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The Lost Art of Holding Silence

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“Coming down, the world turned over,

And angels fall without you there,

And I go on as you get colder—

Or are you someone's prayer?”

-“Black Balloon,” Goo Goo Dolls


 

“Tim?” the man repeats, nervous.

There’s a table in his sight, and he knows tables have four legs, not six. There’s another pair of muscle-coiled limbs there anyway, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. They’re shaking faintly; he can already see as much from where he’s sitting on the other side of the room.

“Tim?” the man retries, “Tim, come here.”

Silence pervades. It’s quiet enough that he can hear the boy’s breathing and nothing more, a bit ragged, tight. Scared.

“It’s okay,” the man offers instead.

He almost thinks he’s not going to get a response, numerous exhales escaping into the quiet, and it’s as if he can see each breath, count them in ones and twos, until slowly—painfully—a few fingers pull back the edges of the table cloth. The plastic parts like weeping willow boughs, revealing cautious eyes and pale skin.

“That’s right,” the man extends, offering both hands, palms up—a gesture of goodwill that Tim greets with a stare like it’s something alien.

It’s funny in a way, as this is a situation that they’re both well-familiar with by now: There’s a burn of liquor in the man’s throat, and things go dark, always dark. The next thing the man knows, Tim is under the table, spooked. It’s made more bizarre, because the table is always the first place Tim goes. It wouldn’t be able to protect him any, flimsy and old, but still, that’s the place the boy’s picked. Tim spends more time there than the man realizes, sitting beneath the spider-spun webs and listening—measuring the seconds while he waits for the episode to pass.

It’s passed now.

And so, the table cloth is pulled back, and the blank expression follows, made empty by nerves. A few more moments slip by in which the boy doesn’t speak, just hesitantly draws closer to the couch where his father is sitting—one step on tile, another—until the six-year-old jerks forward and is buried in his father’s shirt. He’s been reduced to nothing more than a mess of black hair and shaking grip, unsure if letting go is okay but unsure if holding on is okay either.

Unsure.

Tim’s that way a lot.

This, though—This is Dad’s voice now, the calm one that follows pats on the head and things like “good morning” and “goodnight” and “I love you.”

“It’s okay now,” Tim hears, feels the voice rumble against chest like thunder. “It’s okay…"

Dad means it. But the boy’s eyes are still wide, watchful as they stare through arms at a bottle on the floor. It’s empty, and the sharp smell is all that’s processing past hair-raised skin and adrenaline.

It’s always the same after these nights.

Always.

Dad sleeps it off, and when he’s awake, he’s better. His head hurts, he says, and he drinks a lot of water and coffee and takes some pills from a drawer. Still, it’s better than him drinking whatever drink’s in those thin-necked bottles on the floor. The glass is still gleaming demons like it’s something prone to possession or dark magic, and Tim nuzzles closer to Dad, ignoring the alcohol scent in the man’s clothes and the way it’s choking out air; he can’t bear to let go.

“I’m done,” the words come.

Expected.

Dad always says that, and the next day, the next week, there are more bottles on the floor. It’s a cycle Tim knows. He’s waiting for it to break, because he hears that’s what cycles need to end: a break. What it’d take for that to happen, though, he doesn’t know. Does Dad need to break, or does Tim?

“I’m done,” Dad repeats, his brain shutting off and simply repeating. He’s probably tired, and Tim’s not sure if he’ll remember any of this when he wakes up next. He doesn’t remember a lot of things anymore—nothing past Mom. That’s as far as Dad gets before he’s swinging home with those glass bottles like they’re his only friends in the world.

Dad’s got Tim, though.

Tim doesn’t understand why that isn’t enough.

“I won’t…” Dad’s saying, working out through mostly immobile lips. “No more. ‘Promise.”

It almost sounds convincing. Tim holds on to that small speck of hope same as he holds on to Dad now, praying that the proximity can form a pact of sorts and make the man keep his promise. He always promises, and one day—just once—Tim would like for those to be kept.

“‘m done,” the words drone, and Tim holds on tighter. He can feel Dad dozing off again, can feel breaths even out against his ear until there’s just a heartbeat, simple music that makes Tim feel sleepy too. He’s tired. They both are, just two people beaten down by a cycle but sworn to it somehow, blackmailed by blackouts and whatever guilt Dad’s got festering in him like an ugly wound. 

Break, Tim orders the air, demanding with halved-hope that slurred words turn into something more, something concrete.

He just wants Dad back.

He will. He’ll come back and Mom will too and everything will be like it was.

One day.

Until then, Tim holds silence and holds hope and holds Dad, and someway, somehow, he holds it all together. It’s what he does best, but he’s never sure—not really. Because there’s always a question searing his mind.

Because if Tim holds silence and holds hope and holds Dad, then who’s left to hold Tim?

He doesn’t know.

Maybe he doesn’t deserve to.