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

John was dead.

He didn't 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.

Which was 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'.

It was 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 gone.

Shit, he'd 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.

He'd 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 so dead.

He sighed. 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.

Anger flared up in him, white-hot, as if it had never ebbed. It was just like when his mother had died all over again.

Fuming, 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.

Time 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.

Patterns 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.

But God, he loved her in it.

He 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.

Panic 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 stomach.


It came from nowhere. After so much nothing, suddenly the only word he could concentrate on, focus on, almost hear was shit.


Shit. Shit.


How strange.

There, 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. Strange. How.

Then he 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.

The giggle 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 gently slow...


The grey 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 appeared.

Why are you unhappy?

He wasn't. 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.

Why are you unhappy?

The words 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.

I'll help you to remember.

John only 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.

And then 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 disappointment.

"Johnny! Johnny! I've found Virgil and you'll never guess where he was!"

Scott ran 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.

Scott was roughly ten years old.

"C'mon, 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!"

Scott 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.

It was 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.

Someone 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 hey hey, take it easy, little man. Oh, baby, you went down with a bang."

That 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 scalding hot.

He was 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, 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.

"Boy, that's a big bump! Oh my little man, you're so brave. There there, there there, you're so brave."

John 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.

He sighed. 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.

"You see; 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 whispering,

"Sorry, Johnny."

John heard 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?"

John giggled as his dad rapped gently on the crown of his skull.

"Gonna take more than that to get through there."

Then Lucille was above them, grinning.

"I'm not 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."

And so 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 jolted.

She was pregnant.

John 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!

John's 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.

His old 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.

The color 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.


The grass 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.

"Oh God, John! Son, help yourself!"

The grass lunged away from his vision a little. How strange. John didn't ponder it though. He kept right on hyperventilating.


Such pain. 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.

Slowly, 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:

"John, help yourself! Please, Son!"

And he 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.

He only 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...

But he 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 four-year-old.

"She's dead, Dad. Oh God, she'd dead. She's dead she's dead...."

The whole 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.

"God John, I was so scared," his father mumbled. "I've been worried about you for so long. I'm so sorry."

I'm so sorry.

John 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.

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