organs and settle them into those more deserving than you. They will use you. They will discard the scraps that are left. You would not have expected otherwise.
Right now, though, the air is cool and fresh on your face. You open your mouth and suck in deep breaths and imagine that you can taste freedom on your tongue. You have left misery behind you in the form of forbidding grey buildings and razor-wire fences and you can't imagine anything worse. You are free. You have the world before you. Happiness is a surprise, a nearly unrecognizable lightness in your thin chest.
You are quick and light and your bare feet hardly sink into the snow as you move. You don't look back. You don't need Manticore. You are more than Manticore. You are Ben, and you are free and you will have a lifetime to discover what that means.
You turn your face into the sun and stretch your lips into a smile, and can't imagine anything better than this.