They make it out of the Lot, covered in blood and grime, rough smears of grit and ash that make Ben itch. He looks over at Mark in the passenger seat of the car. Beneath the layer of dirt and the hashmarks of tears, his face is… blank. A hasty sketch of a boy, no energy, no emotion, nothing there.
Easy to be nothing when your entire world has disappeared, and Ben’s heart twists at the thought.
The car doesn’t have much gas, Ben had been thinking about getting more the next time he was out running errands back before… but he coaxes and pushes the machine until it slides gasping into a gas station two towns south. He pays quickly without making eye contact and tries not to notice how the station worker pulls back a little when he gives his change, eyes flicking down to the last flecks of dried blood that Ben had been unable to scrub off.
He had left Mark in the car, had taken his silence at his leaving as agreement, but comes back to Mark white-lipped and shaking with either fear or adrenaline, his nails half moons denting his palms. Shit.
“You can come with me next time,” he offers. Mark shivers a nod. He hasn’t spoken since they left the town (hisparentsJimmyMattHISPARENTS) behind.
They stay that night in a motel with broken air conditioning and squeaky mattresses. Mark thrashes and wailes in half-sleep on the floor and Ben stays up, cold and aching with too many thoughts. He makes them wait through the agony until dawn finally breaks and bundles Mark back into the car and away, away.
Ben makes it for two days before he has to pull over, shaking with too much caffeine and what feels like a scream caught bloody in his throat. They huddle in the backseat in a trembling doze caught in the stinking heat of the day. He makes Mark wake him in two hours so they can go on. Mark still hasn’t spoken.
Two weeks later
They stop in Massachusetts, some small town with too many consonants that locals gleefully drop and mutter over, staying in a mostly clean and not-quite eerily quiet inn.
Mark seems to be sleeping better, but unfortunately that's just to say that he only wakes himself screaming twice a night. The rest of the time he twitches, moans and soaks the pillow with tears. He is using words again but only at Ben’s prompting when an answer is unavoidable. Otherwise he lets his silence speak.
They're in a holding pattern, the pair of them, that lull that comes at the end of a horrific tragedy when reality starts to intrude.
Ben doesn't think he can go back home, back to his life before. It had started as a simple trip to revisit his childhood terrors, settle the monsters that had lurked in his nightmares. Turns out those nightmares were tame, compared to...
Ben and Mark eat at a diner down the street, one he’d be tempted to call their “usual” since they’ve been here, if a routine didn’t make him feel the need to run. Ben watches Mark, knows the boy is watching him back as he pushes his mashed potatoes around with a fork.
“Now what.” It makes sense that Mark’s words sound wrong, the question flat.
“We could see what they have for dessert?” Ben asks without really thinking, looks up to see Mark’s eyes flash at him in irritation. He relents. “Thinking of what to do next.”
Mark shrugs and returns to staring at his plate. Ben looks at the dark circles under the boy’s eyes, the nervous jolt every time the door opens, and thinks about their options.
He doesn’t know if Mark had any other family, isn’t even sure what reports would have come to them of the deaths. It seems… kinder, to not go that route. Still, what life was this? Not sustainable, clearly. Ben pulls up a name from his past, former colleagues in Boston, a couple who had tried for years to have a child. Mark has suffered enough, needed something more stable than a dingy motel, an endless stretch of road. Haltingly, Ben says as much to him.
Mark goes blank again, his hands flexing on his knife and fork, shoulders starting to heave a little with his breathing… and he is gone, shirttail flying as he races out the diner door.
Ben, with a swear, goes after him.
He finds Mark, shoulders shaking and face wet (but silent, so silent, not like the screaming when Jimmy…) backed up against the metal fence of the parking lot. When Ben walks closer, Mark goes rigid, a rock from his hands flying with a sharp zing! towards Ben’s shin.
Ben dodges the first stone, is unable to dodge the second and third, and finally is close enough to grab Mark’s violent hands and pull him towards. The boy shudders, jitters, rocking away and towards him with equal ferocity.
“You want to get rid of me,” Mark manages with a gasp that was full of tears and fury.
“Keeping you safe,” Ben counters, tangling his hands with Mark’s wild arms, feeling the wild hammer beat of him against his sternum.
“Can’t… wouldn’t… understand… leaving me alone… can’t…” and then Mark is weeping, loudly, no longer struggling but clutching Ben close.
Ben thinks of arguing but stops, feeling the warm weight of Mark in his arms, the feverish tension of his desperate grip.
All right, thinks Ben with a sigh, thinking of the half-daze of running, the sickness in your stomach that only comes when you have stood in the face of absolute terror.
There’s something powerful in those you stand with against that fear, who are with you when you come through it, survive it.
“All right,” he says out loud for the boy (his son) that he holds in his arms. “We’ll go south, where’s it’s warm.”
Where’s it’s safe. Where we can wait.
He wonders if hoping for that safety is as naïve as thinking holy water will save them, if this escape is simply going to steal the last shreds of Mark’s innocence.
But for today, hiding will be enough. There are a longer number of tomorrows to in which they can worry about protection, attack, and revenge. For now, in this interlude, there is only the two of them in the darkening parking lot, holding on to all they have.
That it is merely each other is no matter.