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Chapter 37: Tear-streaked with Laughter

Fingernails are raking over my skull when I open my eyes and find a blue and white orb staring up at me from my lap – the jacket of a Brave New World.

I feel his heat beside me before he speaks, “You weren’t in the bathroom.”

No.

I blink away the imagined pollen that had gathered in my eyes. “Never made it that far.”

Jan’s kneeling at my side, his hands combing my hair while he probes the tender bruises across my scalp. “You can’t sleep right now. You should’ve mentioned you were concussed.”

“I’m currently finding words difficult to taste.”

A finger glides across a cut, and I hiss. He thinks I'm being overly dramatic but decides to give up his medical fondling anyway, and tips back to sit beside me.

While I was preoccupied in the bowels of the house, he must have been exploring on his own. He seems unfazed or disinterested in the walls of book and instruments that should be entrancing him. I suppose they aren’t as intriguing as my loathsome, barely-conscious corpse at the moment.

“I knew you were a bookworm, Hop, but I had no idea that you’d nest in them when injured.”

“Books are old friends I can talk to without having them talk back.”

“You’re not a fan of listening then?”

“I’m not a fan of thinking at the moment.” I rub the goose egg on the back of my head. “And no, I'm not a fan of listening either. I hear too much as it is.”

“Reading is thinking unless you’re a skimmer.”

“Reading is automatic,” I say. “Books only ask rhetorical questions.”

He nods, stretching out his legs, and his boot just misses the book splayed on the floor in front of us.

“You berate me for tossing coins, and you’re tossing fourteenth-century Italian poetry. Pot, meet kett–”

“Where did it open?”

He huffs and picks it up, scanning the page with faux enticement. “I saw and recognized the shade of him who made, through cowardice, the great refusal. At once I understood with certainty: this company contained the cowardly, hateful to God and to His enemies.” He cocks his snake-like eye. “Dante reserved the gates of hell for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintained their neutrality. Their faces were eaten by hot sand and hornets. As I've said before, it’s always best to choose a side.”

That’s bullshit. All of it. That’s not where it opened. “This is important. I want to know what it says, word for word. Read it.”

It was no palace hall, the place in which we found ourselves, but with its rough-hewn floor and scanty light, a dungeon built by nature.” He smiles, and I try to snatch the book, but he yanks it away. “It says, your soul has been assailed by cowardice, which often weighs so heavily on a man – distracting him from honorable trials – as phantoms frighten beasts when shadows fall.

Those lines aren’t even on the same page! “Just read it for Christ’s sakes.”

“Fine. Abandon every hope, who enter here. ” Then he slams the book closed.

“I hope that’s what it really said because it means something.”

“Are you that superstitious or so hopelessly adrift you’ll cling to anything?”

“I’m hopelessly superstitious.”

He’s all smiles all the sudden. “I don’t believe you.”

“I was raised by a man who was more afraid of black cats than polio.”

“If you trip over a black cat and break your neck, you’re just as crippled, and I’m sure there are black cats crawling all over da bayou ...”

My lip curls just looking at his arrogant grin. “You right. Day e’rywhere like rats,” I drawl. “We’d kitch ‘em and throw ‘em on da grill ‘cause we don’t know no bettah. Cook ‘em and eat ‘em wiff beans, we did. Den we wore day bones ‘round our neks. Keep da monstahs away. Monstahs like you, Butch. You ain’t foolin’ nobody. You’re the god damned devil.”

He chuckles under his breath and pats my thigh as we both relax against the wall.

Then it hits me – slow at first, but like a rolling tide, I feel it lapping at my knees, then my waist, then my chest …

“What have I done?”

“You survived. You were fighting for your life.”

“When a monster knocks on your door and you let him in, we don’t congratulate the monster for surviving the scuffle.”

“When it’s a monster who let you in, it’s a battle of wits: every man for himself.”

“I’m not a man anymore.”

“Then neither was he.”

I don’t know what to make of this any more than I know what to make of him, or Huxley’s dystopian test tube future, or Dante’s introspective descent into hell. Was Don Quixote the crazy one? Or were his beastly giants just as valid as everyone else’s windmills?

With every second that ticks by, I feel like I’m disintegrating into the pages of a story that will never be bound, but rather left to fade with time, lining the bottom of a birdcage.

“You consciously killed someone,” he says, flat and without apology. “It was premeditated. You trained for it, albeit briefly. We spoke of it at great lengths. We drove a thousand miles to do it. How does all of that make you feel?”

I know how it makes me feel. “How does it make you feel?”

“I think you know how I feel.”

“Indulged. Satisfied. Tickled pink. Maybe proud below the navel – pretty words to dress up a very ugly act.”

“Does it still look ugly to you?”

“It looked very real to me.”

“Reality can be ugly if that’s how you choose to see it.”

“I don’t think I have a choice here.”

“You will always have a choice in everything you do, Hopper.”

A long pause wedges itself between us, and while I find the silence comforting, I watch Janus shift against the wall, waiting for me to continue.

“I regretted it immediately,” I confess. “And then I didn’t. And then I did. And now, who knows?”

“Did you regret the shadow?”

“I was saving the girl–”

“Did you regret my meat man?”

“That was self-defense.”

“Those are very pretty words to dress up a very ugly act.”

My skin crawls as he speaks.

“Even now you choose. On the brink of equilibrium, you decide whether to tip the scales in your ethical favor or not. You’re choosing not to. It’s all in your head, Hopper. I think the fight you still wage has nothing to do with this. The battle at your core is far simpler than that.”

My battle, my fight … what is my struggle exactly? I’d ask, but I like making him feel ignored sometimes.

After a few seconds, he can’t take the waiting. “You struggle with deciding whether your life is worth redemption.”

Worth redemption?

Ha!

What starts as an uncontrollable giggle ends with me in full-blown hysterics, clutching my aching belly. He thinks I’m a wandering mental case! He thinks I can’t decide if I’m good or bad!

My laughter is pissing him off so much that he won’t even look at me.

Good.

I stare at the side of his face, tears welling in my eyes until I finally calm down, rubbing my face as I sigh. “I’m not struggling, my dear Butcher. I already know I’m not worth saving. I just haven’t figured out how to convince my heart to stop beating.”

He huffs again – poetry to my ears – and scans the bookshelves trying not to make eye contact. “You are a terrible liar.”

“And you are a terrible judge of character.”

“So you regret what you did downstairs. Are you concerned by your reaction?”

“I’m concerned by my inaction. I could have called the cops. I passed two telephones and a front door worming my way up here. If I had sat down at that desk, we’d both be in handcuffs right now.”

“You don’t care much for my opinion, but I’m glad you didn’t make that call. I happen to enjoy my freedom ... and yours.”

“I bet you do … but you can’t live on the fringe forever, Janus. It all unravels in the end. You have to realize that by now. And one never knows who might be responsible for that unraveling. Could be anyone–”

“I don’t live on the fringe, Fledge, I live at the hub. And I sincerely wish I could take what you just said as a threat, but you’re in no position to make threats. You only bite me when you’re hurting, son, so let’s get your wounds cleaned up.”

He pats my shoulder and stands, tossing the book onto the desk, then he waits for me at the door.

“I will always give you time if you need it,” he says, turning back to face me. “But your belly’s empty and you need to clear your head. We’ll stay the night here.”

Stay the night? Absolutely not.

“We can’t stay here. He’s already a missing man.” Reality isn’t a tide this time; it’s a flood – a downpour – a monsoon.

I jump up. “We have to get out of here. We can’t stay in this house. It’s a crime scene – my crime scene!”

“Call the good pigs down at the station, then! They’ll give you a lift and a shiny new cell. Just be aware that they probably won’t let you keep your books this time. Might give you too many wild ideas.”

The Music Man said he had a performance tonight. We can’t stick around to find out what he meant by that!

“Someone’s going to come looking for him! And you killed the mouse! What if he had a family?!”

His head cocks and those cogs start up, and I realize I must sound insane.

“The mouse? The mouse was a loner. The Music Man was lying to get us out of here … and boy, Hopper, you flip like a damn fish … Maybe you should turn around.”

“Why?”

“I want to see if you have a switch in your back – maybe a key or a pull string to match that pretty little doll face of yours.”

When I glare at him, he raises his hands – like that ever calms me down.

“I can’t read you,” he says, “and I like that, you keep things interesting.” He ducks out into the hallway and calls, “Last door!”

Fucking doll face … He can’t just wind me up all the time. I’m not his goddamn toy.

I lay my book on the desk, realizing I never got the chance to read anything in here. I just passed out until he started fondling my head.

The study’s not as warm as the kitchen, but it’s calm, and I do feel more at ease around books.

Does he really intend to stay here overnight with two bodies rotting on the property? Where did the mouse go anyway? And how long was I in the workshop? All the lights were out and the curtains drawn when I was yanked through the doorway after the fight. What the hell was he doing that whole time besides playing with himself and listening to me scurry for my life?

The longer I stand here twiddling my thumbs like an answer is on the way, the more questions build up in my head. I can’t take it. It’s more work to make him wait than it is to just indulge him, so I leave the office in a huff and find the only other light upstairs – a glowing faux chandelier in the mint green bathroom at the end of the hall.

The tub is filling and Jan’s sifting through his canvas medical bag on the counter at the edge of the sink.

I clear my throat, though I doubt I could ever startle him. “I’m sort of getting tired of playing doctor-patient with you.”

“Then stop getting beat to hell.” He nods to the toilet.

As soon as I close the lid and sit down, I look up to find myself staring at my own reflection in a mirror that covers the back of a closet door three feet from my knees. I don’t know who the hell designed this bathroom, but they had to have either been the freakiest kind of pervert, or a masochist. “He had to watch himself take a shit.”

Jan chuckles to himself as he digs.

“What the hell kind of person watches themselves shit?”

“Maybe he sat backward.” Like that’s a legitimate response.

“Backward? Who the hell–”

“Or maybe he threw a towel over the mirror, you don’t know.”

“Answer me this, Janus, because I’m dying to know: What’s it like inside your head?”

He turns to me and bites his chapped lip as he thinks. “It’s probably a lot like being in your head, only pleasant.”

“Pleasant?”

“A wonderland. The world is laid out like an endless buffet; life is unfettered and full of delight.”

“That is not at all what’s going on up here,” I say. “Not even close.”

“Whose fault is that?” He kneels between my knees and wipes a warm cloth across the crusted blood on my hands. “Out of curiosity, what do you see when you look in that mirror?”

My face flicks up over his shoulder, and I stare down the pale creature I’ve attempted to ignore for years. “A disaster of a human being, and now fortune’s fool. I’m your stooge, Janus. I feed you entertainment and lines and you turn me into the biggest butt of your jokes. I’m the butt of everyone’s jokes.”

He wipes down my face, but I can’t stop staring at my own reflection as the cloth passes over my eyes and lips. I see nothing but a man slathering lipstick on a pig.

“You offer another theory to test. Shall we test it?” he asks.

What’s that mean? What theory?

“Descartes takes his wife to an elegant restaurant for their anniversary,” he begins, and I watch my eyes dilate at the sound of his deep red voice. “The sommelier presents the wine list, and the wife asks to order the most expensive Bordeaux on the menu. ‘ I think not!’ shouts an indignant Descartes, and poof! he disappears.”

When I grin despite myself, I feel him thumb the corner of my mouth. I know he’s smiling, and I almost confirm that with a glance at his face, but I’m caught off guard by my own reflection over his shoulder. I forgot who I was for a second.

When my smile fades, he tries again. “A Buddhist monk walks up to a hot dog vendor–”

“I’ve heard this,” I interrupt, “The monk says, ‘ Make me one with everything .’”

“Yes, but do you know the vendor’s reply?”

I gesture for him to go on.

“The vendor gives the monk his over-dressed hot dog and asks for a quarter. The monk hands him a dollar which the vendor quickly pockets. The Buddhist is furious. ‘Where's my change?’ he yells, and the vendor replies, ‘Change must come from within.’”

I chuckle though I knew that part too, and add, “A gun then extends from the monk’s chest, and he asks once again for his change. The vendor holds up his hands. ‘Whoa, man, where did that come from?’ And the Buddhist replies, ‘Why, this is my inner piece.’”

His eyes light up, and he laughs so hard that he has to lean on my knee, but his palm never leaves my cheek.

Though my own hands are wet and still stinging, I reach up and touch his bare neck. Not in a provocative way – at least not intentionally – I just want to feel the red circle my teeth left on his skin.

He finally calms, seeming to ignore my fingers, and manages to say, “Two behaviorists are having sex–“

“Whoa, wait. What kind of sex?”

“Recreational sex.”

Recreational sex? I’m already laughing and I don’t think that was the joke.

He starts laughing with me, but continues anyway, “Two behaviorists are having recreational sex. When they’ve finished, one turns to the other and says, ‘That was good for you. Was it good for me?’

I try to hold it back, but I can’t. I laugh to the point that I have to lay my forehead on his shoulder. I want to claim that it’s just hysterics, or shock, or some sort of agitated panic that’s bubbling out, but it’s not really.

It’s him.

He’s funny sometimes, and I’ll be the first to admit that the bastard can be charming when he’s not taking a bite out of me.

And after everything – wild rides, dinnertime puns, the passive-aggressive prodding of a fellow murderer – I suppose he does have a point: I’m not the butt of all of his jokes – maybe only half.

I lean back to look in the mirror again as he wipes the tears from my eyes.

“Plato claimed that even the gods love jokes,” he says.

“Of course they do. That’s why they created humanity – just one big practical joke after another. We’ve had this discussion, Butcher. Gods laugh because no one is bold enough to stop them.”

He fingers the collar of my flannel shirt until his hand slides down my chest and stops at a button. “Then why don’t you laugh with me, Hopper. Laugh with me while the world burns around us.”

If I cared enough about reading his intentions at this point, I’d tear my eyes from the mirror and probe his instead, but I don’t bother. I can hear in his tone how much he wants that to be his reality – laughing as hellfire laps at his feet.

He turns off the bathtub faucet and stands, tugging my shirt until I join him, and we both take a long hard look at the messes staring back at us in silence. It’s only when I notice him reaching for his back pocket that my eyes dart to his hand.

He unsheathes his Buck and inspects its blade in the light of the gaudy chandelier.

It’s clean and sharp, and he presses the cold cheek of the blade against my neck.

My heart races when the steel rocks – the blade’s sharp and grazes my collarbone – then it slides down my skin, over my shirt, and I suddenly focus on the soft tapping against the floor between my feet.

Tap, tap, tap.

Tap.

Threads are severed and buttons drop, bouncing off the floor until my shirt falls open.

With a quick jerk, he slices through my leather belt, and I hear the brass button from my jeans ricochet off my boot.

“What do you see?” he asks again.

I see pasty white skin, and how incredibly obvious it is that I’m no warrior. I see weakness of body and mind.

“I see a poor fighter and an even poorer excuse for a man. Nothing differentiates me from the pile of meat on the basement floor, except I have a quicker draw.”

“The fact that you aren’t lying on the basement floor is what differentiates you. Survivors are resilient; they take. You took what needed taking, Hopper, and that’s why you’re standing here.”

My shirt is drawn off my shoulders and it falls across the toilet behind me. Then the knife slices the elastic of my boxers, and he wrenches my pants open as though I’m suddenly incapable of taking care of myself.

“What do you see?” he asks again.

This is getting old.

I see that my nearly hairless chest is covered in tiny scratches embedded with glass from being dragged across the floor like a bag of trash. My arms are streaked with dried red trails: my own blood mixed with fear-filled sweat.

My jeans barely cling to my hips, forcing me to hold them by the belt loops so they don’t drop to the floor.

“Are you trying to prove some embarrassing point? That I’m weak, wounded, and wanting? I have no intention of describing my dick to you in about thirty seconds.”

He’s ignoring me, continuing to peer behind me, studying my skin in the glittery light. Then his fingers trail down my back and ribs until they run along the waist of my nearly useless underwear.

“Do you have a problem with the human form?” he asks.

“I only have a problem with my own.”

His head cocks and he traces a line from my navel to the sliced-open flaps of my boxers. “That’s interesting,” he says.

Is it? I don’t think so. My body has never been interesting and has only ever garnered the worst attention from others. It’s nothing but a hollow, unreliable vessel to me.

Finally, he turns and steps between me and the mirror, tapping my shoes with his to widen my stance. He slowly drops to his knees between my feet and unties my boots, ripping them off and tossing them out into the hall.

Is this another exercise in pity, or doesn’t he trust me to properly undress myself?

“Should I fear your intentions here, Jan? You filled the tub with water, so obviously it’s not a blood trough yet, but you’re still dressed. If you don’t intend to bathe yourself, that leaves the crystal-clear bath for me. Am I expected to expose my naked body to you, here in this very well-lit room?” I scoff. “At least enlighten me to your plan before the humiliation begins.”

He looks up at me, his grip falling from the seams of my jeans. “Do you find my conduct toward you contemptuous?”

“I find it gratuitous. You expose me to ridicule, then wonder why I don’t fawn over the exposition. Sure, I can laugh with you, but I stopped laughing at myself years ago. It became disingenuous.”

“Do you know why I enjoy touching you?” he asks.

“No, I don’t.” And I don’t want to. “Unlike you, I respect a man’s right to privacy in all forms.”

His eyes go soft, he slowly stands and returns to his bag, gathering up the gauze and tape he’d spread across the counter.

“I’ll leave you, then.” He pulls my broken glasses from his pocket, laying them next to the sink. Then he collects his bag and heads to the door before turning back to me. “Try to extract the glass before you get in the water ... Can I bring you something?”

No.

Never.

“There is nothing on this earth you could offer me right now,” I tell him. “In fact, don’t come in at all – don’t even knock. If you hear screaming, swearing, Satanic chants, just leave me alone; I’ll deal with it myself.”

He cracks the door and hesitates, and I almost expect him to protest. Instead, he drops the bag on the bathroom floor and ducks out, closing the door behind him.

What I don’t need right now is philosophical nonsense. I don’t need someone feeding me bullshit to prove some abstract point about life or laughter or being buddy-buddy. I need to clean my cuts and clear my head, and I can’t do either with Butcher pawing at my naked body.

I gather my strength, and painfully extract what glass I can from my chest, letting it decorate the sink, but am forced to leave what the tweezers can’t dig out. When I’m a little less edgy, I may take advantage of Jan’s surgical precision with a scalpel, but now is not the time.

He expected me to bathe – to stew myself so to speak. He probably was hoping to grill me about what happened below deck, too.

But the last time I bathed with him, I shared far too much of myself, and even though he’s not here, I’d rather not repeat that mistake.

I drain the tub, opting for a shower instead. It’s less of a time commitment in case the cops do show up and frankly, I can’t take the heat.

I strip off what’s left of my shredded clothes and step in, the warm spray raining down my face. It’s comforting and engulfing, and I close my eyes and breath in the moist air, waiting for his inevitable knock.


"I only mentioned him to get you to come back,” I admit.

Her eyes are sparkling with far too much excitement. “Well, you can’t take it back now.” She suppresses a smile and hops on a fence beam, staring at me like a schoolgirl waiting for gossip. “Spill it.”

"He's nobody. If anything, he’s just a new friend."

Her mouth drops open. "You made a friend!"

"Shut the hell up."

"I'm so proud of you!"

"I redact my former request. You can wisp away now."

"No, no, no! This is incredible! I feel like my dreams are finally coming true!” Her relieved sigh is completely unnecessary. “All my hard work … you’re growing up!”

I want to snap her damn neck.

“You have to tell me about him! Where did you meet? The school?"

"A diner."

"Does he work there?"

"What? No!" Though he probably wouldn't mind working in a diner. They're often full of rude people and have the added bonus of including six-foot griddles in the back. “Butcher is the someone who derailed my life."

"Oh … he derailed your life, huh? Sounds intense." She smirks, and if I were any more of a bastard, I'd shove her off the fence.

"He's an intense person,” I say. “You’ll never meet anyone like him. He's his own man – a man's man."

She starts laughing like the little shit that she is.

"I meant– Stop laughing. Stop it!”

She doesn’t.

“I meant he's a piece of work – strange, unique. He doesn't think like everyone else."

"Oh boy … I do believe you've gone googly-eyed."

"Shut your damn mouth, young lady, or I’ll shut it for you."

“Yeah, okay.” She's still snickering under her breath when she reaches out to me so I grab her hand, helping her climb up and over the fence. Her heels sink into the damp ground when she jumps down and I have to catch her before she tumbles into the field.

"He's a unique friend," she repeats, still grinning ear to ear. “Did I ever tell you the story of the witch and her unique friend?”

“I don’t believe you have.”

She hooks my arm again and we set back toward my familiar forest, her warm body slowly drying our rain-dampened clothes.

“The story takes place during the height of the witch trials in a small village in eastern Germany.”

“I’m listening …”

“A poor beggar woman befriended an outcast who lived in the forest beyond the town. The outcast was a witch, of course, but the beggar was just a lonely woman who offered to tend the witch’s garden in exchange for food.”

“That was nice of her, I guess. But the food’s probably nothing she’d want to eat–”

“It was very nice of her,” she insists, “so the reclusive witch happily agreed to the arrangement. After a while, she found that the beggar not only kept a manicured garden but extended to the witch a non-judgemental ear and the warmth of her body if the night grew cold and the witch felt so inclined.”

“If the witch felt so inclined …,” I snicker. “Sounds like a decent deal for all involved. But … did the woman know the outcast was a witch? I bet she didn’t.”

“Indeed she did.”

“And the woman was alright with that?”

“She was. The witch had treated her with nothing but kindness, but it was important that no one in the village find out about their friendship. If the witch was ever discovered, her dear friend, by association, could be implicated.”

“Tricky situation.”

“So the pair kept to themselves, naturally, but to keep up appearances, the beggar would leave the witch’s home and wander the town, sleeping in stables or along the road.”

“That’s some dedication," I mumble.

“The witch, however, was practically giddy that she had found such a companion, and when she would display her dear friend’s beautiful vegetables at the town market, she found herself gushing over the beggar. Her friend was incredible with plants. Her friend was a skillful seamstress. Her friend was a remarkable cook. And the townsfolk, who had never paid this outcast any attention, began to grow suspicious of her new friend: this remarkably talented beggar woman.”

“Oh, suspicious German peasants. That’s not good …”

She laughs against my shoulder as we pass by fields of oat and wildflowers. “The witch rushed home from the market, threw open the door, and divulged how careless her tongue had been in town. The pair then sat by the fire and discussed just how grave an error the witch had made, but the beggar woman never grew angry. She simply patted her dear friend’s knee in solidarity.”

“All was simply forgiven?”

“In all their discussions, they never spoke of betrayal except to say, jokingly, that the beggar herself held the potential for a far greater betrayal than anything the witch could commit. For some reason, this neither baffled nor worried either of them. They promptly dismissed their concerns and enjoyed the warm summer night together.”

“Did they live happily ever after?”

“This is a German tale, what do you think?”

I smile and nod. Of course not.

“The townsfolk, like I said, were already suspicious and started to notice the beggar’s odd behavior. She was clean and well-fed, though she had no hearth. She was a master gardener and was often seen smiling, though she was without a husband or a family.”

“Well those are all inexcusable crimes; damn near blasphemous.”

She hums in agreement and rubs her cheek against my shoulder. “The townspeople hunted the beggar down and dragged her off to be burned.”

“Well, she was clearly practicing dark magic; how else could a poor beggar manage to grow such plump vegetables? There’s a mystery there that needs solving ...”

She grumbles as she laughs, so I zip my lip.

“The beggar was deemed a witch, and though the townsfolk knew she was friends with the outcast, they never assumed that the batty old lady just outside town could harbor the powers of witchcraft, so they dismissed the thought.”

“Lucky break for the witch.”

“Was it? They dragged her dear friend away in shackles to be burned. That doesn’t sound all that lucky.”

That’s true … “So how does it end? Up in smoke?”

“Well, there are two different accounts. One ends with the priest barging into the beggar’s cell only to find both her and the real witch dead. They were stone-stiff, soaked in tears, and still clutching their ribs as though frozen forever with laughter. The priest cursed those treacherous women and claimed they had found a way to elude the wrath of God.”

Oh, that vengeful creature, God. He never gets a break. “And the second ending?”

“Well, the second ending, which I certainly prefer, is that they both simply disappear into the night on a broomstick apparently built for two.”

That is a far more pleasant ending, but I fail to see the point of this unprompted storytime. “And what is the moral of this tale, doctor? Not to boast about your best friend’s talent for horticulture among match-happy seventeenth-century peasants?”

“There are two morals, actually: bits and pieces of a conversation heard uttered between the witch and her lover. The first was muttered in jest by the witch: ‘Our friendship, my sweet, feels an awful lot like mutual blackmail elevated to the level of love.’ And the second moral, whispered by the beggar in reply: ‘ Then let us trust each other, my dear, for they will find a way to burn us both regardless.’”