Word Count: 1,904
Rating: R/sickness, some swearing, dark topics.
Warnings: abuse, physical and emotional. OC character death.
Prompt: hc_bingo: 'domestic abuse: emotional.'
Notes: Companion to Fever Dreams.
John’s good enough at hiding it that almost nobody knows, but when he loses consciousness it’s the last thing on his mind, that people are going to find out. When he’s sick like this, when his temperature rises, he loses those walls, those boundaries, and he goes back there. He’s going to relive it, again and again, and he can only hope that Keller can pump him full of enough drugs that he doesn’t say anything this time.
Six-year-old John is sprawled across the floor in the living room, orange crayon in hand, studiously staying inside the lines because first-graders color neatly. He’s paying such close attention that the voices in the next room are almost yelling by the time he notices anything’s wrong. By then, it’s too late, so he just huddles against the couch and closes his eyes, hoping that it’ll just be over soon.
Eight-year-old John goes straight to his room when he gets home from school. He doesn’t even pause to take his shoes off at the door like he normally does, and he’ll pay for that later, but he’s just so tired that he wants to lay down and forget everything. He flops into his bed without taking his bookbag off, face-first, and is asleep within minutes.
He’s not sure how much longer it is before he’s being hauled out of bed and marched down the hallway, shoes and bookbag still in place, only that it hasn’t been too long because it’s still really bright outside. His father pushes him almost violently into the kitchen and he stumbles, still half-asleep, hitting his arm into the table.
“Clean it up,” his father sneers at him, thrusting a towel into his hands. John blinks at the floor and sees a single muddy footprint. He’d known that his shoes would get him into trouble. He kneels, towel in hand, and carefully eradicates the mark from the floor as his father watches. When he’s finished, he stands in place, head bowed, waiting.
It’s a long time before his father does anything, and when he finally does, it’s to turn and leave the room without speaking a word. John stays in place until he hears the shouting start up in the other room, at which point he escapes back up into his bedroom. He can’t fall back asleep, though, not with his father in the next room yelling at his mother, telling her that her stupid son tracked mud in, he’s an animal, he’s like a dog who just won’t be goddamned housebroken and his mother’s returning voice reminding him that he’s your son, too, Patrick, you could take a little fucking responsibility and help me with him, it’s a lot to raise a kid like that on your own, and John tries not to listen any more but he especially can’t ignore the bright scream that means his father finally lost his patience and hit his mother, or the screaming that follows it, when he keeps going.
Nine-year-old John doesn’t ever bring friends home, because he’s old enough now to know that other people’s parents aren’t like his, and he’s a little ashamed that his parents can’t keep it together. He does, however, spend time with Kyle Haugh during recess a lot, and Kyle asks him to come over one afternoon, so John goes.
It’s fun, it’s a lot of fun, and John hadn’t known that being at home could be like this, less like a house of horrors and more like the Ferris wheel. He eats dinner there, too, chicken and corn and mashed potatoes that don’t come out of a box, and Mrs. Haugh smiles at him a lot so John smiles back. Mr. Haugh smiles at him, too, and John decides that Kyle’s family is much cooler than his own.
They go up to Kyle’s room and bring out his G. I. Joes again after dinner and lay on the floor, recreating a fantastic battle between the Union and the Rebels – it’s Civil War week in history – until they hear Mr. Haugh’s voice booming from down the stairs.
John freezes, because he knows what’s coming next: a reprimand, some sort of punishment for something, but Kyle doesn’t look worried. He’s glancing at the door, and a second later Mr. Haugh shouts, “We’re scooping ice cream!” and John’s heart sinks a little more, but he doesn’t know why.
It’s only later, lying in his own bed after his father picked him up and drove him home, lecturing him about taking other people’s charity and how disappointed he was, that John realizes what the feeling was for. If that had been his own father, calling them down the stairs, it wouldn’t have been for ice cream. His own father would never give him something good like that.
Somewhere, a woman is crying, and it’s not his mother. Cool hands wipe at his head and cheeks, and John turns his head slightly, trying to tell her not to cry, that everything will be fine, that’s he’s stronger now, that he can fix this, but he can’t find her. The hands on his face are soothing, and he goes back to sleep.
Twelve-year-old John likes his new school, because here they don’t know him, won’t expect anything from him, and if he’s that quiet kid in the corner, well, that’s fine. None of the teachers single him out for any attention, positive or negative, and John’s glad; he’d done poorly in science at his last school, and his father hadn’t been happy when the teacher called him at home to tell him about it. He’d done well in math, though, but his father had been equally displeased to hear about that.
At this school, they don’t ask questions when John’s late, or when he’s absent for a few days. At this school, they keep to themselves. At this school, he doesn’t even get the I’m worried about you glances he used to get.
He thinks it’s because in this town, his father is better at lying. In this town, he’s more careful to keep the bruises where they won’t be noticed.
Fourteen-year-old John likes high school because it means he doesn’t spend a lot of time with any one teacher, so nobody really notices when the little things don’t add up. It also means more work, so he’s got more homework, so he can stay busier at night. He doesn’t have to listen to his father slam around in the kitchen, slurring his words more and more as it gets later and later and his bottle empties further and further. He doesn’t have to work as hard not to hear his mother crying when his father finally goes into their room. He doesn’t have to notice anything at all until he hears the blinding crack that means his father has his belt off, and the resultant scream that means his mother is probably lying across their bed without a shirt on.
He tries to drown himself in Trigonometry: A Practical Handbook, tries to make the numbers jump of the page and soothe him, but it doesn’t really help.
Fifteen-year-old John is sick of it, sick of his father hating him and his mother not caring, sick of his father hating his mother, too, and driving her slowly insane. There’s nothing he can do about it, though, so he pulls his bookbag on and heads out the door.
Two men are arguing somewhere above him, and the voices are familiar, soothing though the tones aren’t, not exactly. John opens his mouth a few times and makes a sound, a grunt that isn’t the words he was looking for, but the voices stop arguing.
“Call Keller,” one says, a little nasal.
“On her way,” another one answers, deeper.
A hand takes his and John tries to squeeze it, but the effort is too much, and he goes back under.
Seventeen-year-old John knows something is wrong the second he gets home from school. Well, more wrong than usual – nothing has ever been right in this house, not since before he was born, probably not for a long time before that, either. But it’s silent, too silent, too still, because his father got laid off again and his mother hasn’t worked in years, and the family car is here so they both are as well. He doesn’t call out for them, because he’s lived for long enough to know that drawing attention to himself is a bad idea, so he goes looking instead.
He finds his mother first, spread naked on her bed, back bloody and bruised. His father’s belt is there, too, half on her back and half draped over the side of the bed. She isn’t moving, and there’s a weird color to her skin, and John just keeps moving, because he doesn’t have to go into the room to know.
His father is in the bathroom, eyes bloodshot, and he looks up when John enters the room. “We have to go,” his father says, struggling to stand, and John just looks at him and nods.
“I’ll pack,” he says and leaves, hearing his father slump back down against the wall.
He goes to the neighbor’s, instead, and calls the police.
John blearily cracks his eyes open and wills them to stay that way. The lids slide down a few times, wavering between sleep and wakefulness, but John’s nothing if not stubborn, and he finally wins the battle.
The first thing that he notices is Evan, sprawled in a chair next to the bed he’s in, looking like he hasn’t slept or moved or showered in days. The second thing he notices is that it’s kind of hard to breathe, that he’s strapped to a million different things, and that Evan hasn’t noticed he’s awake.
“You look like shit.” He’d meant to say good morning, or something snappy, but Evan doesn’t seem to notice.
“Oh, thank God,” he’s saying instead, repeating it and fumbling with a switch. “Thank God.”
They talk and John knows before Evan confirms it that he said things again, like he’d known he would, and Evan’s face is pained. John’s heart aches, not in a sick way but in a hurt way, because it’s a cross he never meant to share with anyone, least of all someone he cares about so much. He feels a little guilty, too, because it makes him feel better to know that someone knows, sometimes, to know that he’s not carrying the weight by himself. But it hurts Evan, and John feels that more than anything.
Evan helps him home, later, days after he wakes, and they curl up together and sleep. John wakes in the morning, and it’s probably been sixteen hours since they got there but Evan’s still with him, still has an arm around John’s shoulders, is still sleeping though John’s apparently been using him as a pillow. John keeps his eyes closed, taking in the warm, solid weight of Evan beneath his cheek, the comfort of the arm holding him close, and knows that this is home, this is family, this is what he’s always wanted but had been afraid to admit to, and he’s maybe finally there, finally where he can take what he’s never allowed himself to hope for.
John smiles, just a little, and goes back to sleep.