I Am Not a Monster, page 1
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2017 Carme Chaparro
Translation copyright © 2018 Dick Cluster
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Previously published as No soy un monstruo by Planeta in 2017 in Spain. Translated from Spanish by Dick Cluster. First published in English by AmazonCrossing in 2018.
Published by AmazonCrossing, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and AmazonCrossing are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by Caroline Teagle Johnson
For Berna, Laia, and Emma, for anchoring me to happiness.
For Mama, for everything.
For my father.
Time to try . . .
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
I want to dig in the earth with my teeth,
I want to clear away the earth bit by bit
in dry and fiery mouthfuls.
I want to mine the earth until I find you
and kiss your righteous skull,
untie the gag, and bring you back.
—Miguel Hernández, “Elegy for Ramón Sijé”
Time to try again.
Not just any child will do.
It has to be a careful choice. Otherwise so many months of waiting, so much work, and so much thinking and rethinking won’t be worth a damn.
Nor will what comes after. Success or failure. Everything depends on this choice, this afternoon.
That’s why not just any child will do.
So the thing is to pay close attention. This is the key moment, and failure would be intolerable. Now more than ever.
What about that boy over there? Five years old, maybe six. Could he be the one? It’s a nerve-wracking thing, making this choice.
No. He won’t do.
He’s old enough, but he seems a tad clingy. Dependent. He’s gripping his mother’s hand too tightly, and he keeps looking up to make sure she’s still there. As long as she is, his world is in order.
Maybe he won’t stop crying. Maybe he’ll spend the whole day curled up in a ball, paralyzed by fear.
He won’t do.
It’ll take more looking.
Maybe a girl? Too risky. Too many little princesses. The thing is to find someone brave—a boy who thinks he’s a superhero.
There’s another one. What do his clothes say? Shoes offer a lot of clues. He’s not very tall, probably four years old. He just let go of his mother’s hand. What did he see? What caught his attention?
Maybe he’ll do. Maybe.
Maybe today will be the day.
Just thinking that sends the heart racing.
The body quaking with an odd kind of fear.
Look at him again. There’s a spark.
That boy means salvation.
The game begins.
This time, for real.
The point of no return.
In American movies, there are always donuts. Right off the bat. The donuts reveal that this is a meeting of addicts—alcoholics, cheaters, failures, something. When the camera pans around the room and shows pathetic faces, sad fluorescent lighting, and a smell of stale urine (not that the odor percolates off the screen, but you can tell it’s there, acrid and nauseating, as if you were sticking your nose in a public urinal), you know that someone is going to confess to a big, hidden shame.
But we’re not in America. We’re in Spain, where group therapy doesn’t come with donuts, and we avoid the risk of having to create a Diabetics Anonymous before we’re through. Here, if you end up in a self-help group, the tragedy plaguing you most likely looms so large that these meetings are your last-ditch alternative to suicide. This is the last thing you’ll try before locking yourself in with a good bottle of whiskey and a fistful of pills your doctor says are going to help you overcome the trauma—but they don’t.
Everybody here today would rather be dead. Better dead than in this room. Better off even in hell, which is what some think they deserve, than here and now.
Something has brought them here. A strange blend of guilt, pain, rage, and a will to survive. This is their only lease on life, because they all know they’d be better off dead. Just like me. But I don’t know that yet. Not at this stage of the story.
Let’s look around. That man, for instance—that rotund, bald man wearing a sweatshirt meant for a teenager and pants for a retiree, as if he were made of remnants of different people. He can’t even open his eyes. How long since he stopped looking at things? How long has he been unable to put one foot in front of the other to get him somewhere he really wants to go, as opposed to letting the current carry him? How long since he took hold of anything—a glass of water, even—because he truly wanted it, his brain saying, You’re thirsty. Reach out your arm, arc your fingers toward your thumb, pick up the glass, bring it to your mouth, and drink. If we could get inside his head, we’d see that it’s completely occupied, or unoccupied, by an immense emptiness. A chasm of sloshing waves, one after another. Sometimes a thought hangs suspended, like the eye of a hurricane—he doesn’t know, he doesn’t remember, nothing is pulling at him. But that’s just an illusion, those gentle winds and clear skies. The storm in which he’s living never lets up. It was your fault. Your fault. You don’t deserve to live.
Or that girl over there with the greasy hair and the oversized pants. How long since she thought of herself as a human being? I see how she’s gripping her purse so tightly that the blood stops flowing to her hands, as if this object were her only link to life, and if she let go of it, she’d fall irredeemably into the black hole she’s trying to get out of. What could have happened to her? She’s barely past childhood. I ought to feel bad for her.
What am I doing here, then? What am I doing among these tormented souls, when I don’t need to be yet? My editor—yes, sigh, I have an editor—thinks a session like this is the ideal
Sometimes I get so paranoid that I think he’s bribed people around me. Like the cleaning women, who shoot me hostile looks while pushing their carts full of toxic products around the studio. Write another book. Write another bestseller. Write another moneymaking machine. Fortunately, human beings haven’t yet developed the capacity for telepathic thought.
At first, my editor was gentle, subtle, courteous. Now I have the feeling that he’d resort to almost anything, as long as it gave me an idea for a new big hit. Sometimes I wonder just how far he’d go to offer me the thread of a plot. And no matter how often I repeat that I only had one book inside me and I’ll never be able to write another, he—echoed by the entire publishing house—says that I can do it, that I just need to find the proper click to transform my MacBook into a word processor with diarrhea. But I don’t have any ideas. I had one, and it’s done. It turned into a book, and that’s that.
In short, that’s how I’ve ended up here. I’m at this meeting so my editor will leave me alone for a while. If he thinks I’m working on something, he’ll calm down.
But it’s tough doing things like this. Someone might recognize me, and I don’t want that. If they find out who I am, they won’t let me stay. For certain assignments in the past, I’ve tried wigs and disguises. Today I’m wearing sunglasses and a short blond wig. With a base of yellow makeup and purple shadow under my eyes, I, too, can look fragile, as if sadness were oozing out of my skin.
However much I try to pass for someone else, though, there’s always one thing that gives me away: my voice. It’s so characteristic that I can’t disguise it. The s’s at the ends of my words have a special sound, as if I don’t know how to stop the phoneme in time, and it slides through my teeth. Trees-z-z. Things-s-z-z. No speech therapist has ever been able to help. My current one says it’s my special trait, the one that gives me “personality.” So here, I have to keep quiet. At least for today.
Fortunately, there’s no table covered with donuts around which to strike up conversations, and today’s session leader is on time and gets right to the point. Or maybe he doesn’t really want to be here either. He wants to get things over with as quickly as possible, to get away from these souls chained to hell before they pull him down too.
“Could everyone take a seat, please?” the psychologist says in a honeyed voice.
I checked him out on his Facebook page before coming. There’s nothing but photos of meals, Madrid streets, and a book or two. A real lone wolf. A sad guy. It shouldn’t be hard to get information out of him if I need to.
“Please, everyone, let’s find a seat.”
We do. Without meeting each other’s eyes. Ashamed of ourselves. Or maybe, ashamed of what we’re going to hear, as if we were old gossips leaning our ears against the confessional. Blushing, and dripping with pleasure.
“I think Lucía would like to tell us something today, wouldn’t you?”
The girl gripping the purse looks up and starts to talk.
I wish I’d never heard the story she’s about to tell.
“What’s her name again?”
“Arén. Ana Arén. The old-timers call her ‘the head of the class.’”
“Because of all the head she gives?”
Luis Arcos laughed. “Shh, lower your voice. Nobody here has gotten anywhere with her, as far as I know. The nickname is from her initials, A. A. It’s like the highest score on a test. And the rating she deserves.” Arcos’s eyes went wide as his hands traced the outline of the chief inspector’s curvy body.
“A ten? I’d give her a fifteen. She’s got an ass to write home about,” responded José Barriga. His own body suggested that once he hit his thirties he’d have a gut to match his last name, belly, so he might not be the best person to comment on the looks of others.
“You’re the new guy, right?” The voice came from behind him, where Detective Charo Domínguez had heard the whole exchange. “Do you want some advice? Keep your eyes off her ass and take a peek at her feet. Do they look small to you? Because when she kicks you, you’ll wish you were back on the receiving end of your hick-town donkey instead. Arén’s short temper about those kinds of comments is legendary. Don’t tempt fate, buddy.”
“Shoot, for a piece of her, I’d take a kick in the balls,” Detective Barriga said with a smile. He’d been recently assigned to the unit and clearly didn’t hear a thing the detective had said. “You don’t know the effect a female boss in uniform has on me.”
“Ladies, could you quit laughing like hyenas?” Another voice cut in, startling them all. Too many people were overhearing the conversation. “Who are you, anyway? The new guy?”
“Um,” Barriga sputtered, taken aback by the stripes on the uniform of the man who’d appeared out of nowhere. “Um, yes, sir, Commander. Yes, sir.”
“Cat got your tongue all of a sudden?”
“No, sir, I didn’t mean—”
“Get to work,” said Major Bermúdez. “I don’t want to start bawling anybody out this early in the morning. Doctor’s orders, it’s bad for my health. And if it’s bad for mine, it’s bad for yours. Get to the briefing room now, both of you. And you”—he looked scornfully at the new addition—“make sure the chief inspector doesn’t hear you, or you won’t have enough skin left on your ass to wipe it with a Q-tip. You got me?”
The briefing room smelled rotten. So did the whole building. For decades, the sweat and bodily fluids of tens of thousands of detectives and suspects who passed through had been adhering bit by bit to its walls. They say all police stations smell alike, but that’s not true. It depends on the nose. For example, a police station didn’t smell the same to the dictator Franco’s torturer Melitón Manzanas as to the terrorist who fell into his clutches. Nor to the new cop sweating with fear versus the veteran who’s had it up to his neck. No, each station has its own smell. Some have the nauseating stench of tobacco and feet that no Odor-Eaters can fully eliminate. Others give off whiffs of cologne their personnel used for so many decades, like the Varon Dandy that some old-timers still keep stashed in their lockers. Others smell of the sweat accumulated since the time they were built.
But all of them smell, to a greater or lesser degree, of fear.
Ana Arén’s station smelled, on top of all this, of perversion. The walls of the Provincial Brigade of the Judicial Police in Madrid had the whiff of old men who’d been caught jerking off outside school buildings. The station was located in a residential area—although when it was built, sixty years before, it had been surrounded by shacks—with lots of schools and bushes to hide behind. Psst, psst, the exhibitionists would whisper to the children when just watching them go by wasn’t exciting enough and they needed to get the kids to look at them. The more the little ones were scared, the harder the men would get. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.
In the seventies, Spain had bigger things to worry about than pigs like that, but for Luis Bermúdez, it was personal. Since he joined the force, Bermúdez had seen a lot of perverts, and they disgusted him more than anything. He could have strangled them with his bare hands. They often hid behind innocent-looking faces with the eyes of a dead octopus. In more recent years, Major Bermúdez had led a technological campaign. He was one of the first to realize that sex criminals who preyed on children were no longer crouching behind bushes or inside cars; instead they worked through computer programs that obscured their IP addresses, the online ID that would otherwise allow them to be found. Even before all the manual Olivetti typewriters had disappeared from the police stations of Spain, Bermúdez recruited the best IT specialists within the ranks to serve under his command in the Judicial Police, the country’s main detective force. He fought to create a group of agents who would sniff through the web in search of sick operators, even in the days of dial-up modems when subscribers paid by the
Turnover in that unit was high. Few staffers could handle going home every night with images of children suffering terrible sexual abuse, difficult for any but the sickest of minds to even imagine. These were images you could never get out of your head. Never forget. Agents devoted to fighting internet pedophilia were tainted forever, their brains never able to completely reset.
It had been years now since Bermúdez’s superiors had taken control of this task force of IT savants, moved it out of his command to the national police headquarters in Canillas, and ostentatiously renamed it the Technological Investigation Brigade, recently renamed again as the Technological Investigation Unit (TIU). The personnel assigned there devoted themselves not only to unmasking pedophiles but also to uncovering their origins. By this time, all the world’s lawlessness circulated through the web. All the rottenness, cruelty, and deprivation of the planet was compressed into zeroes and ones that transmitted evil at the speed of light.
Ana Arén—the chief inspector in charge of the children’s unit of the Servicio de Atención a la Familia for Madrid, which fell within the provincial Judicial Police division commanded by Bermúdez—sat on the edge of one of the tables at the back of the room. Her pose was informal, arms and legs crossed. She didn’t like to sit up front. From the back, you could see everything better. If you could open your perspective and focus your gaze in the other direction, you could observe life in more detail. Sometimes the reaction of an eye gave you more information than the object in its view.
“Hi, Chief Inspector.” Charo Domínguez took a seat beside her.
“Hi, Charo. How are you adjusting to the new job?”
“Not so new, Ana, I’ve been here for months now,” the policewoman replied, taking a sip from the small thermos she brought to the station every morning, a strange mix of milk and honey. “Wait till you meet the new guy. I caught him talking about your ass.”
Ana decided to change the topic. She was in no mood to get angry either.
“How can you drink that crap every morning?” Ana asked.
“Look who’s talking. The woman who drinks Coca-Cola for breakfast. Surely good for the digestive system,” someone joked from behind her.