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Stained in the Blood (of a whole generation)

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2 AM Friday, Springfield, NJ:

Forty-two. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Dr. Milton would be so proud. Forty-three. In. Hold. Out. The breathing exercises helped, but didn’t stop the endless drumming of fingers against thigh, the ache in his bones that burned to become movement. Forty-four. Holding still hurt, the vibrations rolling through his spine, arms, legs, fingers, tap-tap-tapping code that should be Morse but wasn’t. He’d never had the patience to memorize the patterns. A car door slammed somewhere nearby. Forty-five.

Focus on the world, on the tamped-down padding of the ancient sleeping bag under him, the ridges of the wooden floor impressing themselves on his shoulder blades, rough and familiar. He’d dragged it up to the treehouse years ago, squirreled down inside it to lock out the sounds of fighting from the house below. Focus on the smell of peroxide, lingering and acrid, clear and clean. It had – say it together now – seemed like a good idea at the time, the brown hair the only thing in the mirror that looked like them. Erase the brown, that had been the impulse. Erase the link, make himself as different from Frank and Mary on the outside as he was on the inside.

No son of mine... that had been Frank’s response when he saw it, the white hair falling to flop over Tommy’s brow. And hell, dear old not-dad had been right about that, at least.

Forty-six.

The house was quiet now, the shouting done for the night, the lights off. The night closed in, save for the tap-tap-tap of his fingers, the creak of tree branches in the light wind, the footsteps of a late-night walker passing on the sidewalk and the susurration of his breath. Forty-seven.

He should eat. The meds had worn off and he could feel the foreign coils of hunger twist around inside. The peanut butter was mostly full and he still had thirteen slices of plastic-wrapped cheese and a six of cola, one can half-empty. It was something to do other than lie here in the dark and count the minutes ticking by.

Forty-eight.

Tap tap tap on his thigh, his fingers grazed over the lump in his pocket, hard and smooth beneath the denim. He dug in and fished it out, the ragged edge of his nail catching on the threads, the metal warm in his hand from his own heat. He turned it over, the rectangular heft of it solid in his palm. He traced the engraving with the pads of his fingers, not needing light to know what it said. ‘To Frank, love Mary,’ in that shitty mall-booth curlicue font.

Forty-nine.

He flicked the lighter. Flame jumped from his fingers, a burst of light against the black.

Doors opened and closed down below; they were awake. They’d notice him gone, soon. He should have gone farther. He was seventeen; they probably wouldn’t come after him this time. One backpack was enough to hold the things he wanted to keep. The rest could burn, for all he cared.

The flame licked in the lighter, and the metal rim was hot under his thumb, hot enough to blister. He dropped it with a curse and stuck his thumb in his mouth to soothe the reddened skin.

Fifty.

The sky outside went red. Red, and orange and white and hot. Flames leaped against the black, sparks exploding up from the house below to mingle with the stars. The smell of smoke drowned out the edge of bleach.

He stopped counting.