Work Header


Chapter Text

Harrison lives in a three-bedroom apartment with his Dad and his Aunt Deb. The little plaque on their spot on the convertillo buzz board says "Martin".

One bedroom belongs to the grown-ups, one to Harrison, and one holds his father's desk on one side and his aunt's treadmill and weights on the other. Harrison feels very glad he's the only one who doesn't have to share.

His father is a doctor - not a rich doctor but a regular doctor, and his aunt helps people stay in shape.

They have a dog, a golden retriever called Rusty. Harrison gets along with Rusty very well, and he gets the feeling Aunt Deb is very glad he does. When he was younger she used to watch him play with the growing puppy in the cobblestoned yard or the park like she was waiting for him to do something. He never did figure out what she was looking for and eventually she stopped watching so intently.

Aunt Deb has been around for the whole seven years since Harrison was born. He used to try and call her "mom" when he was little but she always said he'd had a mother and it wasn't right to call her that, and after she would always get up and pace so Harrison figured it upset her for some reason, and stopped. She would always turn around and kiss him on the forehead in the middle of pacing, so he knew she wasn't mad at him.

Harrison's world seems very big to him, but also very ordered, governed by clear rules and routines. Everything in it is perfectly predictable, outside of his aunt, and occasionally, Harrison's father.

There's Santa Pilar, and the park, and the market, and the heladeria, and the antiques shop, and the confiteria, and the Iglesia Rusa, and of course Aunt Deb's health club and Dad's office, and the whole convertillo which counts as a dozen places as far as Harrison is concerned, with its little nooks and tucked-away closets and its cooing pigeon coop.

It's a different world than that of the other kids at Santa Pilar - Harrison's school. For one, most of them live in Recoleta, Palermo, or Belgrano, the richer neighborhoods up north. Harrison lives in San Telmo where the streets teem with tourists, pickpockets and busking tango dancers. The only thing abundant on Recoleta streets is shit, from the pedigreed dogs dragging their walkers to the Parque 3 de Febrero and then back to their palatial homes once they finish their business. Harrison's family goes to Parque Larama, which has old men playing chess and other kids skating and where you can spread out a picnic blanket without covering at least three squishy surprises underneath.

Harrison likes San Telmo much, much, better, and so does his family, although he suspects not for the same reason.

In San Telmo they blend in, says Dad. While they live here they will always be considered tourists, and tourists are forgiven many eccentricities. That's another word for secrets other people don't know are secrets. For example, living in a moldy convertillo when you are a doctor is a tourist eccentricity. Obviously, you live there for the atmosphere, for the cracked mosaics and the wrought-iron banisters and unglazed balconies lined with rush mats so that you can drink your afternoon coffee in cool shade. Nobody imagines it's because you can watch the plaza unobserved through the gaps between the rushes and that every sound - from a flushed toilet to careful footsteps - echoes in the courtyard behind the sturdy coach gate.

Harrison likes keeping secrets. It's like a game, like Clue or Bulls and Cows, one of those games where you need to keep little mental cards so you don't get mixed up. It's easy. Harrison knows Dad and Aunt Deb worry sometimes that he'll get confused, forget the story from the truth and give up the game, but he knows there's no danger of that. He doesn't even have to think about it. There's Harrison's family and then there's other people, and there's no danger of treating the two as if they were the same thing.

Like, there's Diana. She's Harrison's nanny. She's the one who occasionally brings him to the Iglesia Rusa, where she lights a candle for her family in a high stand, and then another for the dead in a low sandbox. Harrison likes her. She's nice and she knows so many people and her grandfather lets him rummage around the bric-a-brac in his shop, the old pieces of wreckage from the time the convertillos were the town houses of the richest families in the city.

There was a plague long ago, or maybe a fever, so they all ran up north and abandoned their mansions to looters and squatters. Harrison's family ran too and now there were probably other people living in their homes, using their stuff. Harrison thinks about that while he runs his fingers along the bronze faucet handles and dusty gramophone players. He barely remembers that time, but he can picture his white, fleece lamb and his Dad's big armchair. When Diana asks him why he's so serious he mentions a girl in school who pushed him off the slide. It's even something that happened.

So they're all very good at keeping secrets, except Aunt Deb doesn't think so, or maybe she just feels uneasy about it and doesn't want to admit it. One time when she and Harrison are walking home with the dry cleaning, someone tries the mustard trick on Aunt Deb. Harrison has seen it before. One guy squirts mustard on Aunt Deb's shirt, expecting her to raise her arms up and away from the mess so another guy can snatch her purse.

Except Aunt Deb is not a hapless tourist, so she breaks the second guy's nose with her elbow without even looking, and then grabs Harrison and runs away, uncaring of the mess. Harrison can tell that wasn't the plan, that Aunt Deb went with her gut. By the time she gets him home she's fine though, except that she's biting her lips a little too often. When in a week a nosy neighbor mentions the incident Aunt Deb just laughs and says the mark must have been some other foreign woman with long tanned legs and short red hair and a mouth on her foul enough to shame the devil. She's all "fucking elbows", her purse would be as good as gone if someone tried the mustard trick on her.

The police don't come around to question them about it.

Harrison is so silent that Dad and Aunt Deb don't seem to realize how much sound carries within their apartment as well as from the courtyard. Sometimes he can hear them talking when he pads to the kitchen for a glass of water, which he drinks in small sips by the pitcher instead of in his own room.

"I'm worried about him," says Aunt Deb one night. "He's too fucking quiet. He has no friends."

"Remember the last teacher-parent conference? They called him sociable. A team player who never minds sharing. And his last birthday was a riot. When the empanadas ran out the other kids came this close to spearing us and cooking us on a spit. We wouldn't have stood a chance," says Dad, in his trying-to-joke voice. There's a difference to his voice when he genuinely finds something funny.

Aunt Deb isn't falling for it either. "That's just camouflage. Like I shoot the shit at work or the corner shop so we don't seem too weird. He doesn't care about anyone but you, me and the dog."

There's a longer silence and then Dad says: "maybe that's for the best."

Aunt Deb doesn't answer anything.

Other nights there are just noises. They sound like pain but they aren't, or maybe just the ache of something you need that you aren't getting as often as you should, like how Harrison's teeth ache when he doesn't drink enough milk. Harrison has always known what the noises mean, like he found out long, long ago and forgot exactly how. They don't bother him. The muffled moans and grunts are very low and the creak of springs doesn't last that long. There are whispers, too quiet for Harrison to hear.

Aside from his day practice, Dad volunteers a couple of nights a week at a hospital in La Boca. This is a third type of secret, one that Aunt Deb and Harrison are supposed to pretend they don't know, although Aunt Deb slips sometimes.

One time Harrison's teaching Rusty tricks on the terrace when a neighbor invites herself for tea. Aunt Deb actually makes tea and takes out the metal straws that someone gave them as a house-warming gift.

The neighbor takes forever to get to the point, which is that her sister in law is chief nurse at the La Boca hospital, and that Dad is on duty only half the nights he isn't sleeping home.

Harrison isn't sure if Aunt Deb reacts well enough. She gets rid of the neighbor much too quickly, but maybe that's normal when a stranger tells you your family has been lying to you, which Harrison guesses is what happened from the neighbor's point of view.

Aunt Deb's antsy for the whole two hours until Dad comes home. She smokes half a cigarette at the open window of her bedroom, and throws the rest because she says it's been too long and the damn things are making her queasy. She drops things and curses them out inventively before looking guiltily Harrison's way. She used to do this a lot more but then probably figured it was a lost cause, in Harrison's opinion.

"I don't mind," Harrison reassures her. Dad explained to him cursing was something only grown-ups can do.

Aunt Deb pulls him over her lap and rocks him like she does when he's sick.

"We're really screwing you up, huh, kiddo?"

Later on, Harrison makes three separate treks to the kitchen, even though he's not that thirsty. The only thing he can make out is a "you need to be more careful". He guesses they'll be moving soon.

On Wednesdays Aunt Deb is supposed to pick Harrison up from football practice. On other days Dad drives Harrison home on his late lunch break, but on Wednesdays practice ends right when he's most busy, so Aunt Deb leaves work early instead.

Harrison wouldn't have liked those drives normally - Aunt Deb's sweaty because she doesn't have time for a shower before leaving, and Harrison is sweaty because there are no showers at school, and Harrison hates not being neat - but he has fond memories of football and being carted to and from practice. It's something he used to do before, he's sure of it, and there are flashes of warm memories attached to it that he can't even place.

There's one, of dozing on the back seat while the car is stuck in traffic, and for once it's both Aunt Deb and Dad there.

"I've turned into a fucking soccer mom, Dex, can you believe that?" Aunt Deb says, quietly because she thinks Harrison is sleeping. "The things I do for you."

"Technically, you're a soccer aunt," Dad says, in that half-humorous, half-careful tone he adopts sometimes around Aunt Deb. It's always a coin toss how Aunt Deb will react to it.

This time she laughs, a little too wildly, but it's still a laugh.

"You're such a dweeb," she mutters fondly, and on the next traffic light Harrison hears them kissing.

But this Wednesday Aunt Deb isn't late or grouching about groceries or the disgusting offal a coworker brought from home and expected Aunt Deb to eat.

This time she's early.

She has showered, and she's wearing her street clothes, and she walks out on the grass and tells Harrison they have to leave.

Harrison lets her lead him to the parking lot mutely while the sense of familiarity slowly rises within him. He knows exactly what's going to happen. They'll get Dad, and maybe they'll pick up some of their things, or maybe not, and then it will be motels and buses and plane tickets until they land in a new place with new names. Like they were percolating within some great contraption of tubes and filters where the mere movement transformed their identities.

Aunt Deb straps him in the car even though it's been a long time since Harrison's been doing that for himself. It takes her a while since her hands are shaking.

When she's done, she grabs the wheel like it's about to bolt and says:

"All right, all right. It's all right. We have time to pack."

They beat the evening rush going home, and Aunt Deb almost jogs from the place they park the car to the gate of their convertillo, towing Harrison behind like a boy-shaped balloon. Harrison says nothing. It's important to be as little trouble as possible.

Back home Aunt Deb crams clothes haphazardly into a suitcase, Harrison's clothes, then her own clothes. She doesn't pack anything for dad though. It's that which makes Harrison feel uneasy at last, because something’s wrong. Rusty, locked in the bathroom so he doesn't get in Aunt Deb's way, whines pitifully.

Not stopping for a moment, Aunt Deb flings the picture with the red tulips off the wall, and opens the safe behind. There's a zippy bag of documents here, and a larger plastic bag full of small notes. She snatches both and then arranges the luggage so she will have one hand free to hold Harrison's hand.

"What about Dad, Aunt Deb?"

"Just hold onto me."

Outside on the landing the same neighbor who came over for tea is standing in ambush. She does a double take when she sees the bags.

"Where are you-" she starts, but Aunt Deb's passes her and rushes down the stairs like the neighbor isn't there. Harrison and Rusty, whose lead has been tied to the suitcase, finish the procession.

"Is Dad okay?" Harrison has to shout to be heard as they make their way back to the car through the throng, like fish swimming against the tide.

"He's safe," answers Aunt Deb.

"Is he meeting us somewhere?"

At the car, Aunt Deb has to let go of Harrison's hand to put away their bags. Rusty climbs into the back seat quickly, tail between his legs. Harrison backs away when Aunt Deb slams the trunk closed.

"There's no time. We'll miss our flight," she says.

"Dad isn't coming, is he?" asks Harrison.


"I'm not leaving him behind."

Aunt Deb's shoulders slump and she sits down on the edge of the trunk lid. She tucks and re-tucks her chin-length hair behind her ears, but strands of it still escape. Aunt Deb's long, nervous fingers seem to be making a deliberately bad job of it, sabotaging her efforts.

"We have to," she states dully.

"You can't," says Harrison, betrayed. He can't imagine how Aunt Deb can even consider something like this. The thought suggests a slew of awful suspicions. "Did you want to leave me too? In the place with the other kids and all the strangers who wanted me to tell them about our road trip? Did you come back for me just because Dad made you?"

"No! Fuck no! Jesus, what are you-"

"Then why do you want to leave Dad all alone?!"

"I don't want to! That's the most fucked-up part! We have to go, I can't raise another kid like this, another kid with my-"

Aunt Deb closes her eyes and rubs viciously at her cheeks. Sometimes you have to keep tears on the inside, Harrison hears in his head, though now it doesn't matter where the memory came from.

Harrison only wants to make Aunt Deb feel better, but mostly he feels better himself. Aunt Deb hasn't turned crazy, she's just in one of her moods like when she runs on the treadmill at three in the morning and Dad has to coax her back to bed.

Or maybe not.

Harrison cocks his head curiously.

"Am I gonna have a brother or a sister?"

Aunt Deb shifts on her perch and all of a sudden Harrison is sure that he's right. That explains it, he supposes. Patricia's mother ate sand when she was pregnant with her sister, Aunt Deb tried to run away on Dad. Crazy urges like that are supposed to pass. It'll be fine.

Harrison himself is pretty happy with the prospect of having a sibling. Dad and Aunt Deb have each other, so it's only right for Harrison to have someone of his own.

"That's normal, Aunt Deb. Families get new children all the time," Harrison points out. Then another thought occurs to him. "Hey, can I name it?"

Aunt Deb looks up at him incredulously. She opens her mouth to say something and then seems to think better of it.

"No way. I'm the one who's going to swell like a fucking whale, I get to name it. And it's not an 'it'."

That makes sense to Harrison. The baby's part of the family, so it's not an it like other people's babies when they're floating around their mom's belies.

"I guess that's fair. Plus Dad got to name me, right? Let's go back already. I'm hungry."

They do go back eventually, though they sit by the car for a little longer.

Aunt Deb tries to put everything back before Dad comes home, but he's in early.

Harrison's in his bedroom, doing his homework, and he has to pause and peek from behind the door jamb to see what's going on. Dad has Aunt Deb by the arms and they're hissing at each other.

"You got me into this!"

"That's rich! Was I the fucking serial killer you covered for? Was I, Dex?"

"I didn't ask you to do that, I tried to keep you out of it! I didn't love you like this before but you wouldn't leave well enough alone. I'm stuck in the muck you dragged me into and I can't go back. Can you?!"

Aunt Deb's face kind of glitches, shuffling through complex adult expressions. Harrison's pretty sure there's fear, guilt, self-loathing, and then just before she lurches towards Dad and hides her face against his shoulder, relief. A good sign. Dad's big hands instantly spread over Aunt Deb's back, trying to cover as much territory as possible.

Harrison lets the door fall closed silently and goes back to his notebooks, soothed now. He guesses neighbor lady called Dad. At least now they have a great cover for Aunt Deb's weird behavior. In the back of his mind Harrison's already filling it in, how Dad had a girlfriend and Aunt Deb tried to leave him, but then they patched it up because of the baby. When they move now no one will find it suspicious. Even if they can't find a bigger place next time Harrison won't mind sharing with the baby. Dad and Aunt Deb share. It's what siblings are supposed to do, after all.

When he emerges next, his parents are sitting together on the couch, huddled close and loose-limbed like puppets with their strings cut.