by FRAN L
John learns that not everything
can be fixed as two tragic events come back to haunt him.
This story was written in response to the 2004 Tracy Island Writers Forum's Fic Swap Challenge
think he'd ever seen his father so angry and hurt. And he'd
been incurring his wrath a lot lately, so that was really
saying something. Sure, he hadn't been in a great mood when
he'd sat down at the dinner table anyway, and determined as he
had been to stay out of the way of anything even loosely
resembling a conversation, somehow he'd found himself in the
middle of what rapidly became a raving argument that he'd had
no patience to finish.
exactly the reason why he'd stormed out of the front door,
stormed across the yard and stormed straight behind the wheel
of his Aston Martin before anyone could even entertain the
notion of possibly following him. Scott, probably, would've
been the first to try, the hypocritical busybody. One of the
wisest things Scott had ever told his little brothers over the
years of squabbles and fist-fights was that if you're ever
feeling in an explosive mood, then you stomp off for a good
long walk and you do it alone. But he was the first to hurry
after any of the boys that ever tried to do that. Well, not
this time. John didn't want to be with anyone tonight,
especially not his family and especially not any of his
Harvard friends who kept randomly turning up at their Kansas
ranch door ‘just to see how things were'.
February 29th, which meant that in a month or so it was Alan's
birthday, and a week after that was the anniversary of his
mother's death. Fine. No problem. He'd handled that okay for
the past seventeen years. Well, he'd handled it. Lucille
hadn't been an off-limits subject for a long time now. His
father had finally reached the level of closure where he could
talk about his late wife either in passing or in depth without
too much pain. Great. Terrific. Anytime but now. He was truly
interested in listening to any amount of information, however
trivial, about the woman who had brought him into the world
any time but now. Why couldn't his stupid dad understand that?
He more than anyone should understand that. He didn't want to
think about death right now. Why why hadn't Jeff thought of
that before he began relating to the family over meatloaf and
beans some freak-ass existential theory on the nature of the
mind post-humusly. Why? Why? God, Abbie. He missed her so
much. Jesus, it ached at him. He just couldn't believe she was
really said some things to his dad. Uncalled for things, he
knew. He knew as soon as he'd said them that it wasn't fair,
and the way his brothers had repeatedly fallen into winded
silences only accentuated the fact that his opinions on his
father's inclination for verbalising arguments from his rectum
were not necessary.
driven blindly for a while, and then realised he was on the
road to the quarry-top. There, looking out at the woodland
below him and the scattering of diamond stars above from his
seat on the front of his bonnet, John thought over the night's
events and could reach only one conclusion.
Oh, he was
And sighed again. Now that the raw, maddening, muscle-creasing
anger was ebbing gently away he felt exhaustion creeping in at
him. And defeat. And a little shame. He tiredly pushed his
blonde hair out of his eyes. It was really getting a little
long recently, he should get it cut. It really wasn't his
father's fault. John hadn't told his family just how close
he'd been to Abbie. He'd just said that a college friend had
died and he was going to crash at home for a spell. No one had
tried to push the issue too much. His family had given him
space, and let him hide in his attic room with his telescope
and charts and forget that Abbie had ever existed.
flared up in him, white-hot, as if it had never ebbed. It was
just like when his mother had died all over again.
John stared up at the stars in the sky. They shone heartily
and in their multitudes without any hindrance from the city
lights. Without astronomy, or telescopes, or theories and
calculations, or the endless mathematics and science that
space provided him, the stars always made John sad. On their
own, standing cold and dead on a black blanket of nothingness,
they looked so empty. Beautiful and empty. It always reminded
him of death. Of his mother.
seemed to grind slowly to a halt as he lay and stared blankly
into the night sky. Unshed tears lay unheeded in his eyes
making his vision blur and cloud. Or was it the incessant
staring that was causing the sky to smudge? Exhaustion and
lethargy made him care less, and soon his vision required no
interpretation from his brain at all. He just stared.
gently began to swirl around the edges of his sight, but his
mind was elsewhere. It was hurting too much to think of Abbie
and so his thoughts lightly played on his mom instead. He
floated for a long while on a memory he had of her leaning
over him while he sat in a highchair; all smiles and light,
warmth and comfort radiating from her deep brown eyes and
glowing chestnut hair. He felt a sob trying to escape. He
didn't even know if the memory was real.
he loved her in it.
wouldn't let the sob out. It stuck in the back of his throat,
pushing at the tears in his neglected eyes, but he wouldn't
let it out. Only the feeling of a single droplet rolling down
his cheek brought his attention back from the depths inside.
He went to refocus on the stars that he'd been looking through
for the past however-long, but he couldn't. He couldn't see
them any more. His vision was too smudged with swirling
black-white patterns to see anything. He blinked hard, but
they remained. If anything, they began to swirl faster.
began to grip at John and he sat bolt-upright, blinking and
rubbing his eyes, but the spinning continued unabated, gaining
speed and changing in color. From black and white, pinks, reds
and blues began creeping in, joining the mad dance that was
rocking him and making him queasy. He gripped the edge of the
bonnet, fear rooting him helplessly to the spot. Physical
presence began slipping away, and soon he was aware of only
the colors and his own harsh, rapid breathing. His sight span
and hurtled beyond control, and as he rapidly approached the
point where he felt he would lose consciousness all together,
suddenly it stopped. Everything stopped. All he was aware of
was a grey-blackness and the sound of his breathing; rasping,
as though he'd sprinted a marathon after being punched in the
from nowhere. After so much nothing, suddenly the only word he
could concentrate on, focus on, almost hear was shit.
something new. How strange. How strange. Very
appropriate, under the circumstances. Fear was beginning to
gently fall away, as though it was dirt and he was standing
under a shower, and John floated in the greyness, focusing on
the only words he was aware of. Shit. Shit how strange.
was aware of another something new. This one was a giggle.
Hehehe. It sounded so sweet, so silly and light, it
suddenly filled the void where his spirit had been with a
giddy joy, and he giggled himself. Hehehehehe. How straaaange.
became a chuckle. The chuckle became a laugh. An outright,
loud and unabashed laugh. God it felt good! He laughed and
laughed and laughed until sheer lack of breath caused it to
ebb to sporadic giggles again. He sighed heartily and
contentedly. God, he was so happy. He let himself drift with
the sheer joy of it. Let himself lose touch, let the greyness
slip away... let the words float off... let the breathing
returned all at once, and his breathing restarted with a gasp.
He wasn't allowed to drift. Something wouldn't let him let go.
Unafraid, contented, and mildly curious, John waited. Waited
to see why he couldn't let go. And sure enough, the words
What an odd question. He'd never felt so happy as he did then,
and he let his bemusement act as answer to the question.
came again, and John just giggled. But this time they
resonated, like an echo, as though they were going to hang
until he answered the question. So he tried to, but only a
blankness existed where he figured those memories should be. I
can't remember, he replied. He had no voice. The words just
suddenly existed, like the ones that questioned him. After a
moment, more words appeared.
you to remember.
had time to feel the beginnings of a deep and consuming fear
before he realised the colors were back again. So fast. Oh God
make them stop! He felt as though he were rocketing through
them, faster than he'd ever moved in his life, and the
swirling, dancing madness tugged him in every direction until
he felt sure he was going to be sick.
they were gone. They were gone and he was sitting on the floor
of the Tracy ranch living room. He looked about him, searching
for any sign of the colors, or the words, or the greyness, but
everything was desperately ordinary. Huh. It surprised him to
find, upon searching his emotions, all he felt was a biting
Johnny! I've found Virgil and you'll never guess where he
into the room at breakneck speed, and skidded and crashed to
the floor mere inches in front of John. It took a moment of
looking into his brother's bright blue eyes to realise that,
far from being ordinary, everything was very very strange.
How strange. Yes, very strange.
roughly ten years old.
Johnny, come see! You gotta watch and learn, ‘cos you're
littler than he is, and you'd be able t'fit much better. He
nearly got stuck this time!"
grabbed John's hand and helped him to his feet. The elder
towered over the younger, making John look down and see that
he was no longer in the body of a twenty-year-old. Numbly, he
hurried along on the legs of a toddler as his big brother
pulled him through the house by the arm at a speed a little
beyond what John was really capable of.
therefore unsurprising that they crashed. Before he knew it
John had collided with Scott and they had both fallen
backwards. Ouch. Yeah, ouch. John felt tears pricking
his eyes as his head thumped against the laminate floor. The
sob was ready in his throat, and to his surprise he didn't
fight it back. How strange. He always fought them back.
He was aware of the panic - even as he began to bawl- that if
he wasn't careful someone would notice the tears.
did. Big, strong hands were suddenly on him, lifting him from
the floor, and he screamed with fear and tried to run. Someone
might notice... Someone might see...
hey, take it easy, little man. Oh, baby, you went down with a
voice. It was so so warm. John looked for its comfort before
he could even consider stopping himself, and was soon far from
the floor and the pain, wrapped in the large and unmistakable
arms of his father. And he cried. He cried so hard. Cried till
his head thumped and his lungs hurt and his cheeks were
dimly aware of another voice he loved. A woman murmuring
something, to which his father murmured a reply that rumbled
deep from the chest that John was cradled against. Then he
felt movement, and realised that he'd been carried back to the
living room and his father had sat in a large armchair,
cuddling and shushing John all the way, tucking his tiny head
under his large, imposing chin.
slowly, John caught his breath. The pain lessened and he
gradually stopped bawling, though the occasional sob was
tugged from him. He felt large hands running through his hair,
down his face, wiping away the tears.
that's a big bump! Oh my little man, you're so brave. There
there, there there, you're so brave."
snuffled and wiped his dripping nose down his father's
shirtfront, drawing a deep chuckle from the chest he lay
against. He felt the ghost of a smile tug at the corners of
his mouth and snuggled even closer, if that was possible, into
his dad's embrace.
It tasted of Jeff. That distinct smell that he hadn't noticed
for years was suddenly more in focus here. His eyes glanced
around the room as it had looked all those years ago, and he
found he noticed everything with Technicolor clarity. He'd
forgotten, for example, just how rich the burnt orange paint
on the walls had been. It had been re-decorated years ago, but
right now he couldn't think why. It was such a deep warm color.
He'd forgotten how he'd loved wearing the blue dungarees that
he was currently clad in. And how his father rocked gently
from side to side, talking an inexhaustible stream of nonsense
when comforting one of his children.
he's all right now. Nothing to worry about."
It was the
other voice. Without qualm John turned his head and looked
across the room, straight into the eyes of his mother. She
knelt on the floor, beside a tear-stained Scott who was
chewing his nails anxiously. She laughed quietly, ran her hand
through Scott's thick dark hair and gave him a great squeeze
of a hug. Scott removed himself from her embrace and skipped
across to where Jeff sat, lowering his eyes to John's and
the smile in his father's voice as he said lightly, "Good boy,
Scott, but don't you worry, you're brother's still in one
piece. Aren't ya, John? You're made of tougher stuff than
that, aren't ya? See this head?"
giggled as his dad rapped gently on the crown of his skull.
take more than that to get through there."
Lucille was above them, grinning.
sure you should be encouraging them to test your theory,
Jeff." She giggled and kissed John's hair, before turning to
the newly-smiling Scott. "Come on, Maverick, you come help me
in the kitchen now, and let your brother take a nap."
Scott scrambled after his mother, seemingly disregarding any
lesson he probably should've learned about tearing through the
house with any great speed. And John watched them happily,
silhouetted in the doorway, before she turned, and his heart
looked round with panic into his father's eyes, and noticed
for the first time how sad they'd been. And suddenly he
realised something he'd never truly understood, no matter how
many times his father related the story of Lucille's last
months. He knew she wouldn't make it. Both Jeff and Lucille
knew she wouldn't make it. And they went ahead with it
anyway. Keeping up with the appearance of a happy family and
having their sons believe that everything would always be all
right in the end and it was a lie! It wasn't all right and
there was stuff that couldn't be fixed!
contentment shattered in a riot of razor-edged color, and he
was above the father and son, watching the blonde-haired
toddler fall asleep in the older man's arms, cursing and
cursing the boy for believing the false-comfort that was being
given to him. It was an insult. It was a con. It wasn't real.
They were lying to him, lying to his face. Lying to his soul.
friend, the color, was back and he welcomed its swirling
madness. He span and span until he was dizzy and crazy.
Anything was better than that hideous hideous comfort. It made
him sick. As far back as he could remember something inside
had made him scoff a little any time his dad had taken that
tone of voice that said ‘There's nothing we can't fix'. And
now he remembered why. It was because he'd known, deep down,
that his father was a liar. There were things that you
couldn't fix, no matter how hard you rocked the kid or how
much nonsense you told them.
was getting brighter. Blinding. John gave himself up entirely
to the panic and heard his breathing escalate into hysterical
sobs and gasping, and the light reached whiteness and still
kept on going. He rapidly approached fever pitch, and felt
like everything was slipping sideways when suddenly it
stopped. He found himself staring intensely at a section of
grass to the sound of hyperventilation.
was so ordinary. It danced a little as he gasped and sobbed
next to it. The pressure on his arm hurt a little, but the
pain was not beyond the ordinary either. The voice was
certainly nothing special, despite it's rough panic. He might
almost say he was back to reality, only he felt none of the
things he would normally feel. He felt nothing. Only a little
chilly in the Kansas breeze.
John! Son, help yourself!"
lunged away from his vision a little. How strange. John didn't
ponder it though. He kept right on hyperventilating.
Such pain as to rival his own. The pain in the voice made him
look up towards it. A man in a jacket stood in front of an
Aston Martin, gripping to John's arm with all his strength,
sheer panic lighting his eyes in the darkness of the night.
John felt his brain coming to life. Slowly realisation dawned
that he'd lost his footing and slid sideways off the quarry
top. He realised his father had grabbed him. Saved him. He
heard the whisper:
help yourself! Please, Son!"
grabbed the grass in his fist. And he pulled. God, it hurt,
but he pulled. Pulled until suddenly he was in the arms of his
father again, head tucked under his chin, staring blankly at
his own feet as they dangled over the quarry edge. His
father's harsh breathing mingled with his own, and they
listened to each other gently calming down, watched their
breath captured in steam before them slowly return to normal.
Jeff's hand ran over John's face, though his hair, comforting
in its heat and weight though everything in him rebelled
against accepting that comfort. He fought the warmth as hard
as he could, trying to do it without giving any outward sign.
Otherwise his father might notice. Someone might see.
noticed the tears when the older man pointed them out to him.
Watching his father's hand come away from his face wet made
him want to cry more. It wasn't working. He was going to
notice if he didn't stop... didn't stop crying...
couldn't. It ached too much to fight it any more. He curled
into his father's embrace, crying like he'd cried as a
dead, Dad. Oh God, she'd dead. She's dead she's dead...."
story of Abbie came out, mingled hysterically with comments
about his mother and about how dangerous laminate flooring
could be. And Jeff hugged him, and soothed him, and talked
gentle nonsense until John was so exhausted he could barely
breathe. He waited for the color to come back, and take him to
another violent emotion and shatter the sleep and potential
contentment, as it had done all night, but it didn't. He just
sat. Just sat, becoming gently aware that even though nothing
had changed, Abbie and his mother were still dead and stuff
was still wrong, he felt a little better. Like everything
might be okay.
I was so scared," his father mumbled. "I've been worried about
you for so long. I'm so sorry."
smiled gently. He wasn't sure Jeff even knew what he was
apologising for, but it didn't matter. He'd apologised, and
that was enough for him.