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Muffled Loneliness

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Is it weird to miss your dad yelling at you?

Trying to tune out the tirade from Brent’s dad (and ignoring Nick, who’s probably trying to do the same thing), Anton can’t help but think of times where he’s wished that his dad would show some kind of interest in his activities. That he’d care about his grades, or bother trying to learn something about his friends, even if Anton wouldn’t tell him. When Anton had been a kid, he’d been yelled at enough, but it’s been a long time since Seamus has paid that much attention to him.

Nowadays, the strongest reaction that Anton can get from Seamus is disgust. So it hardly surprised him that Seamus O’Mara couldn’t even be bothered to pick up a phone call from the police station, even to see if maybe something had happened to his boy.

It’s Brent’s dad who’s taken off from work to bail them out and bring them home. Thankfully, when he drops Anton off, he doesn’t stick around to talk.

Inside, Seamus is shouting at someone across the phone, in a language that’s not English. Not knowing what else to do, Anton goes upstairs and microwaves a pastie, then sits on the couch without even cleaning up.

Eventually, Seamus comes upstairs too, and gets his first look at Anton’s bloody face and the bruises on his neck.

“What the hell happened to you?”

Seamus starts rooting through the fridge, as though wholly uninterested in the answer.

Anton’s smirk falters a little; he’s glad that his dad doesn’t see it. “Some guy jumped us on the subway,” he says, unable to think of a more useful explanation. No point in mentioning the jail time.

Shooting him a mocking grin, Seamus pulls out a cider, and heads back to work.


They watch wrestling together, sometimes, or football. Anton doesn’t care for either of them, but it’s the closest he’s gotten to sharing an interest with his dad.

Actually, it’s less that they watch it together, and more that they’re in the same room and staring at the same screen. Even when Seamus preps a heap of snacks, he doesn’t even think to share with his son.

 

Most of the time, Anton doesn’t let himself miss Corey. But when Corey was alive, Anton at least had some interest in sports. Their mom would take them to the park, and Corey would pitch underhand so that Anton had a decent chance of hitting a ball once in a while.

There’s a reason he never watches baseball these days.

When Anton needed a home, Seamus took him in without a fuss… but he’s never really done anything with him. Doesn’t come to parent-teacher meetings; Anton was filling out his own school paperwork before he was ten, mostly because school was more bearable than staying at home. Seamus doesn’t discuss the news, or take Anton to a movie once in a while. They’ve never taken a road trip, or gone swimming together, or even just hung out somewhere. Seamus barely acknowledges that they live under the same roof.

In ten years, he’s never thrown Anton a birthday party or gotten him a gift of any kind. Not once has Seamus expressed any aspirations for Anton, or tried to teach him anything that wasn’t purely to get the kid out of his hair. Anton’s hanging onto life by his fingertips, but can’t imagine seeking Seamus for advice about anything that matters.

Ten years ago, Anton lost his mom and older brother almost on the same day. But he’s never really had a dad to lose.


He’d only been seven when his dad had told him to plug in a power cord. Behind a spiderweb covered in black widows. Seamus had mocked him for hesitating -- then belted him when he’d outright refused.

Since coming to live with Seamus for good, Anton has buried his fear under brash self-confidence and an impudent smirk. He seeks out ways to prove that he’s not afraid.

So while Seamus is laid up and his friends are all in the hospital, here he is, skipping school to deliver bags of guns to the Russians, the Bulgarians, the Mexicans.

As he reaches to turn the key, he finds his hand trembling. Stares at it for a long moment. They’re not gonna kill you. Maybe they’ll laugh at you. Just keep your head down, give them the merch, get out of there. Negotiation isn’t Anton’s strong suit, so they’re likely to short-change him, and Seamus will yell at him for that. But self-preservation says not to play chicken with adult criminals the way he does with teens and hobos.

The trembles get worse. God, he wants someone to talk to, but… hell, does he even have friends anymore? Nick and Brent are gonna get out of the hospital and the first thing they’ll do when they see him is beat him up. He can see that coming. Hadn’t the gunman known his name? Hadn’t Anton been the only one to not get shot that day?

Everyone else had gone for a weapon, and he’d just thrown up his hands. The move that had spared him.

When he was a kid, his mom had talked him through worries and nightmares, helped him learn which fears were sensible and which not. Since her death, he’s never had anyone to let him open up that way.


The worst time of day has always been getting ready for bed -- a reminder of his loss. The first night he’d spent with his dad, Seamus had simply shown him to his new room, closed the door between them, and gone off to watch late-night TV. And the few times that Anton had cried that week had been met with scorn, until Anton buried that part of himself and learned to face the nights in silence.

So he’s gone from rituals to a race, hurrying through the details so he can just get to bed. Hadn’t taken him long to get a three-minute routine, especially after shifting his shower to the morning.

Tonight, though, he pauses in front of the mirror, and lets himself recall the little things his mother used to do for him. The things they used to do together. Love notes on the mirror, as soon as he started learning to read. Bedtime stories, the three of them cuddled together on the sofa before she’d carry him to his room. Bath time on Sundays, to get rid of whatever the weekend’s adventures had left behind.

Couch forts after a nightmare, or that one time that Corey had come home in tears after some girl was mean to him in school. Couch forts solve everything, their mom used to say, and they’d sit there eating Cool Whip over bananas with strawberry topping, even if it was two AM. (Though she never let them get back to bed without brushing their teeth, no matter how sleepy they were.)

He misses the hugs. Lots of different kinds of hugs, for different reasons. That kind of touch -- loving and supportive and strong -- hasn’t been his in a decade.

The closest thing he’s had lately is that man’s hand around his throat.


The hobo’s grip is tight, unrelenting, crushing his breath away. In that moment of horror and fading consciousness, he’d been convinced that he was going to die -- and that struggling was beyond pointless. Like every other struggle in his life.

The eyes of a silent, remorseless death are staring into his soul, as the beard and the hair fall away in pieces and it’s the same eyes, the same inescapable hold over him.

The lips curl up. Not a snarl, but a friendly grin.

Because the man wasn’t remorseless, was he? He’d let go when Anton choked out please stop. And…

Hey, Anton!

…it’s the same man.

 

He wakes with a choked-off cry, terror washing over him like waves, and, for a moment, he might as well still be in the dream: The man is there in the darkness, studying him pleasantly… like he’s a friendly uncle, instead of a monster about to shoot every last person in the room.

Except for him. The monster let him go.

And it wasn’t meant as a kindness.

 

He rinses his sheets and pajama bottoms in the bathtub, hoping that Seamus won’t wake up. Hoping that when he does the laundry, he’ll assume that Anton just had a wet dream.

Not bothering to find fresh sheets, Anton just curls up into the corner beside the bed and hugs himself. It’s not like Seamus ever comes into his room anyway, not even to wake him up for school.

The stranger knows where he lives. Knows his name. Came and found him.

Could come back at any time, and Seamus wouldn’t even know.

The stranger’s hand is around his throat again, smothering him. He wants to cry out for help, but just turns his face into the side of the mattress and muffles his sobs.