Dad could die any day, John thinks.
Except he doesn’t think that, because that thought is so impossible, so vaguely terrifying that it circles around the circuits of John’s brain and simply exits out of his ears to float away into non-existence.
It could never happen, he says, when the shivers that he insists don’t have a cause run down his back. Things like that happen to people on TV, the ones used on commercials that are ninety percent guilt and ten percent vaguely religious lyrics crooned by Sarah McLachlan as she gives the camera sad, drooping eyes that would look more at home on a cartoon bloodhound, and begs you to take the time out of your day to donate just ten cents to their cause. Just ten cents, and you can help a starving orphan somewhere in the world.
Orphan. John thinks of the word, says it aloud, rolls it around his mouth and spits it out. He breaks it down, dissecting each letter, separating vowels from consonants, trying to figure out what its root is. Latin or Greek? Maybe neither. Maybe it’s some weird language that English pilfered from. Maybe it's Russian.
John opens the door to his room and hears Dad’s off key humming coming from the kitchen, even though he’s all the way on the other side of the house. The tune, something from a song that was probably popular thirty years ago when Dad was a kid, wraps around him like a leash, and before he knows what's happening he's sitting at the kitchen table while his father bakes. All he can smell is cake and smoke, and the smell is too strong and pungent and it makes him cough like it always does but he doesn’t move.
Orphan. Dad is an orphan. At least he thinks so. Can adults even be orphans? Can Dads be orphans? He isn’t sure.
John taps out a scattered melody on the kitchen table, trying to remember Beethoven’s Piano Son-Something in Some Key. Fingers fly across the white plastic, pretending to slam down the heavy keys of the baby grand he know he’s going to get for his sixteenth birthday. Dad finally turns around, greeting John with a warm smile and a ruffle of his hair. John laughs and pushes his hand away.
“I’m so proud of you,” he says, voice softened by fatherly love. His voice is always like this, warm and comforting like the heat in the room. It makes him feel like a little kid again. It's only a little bit lame. “You’re learning that song faster than I ever could at your age.”
“Nanna was your piano teacher, wasn’t she,” John says. He wonders what Nanna was like. He thinks she would have been nice, and instead of smelling like cake and smoke maybe she smelled like cookies and alcohol. He can’t imagine the kindly old lady above the fireplace drinking alcohol. Maybe sipping from a glass of champagne on special occasions.
Maybe she smelled like little old lady perfume instead. The kind that makes John cough and wrinkle up his nose.
“Yes. She was a piano prodigy herself, just like you. She tried to teach me, but these clumsy fingers were meant for holding cake pans, not plunking down keys.”
John nods, looking down at his own fingers; long and kind of spidery, if he thinks about it. Spiders are gross. Kind of cool, but still gross. His hands are kind of gross, too.
He looks over at his dad, studies the short, fat digits tightly gripping the edge of the mixing bowl. Those are hands meant to protect, meant to grip shields and fight away invaders. They’re short and sturdy.
They could be gone in a second, and John wouldn’t be able to stop it. They could be chopped off in just a few hours from now, after Dad pulls the cake out of the oven, lets it cool, and frosts it. He could cut out a too-big piece for John, and bam, slice his fingers off in one clean chop. Dad wouldn’t be happy. He’d have to get rid of the cake and start over from scratch, because there would be blood all over it and you can't feed your family bloody cake.
John fiddles with the salt shaker, rolling it between his fingers, spider digits crawling over plastic. All it would take to get rid of his Dad’s fingers would be one simple accident.
Nanna died in an accident. On John’s birthday, too. 12 years, three months, and five days ago. Something about a stray explosion, some mishap with a large book. John isn’t sure of the details, but he knows that it was something so outlandish it’s actually kind of funny.
Dad could die too, in an equally outlandish way. He could die in a dumb accident right now. A meteor could crash into their house and bury him under burning rock and rubble, and there would be no way to save him. He’d be dead, and John would still have Rose and Dave and Jade, but no one else. They only have each other in this world.
If Dad died, he’d be on his own. If Dad died, John would never eat shitty Betty Crocker cake again. He’d never get scolded for cursing.
He’d never get to hear his off key humming as he sets a cake pan into the oven. 350 degrees for 15 minutes.
John puts the salt shaker down, stands up, and hugs his dad tightly.
He doesn’t cry, only stares into the crisp white of his shirt and thinks of how long it must have taken him to iron every last wrinkle out.
John is still here, but Dad is not.
That’s a good thing, he thinks, as he picks his way through the rubble littering the living room floor. He steps in a pool of ink and gets it all over his new shoes. Dad would not be proud.
He would not be proud of this mess, nor would he be proud of the state of John’s shoes. He’ll come home soon, and he’ll sigh and get to work cleaning up. He’ll break out the five different Swiffers they own, and in just a few hours, the house will be back to normal.
John might get grounded for allowing this to get so bad. He’ll receive a stern talking to, and then his computer might get taken away for a while. He’ll be banned to his room, and he’ll have to spend the next week playing Crash Bandicoot on his shitty Playstation and hoping that Dave doesn’t get a hernia from wondering why he hasn’t been online for so long.
John climbs over the bathtub. Bad Rose, worst server player. Throwing stray tubs all over the place. At least Dad is crazy strong; he’ll just carry the bathtub up the stairs and put it back. It’ll take some effort to put all the piping back together, but John’s sure Dad can do it. He’s always fixed the problems around the house without ever needing to call in a professional.
He passes by a harlequin statue, and, for once, allows himself to grimace. Nobody likes weird clowns, and even though he thought his dad did, he doesn’t. Boring old business men wouldn’t like clowns. Weird street performers would, but he apparently doesn’t know any of those.
John walks outside, and shivers. It's cold, but the air is unnaturally still, and he's afraid that the atmosphere will shatter if he's not careful. All he can see is black. Not the same black as his hair, no; this is an absence of color, a complete void swallowing him whole.
Maybe it swallowed Dad, too. But of course it wouldn’t, because voids don’t swallow up people like him. Voids swallow up young, pretty girls with their whole lives ahead of them. It makes for a tragic scene. Really, all it does is reel in viewers looking for cheap tears.
John looks down. The blood rushes to his head from the dizzying height. Clouds cover the bottom of the void, and he doesn’t want to know if they’re hiding anything else. He sees gray, and he sees blue, and he sees strips of black, and they're all far enough away from red to be comforting.
His Dad didn’t fall down there. He couldn’t have. It would be an accident, but it would be a pretty fucking dumb accident. It wouldn’t even be a good prank. A pranking king like him wouldn’t stoop to something so low. He’s around here somewhere, John can tell, he just doesn’t know where.
“Dad?” He calls out to the void, more than a whisper but not quite a shout, and kicks an imp off of the ledge. It lands not with a splat, but with an explosion of electric blue razz-ma-tazz grist gushers. Grushers. John needs the supplies, but decides not to hop down and get them.
The void swallows his call, but he knows that if Dad wasn’t off hiding or exploring or maybe throwing pies at monsters somewhere, he would have answered back.
He can’t be dead, because in games like this, no major character is allowed to die this early on. He likes to think Dad is a major character. At the very least he’s a minor character. And in stories like his, parents either die in the backstory, or they die at the climax.
John looks around, and up to the bright, pulsing gate above. It’s blue, like Nanna. He hears an airy trill of “hoo hoo hoo!” from inside, and decides to climb.
The only thing that separates them is a single gap.
It’s not too far that John couldn’t jump across it. He knows this. One big, dramatic leap like they do in the movies, and he’ll be over on the other side.
He’ll get to hug Dad again. He doesn’t know why, but there’s this niggling voice in the back of his head that sounds suspiciously like what he discovered Nanna sounds like telling him that it’s important. He needs to wrap his arms around Dad and never let go, because once he does, he may not be able to hug him again.
Except that voice is dumb. Really, really dumb. Mind-nanna is just paranoid. Dad will be fine, and so will the lady next to him.
She’s very pretty. Looks a lot like Rose, when John thinks about it. This is probably her Mom. She holds Dad’s hand, long, bony fingers wrapping around his tiny cake pan holding ones.
She has nice hands. Hands that would probably look classy holding a martini, like Rose says she always does. She’s not right now, though. Too busy holding Dad’s hand to hold a martini as well.
After he leaps across, they could all go home. Dad can show Rose’s mom around the house, and then maybe they could all have dinner together. He’ll have to clean before they can eat, but that’s ok. John can help. Rose can come too, of course. Maybe even Dave and Jade could come, if they wanted. They could all eat together like one big, happy family, and John could give Jade the extra cake, because has she probably never had cake that wasn’t made with a machine before. Sure, it’s a Batterwitch creation, but Jade won’t mind. Batterwitches can’t infect island girls who have magical space dog parents with their freaky sugary mind serum. They’re simply immune to their bullshit.
John sprints towards the gap at full speed. His legs shoot off the edge, and he knows that he’s high enough on his echeladder that he’ll have no problems making it.
He leans forward, prepares to land right on the checkerboard ground, and wakes up.
The next thing John knows, his dad and Rose’s mom are gone.
John is lying on a slab of rock.
There is so, so much blood.
It’s bright and kind of thick, like the time he tried to make cherry Kool-Aid but poured three packets too many and the drink came out as a sugary sludge. It’s all over the place, covering the stony bed and dripping down the side in fat drops.
He feels it leak out of his chest, feels pain pulse through his body with each slowing beat of his heart. It is so cold.
He realizes that he is dying. He is dying, and he didn’t even get to tell Dad goodbye.
Dad will go home, and close the door to John’s room. Rose’s mom will move in, because Dad doesn’t deserve to be so lonely, and maybe Rose will stop pulling her passive aggressive horseshit long enough to sincerely agree with her mother and wish her well. She’ll move into John’s room, and use his computer, and tear down his posters and replace them with weird monsters.
Maybe they’ll get married, and while John would love to play the wedding march on the organ, they’ll have to find someone else to play. Maybe Nanna will. She’ll play it and get blue gusher goo all over the piano. It’ll be gross and no one will want to clean it up.
His new life will be strange, but at least Dad won’t be alone. He’ll gain a new family and an old mother, and if he wants another kid, he can adopt Jade.
John Egbert dies.
John Egbert has an extra life tucked away, and comes back as a literal god.
The Breeze is finally his, swirling around in powerful torrents, like excited dogs waiting for a command from their new master.
He can only wonder if gods are allowed to have Dads, too.
There is so much blood. He's almost used to seeing it now.
Rose is gray, and she’s speaking some weird monster language, and her shoes are covered in blood. They’re kind of fruity, all pink and red. Cherries and raspberries. Or maybe cherries and strawberries, swirling together like the time he got frozen yogurt and decided to cross the streams. John isn’t quite sure.
Dad is there, lying face down on the ground. Rose’s mom is a little ways away. Rose acts as if she isn’t there.
It’s ok, Rose, he wants to say. It’s ok that you’re not freaking out! Because I am not freaking out either.
He is not freaking out, because he can’t feel anything but numb. He’s empty, inside and out.
He doesn’t think gods are supposed to feel empty, but Rose feels empty too, and she’s not a god. She’s just a girl. A gray girl with freaky dark magic powers, and she’s just as numb as she is. He’d offer her a hug, but he suddenly can’t move.
A small pain, sharp in the same way that poking himself with a knife and drawing just enough blood to bead on his fingertip, rises from his chest. He looks down, and sees a sword sticking out of his chest.
John crumples to the floor, and dies to Rose's swan song, sung by screams and danced by frantic dodges, all performed in vain.
His last thought is that she cannot beat the demons that plague her world if she can’t even face the demons that plague her mind.
When he awakes, he crawls over to Rose’s body. He knows what to do.
A successful corpsesmooch is executed, and John wipes the blood off of his mouth. He laughs, because he just gave his first kiss to his dead future wife.
He wonders if Dad would congratulate him, regardless of her current state of being. Maybe he’d make a ‘you have finally given your first romantic gesture’ batch of cupcakes. He thinks they would have purple hearts sprinkled on top of the frosting. Purple and gray hearts, because Rose is purple and gray and dead.
He looks over to his dad. There’s still so much blood.
John stands up, turns around, and flies off, hood trailing behind him. The Breeze twists his goodbye into a snarled knot.
He has a job to do.
The cold winds prick the skin on his face until he’s flushed red, but he’s numb, more numb than he has ever been in his life.
Dad is dead, John knows.
Dad is dead and he’s never coming back, because death is the only force more powerful than love, and Sburb didn’t see it fit to give an NPC an extra life.
It hasn’t been very long since he died. Only three months and five days. Jade is thirteen and a half, and John is thirteen and a quarter, but he feels so much older. He feels like an old man, ready to go to sleep one last time and meet death in his dreams. Sometimes his hands shake as he does simple tasks, and he wonders how a single day could age him so many years.
Dad is dead, and John is numb. His laugh sounds hollow to his ears, but he can’t change it, and Jade, Nanna, Dave, and every single living thing on the ship wouldn’t know that it’s all wrong, because they haven’t stayed with him long enough to learn what his real laugh sounds like. Dad would know, and he would sit him down and ask whats wrong over a cup of coffee (for Dad) and hot chocolate (for John).
His shipmates are still learning all of his quirks, like how he has to roll over at least twice before going to bed, or how he likes eating with tiny spoons because they make him feel like he’s eating more when he’s really not.
He’s learning theirs, too. How Jade curls up within herself when she watches anything, eyes big and ears pricked straight up; how Dave's feathers flutter when he laughs.
He often comes into the kitchen to watch Nanna cook. She’s the best cook on the ship, but she does it all wrong. Dad had measuring ingredients down to a precise art, but Nanna simply eyes it and throws whatever she can find into the pot. Somehow it works.
She sings when she cooks, her light, airy voice filling the room with joy. She’s a great singer, always on key, but she sings all wrong.
John was right, about her smelling like cookies. She smells like cookies and fruit gushers, and it’s not nearly bitter enough for him to lose himself in her hugs. They’re nice, but she’s not warm or crisp enough, only soft edges and gooey slime that likes to stick to his clothes.
She hugs him a lot. Says that it’s because when he stares off into space, he always looks so sad.
Jade hugs him a lot, too. Says that he needs to stop being so upset. They all lost something important, but it’s best to move on. “Do you think you're the only one that lost someone!? The best friend I’ve ever had is now hurtling through space trying to kill us! How do you think I feel?” She asks one day, hands embedding themselves in her long, dark hair out of frustration. “You have to stop moping around! You need to let go.”
She has a point. He’s not nearly as lonely as he thought he would be. He lost Dad, but he gained a grandmother he never knew, and a sister he only recently realized he’s always had.
He gained a best friend, even if that best friend crows in his sleep and leaves feathers all over the place. He gained a pet, and while he had always wanted a bunny more because bunnies are so cool, Jaspers teaches him that cats can be pretty neat too.
He gained a daughter, and even though she’s an entirely different species, he still loves her so much. Dear, sweet, Casey. Your Daddy’s doing alright, don’t you worry about him. Now go play with the other salamanders, or blow bubbles in Dave’s face. That’s always funny.
John doesn’t think he’s a very good father, actually. He parents all wrong, just like Nanna cooks wrong and she smells wrong and John can’t remember the last time everything felt right.
He gained a numbness that refuses to leave.
“Get out. You don’t belong here.” John says to the void they travel through at the speed of light. He touches his chest, runs his hand over the place where a matted scar streaks against his skin, and wonders if he will be able to feel it through his clothes if he presses harder. The material of his shirt is too thick, so he examines his hands instead.
There is one scar on his right hand, caused by a baking accident. Dad had put him in charge of making brownies. Instead of finding oven mitts that would fit his stupid spider fingers, John grabbed a couple of pot holders. The back of his hand brushed against the oven.
John remembers waiting. He remembers the sharp prick of heat, and then waiting for the burn to start hurting.
He remembers crying for hours, because the pain wouldn’t go away even though he ran his hand under cold water for hours. He remembers Dad panicking, and driving him to the hospital as if his life depended on it.
It’s nothing more than a small, discolored mark on his knuckle now. It doesn’t hurt anymore. Hasn’t for years.
“Why did you have to take him?” John asks the void, asks the planets stored away somewhere in Jade’s sylladex. He asks the imps, asks Bec Noir, asks Skaia itself.
In the good stories, the mentors always, always die.
“Why couldn’t you just leave him alone?” John whispers, and then begins to scream.
He tears at the numbness within, trying to either widen or close the gap inside his heart. He isn’t sure, he just wants to feel something, anything. He wants to be able to feel again, to pull his lips upward in a genuine smile, and not in a mockery of happiness. He wants to feel like the god he is, wants the wind in his hair to soothe and caress him like it did in the beginning.
He wants his Dad’s arms around him. He wants to wonder how long it took him to iron his shirt to perfection.
His shirt was wrinkled when he died.
The screams turn to sobs; a broken, shrieking sound, less boy and more animal, all pure emotion burning his throat like bile. He chokes on his own cries, hiccups and cries even louder. Tears run down his face, and there’s snot running down his nose and into his mouth and he should be grossed out but he barely even notices.
John thinks this is what grieving must feel like. He’s never had to grieve before, because it had only ever been him and Dad but Dad is gone and he’s never coming back.
His legs give out, and he crumples to the floor. Crumples like he did when Jack killed him a second time, when he was too late and if he was five minutes faster just five fucking minutes he could have saved him but he didn’t because he’s not a hero, just a dumbass kid who didn’t deserve any of this. He cries and screams and kicks his legs like he did when he was three and in the middle of a temper tantrum, but Dad isn’t coming to calm him down and hold him in his arms and give him a stern talking to.
John cries, cries until his eyes are dry and red and his voice is hoarse, and he feels a pair of arms (they’re wrong, they’re all wrong and this is all wrong and he just wants to go home, but home is gone because Dad is gone) gently pick him up.
“John, sweetie, it’s alright. Shh.” Nanna whispers into his hair and holds him close. John smells cookies and gushers, electric blue ectoplasm delight, and chokes. Dad gave him gushers for his birthday, but he lost them.
“We’re here for you, John,” Jade whispers as she blinks into existence, cuddling close and taking one of his hands. The sound of flapping wings comes from somewhere behind him, and John guesses that it’s Dave but he isn't entirely sure until he lands and takes John’s other hand. Casey waddles up and glubs sadly at him, crawling into his lap and wrapping her tiny little salamander arms around him, but she’s too small and her arms end up splayed against his stomach, tiny claws dipping into his shirt. Even Jaspersprite comes, floating in front of him and gently petting John’s face with his tentacle arms.
“He’s gone.” John says. “He’s dead, and he’s never coming back.” He wishes that his words would come out normally, but instead, they’re a tiny, broken whisper. “I could have saved him.”
“Everything happens for a reason, Dearie,” Nanna says, and hugs him tighter. He cuddles into her touch. “It’s alright, dear. It’ll hurt for a long while, but you will be ok, John. You’re a bright young man, and you have all of us.”
“I bet your Dad would be proud of you,” Jade whispers, and John didn’t even know he had any tears left but apparently he does, and he starts to cry again.
The others - his new family - cuddle closer.
John used to think that, when Dad died, he’d be all alone. He’d have to drop out of school and get a job to pay the bills, because he had no other family in the world to take care of him. He’d have to learn how to do everything himself, how to pay taxes and drive a car and be an adult.
But he’s not alone. He has a new family, and it’s a mishmash of animals and ghosts and game programs and gods, but it’s still good. It’s still a family.
The numbness fades, if only a little bit. He takes a deep, shuddering breath and sighs it all out. Jade wrinkles her nose at his breath and a shaky smile comes to his face. It’s small and fragile, but it’s real, and Jade smiles back at him, dazzling and joyous.
Dad is dead, John knows, but he didn’t die alone.
He’s probably off in a dream bubble somewhere, having a nice, candlelit dinner with Rose’s Mom as Death unpops a cork and pours him his champagne. His shirt is ironed to perfection, because Dad never left the house without making sure his shirt was crisp and clean, smelling of cakes and smoke and fatherly love.
Dad is dead, John knows, but he isn’t alone, and John isn’t alone either.