There are many things in little Jack's life that he regrets. Not telling his mom he loved her before she died should be on there, but as he stands next to his Kuia at the funeral, he can't bring himself to care. He nods when people say their empty condolences, she was such a good woman, I'm sorry for your loss… No, she wasn't a good woman, he thinks scornfully. The way Jack can count his ribs if he lifts up his shirt is proof of that. The way she would look at him and spit curses at his face while he tried not to let tears run down his cheeks, because he went to his grandmother's home after school. He keeps his face carefully neutral, eyes down, hair falling into his eyes, as he watches his sister be ushered out by their Aunt. He didn’t even know that their Father had a sister before she materialized out of seemingly nowhere to gather his little sister (Just Jilly, she sneered, looking down her nose at Jack as Jilly sobbed into his shirt.) but he was happy that she had a chance at something better than Jack.
So no, Jack indeed isn't sorry that she’s gone. His Kuia has put herself right by his side, even if she should be sitting down, resting her feet instead of standing up here next to him. He won’t tell her as much (again, his head still hurts from the smack she gave him when he first suggested it) because he’s selfish. The small comfort of her squeezing his arm whenever it looks like he might actually say something, a little warning to not speak ill of those that have passed, is all that’s keeping him from wrecking this like he destroys everything else. He knows why he shouldn’t say anything, he’s been chastised about it already, to do so will call demons and evil spirits to himself (Too late, he scoffs internally) but it’s more because he genuinely loves the small woman next to him. So he stays silent. Let the people around him think it's because of grief. He can dance on the grave later.
Living with his Kuia full-time is a bit of an adjustment. For one, his clothes start to fit him better until they get too tight and he’s taken for new ones. For another, she’s superstitious in a way that most aren't anymore. There’s salt scattered along the door frames and windows, iron of all sorts in all of the rooms. It took Jack a month to even see where something has been carved into the panels of the house outside. When He asked about them, his Kuia patted his cheek and told him it kept the spirits out.
She takes him to get his first sigils a few weeks after that. He assumes that she means a necklace, or maybe a bracelet. He’s not expecting the tak tak of the needle going into the skin as the man sitting on the chair whimpers and moans while the tiny woman hunched over his bicep with the board huffs in annoyance. Jack’s smug and confident that he’s stronger than that until he’s the one sitting there and she starts by placing the needle right over the left side of his chest. Right above his heart. Why does he need this? He asks as he tries not to whimper when he feels the sharp prick of pain. Real men don’t cry. Real men never show that it hurts. His Kuia comes to sit beside him, places her small hand in his and explains her voice carrying the familiar rasp of too many cigarettes, that he needs protection, though from what exactly she never tells him. She’s always been vague about it, telling him that something dark lurked in the corners near him, that there was a shadow hovering over him and, well... by the time he was a teenager, he stopped asking. It just stopped being that important, so he just nodded his head whenever she told him to be careful, to stay away from rivers and not to stare into the flames of the lantern in the kitchen. He continued to go to the tohunga-tā-moko with her range of uhi to get his entire chest and arms filled with more and more spirals swooping elegantly across his skin. Not to mention it made him look so much cooler and meaner than he was.
When the last one was finally finished, completing the circle from his breast to shoulder, His Kuia took him aside after school every day and shoved different books at him. Instructing him to fill his head with the knowledge contained in them. Page after page of various mythologies and legends filled his head every afternoon while his classmates would complain about finishing their homework. His weekends seemed to consist of him being shoved into the dirt over and over again by some uncle he had never met, or being told to hit the same sad little tree repeatedly. All while his Kuia looked on, encouraging him to get back up when he thought he couldn’t possibly and patching the multitude of scrapes he may have received that day, in the evenings.
Later, when he had read all the books when he finally managed to start to do some of the knocking down, she would tell him about the demons that followed them, that lurked around their family. She showed him the markings on his mother’s skin where they had burned her when she was younger, where they wormed under her skin because she thought her mother crazy. How she wouldn’t let his Kuia help. He listened to the pain in her voice and felt the heaviness of her heart.
She pulled the heavy curtain in the den aside and displayed his family’s history for him to see, and as he looked at it with wonder, she’d weave stories about his father, telling him what no one else did. He’d listen and practice his protection wards on heavy paper.
One day, as he walked down the path home from school, he heard the shouting. He saw the line of people rushing water from the river, and his heart filled dread. No, he thought. NO!
He ran the rest of the way home and stumbled as he saw his tiny home in flames, so tall they blocked out the sun. He felt his heart tear into thousands of pieces as he looked around for his Kuia, desperately seeking out her tiny figure. Hoping that maybe, just maybe she was hidden behind someone.
It took 4 firefighters to hold him down when he figured out his Kuia was still inside, pinning him to the very ground where she had stood hours earlier and patted his cheek, telling him to be safe ‘You’re getting too tall. Stop growing so much’. He doesn’t bother to hide his tears, she needs him, he has too…
There! He can barely make it out. And if he didn’t know what he looking at he wouldn’t have seen it. But there it was, blending into flames themselves, small and wavering in the doorway stood a shadow. The same one that was always cast from the lantern in the kitchen. Beckoning him to come in. It’s stupid, he knows it is. He can hear his Kuia yelling into his ear, can almost feel her yanking his ear, telling he should let the firefighters do their job, but he can’t stop himself. He’s wiggled himself free and is charging in before he’s aware of what he’s doing. The flames are hotter than anything he’s ever felt before, and smoke invades his lungs, but she’s in here. He can reach her, just a little more…
He doesn’t remember being knocked down or being dragged out of the house by a frustrated firefighter. He can’t remember the long ambulance ride into town or the hours of surgery. He’s grateful for that. Jack hates needing painkillers every time he fucking blinks, he really dislikes the condescending tone the doctors use when talking about him. More than anything though, he hates how he’s never left alone, so he can curl up and grieve. So he can pour his tears into the pillow and mourn for the one person in his life that made sense.
Months later, He can finally move on his own again. He’s grateful that he’s now old enough that social services writes him off. He tries to get in touch with his sister, to let her know that he’s okay. That she can come live with him, once he has a place. Jack wants to think he’s surprised when his calls go unanswered but he’s never been very good at lying to himself.
So he takes the little cash he has on hand and leaves. There’s nothing for him here, not anymore.