The first time it happened, she was seven, small, frightened of the twelve-year old who’d seemed like a God as he advanced on the smaller, younger kids who’d been occupying the swing set. Khasi was kind, gentle; he would have shared, if only anyone asked — but the tweens who kicked gravel at the elementary crowd were somewhere between ‘too old for swingsets’ and ‘too young for cigarettes’ by everyone else’s admission. Gia saw Him, God, knew him as Eric, knew him as gritted teeth and clenched fists and a desire for power, and she, like fourteen of them who were playing (should have been fifteen of them, but Khasi was oblivious, unaware as he swung higher and higher, gleeful, a donkey’s laugh braying from his big-toothed face, legs to the sky, head thrown back, skinny arms taut against the chain of the swings, laughing on his arc) backed up, backed away, scuttled–
–until that bray ended in a whooping howl, Khasi’s swing’s arc cut short — Khasi’s arc unstoppable. She saw him soar, saw him pinwheel, saw him land in a breathtaking thump of graceless second-grader. He struggled to get to his hands and knees, but instead, went fetal, his palms and shins shrieking in agony, gravel driven under the skin.
The flock of them looked to the interlopers, saw Eric (standing at the swing, holding the seat, a smirk on his dirty face) and broke, scattering away to the corners of the playground, fragile birds frightened of broken wings, hoping to flee, hoping to escape notice.
Gia ran in the wrong direction. She ran to Khasi, who could not breathe enough to weep, but only gasped silently, a fish out of water, hands and legs tucked against his belly, eyes screwed shut.
She patted him down, looking for broken bones, wondering if he could stand, if he could run, when the sun went out. Khasi went still then, suddenly, and rabbit-eyes opened wide, darting to find the predator that had gotten between him and the light.
Looking up, Gia saw that angry, merciless God staring down at them, wearing the sun as a halo, His teeth bared, daring her to run, to cry, to move, to breathe. “If you tell,” God hissed, pointing His finger down at her, “I’ll kill you.”
Gia stared at the hand, and didn’t move; when Eric jabbed it closer to her face, she remained still, wishing for one thing only, that such a malevolent God would know what it felt like, to be so mistreated.
His fingertip brushed her cheek, rubbed a tear there that had slid down a dusty track, and faltered.
His eyes moved from her, down to the tiny form of Khasi, and then back up at her.
So many things happened at once.
Eric, whose only thoughts had been of the sensation of restless boredom and the sudden rush of pleasure he got when his sycophantic middle-grade bellycrawlers cheered him on, blinked once, twice, and then wondered what his own mother would say, if he had to go home and explain his only uniform that had cost them a week’s worth of grocery money, was ruined, torn at the elbows, ripped at the seat. He wondered what his proud, strong father would say, if he could not draw enough breath even to weep. How could he face his Papa, laughingstock of the schoolyard?
The bellycrawlers all took pause, cocking their heads to the side as if they could all hear the same unmade sound.
Eric wondered what it would feel like if all of those who flocked around him ran away when he was in distress. He wondered what it would be like to be so happy, to be so free, and then be in pain and in fear — the entirety of the day changed in a single moment, by a single boy.
He stared at Gia, and felt a rising knot of nausea, of pain and bewildered horror.
He looked past her at the boy he’d wounded, the boy who’d done nothing but laugh.
He took a step back, feeling his eyes well with tears, feeling his breath stolen, and looked around at the children who looked at him in mean-spirited co-conspiracy, the children who looked at him in terror, and could not reconcile the boredom he’d felt only moments before with the self-loathing that poured into him, a raging liquid fire kindled by the misery and terror he knew he’d caused.
He staggered back, shaking his head, and that is when Gia knew what had happened; knew that look of dawning comprehension for what it was.
She let him run away, knowing that any further damage she might do to him, physically or verbally, was no match for what he was now inflicting on himself.
** ** **
Every time after, it was a strange echo of the first. Gia would see someone being wounded, harmed, ruined, and she would do her best to get to the attacker, the instigator, the bully. One touch — one touch was all she needed.
She could touch them; they could touch her.
It didn’t matter.
** ** **
Rapists ran in shrieking agony, away from bruised, torn victims.
Guardians cowered and slunk away from their battered charges.
Bigots covered their mouths and wept openly.
Embezzlers turned out their pockets, struggled to find ways to pay back, to raise funds, to give and give and give, until they’d hollowed out the shame with which they’d filled themselves.
Murderers turned themselves in, shaking and pale, begging forgiveness.
There were always more, always people who hurt others unthinkingly, who saw nothing and no one but their own greed, their own fury, their own selfishness.
** ** **
By the time Gia was fourteen, she’d scoured the streets of her neighborhood, turning it into a tight-knit community of people who thought of one another as family, as friends, as blood, as kin, but she knew she wasn’t finished. Though her parents pleaded with her to take more care of her safety, Gia waded into the mire of humanity that she felt needed what only she could provide — she expanded her reach, and began to roam the city streets without regard to the borders of anyone’s neighborhood or territory.
Everywhere she went, she wore down the vicious sludge of selfish horror that threatened to rise and break the decency that had been built like levees around small households, little corner stores — places that were Safe, at least mostly. She did it, all the while terrified, all the while knowing she could not stop: it was her calling, her duty, her curse, her blessing, her wish.
Her only wish, granted.
Let them see — let them know.
** ** **
Miraculously, the first time she faced down a gun was her nineteenth birthday; she interrupted a robbery in progress — the assailant glared out at her from beneath a dirty hoodie, from above a dirty bandana, as she walked right in the mouth of the alley. The man being stolen from shoved them both and ran away, leaving Gia to stare after him in astonishment, and then to turn back, to find herself staring down the barrel of the weapon, its black eye open, staring back.
She remembered the backlit face of God, and how He had promised to kill her.
She put her hands up and stared at the eye; she had not turned away then, and she would not turn away now.
That was how she met Natt.
** ** **