When John was five, his last name was Shepard and he sat in the back seat of his mom’s Volvo 240. While the vehicle was long gone, John would years later still remember the interior of that car, the stains of rain on the windows and his mother’s occasional smile in the rear view mirror. The actual destination was a fact lost to time, but the purpose had been to pick up a puppy that John had begged and begged for them to get.
Just off the highway they went into a tunnel. The other car came out of nowhere, like a bolt from a blue sky. It barely avoided hitting them head on, but their car was forced to swerve into the railing dividing the lanes. The moments that followed were so unbelievably quiet, and when John tried to find his mother in the mirror again, he found it smashed with pieces missing.
The next sound was that of a car door opening, and there were men leaning in, helping him out, but no one touched his mother. John had been certain then, that he’d seen her reaching for him, but father had told him that it was impossible, merely a trick of his concussed mind.
Mother had died instantly.
The Crossroads was the grimmest place John had ever been. Not that he’d been that many places outside of Cerberus facilities, but the outdoors had sunshine and the toy store had rows upon rows with model kits that he had yet to build. The Crossroads only had ruins and Reapers.
A cluster of marauders were at their heels, pushing back their raid on the lair. They always fought in teams, but fighters like John who were still fairly small and quick on their feet were frequently sent off apart from the group, trying to get around to either gather intel or place explosives closer to the reapers. These tasks were considered easier than doing frontal attacks, and a place to learn before facing the enemy heads on. However, when things didn’t go as planned? Well, it was sufficient to say that John by now could appreciate that danger was the greatest teacher of them all. Nothing pushed you to the next level as much as having your life depending on it. Despite the immense boost on the learning curve this caused, John still dreaded those moments. It was a dread that kept him on his toes, both in and out of the Crossroads.
Caution wasn’t enough today. John slipped through cracks like a cockroach, but still one of the reapers caught wind of him. He thought he’d made it unseen until he heard a heavy, harsh breathing sound that was both too deep and too loud to be a mere marauder. He didn’t need the visual cue to realize that he had a brute breathing down his neck. The surge of adrenaline was instant and he thought he could drown in the rapid drumming of his speeding heart.
Off in the main assault squad someone cried out, but John couldn’t quite hear them, too stuck in the space between him and the brute. His only advantage over the creature was his agility which he quickly put to use. Turning around, he set off in an elaborate step sequence that allowed him to dodge the brute’s first swiping attack and slide in under it. As the distance to charge had been too short, John’s slide came to a halt right between the two giant feet, where the brute easily could’ve ended him by just sitting down. To prevent that, John pulled foot long blade from his thigh holster and embedded it deeply into the softer tissue of the underbelly.
The brute roared in agony, and started stomping around. John was saved by a hair’s margin as something gripped his ankle and pulled. What met his gaze as he looked up was not a comrade, but small eyes of piercing light, set in the face of one of the many marauders. John fired three bullets in quick succession into the creature’s neck. It toppled to the side as something tackled it, and this time around it was a human looming over him.
Toombs had nearly a decade on John and was someone who’d been on the team since long before his own debut on the battle scene. As much as they knew how to work along one another, John actually knew very little about the man. Considering it frequently happened that they lost people in the Crossroads or even elsewhere, this sort of emotional distance between squadmates was something that was encouraged. It helped keep priorities during difficult missions, they said. Still, John knew Toombs well enough to know that today something was off. As the man reached out to pull him up, there wasn’t the usual quipped ask for injuries, and Toombs eyes kept flickering around without purpose, as though his mind was elsewhere.
Suddenly more brutes pommeled in, and as John had failed to place the explosives behind the barricades, their odds at success quickly plummeted from tricky to grim. Kai Leng, the cell’s most embellished prodigy and their squad leader, called the retreat, knowing better than to waste resources on an already lost battle. The man hit his panic button, triggering an alarm over at the relay, calling the soldiers home and alerting the base of a mission failed. The blaring noise bounced like balls between the canyons, fading out to nothing not far past the group.
As John fell in line at the back of the squad, he tried to balance the shame of his failure with the relief to be leaving. There would be a lecture waiting once they passed through the relay, but John was too glad to be heading for safety to feel the appropriate apprehension quite yet.
The team ran in pretty much a straight line for the first couple of minutes before Kai signed for them to split off in smaller units. While the brutes had remained around the reaper outpost, there was an impressive tail of marauders following them. Separated they’d be able to shake most of them and only have to fight a smaller number as they regrouped. Thank goodness that most reapers were dumb as rock.
As the team split off in groups of three, John noticed that Toombs was setting off alone. Hadn’t he been at the very flank, John wouldn’t have spotted the man’s escape as he was very discreet about it, disappearing between one moment and the next. A few paces ahead there were two remaining pairs, following the forward path to separate at the next fork. John should follow, those were orders, but Toombs was definitely up to something and John doubted it was anything good. Toombs had never before acted out of line, so this behavior was very alarming.
Indoctrinated , the ugly word echoed through John’s mind.
He tried to alert his team mates ahead, only to discover they were too far ahead and the marauders close enough that there wasn’t time for any of them to run back and join him anyway. That settled it, and John set off after Toombs alone. It was incredibly dangerous to run off solo in the Crossroads, but if the man was indeed indoctrinated, that was long term the far greater threat. More dangerous than any form or reaper was an enemy hidden within your own ranks. John felt all cold inside at the mere thought of being stabbed in his sleep. There were stories, of entire cells murdered in the night. John had to stop Toombs at any cost.
Toombs had quite a head-start, and for a desperate minute John thought he had lost him. Then he heard a scrape of a boot against gravelly ground. The path set off into unknown territory, an area of the Crossroads that John had never personally been. For a long stretch it seemed devoid of reaper presence, the landscape shaping into a natural labyrinth of rocky pinnacles that reached out of the ground like giant claws. It made it difficult to track Toombs, but also had the benefit of keeping John from being discovered.
John was light on his feet and wearing gear meant for stealth, while Toombs was dressed in clunky armour that once in a while made enough noise to alert John of Toombs position. The route stretched into a half hour long trek. Through the whole ordeal, they didn’t encounter a single reaper, though a harvester crossed the sky above them once. John couldn’t decide whether that contradicted or strengthened his theory of Toombs being indoctrinated. The extended lack of action felt like a string being pulled, that at any moment would painfully snap.
Toombs route ultimately led down into a deep valley and John only realized the man had stopped until he was right on him. They’d ended up in a small clearing between the rocks and infront of them stood the circular shape of a relay. From it’s dull sheen, it appeared to be deactivated. There was a small chance that it was an uncharted relay, left forgotten, but far more likely it was one of the many relays that had been shut down after the other end had fallen into military hands. When Toombs pulled a lever at the bottom of the relay’s frame, stirring it slowly to life, that probability was significant enough for John. There was no lingering maybe regarding whether or not Toombs had turned his allegiance away from them.
John raised his handgun.
“Step away from the Relay,” he ordered, both voice and hands trembling. He’d never turned a weapon on a fellow human before, let alone someone he’d once considered a comrade. He knew it had to be done, but he felt sick to the core. If only Toombs had been far along enough to put a shine in his eyes, but they were painfully brown as they stared back at him in shock. The only shine about him, was the increasing backlight from the relay, emitting more and more light as it was starting up.
“Oh kid,” Toombs let out, the words gasped rather than spoken. “Oh god, you don’t understand what you’re doing.”
John wavered in what little resolve he had, but he kept the gun up. If he would be able to land the shot if he pulled the trigger however was questionable. So severe was the tremor in his grip. He knew in theory, how manipulative indoctrinated individuals could be. They even had training sessions to learn to resist their sweet talk, but it was a whole other thing to stand there in a real life situation, with someone it wasn’t supposed to apply to. Someone who was supposed to be safe from the reapers’ influence.
“You’re indoctrinated,” John said, as though saying it out loud would make it easier to accept. It didn’t. Toombs looked immensely sad at the accusation, and John thought it wasn’t fair that the reapers were this good.
“You don’t have a first idea about indoctrination, John,” Toombs tried, hands up in a placating manner. “Please put your gun down and we can talk.”
John wanted to listen to the man, and it would be so easy to relent and step back. An unexpected sob wrecked through him at the effort of staying strong. Not daring to speak again, he shook his head, stumbling a step back when Toombs tried to reach for the handgun.
“I don’t want to have to do this,” Toombs pleaded with him, but made no further attempt in advancing on him. They stood there at a stalemate for a couple of long minutes where John tried to will his finger to put pressure on the trigger without success. Toombs took advantage of his wavering, reaching for his own gun and John’s body acted on its own.
A sharp pang echoed through the valley. Toombs eyes were blown wide and they both looked down at the man’s abdomen where there was a large and quickly growing wet stain in the fabric of his gear. John dropped his weapon in a moment of pure dread, the reality of the situation catching up with him like a freight train. No, like a car in the wrong lane, running up at him in a tight tunnel.
Toombs groaned in pain as he crumbled to the ground. The man was down, but not out so when he reached a hand inside his jacket, John flew at him to stop him. He managed to get Toombs pinned down underneath him and the man’s wrist in a firm vice. Toombs entire body went lax, the fight seeping out of him faster than the blood pulsing out of the entry wound.
“You don’t know a thing,” Toombs croaked out, tilting his hand so the object between his fingers peaked out above the collar of his jacket. John was entirely dumbfounded to find it was just a book.
“Read and decide for yourself,” Toombs finished. His face was starting to look very ashy, the dirt beneath him going muddy with his blood and John let go of the man, grabbing the book instead. With some last strength, Toombs pushed the book towards John’s chest, just before losing consciousness. In that last moment, John thought he saw a flicker of red in the depths of Toombs’ eyes, but he wasn’t sure anymore. Everything felt vague and unhinged.
Not wanting to sit on a corpse, John rose on shaking legs, and in a moment of hysterics realizing how fucked he was. Stranded, alone in an unknown part of the crossroads, without sufficient supplies or gear and the crossroads slowly closing on him. All he had was his handgun with a half empty chamber, a couple of knives and the damn book. Pocketing the book in the inner pocket of his jacket, John tried to steal himself before approaching Toombs’ body again. There were guns on the man that he wouldn’t be needing anymore, John told himself, trying to ignore the voice that asked if it wasn’t enough that he’d robbed the man of his life already. Indoctrinated , John reminded himself, Toombs had been indoctrinated .
The light from the relay was starting to ripple, meaning it was almost completely open. It cast strange shadows from the silhouette of Toombs’ body, the tips of John’s boots going from illuminated to concealed in flickers. If there were enemies on the other side, John probably had seconds to keep them from leaping out.
Suddenly a hand landed on his shoulder. Kai Leng stood behind him, as quiet as a shadow and unreadable behind his every present shades. The relief that followed the adrenaline spike was palpable. Kai rounded him, heading for the relay and using the same lever that Toombs had used to turn it off again. The light went out, and it took John’s eyes a few moments to adapt to the change.
“Did you know?” John asked, figuring it would explain how Kai found them so fast. Kai didn’t answer, not straight away, but crouched down search Toombs body that lay between them. John’s thoughts went straight to the book now in his pocket, mind spinning madly, trying to think of the best course of action to avoid suspicion. Too late did he realize that the moment for honesty had come and gone. As Kai concluded his search and straightened up, keeping the book secret was the only remaining option or John would be labeled indoctrinated too.
“You did good,” were all the words Kai offered, before he proceeded to contact base over their shaky intercom. “Kid got our Judas, but the stolen files weren’t on him. He must’ve left them at the dead drop.”
There was a moment’s pause that filled with the thunderous beat of John’s pulse. Whatever was in the book had to be very important and father’s property. There was a scraping sound on the radio, followed with the voice of Eva Coré, the cell’s second in command.
“Understood. Diaspora protocol five initiated. You got forty minutes,” she spoke in that chill voice of hers. Of all the people in the cell, John had always found her the second most intimidating.
“Forty minutes might be tight,” Kai intervened, and he probably was the only one with lower rank that could with Eva. “Kid is looking a bit shaky.”
“Then you better leg it.”
The connection cut, and any lesser man than Kai would’ve cursed. Kai simply ran, leaving it up to John to keep up.
Stepping through a Relay was like breaking surface when diving, only there was no wetness. It felt like you hit a break between two planes that didn’t flow the same. The crossroads encompassed you a little heavier, a little thicker. It wasn’t as hard to move against as water, but one step in that direction. Coming back into the earth world, John always felt jittery and skittish, despite the relief of finally being safe. Everything just felt a little too light, a little too easy.
Their cell’s relay opened into a large storage room, normally filled with neat rows of equipment. Upon exiting this time, the site that greeted them was eerily empty, only occupied by a couple of guards and Eva who stood there expecting them, arms crossed and face stern. The guards held some strange equipment that John hadn’t seen before. They were both staring resolutely into the relay.
“Clear the way,” Eva ordered, and John like the rest hurried to the sides. Looking over his shoulder, he found that Kai alone had remained in the Crossroads, his figure a rippling image through the surface of the disturbed portal. One of the two guards approached the relay, passing one of two identical pieces of equipment through it. Then both Kai and the guard changed their grip and it became clear what the tools were - battering rams.
The second guard still stood back, but aimed a torch-like light against the relay. The red light caught in the surface, clearly marking a spot at the centre of it. Kai and the guard in front of him both took aim simultaneously and shattered the relay.
John jumped at the loud boom of impact, terrified and confused over what just happened. Kai was no longer visible and the relay had gone dull and lifeless.
“Departure in three minutes for anyone not on clean-up,” Eva announced, sending people running. “Clean-up depart in eight!”
When she turned on her heel, she pulled John with her with a firm grip on his shoulder, leading him out towards the road exit. Outside trucks stood lined up and people were running back and forth packing. The only things going back inside were tanks of fuel. John realized in a moment of distress that they were going to burn down the entire compound. His home of the past decade would soon go up in flames. He wanted to question, to ask why, to plead to stay, but Eva’s hand on him kept him silent.
She led him up to a truck in the front, guiding him to the door and helping him climb up. Not that he needed the extra push. It was clear there was a designated spot for him and Eva was tasked with getting him there. Once in the seat, John looked up and instantly stilled in surprise.
“Father,” he breathed out at the man behind the wheel. His father’s identity had been a mystery until the day his mother died. Then Jack Harper had turned up out of nowhere, dressed in a smart suit and piercing eyes, to spare John a life on the streets or in foster care. John missed his mother, what little he could remember of her, but father cared in his own way, even if he wasn’t as warm as Hannah Shepard had been. Father’s love was the tough sort, because you had to be tough in this world they lived in. John could appreciate that, just like he could appreciate father’s many sacrifices in taking him in. Still, the man intimidated him nearly as much as the reapers some days. Getting seated next to him now, in the aftermath of the whole mess in the crossroads, John found himself breaking out in a nervous sweat. The book in his inner pocket felt like a burning brand, marking him a traitor and he braced himself for father to notice. Father always seemed to know everything.
“You’re not in trouble,” father clarified straight off the bat, in a voice that was calm and kind. John knew how quickly that voice could change into something harsh and cold, and only felt mildly reassured, remaining alert in his seat for any indication he needed to apologize and make amends for any and all mistakes.
A giant warm glow erupted outside the truck, accompanied with a dull roar and looking out the window, John could see the compound going up in flames. Against the flames there was a dark silhouette, approaching the truck, something in their hands. The door on John’s side opened again and a box was shoved into his lap. In it he found the one collection of personal possessions he had - a bunch of models he’d made over the years, and he nearly cried in relief at the sight.
Ahead there was a honk and within seconds they started rolling. John tore his gaze from the models to stare transfixed into the wing mirror at the flames that were eating away at his childhood home. As they reached the first fork in the road, the caravan of vehicles split up in different directions. Father’s truck remained on the main road that would lead them towards the city. John had no idea what that meant, if it meant anything.
“Open the glove compartment,” father ordered, not taking his eyes of the road. Without pause, John obeyed and thumbled with the old lock for a bit. Having to reach around the box in his lap made him a bit clumsy, but when he got it open, a folder fell out. Only his reflexes helped him catch a couple of stray documents before they hit the floor.
“Would you like to go to school?” father asked cryptically. John’s heart started hammering away in a hopeless sort of excitement, despite his best attempts to dissuade it with scepticism. He’d always been home schooled, and for good reason. The world was filled with indoctrinated agents, even children, and father had always been adamant about keeping him safe. It was bad enough that mother had died.
“Like a real school?” John asked, despite himself. A real school would mean kids his age, something that had only been a rare, occasional treat so far, whenever there were training camps. His hope was already so impossibly large that he didn’t know how he’d handle the disappointment if this was all a misunderstanding on his part. Father’s lips quirked into a smile though, after a quick glance his way.
“Why don’t you open the folder and look,” father suggested and John did. At the very front lay a small pamphlet with a picture of a yellow and brown school building, titled Welcome to Grissom High . Something in John’s stomach was running circles and it was simultaneously the best and worst feeling in the world. He glimpsed through the pamphlet, just enough to verify it indeed detailed a real school, with real classes, with real teachers and pupils. Then he looked beneath the pamphlet, at the myriad of documents that accompanied it. There was a schedule, detailing six classes a day, lists of books to get and the like. It all looked too good to be true.
“I understand you were part in catching Toombs today,” father said. John only nodded in reply even though the reminder sent something cold and ugly seeping through him, only pierced through with a spike of fear. Did father know after all?
“Turning your gun on someone you thought a comrade isn’t easy, but you remembered your training and took down Toombs accordingly,” father said, stearing the truck towards the highway leading in direction of Vancouver. They were still following the other car. “Toombs was a corrupted man, about to expose us all to collaborators of the reapers. You have saved countless of innocents today, John. Remember this day if you ever face indoctrinated agents again.”
It sounded like praise, but John couldn’t muster the usual pride that would overwhelm him at such words from his father.
“Yes, sir,” he muttered, sinking low into his seat to make himself smaller, almost managing to hide behind the box. It was a relief when father switched on the radio, letting the channel host’s chatter fill the cabin instead.
“What a year it has been! We started of with Dolly the Sheep, and now IBM supercomputer Deep Blue has defeated the reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov. The computer beat mankind at his own game! What is next, Terminator?”
Father laughed as the exaggerated rant trickled off in a series of conspiracy theories, one more ridiculous than the other. While it was clearly meant to entertain, the smugness on father’s face had John believe that whatever humor he found it was something different than intended.
John put the folder into the box, and wrapped his arms tightly across his chest as he tried to drift to sleep. While he kept his eyes closed, the shape of the book against his ribs kept him awake for hours until fatigue finally won out.
The journey ended the next day, a couple of hours before the sun set. The low light cast long shadows from the truck over the house that father introduced as theirs and Eva’s new home. It was a suburban villa, nothing grand or exceptional about it save for the fact that John hadn’t lived in a regular home since he was five. There were strangers meeting them at the lawn a few minutes later, helping to unpack a section of what was stowed in the back of the truck. Father handed over the keys to the vehicle, as John was herded inside.
The house was already furnished, and there was a room assigned for him. It’s walls were a worn beige, with rips in the wallpaper, and there was a couple of wardrobes attached to the wall and covered in the same yellowed paper. There was one window, facing the neighbours wall, letting in very limited amounts of light at this hour. For furniture he’d been granted a desk with chair, a chest of drawers painted in green that was flaking off and revealing a mustard yellow layer beneath, and lastly a plain panel bed frame with a thick foam mattress on top. Like the house, nothing was grand, but the interior at least matched what he was used to from the compound.
The door flew open behind him, one of the strange men stumbling in with a couple of boxes that he deposited without care on the desk. It left just enough space for John’s box of models that he set down carefully, not wanting to damage them any further than the hazardous packing had. One more box was delivered before he was left alone. He really didn’t have enough things to fill all the storage space he’d been given. At least one of the drawers he found already filled with linens for the bed, that at the moment wasn’t made. It revealed a tear in the cover of the mattress, just at the foot end. It gave John an idea.
The tear was small, but it didn’t take much effort to widen enough to fit the book through. Even doing that much sent waves of adrenaline through him, all his senses on edge to pick up if anyone was coming any closer to his door. He kept prolonging taking the book out, procrastinating with choosing linen, pulling on covers on both the duvet and pillow before plucking on the tear again. He tensed up, gathering courage and closing his eyes to better hear where people were in the house. There were considerably less walking around compared to earlier, and then for a short while it was silent. John didn’t dare breathe as he reached up towards his chest.
The knock on the door nearly caused him to jump out of his skin.
“Come out when you’re done and help unpack the office,” Eva informed. “And leave your weapons to the men at the door!”
John had no idea when she’d arrived, but for the duration of their stay here, she’d figure as his stepmother. John was immensely thankful that he wouldn’t have to be homeschooled anymore in this set up. Faking domesticity with Eva would be bad enough outside of school.
“Coming,” he called, because he knew that when you’re done was more a figure of speech than a literal condition when coming from Eva. He had seconds to get out there rather than minutes. It was a risk to leave the book in the pocket, but for the time being he had no choice. With brisk movements he switched out of his gear, stiff muscles aching from having been confined in it for well over a day, and hopped into the first outfit at the top of his box of clothing. It was pretty much all t-shirts and plain jeans anyway.
The crossroads gear, sans holsters with weapons, he balled together to conceal any potentially give-away shape of the book, and stuffed it at the back of the closet for now. At second thought, he took the box with clothes and upended it on top, concealing the leather outfit entirely. He closed the closet, grabbed his weapons and tried pushing the book out of mind for now.
It was a good hour he finally had the chance to complete his plan. All the strange men were gone, and father had been picked up by the local cell leader to go inspect something. Only Eva was still there and thus he felt marginally bolder as he tried again to extract the book. He sat on the bed, with the jacket in his lap, listening intently as he slowly pulled the book out, ready to shove it straight back in at the slightest hint of footfall. He got the book entirely out and quickly shoved it inside the mattress. On the way in it caught, and he nearly whimpered with frustration before he got the situation under control.
Relaxing, he dropped the mattress back in place and breathed out. The calm lasted a second before he realized the mattress cover was sagging between the planks, nearly dropping the book. The tear was too hide to hold the book in place. Panicking anew, he flipped the mattress around so the foot end faced the wall, and while it better concealed the dipping weight of the book, the risk of the book falling out remained.
As nervous tick, John started fiddling with his fingers, finding a tear in his jeans. I gave him another idea. He just had to summon the courage to go for it.
Eva sat in the kitchen, smoking - one of few habits she shared with father. In front of her she had her Gateway Solo - a computer everyone bar father was strictly prohibited from touching. She sat strategically angled, so John couldn’t see the screen from the doorway, but she’d still tensed up minutely as he appeared.
“I need thread,” John said, plucking at the tear in his jeans to give reason for the request. Not that Eva looked up. “And needle.”
John waited, perhaps only minutes but it felt like eons and he barely dared breathe, as he tried to anticipate the woman’s reaction. What he ultimately got was a sigh, as she reached for the cordless phone positioned on the counter. Whatever number she tapped in, she knew by heart, but there was a brief pause in the middle, as though she had to stop and think before finishing. The other end picked up after just a few rings.
“Kid needs thread and needle,” Eva echoes John’s request into the receiver. There was a pause, and John could barely pick up a hint of the words that were spoken at the other end. As Eva finally looked over at him, he enthusiastically gestured at the rip in his pants.
“It’s jeans,” Eva clarified. “Regular blue ones. Whatever you have will do.”
Eva hung up, setting the phone down and flicking off ash from her cigarette into the ashtray. After drawing another puff, she nodded her head in direction of the door. Missive clear, John hurried out a quick thanks and ran out to the doorstep to wait.
John was surprised when a girl his own age approached him. She had long, dark hair that looked well kept, neatly framing her face even though she was otherwise dressed in pajamas and a robe wrapped around her. The hour was late, and John had the decency to feel bad for a moment. The girl’s eyes truly looked judging as she sidled up to him, hand holding out the requested needle and thread.
“You’re the new kid?” she asked, taking his measure with a rake of her eyes. John felt quite intimidated, and tried to decide whether or not her greeting was a veiled admission that she too was Cerberus.
“Miranda Lawson,” she introduced herself as John accepted the promised items - a spool of bright blue thread, with a needle stuck in it. Lawson - the family name was very familiar from conversations John had overheard his father have. Henry Lawson was a key figure in Cerberus’ sustainability. Whenever words like research or development cropped up in talks, the name Lawson always soon followed. There was no saying how or even if Miranda was related to Henry, but she was the closest to a face on the man John had gotten thus far, and thus he ended up staring a bit. Miranda wasn’t impressed.
“Next time you have a sewing project, try to make it before ten,” she concluded and turned on her heal, not giving John the opportunity to get a single word in. He ended up following her with his gaze, all the way back to the neighbouring house where she snuck in as quietly as anyone who’d had to practice stealth in the crossroads.
John only shook out of his reveries as the door gently clicked shut, and hurried to run in and fix the mattress. By the time he was done, he was so tired he utterly forgot about also fixing his jeans.
John was five, going on six and he missed his mom. The only thing he’d had left from her was her name and now father had taken that too. Next to his John stood an unfamiliar Harper , an early birthday gift from father. He didn’t want it, but it was necessary.
“If we don’t, then social services will come and take you and we don’t want that,” father had explained and John and shut up about it. Father’s friend Eva had explained enough of the social services for John to understand the severity of that threat. And she would know, having worked for the state before, in the military branch. They were all indoctrinated and evil.
Knowing he was safe did not mitigate the loneliness however, didn’t comfort him as he was crying himself to sleep at night, cramped into the corner of his bed because the walls around him was the closest he got to an embrace these days. This desperation was what ultimately boosted enough courage in him to make a request.
“Can I have a dog for my birthday?” he asked father, one night at dinner, a couple of weeks before his sixth birthday. The answer was brief and firm.
“No. Don’t you remember what happened when you asked your mother for a dog?”
Father hadn’t even looked up, hadn’t needed to. The words were enough to send a bolt of guilt through him, efficiently silencing him forever on the matter. Father didn’t bring it up again either. He had more important things to concern himself with, John knew, which was why he was surprised when father took him out some days later, just the two of them. It was a rare treat, to have father’s attention for well over an hour, even if they didn’t speak a word at first.
They went to a toy store, and inside the door, father finally explained the purpose of the trip.
“Pick one toy, any one toy you want,” he said. John took his time, and marvelled in the fact that father didn’t stress him. He went to the plush toy section and nearly picked out a plush puppy, but decided against it. It wasn’t a real dog. He went around the corner and looked at laser tag toys, but they were too much like training. So were the action figures, and the video games demanded use of the tv that he was only allowed for an hour a week.
Then he came towards a section in the back with tall stacks of model car kits. He hadn’t known there were so many different cars before that day and mesmerized he’d swept his eyes over the vast rows of boxes. He hadn’t expected to go for one of kits, but then his eyes had landed at a picture of a car he recognized. The color was wrong, but the shape was just right, just like mother’s car. Without a word, John plucked the Volvo 240 sedan model kit off the shelf. It was the first time since the accident that father was tender with him, wrapping a loose hand around his shoulder as he led him to the counter, and added some brushes, paint and glue into the purchase even if the offer had only been for one item. When the lady at the register protested that toy was perhaps not suitable for a boy John’s age, father had insisted that that was up for John to decide.
John smiled the entire way home, clutching the box to his chest.
Growing up, David Anderson had, like any other kid in a decent place, imagined many big thing for himself as an adult. Sitting on the floor in a living room, back rested against the couch and lesson plans spread out on the floor before him had never been any of those things. The confident yet kind woman beside him was less in contrast with his childhood dreams, even if dating a teacher had not sounded appealing back when he was a student himself. When he’d daydreamed of mixing work with pleasure, he had pictured something more Bond-esque than simply working together in one place rather than separately or at the office at school.
It was comfortable though, a form of comfort he couldn’t have appreciated with the years and experiences he had as an adult. They were both focused on their documents, but Kahlee sat angled so her toes touched his thigh, absentmindedly caressing his leg with them and occasionally Anderson would reach over and give her leg a gentle rub.
Kahlee sighed heavily enough to bring David’s attention away from his papers, and when he glanced up their eyes met.
“What?” he asked, noting that Kahlee held some student’s math assignment in her hand. Her blond hair that had been put up in a sloppy ponytail had started coming loose, falling into her face. It was a disheveled sort of look that under other circumstances could’ve looked enticing, but now rather looked sweet in a domestic way.
“I have this student that’s been out of school for half a year,” she said. “Just spent her summer catching up and while it’s impressive, it’s not quite up to her usual speed. Then again, I can’t imagine recovering from a lung transplant is all that easy. I didn’t even know you could transplant lungs.”
When David asked who the student was, Kahlee simply angled the paper. At the top Miranda Lawson was written in crips, clean letters. Not a student David had ever had, which probably wasn’t strange as he only taught P.E. classes.
“If she’s returning to class after summer, she’ll surely catch up eventually,” he said in encouragement. Kahlee hummed.
“You also had the new kid, right? The boy that has been homeschooled?” she asked, clarifying the relevance of the question a moment later. Miranda’s father had been involved in the boy’s enrollment in the school, the family old friends of his. David picked up his own set of notes from the principle on the new kid.
“He’s apparently some martial arts prodigy, but the family want him focusing on his studies for a while,” he said, which was a curious fact since the family had allegedly moved here from a small, remote community. Maybe they’d had some previous residence in a city big enough to have clubs, or the trainer was in the family.
“You ever learned any martial arts in the army?” Kahlee asked conversationally, too late realizing her mistake. David had been discharged roughly three years prior, due to mental health reasons. Normally he wasn’t that sensitive about it, but it was only yesterday he’d been through his most recent psychiatric evaluation. He’d passed, but sitting there and getting reminded again of his brief episode of psychosis in Rwanda still stung. He still felt convinced that what he’d seen had been real, the large dislike object lodged in the ground and shimmering at touch had been real to all his senses, even if he’d accepted it as a trick of his mind. After evaluations such as these he always felt down, distrusting of his own senses and mind.
Kahlee set her papers aside and slid up next to him.
“Sorry,” she muttered, wrapping her arms around his torso. Wrapping an arm about her in turn, he closed his eyes and focused on the feel of her in his arms and around him, the warmth of her and the feelings she stirred in him. That was real he told himself. Her he could trust, even if his mind would start slipping again.