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FIFTEEN, EIGHTEEN, THIRTY-SEVEN: An excerpt from Peter Stenson's forthcoming novel

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FIFTEEN, EIGHTEEN, THIRTY-SEVEN: An excerpt from Peter Stenson's forthcoming novel

Guy Intoci

One always said sickness bears Honesty. I’m not sure if I agree with him. Sometimes I think sickness bears more sickness.

This story isn’t about Dr. James Shepard, whom I knew as One.

I wasn’t given a name at birth. I was given one three weeks later when I was adopted. It’s Mason Hues. You haven’t heard of me. For a year, I went by Thirty-Seven. Sometimes I think numbers are a better representation of our true selves because they denote the order in which we arrived.

One always said survivors were the only people worthy of living. He said that a person is a prisoner to the idea of betterment until he cannot see a single thing left worth living for. He said that nobody is grateful when he’s enslaved to the entitled notion of things improving.

I’m eighteen years old. This number is perhaps more important than anything else. It means I’m now a man, now able to die for this country. It means my record is now sealed, any crimes expunged. It means had I been eighteen thirty months ago, I would more than likely be doing life, like the rest of my family.

One always said that if somebody tells you a story isn’t about something, it sure as hell is.

I ran away when I was fifteen. This wasn’t because I was unloved or abused—although more than once, I awoke to the man who swore to love and protect me standing in my doorway, the rhythmic rustling of him pleasuring himself to my sleeping body an unmistakable type of gong—and it wasn’t because I was steeped in want of anything in particular. I grew up wealthy. I grew up in private schools. I had enough friends. I ran away because everything seemed easy. Too easy, fake.

One always said that Honesty bears change. I agree with this. The very nature of Honesty calls for change. Its presence won’t allow for anything else. Once something is known, it fundamentally alters those who know it. It forces action, even if that action is inaction.

This story isn’t about sex. It’s not about love. It’s not even about family.

I was the thirty-seventh person to knock on the doors of Dr. James Shepard’s Colorado estate in search of something real. That’s what I honestly believed I was searching for: realness. Maybe I was. I was young, fifteen, like I said. Maybe I was simply searching for shelter. Maybe I was leaving one adopted home for another. Maybe I was searching for betterment. Maybe I thought it my right as a person with a name to choose my own abusive father.

Dr. Turner worked with me at CMHIP to alter my use of pronouns. She inflicted small punishments for my incessant use of we. Sometimes she wouldn’t let me play four square. Other times she wouldn’t allow me to have books in my room. I was congratulated the first time I said I: I want you all to leave me alone.

One said the use of acronyms was a tool of shirking Honesty. He said POW was comical coming out of a person’s mouth, juvenile, even fun. He said Prisoner of War didn’t have the same placating effect. He said that as humans, everything we did was in order to bury, obstruct, and alter Truth.

I remember learning the concept of modus ponens in ninth-grade math class. It’s an antiquated rule of inference. It states that if P implies Q, and P is true, then Q is true. One said that sickness bears Honesty. He said Honesty bears change. Therefore, sickness bears change. It’s really as simple as that.

This story isn’t about ideas. It’s not about ideals. It’s not about betterment.

I live in a studio apartment in Denver, Colorado. It’s Section 8 housing. I haven’t spoken to my adopted parents in over three years. I eat rice and drink Mr. Pibb for every meal. I spent thirty months in adolescent correctional facilities, both penal and mental health. My record is clean. Nobody knows me as Thirty-Seven.

One’s favorite singer was Elvis. I know every song by heart. Crying into a five-gallon painter’s bucket, my teeth disintegrating underneath their constant coating of acidic bile, will forever remind me of “Blue Moon.”

The three deepest, most telling, and unflappable aspects of a person’s character are his first love, his favorite memory, and his deepest regret. When I was fifteen, I spoke these into One’s ear. For the life of me, I cannot remember what I told him. But looking back, that moment—the granite boulder digging into my legs, the stars like a child kleptomaniac obsessed with things that sparkle, the warmth radiating from a stranger’s neck—now encapsulates all three character-determining aspects.

I have wants now. I want a box spring. I want one of those razors that jiggle to ensure the closest shave. I want a significant other. Someday, I’d like to learn to drive, so I guess I’d like a car. A bicycle would do for now. I’ve learned it’s okay to have material wants; they are not inherently selfish.

We were survivors. That’s what you know us as: The Survivors. It was never to be our name because we’d shed our names, our origins of birth, our shackles to wanting beings perpetuating the bullshit cycle of consumerism in order to stave off mortality. We were One and Five and Thirty-Seven. We were survivors because we endured round after round of chemotherapy. Some of us didn’t. Twenty-Two died of phenomena. Thirty-One died of an infection. Of course, you know about the ones who died on February tenth.

This story isn’t about voluntarily going through chemo. It’s not about Survivors, at least not with a capital S. It’s not about family members who died.

I’m eighteen. I used to be Thirty-Seven. I used to be Mason Hues. I used to be John Doe.

One always said that consequences were 99.9% man-made. I found this difficult to believe until we did things without the world’s judgmental eyes, and then I understood his words to be true.

Dr. Turner told me in CMHIP that I could be anything I wanted. She told me my entire life lay ahead of me. She told me I was smart, exceptionally so. She told me I could go to college and pick my profession. She asked me, if I could choose anything, what I wanted to be when I grew up. I thought for a second and then answered, making sure to use the first person singular: I want to be anonymous in a group of people who’ve nursed me through my pleas for death.

This story isn’t about what happened on February tenth. It’s not about The Day of Gifts. It’s not about the seventy-seven people who were murdered.

I was fifteen when I ran away. I was fifteen when One put a needle in my arm and shot me with my first dose of Cytoxan. I was fifteen when I was arrested and charged with seventy-seven counts of being an accessory to murder. I was fifteen when I lost my name once again, the authorities keeping me anonymous. Just a token of horror for the masses to rally behind, a child in the wrong place at the wrong time. Poor kid, poor fucking kid.

One also said that if somebody explicitly tells you what a story is about, to keep your heart closed because this person was preaching, and nothing—not a single damn thing—coming out of a preacher’s mouth is ever True.

One always said we are nothing without one another. He said everything could be traced back to the loneliness of our family of origin’s cruelties of abandonment. He said we were doing the most remarkable thing imaginable: forging bonds deeper than blood, embarking upon lives free of want amidst a loving family of our own choosing.

This story is about a boy who ran away from adopted parents who loved him the best they knew how. It’s about a boy who found a home in the mountains of Colorado. It’s about a boy who lost his name through three rounds of chemotherapy, his only sickness rooted in the I. It’s about February tenth, The Day of Gifts. It’s about coming of age in locked cells, some with padded walls and some with toilets that never fully got clean. It’s about turning eighteen and becoming a man and amassing the small luxuries of even the lower class, crossing of wants without any cerebral wherewithal.

Modus ponens. It’s a weird thing to remember learning. It deals with how to infer truth. But it’s not a law, and that fact is what keeps me awake on a mattress with no box spring wondering.