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Five Years: Of Pain And Of Change

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Five Years:

Of Pain And Of Change

 

Chapter One: Max, Part One

Summer's End

 

Age 10...

A young boy lays down alone in a tent, the morning after Parent's day at Camp Campbell, musing to his young self about life, and its recent developments. He knew they wouldn't show up. He told those stupid adults how many times throughout the day. He knew they wouldn't believe him until they saw for themselves, so in that sense, he was glad they found out about how uncaring they are. In many other senses he hated it, as he does most things. It wasn't out of a fear of being perceived as weak, but rather because now, they knew more about him; how he ticked, why he was the way he was. All without him ever really telling them anything. It's not like they couldn't put the pieces together; one has a psyche degree, (no matter how useless he joked it was) and the other was empathetic and deceptively perceptive- far more than he wished to give him credit. There's no real point to continue the facade, he realized. What's the point? He failed. He couldn't bring down David's optimism no matter how much he desperately wanted someone else to suffer with him, Gwen ended up giving some sort of shit about him- more than he ever intended, or even wanted her to; it was all so different now.

Nikki, Neil, Nerris, Harrison, Ered, Dolph, fucking Nurf and, well, the other Neil, apparently; they were all happy with their families. Actively bonding with them, having fun; he can hear them now.

When he, David and Gwen returned to find Mr. Campbell gone, David somehow salvaged the night with a combination of a impromptu bonfire, Quarter Master cooking a meal for everyone, and the parent's and children all silently agreeing that they didn't want to talk about today. Max could hear them all making their way to the Mess Hall, he looked over at the spot his tent-mate and friend, Neil, usually slept, finding that his sleeping bag remained undisturbed.

Despite threatening to murder David not too long ago, the whole experience left Max feeling drained when they returned. When the three arrived back- and as soon as he got out of the car- he told his counselors that he was going to return to his tent for tonight and sleep until tomorrow, or until 'All the other adults have fucked off', whichever came first. Gwen and David offered no argument, and Max ducked out before anyone could see him. He didn't feel like facing anyone; not the counselors despite their kindness, Nikki or Neil; he fighred why try to ruin their night anymore then their Mom and Dad respectively are doing a great job of doing that already, and, well, he sure didn't feel like talking to the  campers he perceived beneath him. He listed off their names, and reasons why in his head as he walked to his tent, in an effort to kill time, and stave off sleep.

What the fuck would Nerris do for me? Cast an anti-depression field on me after rolling a twenty or some shit? Space Kid- I swear he's actually David's kid but neither of them knows it. Nurf's an idiot, I couldn't tell anyone the first thing about Harrison outside the Magician, Illusionist, Chris Angel Copperfield Wonderstone, whatever the fuck gimmick he has. It does suck his parent's are so freaked out by him, admittedly. Ered barely has a presence of importance outside of Nikki wanting to impress her every other week, and, well, having two gay secret agent dad's doesn't do much in the realm of relatability. Preston is both pretentious and pathetic, but in all honesty, his flamboyant ass has a YouTube career just waiting to be exploited, and JESUS CHRIST Dolph needs to take a fucking hint, or do a Goddamn Google search; if jocks don't kick his ass one day, Tumblr will. So yeah. Solitude is easily my best option.

Finishing up his line of thought, Max arrived at his and Neil's shared tent. Letting out a layered sigh, filled with his fatigue and frustration, Max laid over his sleeping bag, hands folded behind his head, he laid there for not as long as he thought he would before passing out.

He tries to imagine warmth as he drifts...

------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

He awoke to the sounds of the campers and their parents migrating towards the Mess Hall, and his arms feeling sore from supporting his head. The more he woke up, the more last night's events started invading his thoughts. His counselors were kind to him, he has friends, but despite how much he does know this, the whole experience left him feeling incredibly bitter.

Bitter.

Max always felt that was the word that best descried him. All too often, he could remember, others would describe him as 'cynical', 'jaded', and other adjectives you'd hear in your average Alice In Chains song. He never particularly agreed with those sentiments; for one, 'jaded' implied that he was lethargic, and apathetic- from too much of something. Not necessarily, he would rationalize. Unless one counts over-exposure to neglect and isolation, he was a generally out-going, at times creative kid, he would convince himself. For the other word; 'cynical', it was slightly more complicated, he would defend. He would consider his upbringing, his experience in schools, growing up the outcast; and the victim, until he became the bully, and, his inability to trust and depend on others more of a by-product of his environment. Logically, at least he thought so, it was the only course of action he could have taken to survive! It wasn't his fault, his mind would perceive, only in his most desperate moments of self-doubt.

Bitter is what he felt when seeing all the younger, or even older campers, new and old come off the bus for the first time. The ones that wanted to be there. The ones who asked to be there, while he was forced to waste his youth out in the woods. Bitter he was, that those older and younger couldn't see what he believed to be the truths about life: that it was cold, and lonely, and that the inescapable grip of death that comes for us all makes life truly meaningless.

Or maybe that was being cynical and jaded, he thought. At this point he decided to just say 'fuck it' to his self-dehumanization, and decided to get up, and find something to do. Before he was able to leave, the tent opened up, and he was greeted to the site of the dark skinned, purple eyed Gwen, poking her head into the tent.  Was she coming to check on him? Make sure he was ok? Or awake? She never had before, and yet he couldn't think of any other reason she was here. It gave him an unpleasant feeling of warmth that he was just not ready to process.

"Max! So you are awake.  David said you might be, but I was tempted to give you more time to sleep." Max looked at her, confused. "David wanted me to tell you that he wants to speak to you whenever you wake up, and to meet him in his office..."

Wonder what he wants... why did she trail off at the end there?

Gwen entered the tent fully and took a knee in front of the Max. "Uh... Gwen?"

"Are you... doing ok, Max?"

Fuck, here it comes already. Ok, play it cool, but not too douchey, she'll think I'm trying to lie to her. Well, I am but she can't know that.

"Yeah, why wouldn't I be? I had pizza last night- do you know how long it's been since I had real food? I don't want to make Quarter Master cry again, but-"

"Max, don't."

"Don't 'what' Gwen? I was tying to say thanks for-"

"You know what I'm talking about, Max. Psyche degree or no psyche degree, it wasn't hard to tell that you had been dealing with that for a while, and yesterday was just a breaking point. Trust me, I get it alright? How could this not feel awkward? We spend a whole summer of blackmail, insults, public humiliation, and now only because of circumstance, you, David, and me have experienced something... unique, and life-changing together." What was meant to come off as comforting and reassuring, only made Max snap. Not in annoyance like most of the time, but out of anger, and venom.

Ok, fine Gwen, let's drop the fucking pretense then.

"Oh you mean David finally believing me about my parents, and you forgetting about your failure at job hunting, and mid-twenties apathy long enough to actually give a shit about one of the kids that you're paid to watch over? Did you mean that 'life changing' event?"

Come on that was too much; she bought you pizza... His conscience prodded, in a vain attempt to reign in Max's emotions.

Max had to give her credit though, she held her composure quite well. He figured she must have been expecting this.

"Honest answer, yes Max. Ok? I understand I haven't done the best- fuck it, any kind of good job here. I was wrong to not take this job seriously, and to not care about what happens to you kids. David and I... after everyone went to sleep, had a long talk about everything that happened and... I realize, too late I know, that I was wrong to not take my job seriously." Ever the defiant one, Max crossed his arms and tried his best to intensify his glare at the older woman.

"So now what? You're going to suddenly start giving a shit about us? What about next years kids? I seriously doubt one night of buying pizza for one lonely kid, is suddenly going to turn you into the model counselor, let alone bring me any closer to feeling better."

"I have..." Gwen closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It was irritating to him how mature she was being in spite of his verbal abuse. People are suppose to crack, and reveal their true intentions under the pressure. Anything else is merely evading the truth. Right?  "... made a lot of mistakes, Max. More than I have the time, or the stomach to tell you about. And one of them was not being the counselor I should have been. Not for Campbell's sake, but to be the counselor David needs... and the one you kids, and the others I've watched over throughout my several years here needed too. Of course it's not overnight, but, people change Max. They can change, and they do."

"Bullshit. That's bullshit! Don't you dare pull that shit out on me, not you Gwen! What happened last night should NOT have happened and in my mind it DIDN'T happen, do you get me? I'm not some stupid lonely, or abused prodigal son that's waiting to be saved by the empathetic Mom I never had, and inspirational Dad I always needed! And I seriously don't need to be patronized by you and him!"

"It's not 'patronizing' if it's genuine kid." Why did she say that so casually???

"How the hell could it be genuine- even if it was!?" He shouted almost hysterically, flailing his arms about. "I've known you for, like, two months?? We've gotten along for about two hours OF those two months!" Gwen put a hand to her chin, covering her mouth in contemplation. Max can feel her choosing her words.

"Ha... would you believe I look at you and see me?..." Max's eyes widened at her implication, but steeled himself before he could let her gain the 'upper-hand'.

"Fuck you! You stupid adults- you all think you're so smart, like you know so much more than all of us 'dumb kids'- you, and that too nice for his own good, idiot David don't know the first thing about me! 'See yourself in me'- you never even tried to know me!"

"Kind of hard to when the only insights into your personality you've given us are: sarcasm, being anti-social, blackmail and murder attempts, and overall just generally being extremely bitter."  She listed off, with a smirk growing on her face.

"What did you want from me!? Are you gonna lecture me all of a sudden on how you should talk about your problems and not keep them bottled up? That's rich coming from you, sorry I wasn't running to you two, crying in your arms whenever I was having problems."

"No, you just walked off to the side and cried in the corner." The smirk was close to becoming a full-blown sadistic grin if Gwen kept this up. 

"Wipe that goddamn look off your face! This isn't funny! And what- I'm suppose to open myself up to a couple of strangers? Let's ignore how you never gave a shit about us for a second: look me in the eyes and tell me you didn't think David's bullshit wasn't some kind of act!" Intrigued by this, Gwen leaned forward on her right arm that was now propped on her knee, smirk still present, and gave Max a response.

"Actually that's one thing I respect about the guy. He's real, and doesn't bullshit. Like how he- despite all of your bullshit- still manages to smile at you every day." Max let himself smirk now, finding himself an opening.

"You talking about me, or you now?" Gwen then made the mistake of letting her smirk drop.

"Come again?"

"Gwen literally the only time I've seen you be nice to the guy was after you broke down after finding Mr. Honeynuts, remember? When he bullshitted all of those 'nice' qualities about you? Every other time I've seen you interact you've been just as dismissive and annoyed with him as I am." Max had her on the defensive too, and he knew it, he hounded her with unwavering eye contact as she replied.

"No work place relationship is perfect Max, but I've worked with him for more than several summers now; there's a certain trust, and depthness there that isn't evident to you, or the other campers Max-" The boy  made a face of pure bewilderment. 

"'Depthness'? 'Trust'?? Gwen, on Nikki and Neil's first day here, you smashed his head with a guitar twice! You left us with that fucking cult leader, almost hired another one, and let Buzz Aldrin punch David in the face!"

"You're the one that got him punched!-"

"I'm just saying, I could buy the whole 'I'm going to better myself' thing, if it wasn't from you, and the people you were doing it for weren't a guy that's literally nice to everyone, and, well, me."

Gwen didn't respond, instead, she broke eye contact with the kid, and put her hand to her mouth in contemplation. Max thought he had won after that, but not after feeling just slightly bad for what he said. It was a minute before Gwen looked back at Max.

"You done?"

"Yeah. I guess I am.

"Well... if that's how you feel... you wanna know something?..."

"What's that?" She stood up and made her way towards the opening of the tent, and answered his question with a glance back and a small smile he couldn't understand.

"David was right about you." Without another word she left.

What the fuck does that mean?

He bolted out of the tent, stopping outside to call Gwen's name, but she was already gone.

*Sigh* Let's get this over with then, David.

Walking to David and Gwen's office, Max was dreading it more and more with each step. He figured at least that seeing as how David was more often than not a pushover compared to his counter-part, this battle of the wits will go a lot smoother. He glanced over to the Mess Hall. He could see the families through the window.

The parents must have spent the night... aw fuck 'em. Who needs it. Parents, family- the whole thing. I don't and I'm smarter than all of them for it.

Being in no particular hurry, he took his time getting there, dragging each step out as long as he possibly could., letting his mind wander to his and Gwen's conversation just now, and how perhaps it wasn't the best way to show his appreciation.

'Yeah Gwen, David thanks for the pizza and attention, but fuck you'... shit... I sounded like an asshole... I am an asshole. Can't you see that Gwen? I'm not worth caring about, or changing for. Especially after I just spat in your face after what you two did for me. No... I'm more of an asshole for thinking that the isolation caused by my parents is a good enough excuse to justify all of this... Wait, why should I feel bad? David and Gwen- they wouldn't have felt bad if they didn't look through my file. They would have kept ignoring me, and thinking everything was ok. Yeah... yeah! I tried reaching out, i-in my own way, they should feel bad; WORSE! I'm not the bad guy here, they are- if they had just listened to me, they should have tried harder, they should have compromised for me, I didn't do anything wrong! Yeah... I didn't do anything wrong...

Finishing up his mental ramblings, he made it to the office; opening the door without knocking.

"See you later... David." It was Gwen. She left after saying that, with a distraught David left standing, with a look that screamed that he had more to say. He lighted up when he looked down and saw the tiny ball of anger he'd come to know as Max.

"Well good morning Max! Did you sleep ok last night?" Max shrugged, deciding to play it off as no big deal.

Course if Gwen was in here, she probably told him about our talk just now.

"All the same I hope it was restful. You had a very tiring day yesterday... and, I feel... well... aw heck, I know I am to blame for it. I'm sure you've thought that already, but I learned a lot yesterday. About you, Mr. Campbell, myself. I just wanted to tell you that. And also that I'm sorry, Max."

Dammit... I wanted to make him feel bad too but... fuck... Max let out a breath he'd been holding in since he entered, and attempted, to his own surprise, to be more cordial with David, then he'd been with Gwen.

"Don't... don't sweat it, David. I wasn't exactly being helpful. And... you and Gwen took care of me even after all the shit I put you both through."

"Max don't feel about it like that. I know it's my job to, and if it was any other kid, of course I would have done all I could to help them out, but... I really wanted to help you in tht moment, especially." Max removed his hands from his pockets and raised one to run through his curls.

"But why me? After everything I've done to you? That's the one fucking question neither you or Gwen wanna answer. Is it pity? Only because you have to?" David leaned back in his chair and looked out of the window in front of the desk he sat at.

Max looked as well, his view was a slight askew because of his height, but he saw what David saw. Tree's, a clear blue sky, the occasional bird. It was... nice.

"Because..." David started, still staring out at the nature before them. "it's the right thing to do, Max."

He felt the conviction, he felt the truth as it came from David's mouth, but... something in his brain refused to accept it.

"The right thing to do?... David I've mocked you, Blackmailed and humiliated Gwen, I stole your credit card, tried to fucking kill you, and have been a complete douche since I got here, how the fuck can you tell me that, when-" David snapped his he'd back to Max, so fast, and the frown he wore was so stern, that, it stunned the child out of his rant.

"Because I was you, Max. Now sure, I may not have done all of the reprehensible things you did, or have done... and I definitely didn't have your... colorful vocabulary- but I was in your place. I know I don't know you that well, and that it's my fault for my failure at trying, but, believe me when I tell you that, there is.. a lot, that you don't know about me." He sounds like Gwen... and... taking responsibility?.. No, this isn't right-he has to be lying- and what the fuck does he mean he was like me!?

"You were never ANYTHING like me." Max exclaimed, an accusatory finger pointed at David. "You're a happy-go-lucky, microscopically on a good day self-aware WHITE GUY, who was born on the soil. My parents moved from a place with super-poverty to a place with poverty and a social justice system that's half thinking we are terrorists, and the other half thinking we've never done anything wrong EVER. The only reason my parents don't abandon me, is because I'm their Goddamn Anchor Baby."

David got up out of his seat, and walked over to Max, kneeling down to his level.

"Max I know you're hurting, believe me, please, but you won't ever feel better about yourself if you push the people you care about, and the ones that care about you away." Max lunged forward and grabbed his ascot.

"I. Don't. CARE! Not about you, not about Gwen, not my parents, not any-"

"What about Nikki and Neil, Max? You can't honestly tell me they mean nothing to you?"

"They're summer friends, you idiot. We were never going to keep in contact after we all went home."

"You don't know that. Not until you take the chance and care about the ones that are closest to you. Unconditional love is rare, but I've seen the bond you three share. You don't always agree with each other, but if someone hurt the one, two, or all three of you, I know for a fact that all of you would make them pay, striking as the unit I know you three have become."

Max said nothing. He flinched when David put one of his big hands over both of his small ones, gently coercing them from his old Camp Campbell shirt.

"Max there was a reason I called you here... the Camp is closing down."

Max's eyes shot open, disbelief flashing cross his light green eyes.

"W-what?"

David let go of his hands, and stood back up, and began pacing as he explained. Clearly upset.

"Mr. Campbell... got himself and the Camp into some serious legal trouble. Mr. and Mr. Miller have sanctioned that the Camp be shut down, pending a full legal investigation, and until new ownership can be established. And as of six am today, Camp Campbell is closed until further... further notice."

Max expected him to cry. He was almost relieved when he didn't, but he was also disturbed when he realized he was, despite how small the feeling was, he found himself hoping he would.

"David..."

"I know this isn't too heartbreaking of news to you. But I'm going to do everything in my power to get this Camp up and running by next year. It will be hard to get new campers with everything that happened, but I have to try..."

The two stood in silence, at a cross-road of life. Max had a feeling what David meant by that. He was going to literally fight for the Camp. At the end of the day Max couldn't fault him. It was his dream job, while Max respected that, it meant that he would most likely be coming back for years to come. There was a selfish piece of him that hoped David would fail.

"I'm sorry I couldn't do more for you Max... I'm sorry I wasn't strong, or smart enough. And I forgive you. For everything... even if you don't think you deserve to be, I do."

Determined to try and ruin his counselors days, Max rejected David's empathy.

"I don't need your forgiveness, and I never needed your help." David ran a hand through his red hair, frustrated, but looking like he was expecting this.

"I know Max... but despite your best efforts, I ended up trying anyway." He admitted with a small smile. A sad one, but a smile nonetheless. "I know you hate me... probably Gwen too, but just know that we care about you, and if you come back next year, things will-"

"-Be 'different' David? God, you and Gwen are so full of shit. You care about me? You care about me!? You know what David, take that pity and shove it up your ginger ass! You act like you and Gwen are just the most peachy-keen fuckin' role-moles, but you're NOT! You wanna pretend that you're this amazing, supportive camp counselor, but YOU. ARE. NOT!!!"

David opened his mouth to protest, but Max, consumed by his anger, and pain, refused to let him speak.

"You wanna talk about all the 'wonderful' things that have happen under your watchful eye since I've been here? Let's see, well, despite always trying to be supportive and positive, you've ignored the internal hurting of your campers, allowed bullying to persist on a daily basis, you LOST A CAMPER, in a 'be nice all day' competition, that YOU LOST,  a cult guy almost KILLED us, you beat the fuck out of Bonquisha's boyfriend and broke a fucking CHAIR over his head-"

"Max please I know I'm not perfect, but rehashing past events isn't going to-"

"On top of that, you haven't owned up to anything! You haven't changed anything! You somehow suffered no legal repercussions losing Jeremy, you've never mentioned how Gwen had to bail you out of jail after the Bonquisha shit, your Tinder profile sucks, and despite all evidence to the contrary; you believed for years that Mr. Campbell was a good guy!!! Every morning you wake up and pretend nothing bad happened the day before, like a slave to your own personal Status Quo- and you have the balls to try and see yourself in me!? Fuck you David! Fuck. You!!"

Max tried to stop, but he couldn't he was too far gone in his pain. The wetness beginning to form in his eyes that he chose to ignore was proof enough.

"Do you think I'm stupid? I knew it from the moment you told us that dumb origin story of yours; I'm a pet project to you, that you think you can change me, turn me around before it's too late. Sorry to disappoint, but, you and I are nothing a like. Your parents don't hate you, your parents don't regret you! And the sad truth is? I'm not you a long time ago, you're one bad day away from being me- The fucking ten year old!"

Max stopped to catch his breath, taking in David's reaction. His fists were clenched, he looked like he had something to say, and Max was all too eager to hear it, before the rush of hate wore off and he felt bad.

"What should I do then, Max?..." The complete lack of emotion in his voice was enough to catch Max off-guard.

"W-what?"

"Should I be like you? Give up? Hold people's pasts over their heads, like a personal black cloud? Should I be like you, and live in the past? That's one thing I noticed about what you talked about right now. You use past tense to justify the present and to try and predict the future. This is something I didn't learn until recently, Max:...... there are a lot of people in this world. Some of them good, some of them bad. There are good things in this world, I promise you, sometimes the bad creeps up on you more often than not, and sometimes you have to look for the good, but you'll always find it. Just like you found your friends... just like I found you. You are a good kid, but you're the only one that doesn't think so."

Max took in David's words. He wanted to believe him, but it went against everything he believed in. People are supposed to be fundamentally miserable, snarky, and cynical... that's what he'd been taught. Through the few books he liked, through TV, through his favorite YouTubers; everyone was nitpicky, and critical, but they were right, weren't they? The pain justifies the truth if it is the truth, right? If someone couldn't accept truth, they were weak, and wrong.

Is the truth, and what is true subjective? Max thought to himself. Or is the truth what is true, but the perception of the truth is what's subjective? No that... I'm right David. I know I am. I can't be- not after I've been right about so much already, not after all of my years alone. Goddammit. Why won't you just stay the fuck away when I push?

"That's why I never gave up on you, Max, despite everything. From both of us. You're such a gifted, talented kid." Max scratched at his eyes with his sleeve. He told himself they were just itchy.

"The fuck are you talking about?"

"Max, you've successfully knitted entire dolls, you're a brilliant strategist, a great organizer and planner, you're tough as nails, and so much more! I see so much potential in you... but you waste your life being consumed by your bitterness."

"I have the right!" Max exclaimed, rejuvenated. He climbed his way up David, until he was hanging off of his ascot, like he's done in the past. "Don't you ever tell me otherwise!"

"But you're only ten. Max, ten year olds aren't supposed to have your vocabulary, or thinking capabilities! I always cared about my campers, but you, your friends and all the rest, you all have the ability to do great things! Change the world maybe! But you and them are too focused on bringing each other down to see how great you truly are!"

"David except for, like, Nerris, I think Space Kid, and Ered, do you notice anything connecting about us all? Our parents are either disconnected, don't pay attention or don't remember basic shit about us, have no idea how to connect to us- fuck dude, Harrison's' parents are terrified of him! Jeremy's parents didn't even bat an eye when Gwen said we lost him, and called him gross! How are we suppose to have hope, and believe in ourselves, when the ones that gave us life don't understand the first thing about us!"

"I don't know!" The sudden raising of David' voice made Max lose his grip and fall off of David. With swiftness, the counselor caught him with an arm, but instead of setting him on the ground, he wrapped him into a strong hug. One he hoped would convey what he felt for the boy. He hoped Max would understand he just wants to... David didn't fully know himself, but he felt a need to help Max, teach him, keep him safe. A need more akin to being ones guardian. Something he knew Max would never see him as.

"I don't know Max, and I hate that I don't know. If I could, I would try to make everything better for all of you. The world's not perfect, and I know I'm at a little Camp in the middle of nowhere, but I really mean everything I say. I care about you Max. I want you to be happy." He pulled from the hug to hold Max at arms length, and look him in the eye. The child was uncomfortable seeing the tears that had now formed in David's eyes. "Why do you think I don't? Why don't you believe me?"

Max didn't have an answer. He thought he would have, but he couldn't form the words. How do you tell someone you're broken, how do you pour yourself out to someone? Even if it was someone you care about? You spend an entire lifetime, no matter how short or long, being rejected, lied to, and being hurt, you start to find comfort in it. Than all of a sudden a genuine soul finds you, out of nowhere, unprovoked, unwanted- how could you not fear hurting again? How do you tell someone that? Even if they're broken too, just like you? Max wasn't sure he would ever know.

"... Because no one ever has."

Their depressive ambiance was interrupted by a knock at the door.

"David. It's Detective Miller. my partner Detective Miller and I have given you more than the amount of time you requested to have with the child. We... don't feel any better about this than we did last night, but we need you to answer some questions for our report." David set Max down, and took a deep breath before responding; trying his best to have a pleasent tone.

"I understand detective... thank you. I-I'll be out shortly."

"... We... know you did your best, David. Our daughter always spoke fondly of you." The Detective left soundly without another word.

David wiped at his eyes, not saying a word to Max. Neither were sure how long the silence lasted, but neither one of them liked it.

"Will your parents pick you up, if we call them?..."

"... Yeah... yeah, they won't- they won't be happy but, yeah... they'll do that much at least... they drove me straight here... I didn't take the bus with the others." David turned around, looking nothing like the eager young man that led the campers all summer.

"Ok. Let me get you the phone."

David walked over to the desk and took the phone off of the receiver, handing it to Max. Punching in the numbers he was told, he gave Max the silence he needed to make the phone call.

"Dad?... It's me Max. Max? Son? You're son??? MAX? Rrr... son of a bitch..." he looked at David, self-conscious at what he had to do,. He was never really sure how people would react when he did this, but given the current situation, he knew he had no choice.

"*sigh*....Pitaajee shivir ka ant sheeghr hee samaapt... ho gaya hai main aapako samajhata hoon aur maan pareshaan hain, lekin aapako mere lie aane kee jaroorat hai ."

David was thrown back; amazed. Max was fluent in another language? He recalled Neil making a off-hand comment one time about 'Indian' ancestry but, he still couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"Main aapako mahasoos karata hoon, aur main niraash hain, lekin, yah meree galatee nahin thee... is baar. mein vaada karata hu."

It was incredible to David. He spoke the words so fluently, without an accent at that. This is the same kid that wonders why I believe in him, he wonders aghast to himself.

"Aapako mere lie aana chaahie mujhe kshama karen. mainne sabase achchha kiya hai ki main kar sakata tha... ... haan. alavida." Max handed the phone to David. Already dreading the questions he would face.

David wanted to give Max credit for his abilities being bi-lingual, but sadly for him, he knew he had dragged out more than enough time making the Millers wait. Instead, David opened the file cabinet, thumbing through the various files, and rejection letters for Gwen, until he found a little notepad. He wrote his name, number, zip code and address, and handed it to Max.

"What is this for?" David smiled again, a real one this time, but still holding a weight of melancholy.

"Max... there's so much more I want to tell you. About me, about life, and Gwen. I'm still young too, and while our views are very different, I truly feel we can learn a lot from each other, and learn about life together, as well. I will be... busy, to say the least, with all that is happening here, but if you ever need anything- anything, or if you're alone, and in trouble, you need help, or if you just want to talk, don't hesitate to call. I will always answer the phone, and have time for you."

Max was taken back by the gesture. His brain tried to spin it somehow and find the deceit behind it, but for the first time in a long time he couldn't. It was just a piece of paper with some ink on it, but, it made him feel... warm.

"David... I..." He wanted to stay longer to console the child, he really did. But he had to go.

"Goodbye Max. If I never see you again, I hope you find your way, and if I never talk to you again... well... I hope you can find the happiness I know you deserve." And with that David walked out the door.

Max didn't say or really think anything as he shoved the note in his pocket. He didn't say or think anything as he fought back the tears. Like a zombie he walked in a daze until he was out the door, and then eventually at the front of the camp, eyes out of focus as he sat down at the left-hand post of the overarching sign.  He wanted to say goodbye to Nikki, and Neil at least. Maybe give a better goodbye to Gwen, but he couldn't. It didn't matter what David said; because whether he was ostracized by a group, or he alienates himself from the group, he would always feel like the outsider. He would always feel like he was an unwanted element, like he was a stranger passing by on the street, looking absentmindedly through the various windows of other people's lives as an observer. Never truly belonging, unless he was trying to ruin it.

He wanted to ask David if that feeling ever goes away as you get older. He was afraid the answer would be no.

He didn't know how long he sat there when the cars of parents went driving by. He could see the campers he spent his time with going by, not a care in the world as they went home with the ones they loved.

Why does that make you sad, idiot? All you ever were was horrible to all of them.

First was Nerris... than Harrison, followed immediately by Preston. Nurf would probably need to take the bus, Ered would need to wait for her Dad's to finish up their work probably. Space Kid just went by, then Dolph not too long after. Now it was just him. Just Max and the sign; just like where every summer started, it was now ending where every summer started- like a cynical bookend. 

At least he thought so, until he saw one vehicle drive away, with two adults, and what looked like... Neil and Nikki!?

That's right! Their parents boned! Oh fuck poor Neil. Nikki seemed ok with it but... I don't think she knows what shacking up is. Well... good luck out there you two. You were both easily the least shittiest people at this crap camp.

He was about to lean his head up against the pole to take a nap, when he heard the sound of tires screeching to a halt, followed by the slamming of a door. The car was a good distance away, but in a second, a green haired spazz in red overalls was gloomping the gloomy Max faster than he could process.

"Max! I was looking everywhere for you! I didn't think I'd get a chance to say see you later!" Not having the strength to push her off, he let her hug him, but kept his hands firmly in his pockets. He wasn't good with hugs he didn't initiate, which was almost never, and their current position was comfortable enough.

"Hey Nikki... sorry, uh, about that. It was a long night, and a very... stressful morning. Also not to be a dick, but, don't you mean, 'Goodbye'?

Nikki released the hug, but kept her arms atop his shoulders.

"No dummy! Goodbye usually means for, like, a long time, or forever!  You, me, and Neil, we fo life Max! With or without this Camp!" Yeah right...

"Funny... I don't see Neil over here returning the sentime-"

"Nikki! You fucking animal, I told you to wait up!" Max's eyes went wide at the sight of a running, and very out of breath Neil, who all but collapsed when he reached his two friends.

"Neil what the fuck happened to you!?"

"This *pant* green haired *wheeze* MONSTER *pant* yelled at my Dad to put his foot on the breaks when she saw you at the sign, and he did it so suddenly that I launched from the back seat into Nikki's Mom's lap- as I was trying to take a puff from my inhaler, and she bolted out the door!"

After the gloomy and heavy morning he'd had in just the few hours he was awake, hearing all of this absurdity, Max laughed harder than he thought he would that day. The laughs made him shake in Nikki's arms who began laughing too, infected by Max's laughter, and the thought of Neil going through all of that. It wasn't long until Neil thought back upon what he just said and started chuckling until he was full-blown laughing as well.

They went on for some time before the friends pulled themselves together. Neil was the first one to speak normally again.

"Seriously though, where were you Max? We- ok for one, seriously, fuck you Nikki, I almost swallowed that damn thing!"

"Ha!"

"Anyway, we were looking all over for you. All Gwen told us was that you were with David, and you needed some privacy. Nikki asked if David was telling you he loved you, Gwen and I got creeped out but then she said-"

"Like a friend! Or guardian or something! You still haven't told me what you thought I meant..."

Max squinted his eyes in pure disgust.

"Ok... that is not some imagery I needed in my fucking head you guys."

Cares about me I could probably believe, but... Love?  A guardian? No, never, he couldn't, at least, I know I couldn't. Could I? No Max, don't be stupid. It's like he said, I don't really know anything about him, and encouraging someone doesn't automatically make them a good role model, let alone a guardian. Not like I know how to love anyway.

"I didn't want to leave 'til we found you, but Nikki's Mom and my Dad wanted to leave ASAP. Speaking of which Nikki, why don't you and your Mom take her car, again?" The youngest of the three answered Neil with a hand wave.


"Oh my Mom said something about it needing to be 'im-pound-ed' and that since Neil's Dad was 'Dee-Tee-Eff', whatever that means, she figured we could all ride back together!" Max pinched the bridge of his nose.

"And... what were your thoughts about that, Nikki?..."

"Sleepovers for days!" Max let go of his nose, and shook his head as he chuckled. He hoped to himself that hopefully that aspect would never change about hr. Not the innocence, or the naivety, just the fun, almost whimsical nature that just seemed to come naturally to her. Seeing the fun side of things.

David's like that too... why was it always slightly less annoying when it was Nikki and not him though? Was I biased? Is it because he's an adult? Do I expect him to be grown up and mature, and have no personality? Actually... what was I gonna do after I broke David? If the order of the Sparrow thing didn't happen how it did, and he never got in that accident, would anything have changed? What would I have done if I did break him? Was it... did I just do it for some sick kicks?...

Max's latest train of thought was derailed by the honking of Neil's Dad's car.

"Aw dammit... come on Nikki we better get going." Nikki looked at him with big sad eyes.

"But Neil!-"

"It's fine, Nikki."

"Max?" The boy in question stood up, dusted himself off, and without warning snagged her and Neil into a tight hug. After a moments hesitation at the sudden contact from the guy they secretly named 'Mr. Hates Hugs', they hugged back instantly. The levity from before replaced with the reality that this would be the last time they would be together for at minimum another year.

Max allowed silent tears to fall.

You were right, David... at the very least you were right about them.

They held each other as long, and as tight as they could, until the horn went off again. They let go of each other simultaneously, Max, not caring about his appearance looked at his friends with tears in his eyes, Nikki with tears streaming, and Neil trying to keep it together.

"You two... are two of the craziest, weirdest, most fun couple of assholes I've ever met... I couldn't have asked for better friends. Like you said Nikki... with or with out the Camp. We're for life, alright? Somehow someway  we'll see each other again." Nikki nodded rapidly, and her frown was almost instantly replaced with her usual smile.

"Yeah we will! If the camp is open by next year, I'll be the first one to come back! I'll even drag Neil with me if I have too!"

"No you won't Nikki... cause if it means the three of us can't do the crazy shit we did this summer again, then I wouldn't miss it for anything. Deal, Max?"

The bitter ten year old's heart was melted, he was so incredibly touched by their devotion, and loyalty, even after everything, that he was almost speechless. Years of being laughed at and mocked, for just a second, felt like it never happened. No bullying, no beatings, no angry parents for basic mistakes, just this moment. Just him and his friends.

"Yeah... deal. See you two at Camp."

With one last quick hug the two of the three went their separate ways, leaving Max alone once again.

 

Chapter Text

Age 10 ...

Max doesn't remember how long he sat against the pole of the Camp Camp sign. He cannot remember how long he laid there until he fell asleep, but he knew he was more exhausted then he had ever been before in his life. He doesn't remember what time it was when he heard the familiar hum of his families car, but he recalled the sun had not fully gone down yet. He was barely awake when he hears his Father say something to his Mother in their native tongue. Barely conscience when he feels the arms of his Mother, warm as a child needs but empty in conviction, scoop him up, and set him down in the back seat. He hears his Father say how he can't wait to hear how Max had screwed up Summer Camp. Max is too tired to respond.

Max doesn't see David in the distance waving goodbye.

Asleep when he arrives home, Max is awoken roughly by his mother shoving his foot. She tells him to get out, only once, then quickly gets out of the car without looking back. Max can remember David taking him and Gwen for Pizza and David holding the door open for both of them. Max wipes at his eyes in an attempt to remove the sand from his irises when he catches the glare of his Father. Max had almost forgotten the color of his eyes, and the power they held over him. He flinched.

His Father calls him a coward. He leaves the car with no more words, and a strong slam.

Max takes a moment to remind himself that he was back in the real world. His world. The world he never tells a soul of.

He leaves the car and looks around the neighborhood, re-familiarizing himself with his surroundings. It was dirty, in a bad side of town, in an apartment complex more unsafe then the camp. The memories of home were coming back to him in waves; the shouting, the sirens. He is baffled how two short months could make him forget all of this. Or maybe I just wanted to pretend it wasn't this bad... He ponders.

Eventually he joins his parents inside to find them sitting in the living room area watching television. A nearby clock on the wall told him it was nine PM. He looked to his Mother and Father for at least some kind of acknowledgement, but their eyes remained glued to the screen, doing everything in their power not to look at him. He knew it would fail, but he had to try to explain to them he didn't do anything wrong.

"Maan, Pita, aapako mujh par vishvaas karana hoga, mainne-"

"Chup raho!" His Father interupted louder than he thought he would. His Mother chimed in next.

"Aap subah khud ko samajha sakate hain abhee ke lie, hamen kuchh sammaan dikhaen aur sirph bistar par jaen."

Max wanted to cry, he wanted to scream. He knew they didn't miss him, but he thought they at least respected him enough to hear him out. He knew there was no use arguing lest he get a hand to the head or face, so he reluctantly complied.

"Haan maan.... shubh raatri..." He walked to the foot of the door to his bedroom, until he heard his Mother make one last comment, that he was very certain she didn't care if he heard her or not.

"Niraasha."

He hated that word, it was their favorite to use against him. He shut the door as quietly as he could and threw himself onto his worn out, springy bed burying his face into his pillow and crying the tears he had been holding in for longer than he wanted to think about.

Stupid parents. I hate them! I'm not a disappointment, I'm not a failure! I'll show them all! School, Mom and Dad, I'll prove to David and Gwen I'm not weak- cause I'm not! Crying doesn't make you weak, it's only when people see you cry that it becomes weak. I don't need them any of them anyway! I cook for myself, clean after myself- they couldn't help me with homework even if they wanted too, I'll probably have to teach myself to drive one day, teach myself about life and all that other gross adult crap- and I WILL! Not just because I have to, but because I can! I've grown up faster than other kids, I don't need to be coddled! I don't need anyone's help, then, now, or EVER! I'm not weak...

I'm not weak.

I'm not weak.

I'm not weak,

I'm not weak,

I'm not weak,

I'm not weak

I'm not weak

I'm not weak

I'm not weak

Im not weak

Imnot weak

Im notweak

ImnotweakImnotweak

ImnotweakImnotweak

Imnotweakimnotweakimnotweak

imnotweakI'mNOTIMNOT

IMNOTIMNOTIMNOTIMNOTIMNOTIMNOTIMNOTIMNOT

I'M NOT!!!

I'VE NEVER BEEN WEAK!

I WON'T BE WEAK!

FUCK YOU MOM! FUCK YOU DAD! I'M SMARTER THAN YOU! I'M BETTER THAN YOU!!!

 

 

 

but why can't I ever have the Goddamn courage to ever SAY IT TO YOUR FUCKING FACES!? 

WHY DID YOU DO THIS TO ME!??

 

WHY DO YOU HATE ME!?

WHY DIDN'T YOU JUST LET ME ROT IN INDIA!!??

 

fuck, I never gave Nikki and Neil to reach me-FUCK IT, it's for the best anyway; YOU WOULD HAVE RIPPED THAT AWAY FROM ME TOO!

 

WHY DO YOU HATE ME!!???

 

WHY DO YOU HATE ME!!??

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do you hate me!?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

why do you hate me?....

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

why do..... you.........

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As he dreams, he tries to imagine warmth...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Age 11...

Fourth Grade passes with little incident. His parents don't believe a word he said about Camp, naturally, as he attempted to explain to them various times throughout the year, and they berated and smacked him around some for, 'wasting their time'. They didn't believe him about pretty much any of the tales he told, or the 'quirky characters' he met along the way; not Quartermaster, not Daniel, not even the Flower Scouts. They questioned the legitimacy of a nine year old blonde girl losing an eye to a fork, after trying to get, as his parent's called them:

'You're spineless skinny white counselor, back with his giant ex-black girlfriend.' In hindsight, Max supposed he couldn't blame them too much for the skepticism.

Currently it is two weeks until Summer Vacation, and at this point Max realizes he hasn't called David once. He still has his info tucked away somewhere, and while sometimes he forgot about the man, he also had little to no opportunity sometimes to even attempt to reach him. He didn't do any outside of school activities, or hang out with other kids, naturally, but he had to balance his homework, making his own meals, and his ever growing list of chores. Today however he knew in advance that the house waa going to be all his. Saturday afternoon; his parents said on Thursday that they were leaving for a few hours. 'A few hours' usually translated into 'Noon to like, eight o'clock or later', so in advance Max made sure to be free of any chores before attempting to reach the counselor. He didn't know what he was going to or even wanted to say to him, but; as pathetic as he thought it made him look, he had to at least say 'hi'.

The second his parents vacated the premises, Max sprints to his room to recover David's information, grabbing the house phone along the way.

He had left it in the drawer of the nightstand next to his bed. He didn't bother covering it up with anything. His parents never came in here to begin with; but he didn't want to risk the paper being exposed to the elements. Silently hoping to himself that David hadn't gotten a different number, and that he was in hearing distance of his phone, he dialed away.

 

*Ring*

Come on you happy bastard, pick up.

*Ring*

He wouldn't have given me a fake number or would stand me up, right?

*Ring*

Guys probably busy with something. Fuck, and I haven't even tried all year too... probably thinks I threw it away.

*Ring*

Dammit... this was stupid, he doesn't even have my number I think, plus he was probably just being nice and didn't expect me to even still have it... shit, what was I thin-

"Yell-o! David speaking!" Oh shit!-

"D-David?"

"Max!?" The child was thrown back by just how excited the older man sounded to be talking to him. He attempted to play it off like no big deal.

"Hey, what's up Camper Man? How ya been?"

"Well I've been great! The year flew by after last Summer's crazy shenanigans, and let me tell you, there were some tough times, but all is well Max! How about yourself- how is school! Almost done right? Fourth grade?"

Shit... he remembered that better than they ever do.

"Boring and stupid. Like, I learn a couple new things now and then, but not nearly as much as they think I do, or am supposed to. None of my classmates are interesting, and the faculty is too afraid to talk to me. Probably think I'll stab them or some shit."

"Well Max, sometimes the reinforcement of knowledge we already know can make all the difference between-"

"Don't get me wrong, I really do feel like stabbing them sometimes, but I haven't found a concrete enough way to get rid of blood yet." He didn't really feel like dad's stabbing anyone, but David didn't need to know that.

"Max! That is unnecessarily sociopathic behavior!"

"No, sociopathic is if I stabbed them and felt nothing. I'd feel kinda alright for a while."

David caught on that he was kidding, and reminded himself that he was just glad to talk to his favorite camper again.

"Goodness Max... ha ha, why, you haven't changed at all!"

"That a good thing David?"

"As long as you use your intellectual prowess constructively, then you bet it is!" Max snorted at that.

"Nice five dollar words, ya dope. You haven't changed a lot either."

"Well, I sure hope that's a good thing."

"... Yeah... yeah it is."

Max flopped back first unto the bed, making himself more comfortable.

The two were on the phone for hours, simply catching up, nothing very personal; little things. New styles, or shows they were into, thoughts on the world; having a real conversation. Something neither of them really had at Camp with each other.

"- so I said to Quartermaster that there was no way I was eating that! To which he said- 'you already had been."

Max cracked up at the end of David's tale. Quartermaster stories were his favorite.

"I'm glad you find it entertaining. I was in the shower for almost an hour after all of that..."

Max wiped at his eyes, liking the feeling of laughing again for the first time in a while.

"You know something David, when you're NOT trying to shove optimism in my face, you're a pretty decent conversation."

"Thank you! You're not so bad when you're not trying to deconstruct my entire perspective on life!"

"Speaking of people that like to do that kind of shit, how's ol' Gwen?" Some of the jump left David's voice after Max asked his questions, and was a little concerned that he noticed that.

"Gwen is doing ok, we talk fairly often in the phone, but I haven't seen her in some time."

"She finally find an actual job?"

"Camp Camp IS a real job, but I'm not sure yet. She hasn't brought it up last time we saw each other."

"How long ago was that?"

"Hmm, about... seven months ago? B-but like I said, we speak on the phone constantly, so no need to worry, she's doing fine."

Max was intrigued, but ultimately he decided to focus on catching up with the counselor instead of asking more questions about Gwen.

"Well as long as she's not dead or homeless yet I guess it's all good. How'd your acquisition of Camp Campbell go? You already running the place?"

David was silent for a tick, Max didn't like that. He feared the worst; that being that David was unable to win ownership of the Camp, and that would mean there would be no camp this year, which would mean there was no escape.

"Max I..." Oh no... no... "I couldn't do it in time. Y-you be surprised just how much funny business Mr. Campbell was into, ha ha... I uh... t-the Millers and I we... w-we found out some things about him, and let's just say... the Camp... it's just going to take longer than I thought to win the rights of the land."

Max took in what he was told, but as soon as David apologized he knew. No camp. No way out. His parents would not be pleased. He was angry. He was afraid. Out of all them emotions he felt presently, the most he felt, was sad. He was sad he wouldn't get away, and maybe, just maybe, disappointed he wouldn't see David and Gwen.

"O-oh, u-uh... d-dude I don't care, fuck, but um, you know, that, that really sucks for you. I know how much you wanted that crap hole so, I guess... condolences?" He heard David laugh; a sad laugh, but it was a sign of life all the same.

"I' know, I'm disappointed too Max... I'm sorry I can't get you away for at least a little while. I'm sorry there's no Camp."

"What part of 'I don't care', did you not get?"

"What part of the, 'I know you better than you want to admit' implications did you not get?"

"Oh I noticed them, but I threw that notion out the window around the time I realized you just dismiss someone's anger without trying to understand them. That it literally takes almost a whole summer, and several incredibly specific, emotionally painful scenarios for you to think- 'hey, maybe the kids got a reason to be pissed"!"

"Max I can understand you're upset with me still, so I don't hold that against you, but at the same time, when I would try to talk to you, you would either blow me off or try to have me arrested, fired, killed, or set up with someone over Tinder that thought I was some kind of 'conquistador'? I didn't even know what that was until that day! I am not placing blame on you Max, not one little bit, but, on the other side of the coin, did you ever try to understand me? Or Gwen, or the other Campers?"

"Uh, no David I didn't. Have you not seen the world today? People like you are either out of style, or fake, it's my view points that are supposed to be examined and are relatable and/or sympathetic. No one wants to see someone happy while their lives are crap, that's not realistic, you're not realistic."

"And the eleven year old kid that talks like he's written as the mouthpiece of a nihilistic twenty-something year old is?..."

Damn, that was good.

"Shut up! Plus, those other Campers? Anyone that's read Fanfiction on WATPAD could tell you they aren't important, to me, or the real world."

"Come on, Max, this is the real world! You know for a fact you never really gave the others a chance, not like the ones you gave Nikki and Neil."

"There you go again with that- David what good were two different magic idiots, a convict's son, one prissy playwright, goddamn HITLER, whatever nineties character tropes Ered is, or the grandson of Neil Armstrong, gonna do for me?"

"He's the grandson of Neil ARMSTRONG!!!"

"Fuck space!!!" This is getting ridiculous, I should just save whatever of semblance of likability this guy has for me and end this abortion of a phone call right now-

"Max, that attitude? The one that tells you you're better, or smarter than everyone because your miserable and alone?... It's only going to hurt you in the long run. There is pain, and hurt that everyone you just mentioned has had to go through, or will go through. They might be worse off than you, they might not be, but, that doesn't make it any less important just because you don't think so. You seem to be under the impression that being a good person; that being happy, is either something illogical, or a sign of weakness; can't say I blame you honestly- that's the world we live in now, I get it. Where they tell you that if you're happy; you're wrong, or you're a punchline to some cynical joke. It seems as if the narritive is: 'you're only allowed to be smart, or a role-model, or try and change things if you're a self-hating, manic depressed philosopher'. I know I disappoint you Max, but you won't convince me I'm wrong. And, despite your best efforts, you won't make me forget about that night we had pizza with Gwen. If you think you can make me feel bad about trying to make you happy, and a better person, darn it, you just aren't going to."

Max tried to will himself to say something, anything. anything that would make the pounding in his chest stop, anything to stop his eyes watering, anything to stop himself from being grateful to this man who didn't owe him anything, trying his best to give him something despite Max' best resistance. He wanted to articulate it better, but his emotions were running too high for him to be able to try anything else.

"Fuck you David..."

"M-Max?"

"Fuck you... for making me... for letting me think I'm worth more... I'm not suppose to! I don't deserve that. All I do is ruin stuff because I don't- I-I don't... I don't know what to do with it! With something good! It doesn't matter what I do or how I act, I'll always systematically ruin everything for myself and... dammit David..." He wished he could do anything to stop himself from crying, but he thought just once he'd let himself be 'weak'. "Why is there no Camp this year? I hate it here... I actually miss you... more than I thought I would."

"... I know, Max... I miss you too."

"I mean, like, I guess I miss Gwen too, and I know you want me to care about the rest of them, but fuck 'em, ok? Cause in my mind none of them are ... none of them are you... a-and I get it, you know?... How hypocritical it is of me to say that when I treated everyone at that camp as bad as I did. You especially, and as much as I would like to think they didn't or wouldn't understand me, I don't know, a-and you always tried so hard dude. No matter what I said or did, you put up with me, and tried to care about me, when everyone else just wrote me off as an un-savable bastard... "

 

 

 

Both of them are silent for some time.

 

"Max... don't... don't hate yourself too much... a-and don't try to romanticize me, or overplay my attempts to know you. I was stubborn, and blinded  by my own philosophies to even begin to understand who you are, or how you think. Even though you're a special case, adults so often trivialize children's feelings and opinions simply based on age, and supposed: 'worldly experience'. I am guilty of what you had tried to tell me your parents are guilty of..."

"David?..."

"Max?... When... when you... t-th-there comes a point, in everyone's life, where they become an adult... but it's...  i-it's more than- ugh, dang it, how do I explain this?... Being an adult is more than just turning eighteen... it's more of a... 'mental' thing. How others perceive being an adult is different... but, and now this is just my opinion, but when you are an adult... there are certain, like, unwritten rules every adult needs to; or rather should, follow. And one of those things is: when faced with a difficult obstacle, or a person, you have to treat every scenario with diligence, and maturity. Now maturity isn't when you learn how to curse for the first time, or when you can drive, or even buying your own house. It's how you connect and communicate with other people, and how you react to the situations life throws at you." 

"What do you mean?..."

"The long and short of it is, it shouldn't have mattered how much you belittled me, or what you did, it was my responsibility as a counselor; and an adult, to treat you with the maturity and respect my position and age warrant me to. I'm... I'm trying to say I'm sorry." 

Max's brain ignites.

What!? He's sorry!? WHAT!? NO! HOW!? WHEN?! WHY!? I don't deserve this, Ive' done nothing to deserve this, I'm ugly, and cruel and worhtelss, even  my own parentrs know it, im a bad perso n why does he forgive me i dont deserve it why does he fo rgi ve me only screw things up and Hurtpeo ple All I doishurtmyselfidontdeserve friends or someone who cares abouMeImworthlessunwantedunlovedunwanteduslessunlovedstupidwhYamistillalivewhyamistillalvewhydontijuStdiEnoonelovesmeihateeveryoneidontdeserveforgivnessorLovewhyisheapologizingdontdeservethisidontdeserveForgivnesswqhywhyhwyhwywhwywhyiwanttodiewhyhwywhwywhyWHWYWHWYWHWYWHWYWHWWHYWHYWHH*^(#$)$*HTAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHDGNOKHLM:E*))))))$PHELPMEHELPMEKILLMEHELPMEHELPMEishouldntthinklikethisHWELPMEHELPMEwhatareallthesethoughts?he!pmEKIllmEWHEREAMIhelpmehelpmehelpmehelpmehelpmehelpemeholdmeWHYCANTISCREAMidontwanttoliveiddintdoanythingwrongwhydotheyhatemewhydidheapologizeidontdeservethisidontdeservethisIdontdeservethiswhoareyouWHEREAMIWHYISITDARKWHYISTHERELIGHTWHEREARETHESHADOWSwhatisthisinsideofmeWHATDOIDOWHATDOIDOWHATDOIDOyoudontdeservethisyoudontdeservethisyoudontdeservethisYOUDONTDESERVETHISYOUDONTDESERVETHISYOUDONTDESERVETHIS

"Uh... Max?..."

 "h-huh?... u-um, David?"

"You ok buddy? You spaced out for almost a full minute..."

"O-oh um.. sorry I... didn't realize. U-um,  yeah... yeah no hard feelings, you know..." 

YOU DON'T DESERVE THIS

"Anything you want to tell me?"

YOU DESERVE NOTHING

"N-no, no, uh uh I'm, I'm good, really... s-so what uh, what does it look like status will be? On, uh, the camp?"

"Well I'm hoping and praying by next year at the earliest I can have her up and running again. I'll keep you posted when I can."

THERE IS NO ESCAPE

"Sounds gud, u-uh good, Camper Man. Let me take care of the calling though. Parent's uh... aren't too keen on callers; in or out."

THERE IS NO GOD

 

 

"Ten-four buddy, can't wait to hear from you! Try to have some fun over the summer ok?"

AND IF THERE IS HE WOULD NEVER LOVE YOU

"Right... I'll talk to you-"

"Wait!" David interrupts.

"What?"

"I almost forgot- I have the phone number to Nikki and Neil's residence, if you would like it?"

"What!? Yeah of course! I-I mean... yeah sure whatever."

"Ha ha ha, oh Max, you little Tsundere."

"The fucks a tsundere?"

Instead of answering Max's question; David relays the Nikki and Neil residences' phone number. Max is a respectably even amount of appalled and amused when he learns their parents married. With goodbye's and promises to call him soon-ish, Max writes down the number to his only true friends, and goes to bed for the rest of the day, vowing to call them tomorrow. 

 

He tries to think of warmth, but more-so than usual, the thought of such a feeling seems a million miles away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He almost forgets tomorrow is his birthday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Age 12...

The several months that followed proved a combination of uneventful, yet eye-opening.

Keeping to his word, Max reached out to Nikki and Neil. To his surprise (which he chastised himself in retrospect for doubting them), on top of being ecstatic to hear him again, they all but forced him into a weekly call schedule. Two days out of the week; Wednesday to get them through the dragging of time that was typically ‘hump day’, and Friday when they would both have more time, and help each other start the weekend with a smile.

Probably weird I noticed this… Max pondered to himself, but they both sound more grown up already… Neil is super noticeably dealing with a cracking throat, and Nikki's voice sounds… deeper, I guess?...

It was an odd thing to witness; even from afar.  Watching two kids grow up with him.

He was certain by call number four they’d run out of things to talk about, but once again surprising him, he soon found out that the spastic tomboy, her nerdy step brother, and their parents; Linda Cartman and Mort Goldman, as Max started calling them- to Nikki’s amusement and Neil’s disgust- proved to never lack in insanely funny things to hear about.

Max remembered being so nervous calling them; perhaps more so than when he called David- Neil’s Dad had picked up the phone, and when Max had told him who he was and why he was calling, he nearly fainted…

 " ... yeah sure, hold on a second.. … … hey uh Nikki? Friend for ya and Neil on the phone, said his name was-”

IS THAT MAX!?”

" U-uh y-yes- yeah it is, do you have a few minutes to-”

"Gimme that! Max!?

Their conversation was far less serious and philosophical then the one he had with David, he was quick to discover.

“Um, hey, Nikki… sorry it’s been a minute, but-”

Hold that thought- NEIL! Get your Mandark looking ass over here; it’s Max!

Holy shit… He correctly thought to himself.

Max!?”

“Heya Neil, sorry it’s been so long, I-”

Where in the son of a fuck have you been!? I was worried sick, and Nikki was about ready to Fatal Attraction your ass and come find you!”

“I-I know ok? I didn’t realize I hadn’t given you a way to reach me until it was too late-”

Wait just a second Neil, how do you know about Fatal Attraction; WHO let you WATCH Fatal Attraction!?

Jesus Dad; not now!-”

We wanted to see if Glenn Close was actually a woman!

Shut up Nikki!” 

"Don’t talk to your sister that way! You’re not allowed to watch those kinds of films!

Dad, I’m serious; any other time PLEASE!

"Michael Douglas is a total DILF!

It was at this point Max had dropped the phone from his hands; completely and utterly broken by the insanity in his ear.

Christ Nikki, will you stifle yourself!?

Now All In The Family!? You’re twelve!”

“Neil put me on speaker, please.” Thank God my parents aren’t home… Max thought, as he tried to contain himself.

Ok you’re on spea-”

“EY! Mister Neil’s Dad, can you please fuck off and let us talk!?”

 

 

Eesh the mouth on that one… have fun kids.”

 To the relief of Max's’ mental health, the well meaning, but still clueless as shit Father left them alone.

"... ... ... ... ... Ok, so-"

"Max I miss you!"

"Nikki misses you."

"I miss you too Nikki."

"Neil miss you too!"

"I missed you as well."

"Missed you too Neil. So what have you two crazy bastards been through?"

"Not much really."

"We've been on deep introspective journeys unrealistic to children our age and have emerged from it confused about ourselves, our friends, families, how we feel about them and why, all the while trying to carry on our households new-founded sense of normalcy, and trying to make digestible sense of the comedy of errors that is our parents marrying each other, while manifesting personality quirks that either were always there and just now made themselves known, or were subconsciously created as a way of reacting and coping with the Jeff Tremaine production that is our lives, thinking things and realizing things that while not obvious now, will surely come to light at a later, inconvenient time, and we'll have no idea how to probably deal with these emotions, thoughts and instinctual impulses!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I also got, like, really good at Fortnite."

"I LEARNED HOW TO FLOSS!"

"She learned how to floss."

"Huh... uh... yeah same I guess. Except for Fortnite. Fortnite is gay."

"That's accurate but offensive!"

"Fuck you; you just suck at it!"

"Dead as a meme can get bro."

"But I love Tik Tok!"

"Fortnite is more than just Memes Goddammit!"

For a little while, Max was content, and safe. David and him have a odd bond he himself can't quite understand, but Nikki, and Neil; he gets them. And they him.

YOU DON'T DESERVE IT

But I need it. Max defends, as he tries to catch up with his much missed friends

Now, fast forwarding, it has been exactly one year since Max reached out to David, a year since he got the phone number to Nikki and Neil’s home, and a year exactly since he started calling the former once a week, and the latter twice a week, respectively. It was easier that he thought it was going to be. He kept his head down with his parents; a task proving harder and harder with each passing day, and when he could, he would call his two outlets. Both parties always made time for him, and cared about what he had to say. Both parties also expressed how they missed him. The whole thing simultaneously made him feel better, and, ironically, caused him to feel different shades of loneliness he never realized were possible.

Good with the bad, I guess… He’d mused to himself; attempting to rationalize the aching it left within him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The warmth comes at night a little easier now...

Chapter Text

Age 13...

It's not like Max didn't realize his body was going through changes, although if he could have been the one to coin the various phrases used to describe growing up; he would have preferred the word 'mutations'. The seemingly over-night growth spurts, the cracky voice, the growing of more hair, everything was changing, in some ways small, in some ways big.

It's an odd phenomenon; growing up. You never truly grasp what is happening, or what had happend to you until you're even older, or someone explains it to you via an article on a clickbait website, or in Middle School Science class. It's more than just simply getting taller, and hairier body parts, its about the seemingly ever growing list of demands expected of you from life, new thoughts and feelings to be repressed and swallowed down, and of course who could forget, the ever escalating intricacy of cognitive thought and instinctual impulses one must face?

Of course I'm just waxing philosophical preachings to the choir, aren't I?

One of the most curious plot points for Max was his relationship with his parents. He would never ever say it was better, but, ever since his birthday, things had definitely shifted, to the degree that Max couldn't perceive it as reality sometimes. They hadn't hit him since his thirteenth birthday... which to some people might not mean anything, but to Max it was significant. 

It had been a gradual process; one random day of a random week, Max had come home from school- one of several graded test paper in hand. -A it had read. Specifically, a ninety-one percent. Max thought he could have done better, but, the new found minefield that had manifested in his subconscious made it hard for him to focus fully.

He didn't think nothing of it when he tossed the paper on the kitchen table; he was just going to get a snack from the fridge then throw it away with the rest of his tests. For whatever reason, his mother had come in the kitchen, when, for whatever reason, she noticed his paper.

She asked him what it was.

Max was only slightly taken aback; her asking about school wasn't... impossible, but it was extremely rare. Even more rare from his Father.

He told her it was a math test, and how he had achieved an almost perfect score. He watched her with caution as she looked at the piece of paper. The white, thin, dead tree within ger grasp.

She looked at him.

There was a look of... what was it he saw?

Nervousness?

Suprise?

Regret?

Max wasn't sure. He was even more confused when she called for his Father. The boy was downright gobsmacked when after relaying what he had said to his Father; his eyes took the same look as his mother's had.

His Father looked at him.

Max knew better than to maintain eye contact with the man,  so he averted his gaze. In the extra few seconds he looked at his parents, he realized just how much he looked like them.

It disgusted Max that when he looked at hisnFather, no matter however briefly, he saw that they shared the same eyes. They did not completely share the same feelings, nor did they tell the same story, but he couldn't lie and say they werent the same. He shared his mother's noticeably lighter skin complexion. He had wondered before if that ever did him any favors in society?... People in the Indian community his parents are apart of sure seemed to think that, but he never saw it. The lack of an accent he could see, but that was about it. He overtly looked like a copy of his mother; namely the smoother, softer features- the shape of his head, the way his hair curled. He looked like his Father too, naturally, but it was in more subtle ways, like, the shape of his nose, though not the size. The eyes were similar of course, but while around them he shared his father's similar scowl, the inner irises were the same swirl and pattern as his mother.

It appalled him how much he looked like them. It made him wonder if the rude, cynical, and at times even cold life ruining persona he carried around with him throughout his life was the only real shred of unique identity he had. Considering who his parents were, however, he lamented that her might not even be able to claim that.

As he's allowing these thoughts to swarm around his head, he almost misses his father telling him, though nigh robotically: 'good job'.

Max was thrown through so many loops, that the metaphorical rollercoaster he was on now felt literal; he could feel himself being turned upside down. However he knew better than to take such a moment for granted- he muttered out a 'thanks', then quickly left for his room.

From there things noticeably shifted

A couple weeks later, Max was on his way out of the apartment for school. When he was walking through the main living area, everything was as it usually was on a weekday. His mother was at work; a local Hindi restaurant, when they immigrated, the establishment gave her a postion almost immediately. Max linked that to her 'cheating' by using the illegal immigrant backstory trope to her advantage, but, then again, she did bring home free food home once in a while. His Father worked from home. Not as technical support, as the dominat stereotype might have you believe, rather, he operated a house cleaning service, but coincidentally on this day, he had no calls yet this morning; he was in his chair casually watching TV.

Max walked into the kitchen to grab a bottle of water for the above averagly hot day. He could have just not worn the hoodie, but then he would have felt likr 'Max' if he didn't wear the thing. On the table,  to his suprise, there was a bottled water sitting there already, next to a shiny, red apple.

This confounded the poor kid.

He thought it must be his Fathers own snack, but, he hadn't gotten to it yet. Shrugging his shoulders he took a cold one from the fridge, and went to leave for the day, but not before his father told him to have a good day at school.

What.

He had not once done that. He rarely told his wife to have a good day. Too shocked to even compute such a thing, Max quickly walked out the door.

When he got home from school; without even telling Max 'hi', he summoned his son to his chair, he had something to ask him.

He asked Max why he did not take the water and apple he left for him.

Max wanted to widen his eyes and scream at the old man, but he kept himself in check and responded that he didn't know that the items were for him.

His father called him an idiot, asked him who the hell else they could have been for, then sent him away.

Max tells David about the incident that weekend; the man drops the phone. He tells Nikki and Neil, and the former is convinced they entered the Matrix while the latter thought Max was going insane.

Oh if only he knew.

You can already sense the trajectory that these- and I use this term loosely, 'improvements' in Max's life eventually took. Couple of compliments here, less hitting there, some 'have a good days' over there, a couple of 'good nights' hither and yon. Keep in mind: these pleasantries that most people experience everyday of their life, Max had almost never recieved at all, whatsoever, in his whole existence; the balance of his messed up life was being thrown completely into whack.

You can most certainly imagine it, can't you?

Imagine going thirteen years; that's four thousand, seven hundred, forty five days-  give or take- without ever- let's hypothetically propose- being hugged. You go all of those crucial, important, precious early years of life, running, jumping, falling, laughing, hating, loving- all the ups and downs, everything you've ever seen and done, without getting hugged. 

Then all of a sudden, your parents, the two (or more, for you 'modern' types) people in the whole wide world, that are mandated by the unwritten law of having a kid, who are SUPPOSE to hug you, and never have, all of a sudden grab you, and pull you into a tender, warm, comforting embrace. 

You'd feel like your damn skin was on fire.

You can't compute, you don't know what to say, you don't know what to do, because you've never ever experienced this thing that it seems like everyone else has, or does. Your perception of the world gets shifted, your status quo is torn apart, so many psychological alarms are going off you're convinced that your head will explode. 

And to the other people or persons, they just think to themselves, 'what's the bug deal? All I did was give him/her/them a hug?'. 

Now let's go to the otherside of it; let's say you're one of those kind of folks who hates  being touched. The germs, the unwanted cold, and heat, perhaps you're one of those people that obsess over the symbolism of hands, and fingers. 

Now let's say you have someone; a friend, or a family member, who always constantly touches you, and tries to, in their mind 'encouragingly' help you come out of your shell. So, you yell at them- you snap at them. You tell them to just leave you alone. You scream at them to.

And so they do.

Very soon you may come to find that, even though it was what you wanted, you feel bad for yelling at them. Even though it inconvenienced you. You start to think maybe you could have been nicer about it, explained why you didn't like being touched, either way you slice it; what had been your routine and status quo, has changed and shifted. You feel odd, like something is missing, you feel relieved that you got what you wanted, but you don't like the feelings that came with it. 

In both scenarios you wrack your brain over and over and over and over and over and OVER AGAIN, trying to figure out why you feel the way you do! Why did this person disrupt your life like that!? Why would they try to change things now after all thia time had passed!? What gave them the right!? How dare they try to try to make right by you, or try to help you improve your life, you didn't NEED them to- you didn't ASK them to, they just DID IT without asking you!!! 

All of the above was what Max was feeling.

The coup de grace was on Max's thirteenth birthday. What could they have possibly done to break the child even more? What more could they possibly put him through? How could these inconsistently atrocious caregivers fuck with his head, and shatter his expectations even further???

Well I'll tell you.

They bought him a birthday cake.

Yep you read that right, here's the best part; he cried! Everything was building up to this- everytime he held back a mental breakdown, everytime he wanted to grab his parents by the shirts and scream at them to explain why all of a sudden they were trying, came to a head and when they presented the cake to him; here's the play by play:

His mind is like a football.

His head snaps his mind, or 'the ball', back, and pulls for a pass, he's feeling the pressure of making a call. Joy is being guarded by Disgust and Anger, Sorrow is wide open; but it's a long shot, almost a hail mary. Stress and Paranoia are closing the distance between Max's mind and head, the head then makes the decision to take a leap of faith and lanches Max's mind high into the sky, successfully landing into the arms of Sorrow. However before the touchdown in team Serotonin's Endzone can be made: Sorrow is blindsided by Hysteria; the hot new rookie on the scene, debuting on the field for the first time since madness' injury! Sadness fumbles the ball, and it is picked up by Fear! Fear with the save for team Noradrenalin! He dodges pride! Sidesteps reasoning! Stiff arms Ego!! LEAPS over self-control- AT THE 40! THE 30! HE! COULD! GO! ALL! THE! WAY- HE DID IT!!! TEAM NORADRENALIN BEATS TEAM SEROTONIN IN A CONCLUSIVE BLOWOUT! THE CROWD GOES WILD! PANIC STATION BLARES THROUGH THE STADIUM! THERE'S DANCING, LAUGHING, SCREAMING, FIRES, HORROR- AND DOWN GOES MAX! DOWN GOES MAX! OH THE HUMANITY!

And if you don't like my football metaphor, what I'm trying to articulate is that in about twenty seconds he cried, got mad, had a panic attack, and passed out.

Being illegal immigrants, having no health insurance, and having not applied for some under-table-coverage from a third party; Max's parents tried there best with what they had to work with. Bundled him in blankets, cool wash rag on the head, warm Chai Tea, trying to ease him back into consciousness. 

When the boy awoke, he was disoriented; last he remembered there was a cake, then tears, then the ground. His eyes opened to his mother's hand on head... rubbing soft, comforting circles through his hair. His Father is hovering over both of them, a foreign look of concer across his face.

They tell him he's been unconscious for twelve hours.

He asks them why they got him a birthday cake. They answer, because it was his birthday. In a delerious moment of confidence, he says he thought they hated him. They reply that they thought they did too. 

They talk. For hours. Things aren't better now, but they aren't worse. Max misses his friends. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The warmth comes quickly now. Almost natural. Year thirteen passes like a dream.

Too bad it didn't last longer, isn't it, Max?

Chapter Text

Age 14...

It was an innocent enough event. His parents had left for a gathering in town, hosted by some members of the Indian community, and Max had passed on going. They had rushed out in a hurry; they had been running late, and neglected to turn off the television.

Deciding to treat himself after finishing his weekend homework early, Max helped himself to his family's only TV. The boy had been channel surfing when he decided he would just zone out to a random action movie on Showtime. 

He was lamenting not being able to call David like he normally would on Friday's; the man had told him he needed to attend a meeting of some sorts. The Camp is almost back in his hands, he proclaimed. Max said he believed him, even though it had been now four years since David promised to get the Camp back. Max still held out hope, but he was considering just telling David to not even bother. He didn't want to remain with his parents still, no matter how much better things may have seem to have gotten, but Max was running out of reasons to trust David.

After all, Max had no idea the total scope of the red tape wrapped 'round Camp Camp, David never once went into what he did for work, nor did he ever give a straight answer. He seldom mentioned Gwen anymore, and recently had been sounding more distant, and tired. Max figured to himself that he must know David well enough by now that he could safely say that it wasn't because David didn't want to talk to him. Hell, David knows Max better than anyone now, and despite his parent's improving- and I use that term loosely-: that's how he intended to keep it. It didn't matter to him what his parents did or didn't do, he firmly believed he had the right to be bitter towards them to the very end after all they did to him. In Max's mind, he didn't really see a point in trusting any other adults significantly, unless he had the opprotunity to see Gwen again, and try to apologize to her, and bury the hatchet. The absence of Gwen; Max wondered if that played a part in David's melencholy recently. The more he thought about it, the more it bugged hum; why was he sounding so depressed lately? Max no longer liked the idea of David being miserabl; if this was four years ago, the boy would have surely tacked on a 'only I can make him miserable' type of idiom, but things have changed. 

David should never be sad, in Max's eyes at least.

David brought a lot of warm feelings to Max. The boy figured it was only natural, they talk once a week, and for the last four years, only a handful of times had been unable to. His relationship with David different compared to his with Nikki and Neil- the three children were comparable to kindred spirits; three like minded souls, perpendicularly intertwined,  laughing at each others jokes, finishing each others sentences, swapping character motivation theories for Rick and Morty. They were unpredictable, despite knowing each other so well; like something familiar, and yet always something new, and Max cherished that.

David though, was completely predictable, he knew what he was going to get from him everytime, and for Max, that was fine. David and Max's relationship had been straddling an odd line recently; the man was not a brother to Max; the boy didn't know what one was suppose to be like anyway. He was most likely not a teacher or mentor, not that Max couldn't or wouldn't learn from David, but the label just didn't seem right. He definitely was not a Father either, or a Dad. At least, Max didn't think so.

As Max continued to watch the film riddled with one-liners and ludicrous gibs, he pondered to himself the roles of parents. It was a subject thay always seemed to confuse him. Depending on the time period, the country, the time period OF the country, the culture, the creed, the religion, the region, local hivemind type of mentalities; parental roles seemed to vary and depend based on the most minimalist of variables, and it confounded him.

Doing research in his spare time, he found that, in the 1950's and before, as I'm sure you know, Men worked hard, brought home the money, broke their backs over jobs that didn't care about them and weren't worth it, and swallowed all their pains and problems to not appear weak to their pals, and lodge friends.

Women stayed at home and cooked, cleaned, did house work, repressed any idea of speaking up and out, were considered number two in the grand scheme of things, and the only women that had jobs seemed to be either lesbians, single mothers, or their husbands had 'let them get it out of their system'; either scenario getting them looked down upon. 

He wasn't quite sure how to feel about learning these things. Chalk it to his teenage naivete perhaps but, he figured their had to have been aversions to these sterotypes? There had to have been husbands and wives who were equal; good honest people, who loved their kids. Looking though the last forty, fifty years of history laid bare on the internet, all he seemd to find were stories upon stories of alcoholic fathers, deadbeat dads, crazy mothers, horrible adoptive parents, dumpster babies- over and over again. Anytime he found an article talking about how parents should be raising their kids, it infuriated him to find that treating your kids good was a punchline. 

What he saw, he percieved as the of entirety the last few generations, as a bunch of entitled, mid-twenty to mid-thrity year olds, who didn't want kids, who talk about how horrible they are. They talk about how they KNOW what their doing, and how, essentially, nothing is the parents fault- for some reason especially the moms. These people who have completely forsaken the proven science, and development of psycholigical understanding in the last twenty years, and not to mention,  concrete evidence of abuse cycles- all in the name of getting clicks on Buzzfeed, or Huffington. 

'Favorite' books and articles he came across were:

Toddler's Are Assholes (It's Not Your Fault)- Bunmi Laditan

Go The Fuck To Sleep- Adam Mansbach

Shitty Mom: The Parenting Guide For The Rest of Us- Laurie Kilmartin

How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids- Jancee Dunn

The various publishings of Catherine Belknap and Natalie Telfer

It blew his mind entirely; like, there are so many kids like him, and worse, who have never known genuine parental love, and these assholes are taking it all as a joke, and making it all about themselves and their kids are secondary. It made him feel more alone, even more isolated and misunderstood, by parents; adults in general- people he didn't even know! People that never knew him, that sound like they wouldn't even TRY to get to know him! That they all would just- just glare at him and JUDGE. Just like his parents. So what if things were smoother with them, he angrily mused to himself, it would never erase the past. It still hurts.

When Max had told his two friends about his online exploration on one of their phone calls, Neil had told Max that he was looking too deep into it, and to lighten up- that most of those books and people were just kidding. But that was the problem, wasn't it, Max? Because you remember reading through these books, or articles abour the horror stories of what Men and Women are capable of doing to kids. You watched your fair share of Steve Wilkos, and general Trash TV, in morbid fascination, sure. All the while you kept asking yourself over and over again, why?

Why?

WHY!?

This intense line of thinking tuckered poor Max out, and he shut his eyes for a few minutes; taking a mostly peaceful nap. Mostly peacefully. He awoke to a loud explosion erupting from the movie he'd forgotten about. It woke him with such a start that in his delirium, he flicked the channel up, instead of turning down the volume.

That's when it happened. 

He found himself on a little channel named, 'Cinemax'. The images flashing onto the screen were new and foreign to him. It happened so suddenly that it took him some time to really take in what he was seeing.

He had changed the channel to two naked,  sweaty people.

He knew what they were doing, he had heard about it, and it had been crudely, by third parties of course not his parents, been described to him, but it blew his mind. He was watching two people having sex. 

His eyes were wide, shaky hands dropping the remote on the floor; batteries popping out, knees trembling, breath quickening. He was scared, he didn't know what to do, he was frozen, he couldn't look away.

To this day he isn't sure what did it to him. The actress was gorgeous, the man was strong looking and confident, her face, the sounds that she was making, every inch of her body he could see, the way it was shaking, and trembling, bouncing and glistening. Her hair, the sweat on her brow, parts of her body he didn't even know the names of, the smooth legs, whatever it was, something primal, and animalistic awakened within the teenager.

He didn't know what he was doing. He didn't know why either. More than autopilot; it felt like he was being controlled- possessed even, his hand having a mind of it's own. All his hazy mind knew was that he had to keep going, he didn't know until when, but all he knew was that he couldn't stop. 

Nothing mattered to him right now: his beliefs, his hatred, David, his friends- all that mattered was this, this feeling, this moment in time. This rush. The pure adrenalin pumping through his veins; it was euphoric, it was empowering, freeing, for the first time in a while he felt good and worth.

When he finished, obviously he had never felt like this before, so when the sensation hit him with such an intensity as it did, he was almost scared at what was happening. The feeling coming from his lower half, it gave him the feeling like if he was urinating, so on wobbly legs, and unfastened pants, he hobbled his way into the bathroom with as much haste as he could produce.

When he reached the toilet, he expected to push out the familiar fluid into the water. But what he saw was nothing like he'd ever seen. The liquid was not the usual yellow, or occasionally clear, it was, an almost pure white. It looked thicker, it smelled different... Max didn't know what it was suppose to be, but he wasn't sure he liked it.

After cleaning himself up, he made his way back to the living room, repaired the remote, turned off the TV, and retired to his room for the night.

He laid there on his old, worn out bed, eyes wide and shaking, staring at the ceiling, thinking over what had just happened, he was almost scared; he couldn't have been in control, could he have? Did he really do all of that? Was it truly he who brought on these new, alien feelings? He felt like his life was changed, he felt confused, scared, elated, and other words he wasn't sure he knew.

For some reason he felt bad. Is this something that he should have done? Was this allowed? Was he weird? It was all too much for him, he was certain after sleeping for a while, he'd he able to forget all about this, almost acutely traumatic experience.

 

 

 

 

Oh how wrong he was.

When he awoke, that innocent enough Saturday morning, he felt... itchy. It was an odd feeling protruding from his stomach; no matter how he scratched at it, the feeling wouldn't go away. 

He walked out of his room in a daze, zombie-like even, as if he had switched to autopilot. He came to the kitchen table; a note and an apple sit there alone. The note brought to Max's attention that his parents were out for, presumably, the whole Saturday; community gathering. Max figured that of course that would be his luck; all alone in the apartment with these stupid new feelings. 

That was fine, he thought to himself- taking a bite of the apple- he decided to take the opportunity to do some research on the family computer, and vowing to never ever tell anyone about what happend last night. He logged onto the device, sitting in his parents room, and began his journey.

 

His first search was endearingly blunt enough:

'Is it normal to Masterbait?' He had posed to Google. Made sense; he obviously knew what he did, why be shy about it to the internet, and the FBI agent watching? Google of course was all to happy to oblige.

PlannedParenthood.com says yes, it is perfectly normal. 

WebMD says, basically, yeah.

Some forum on The Ohio State Colleges medical board says yes, but if it consumes your thoughts all day everyday, then that's a problem.

Someone asked Quora if it's normal for twelve year olds to masturbate, to which Quora said yes.

Some various religious sites, and not just Christian ones mind you, say no, but other sites for those same religions say yes.

Max wondered if it was a sin in Hindi culture? To a child who grew up in America to Hindi parents, from India, his own people baffled him sometimes. Granted he was not at a point in his life where he had much a desire to really get in touch with his culture, but still. Hindu people seemed at times very conservative, but also very modern: the art and dresses he always thought looked nice, creative, even beautiful at times, yet, with Indias crazy poverty, they could be just as crafty, resourceful, and even shifty as anyone else. From people he's talked to it always seemed to be an Indian guy behind the shotty tech support, the credit card scam, in the convince store, and of course that isn't even getting into the 'Bob' and 'Vagen' memes he's seen for years. 

Don't even get him started on T-Series...

Anyway, he typed into Google if it was a sin in the Hinduism faith, and, directly from Speaking Tree:

'According to Hinduism, seeking Kama is one of the four objectives of human life. Apart from a person who has taken vow of Brahmacharya, Hinduism grants complete freedom in sexuality. The Hindu treatise on sex Kama Sutra (4th to 6th centuries AD) does not condemn masturbation at all and moreover explains in detail the best procedure to masturbate. According to Hinduism, life begins at the Brahmacharya in which they are directed to chastely advance themselves educationally and spiritually to prepare themselves for a life of furthering their dharma and karma ; only once they reach the Grihastya or "householder" stage can they seek kama and artha through their vocations. Sexual pleasure is part of kama, one of the four goals of life.'

Max had no idea what about half of that even meant, but, it said it does NOT condemn masterbation, so to him, he was in the clear. 

He leaned back in his chair and breathed a sigh of relief. Feeling a little better, he chastised himself with hindsight over how worked up he got. He knew he liked the female anatomy, he'd looked up images before, and was very knowledgeable at a young age how some things work. Why did last night rattle him so much? The circumstances? The time? The place? The WAY it happened? Why did he feel bad afterwards? Why did he feel bad for doing something that, apparently, literally almost everyone else is doing, or has done/will do? Was it... did Max feel bad because he felt good for a little while? Was it perhaps that somewhere deep inside himself, on a subconscious level, he did not see himself worthy of any small type of- as ironic as it were- relief?

Hell if he knew the answer to any of that.

He couldn't deny it to himself, he liked it. A lot. True, it felt weird starting out, and it made his hands smell weird, but to the young boy, or if you will- young man, it was a small price to pay for a minute, a second, or even less of-not feeling stress, not feeling that cold, acidic ball of bitterness he felt on a daily basis festering in his core. A small window of time of not feeling angry, sad, or hateful. Those few distorted seconds of white, blinding euphoria made everything temporarily ok- in a twisted sense, it almost made it all worth it

Deciding not to get too ahead of himself, he decided to do a little more research, just in case. Looking through various articles and websites, Max discovered almost more than he bargained for. He started with the statement: 'Side Effects of Masturbating'.

A wave of pure inconsistentcy bombarded the poor soul. Couple people, sites, and scientists say too much is bad for you eyes, an almost equal amount say no, it lowers blood pressure and helps you sleep, and than an intermediate number of people basically shrugging the discussion off and saying:

'Idk I jus knw it feelz hella gud lmao roflcopter'.

Suddenly, he came across some different blogs on several different sites, talking about masturbation as an, 'addiction'. Max remembered earlier about someone on a forum saying don't let it consume you, so naturally, he clicked the link. It was some guy with a username Max didn't care to remember, but he opened the discussion saying how he's a 'sex addict', and it's hard to live out a normal daily life. 

Talk about a can of worms. 

A good section of the people responding and contributing to the blog were being supportive and understanding, to be fair. Some people empathizing cause they've been through something similar, or others being sympathetic because it was the right thing to do, and genuinely wanted to help. There was an alternative group however, that saw things differently. More than a few people were of the belief that 'Sex Addiction' wasn't real, or that, a man can't be a sex addict because of a bunch of science they listed, which Max couldn't really understand, but it ended with: 'men are slaves to their libido'. Max didn't know what libido meant, but taking an educated guess as to what, it oddly made him feel guilty and self doubting. There was also a group of people that thought it was 'funny' or that the gentleman was just looking to 'hookup', and was trying to find 'other lonely losers' as someone else put it. Finally there was a smaller subsect of people who said they didn't like masturbating because they think it brings them bad luck.

Deciding to exit the site, Max slumped back in his chair once again.

So much confusion and nonsense, all over, at it's core, just wanting to feel good. Max had never really been interested in dating or girls like most boys seemed to be getting into at this age. He was certain that he liked girls, he just never thought about it much or acted on it, aside from ogling some pictures now and again, but that, in hindsight, was almost an innocent curiosity- fitting for his age. No girl at his school ever did anything except annoy him, he didn't like any if his parent's, friend's kids, so he thought of the next closest source of female interaction; his Camp Camp colleagues. 

First he recalled Ered, she was... fine, he guessed? Not really pretty, to him anyway. Personality was kinda cool, he supposed, if not a little on the hipster side. Not as pretentious though, which was nice. He could realistically hang out with her -not for long- but he was certain they could hold a conversation. He remembered Nikki was obsessed with her for reasons he can't quite understand, but it gave him a few laughs, he could admit.

Nerris, if Max was honest, rarely if ever entered his mind. Nerris, Harrison, and that Preston kid kind of formed their own group at Camp Camp; unofficially. If Max was being really honest, he thought Nerris looked like a boy- too much for his comfort. He was certain she might be an ok person; Nikki liked her quite a bit, Neil too.

Gwen was too old, and it made his stomach churn even thinking about it. Not that she was ugly to him; he was certain that someone found her attractive, but hopefully someone in her age group. He's not sure why it grossed him out so much, the actress from that movie last night had to be mid-twenties, so why was it weird with Gwen? Maybe because she was a little more understaning of Max, Nikki, and Neil's situations then most adults he met were, so it wasn't an issue of trust per se, or perhaps it was still the fleeting semblance of lingering guilt Max still carried with him, over the last time they were able to speak. He decided not to dwell on it any longer though; far too much nonsense already clouded his head.

Candy; Nikki's Mother was definitely a no, even if he DID think she was attractive, that's Nikki's Mom... just no; ALL the campers Mom's. Especially Nurf's Mom, because, well, convicted felon? Not on Max's bucket list. 

Who else was there? His mind eventually wandered to the Flower Scouts, almost forgetting about them. He was having a tough time remembering their names... there was Sasha, the leader... Tabi with one 'i' or two, he couldn't recall, as well as... the one with blue hair, it covered her eye... Lapis Lazuli?

Well either way he didn't care much, as he didn't particularly like any of them on a personal level. Sasha maybe he could tolerate if only cause she was a conniving little schemer like himself, and like him: led her own trio of campers on wacky summer adventures, almost a kind of kindred spirit. Of course if memory serves correctly; it sounded like she and her two sidekicks made life miserable for Nikki, so probably not. He remembered she didn't look half bad in the Flower Scouts skirt though.... 

He shook his head furiously, trying to rid himself of such thoughts- he was trying to figure stuff out, he couldn't afford to get distracted. 

He was stumped! Max couldn't remember any other female campers, other than the ones he thought of just now; The Flower Scouts, Ered, Gwen- unless he was going to consider Bonquisha, he couldn't think of anyone. He was starting to think this whole thing was an unnecessary bout of paranoia, and a waste of time; there were no girls he knew he could honestly say he liked, on any kind of level. Maybe he was putting too much thought into it- he was starting to humor himself by thinking how this whole thing seemed like some poor soul desperate for a girlfriend then answers to their biology. He was about to internally declare he had no female friends, and thought all girls sucked, when a name suddenly flashed though his head:

Nikki...

Nikki... of course, how could he forget! Nikki, or Nicolette, according to her Mother; why hadn't he considered her? She was a girl wasn't she? Was it he didn't consider her one? Was that her tomboy nature rearing it's head in his decision making? Was it that he didn't see her like other girls?? He wasn't sure. It almost creeped him out how... for lack of a better word, 'icky' it made his insides feel, even attempting to think of her like that. Did he even think she was pretty? Does the word pretty even have a connotation with Nikki? Was he attracted to her? Well now that was a dumb question, he wasn't attracted to any of these girls, at least he thought but then again, did two people necessarily even need to be attracted to each other for this kind of stuff; on a physical level? Could he even imagine Nikki being... compromised like the women in the movie- like how he was haphazardly tossing the notion around in his head with every girl he'd ever met? Why did he suddenly feel guilty again, he wondered? Did this retroactively make it look like he actually didn't like Nikki? No- was it like, or respect? Too many questions, too much NOISE in Max's head!

He took in a breath, and tried to piece this unexpected, and unwelcome puzzle, one piece at a time.

He was cerrain he liked Nikki, as a person. She was fun, annoying at times without a doubt, but was so uncompromisingly herself, he couldn't help be in awe from a far at times. She was nuts, definitely, but far more adventurous than probably any boy or girl he'd ever met. Always a smile, always an idea -good or bad- always down for some nutty shenanigans, she was open minded, and accepting.

Fuck...

Plus how many people have purple eyes? And green hair? Naturally too, or at least he thought so. Her voice too, the raspy voice kinda just worked for her, he thought. She was like, exotic, and weird, but it was good- it was cool! She was unique, almost one of a kind; in his mind anyway. He was certain  he's never known anyone like her...

Fuck!...

Rounding it all out: he wondered how he couldn't reapect her, after all, she- like Neil, never casted judgment on him for who he was, or what he did, even though he gave them more than enough reason. She listened to him... talked to him... trusted him... cared about him... 

FUCK!

The thought terrified him, the feeling of knowing too much, THINKING too much, it floored him almost. He was breathing hard all of a sudden, eyes were wide, hands starting to sweat. Why had he allowed himself to lose his train of thought like that? Why did he let himself entertain such childish- unrealistic expectations and emotions!? He logged off the computer and sprinted to his room. A milliom thoughts swirling in his head, non of them good.

Fool

Id10 t

youdontdeservetofeelgoodShecouldneverloveyou

Sheprobablyonlytoleratesyou

everyoneyouknowhatesyouwhyareyoupretendingyoucaree StupidboyYou deserve no one and nothing  

 Udsrv2diealoneuWILLdeyealonefaliureweaklingyoucantsaveyourselfyoudeservethisyoudeservethisyoudeservepainpainpainpainpainPAINPAINPAINPAINPAINPAINPAINPAINSUFFERSUFFERSUFFERSUFFERNOTHINGWORTHLESSFOOLDESPAIRDESPAIRFEARSADSORROWPAINFURYIDIOTSTUPIDCHILDALLYOUDOISHURTANDDESTROYYOUREWHYTHECAMPCLOSED

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED 

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED 

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED 

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED 

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED 

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED 

YOU'RE WHY THE CAMP CLOSED 

YOU'RE WHY THE- 

He thought of whoever, and whatever he could. He didn't know how to do what he was imagining, but, he had to get this out of him, this... this pain... this agony, it was eating him alive! He was starting to feel good... he was doing this, he could do this, he was in control. Not the past. Not these destructive thoughts, not his bitterness, not his hate. He wasn't afraid; this wasn't running away. 

He fought with all his heart to have no shame. Using everyone he could to help himself expel these feelings even for a moment. He didn't care how he felt, or if it was wrong, he didn't care if his hands smelled weird, he wanted this, he needed this.

Except for Gwen, the Mothers, and her. He wouldn't- couldn't use her. He didn't know why, he didn't care, he just knew he couldn't.

He had no idea what he was even coming up with, in his tortured mind. What he was having this girls do. He had no idea how to even attempt these things he was conjuring, he was sure he was too young to be doing this, but, he blocked it all out, he couldn't stop, not now.

When he eventually finished, the weight that was compressing his chest was temporarily alleviated. It felt wonderful. No worries. No fears, nothing. Just him. Just him and the warm and fuzzy afterglow.

He wobbled himself out of bed, and made his way to the bathroom, and grabbed a change of clothes on his way out, figuring he might as well shower. He walked in, stripped and turned the wafer on, standing off to the side waiting for it to warm up.

As he waits, his eyes drifted towards the big bathroom mirror. He sees himself, and without meaning to, he looks at himself. Really looks at himself- through himself, for what feels like the first time. He looks at his big, curly head of hair. He can't remember the last time he cut it, or even combed it. He just didn't care. His eyes descended upon his flat, square chest. The slightest foreshadowing of chest hair was slowly but surely budding out of the pores- he was skinny, and lanky, arms thin but no muscle, neck slightly longer than he'd like it to be. His armpits were the first thing to get hairy, to his itchy annoyance. He didn't put on deodorant often. Didn't see the need. No one got close to him anyway, and it's not like he hugged his parents. His belly was almost nonexistent, not completely malnourished, so not showing ribcage or anything, but just a flat, unimpressive stomach. His lower half was still stained, soon to be cleaned by the shower. His legs had sprouted, longer than he thought they'd be, but just barely bringing him to five feet.

He looked himself in the eyes. Replaying moments of his life to himself. Every time his mother called him a disappointment, everytime his father hit him, being bullied in school for being a loner, and looking different. He remembered the favorites the teachers would play; the victim blaming they would subject him to, how he begged them and his parents to believe him, but how they would just shake their heads in disappointment. He remembered getting beat up in and out of school, girls pretending to like him, then pranking him, the boys harassing him in the bathrooms, being shunned by the Indian community for being 'white washed', as they called it.

He remembered David. Wanting to ruin his life. How he hated him. How he came to respect him. How he tried to ruin him. He remembered Gwen, how he endlessly rubbed her failures in her face, with sadistic glee. He remembered how he pressured Neil and Nikki to go through with his crazy ideas. He remembered how many times he almost died, how many times he almost got others hurt, and killed.

He remembers his isolation, every mistake, every bad decision, every tear shed, every scrapped knee, all the hurt he's caused, lives he's made worse, every day he's ever ruined that brought him to where he is right now, and he looks at that reflection in the mirror. He stares deep into those meadow green eyes of his, into his heart, into his soul, he thinks back hard on the last few years, he thinks of everything he's ever done and everyone he's ever met. He looks at himself, and reaches a conclusion that he's known deep down for a long time, but never really knew, or had the courage to admit.

"I hate myself."

The warmth now feels a million miles away.

Chapter Text

Age 10...

Nikki was bummed out; watching Max slowly disappear from her view, as the car drove away. She didn't expect to nor wanted to leave Camp Camp, she liked it there! She got to run around, get dirty, act crazy, climb stuff- it was almost perfect!

But I guess it's not all bad! I lost camp, but I got a brother!

She looked over at Neil and smiled a big smile to herself. She really liked Neil; he'd become one of her best friends over the summer, and now, they'd get to spend every day together! His gaze was facing the window, chin on his hand. He didn't look particularly happy, and that confused Nikki.

How could he not be excited!? We'll get to share a room, we can stay up late and swap stories at bedtime- everyday can be a new adventure! He can be the Wendy to my Peter Pan! 

When her Mother had told her the news that they were moving in with Neil and his Dad immediately, Nikki was through the roof. She got a partner in crime, her Mom found 'love'- all was well in her eyes, but Neil seemed tense, maybe even upset? Seeing now as a good time as any to try and start making plans, Nikki turned to the boy next to her, and tried to open up a conversation.

"So Neil! What are we gonna do first when we get home!?"

Neil dragged his eyes over to his fellow backseat passenger, cocking in eyebrow in confusion.

"What are you talking about?"

"Well we're brother and sister now! We got a few weeks until school, so without Camp Camp, we gotta figure out how we're gonna kill time! I'm thinking we start digging under the house to look for fossils!"

"Tch... Nikki don't get too ahead of yourself. This farce of an affair between our parents is just that."

The green haired youth tilted her head, not understanding Neil.

"Whaddya mean?"

"I mean this isn't going to last that long so don't get used to the idea of-"

"No- 'farce', what does 'farce' mean?"

Neil pinched the bridge of his nose; frustrated. 

"What I mean is, this isn't going to last long, we're probably going to go our separate ways by tomorrow, so by proxy- we are not brother and sister. They'll probably -hopefully- wake up tomorrow and they'll both realize this was a dumb idea."

Nikkie was a little hurt by Neil's blunt dismissal of them being siblings, but, she wasn't going to let that hold her back.

"Aw come on Neil, don't be like that- our folks really hit it off! I can tell my Mom really likes your Dad!"

Neil rolled his eyes at Nikki's idealism.

"Really? And how do you suppose you know that?"

"Pfft well it's not everyday Mom remembers someones name! Plus your Dad's super nice- how could this go anyway but right!?"

"You can't be serious..."

Nikki let out a laugh and playfully slugged Neil's shoulder. 

"Better believe it Bro! This was some 'meant-to-be' kind of stuff right here!"

Neil rubbed his arm with a particularly sour scowl on his face.

"Whatever."

Taken aback by Neil's seemingly determined mindset to tear this newfound union apart, she tried to reach out to him once more. She placed one of her rough hands on his shoulder. 

"Come on Neil, I'll be a great lil' sister! We can sneak staying up late, watch Godzilla movies, go through the confusing journey of puberty together, talk about girls-"

Before she could finish, the boy in question, quite harshly, shoved her hand off of himself.

"Nikki!" He raised his voice in frustration. 

"Don't worry, we'll talk about boys too!"

"Christ Nikki, do you really not-!" He steadied himself before he continued. "Just leave me alone..."

Nikki was even more confused than she was a minute ago. Why was Neil not as happy about this as she was? They were best friends turned siblings! He should be happy too, shouldn't he? 

Does... does Neil not like me? Pfft nah of course not- we're best buddies- like me and Max! He just needs time, it's a lot to take in, I'm sure. I'll be the best sister he could ever want!

The rest of the car ride home proved more or less relaxing for Neil, but completely nerve-wracking for Nikki. Every time she tried to engage him, or open up a dialogue, the boy would either reiterate to leave him alone, or just ignore her all together. She tried to remain optimistic but it was getting harder and harder as each minute of the several hour long ride home ticked by. Was he angry, she thought to herself? Was he angry at her? Nikki wasn't a fan of thinking these kind of things, but she couldn't help herself, she was getting worried and nervous. 

Just... gotta wait 'til we get home. Once we unpack and unwind, he'll come around. 

They finally arrived at Neil and his Father's house. A quiet little place, in a suburban area away from the city.  Neil, still wearing the same scowl he had been all day, exited the car with his bag in a huff. Not waiting for her Mom, Nikki ran after Neil, in an attempt to follow him- making her way into the house, bag slung around her arm.

The house was structured as such: when you enter the house, you're immediately in the livingroom, to your right is the kitchen, in front of you is a hallway, and to your left a fireplace, and a couch. So when Neil stormed in, he beelined down the hall, which at the end had three doors: the left his Father's, center his, and to the right the bathroom. Nikki was just on Neil's heels when he got to his room, and slammed the door behind him, making Nikki jump.

Now her feelings were starting to get hurt. Her eyes became downcast as her shoulders slumped, her bag slipping off her arm.

Why is he so angry? Was it something I did?...

Before she could get too far in that particular thought process, a hand softly laid itself on her right shoulder, she turned around to see Neil's Father.

"Hey now, don't you let him get you down, he just needs some time. Why I remember when my Father spontaneously jumped headfirst into a new relationship with a woman with a kid!"

"Really? Well... how did that go?"

"Oi vey, it was horrible... she smacked me around when he wasn't looking, and verbally beat me into submission- hurting me in ways I couldn't tell ya if I wanted to, and most likely stunted my mental growth somewhere along the way. She did give me my sister though."

"Oh... uh... w-well how was she?"

"Eech- don't get me started! She use to bully and shun me in front of her friends for kicks, knowing they could antagonize me and I couldn't do a darn thing. I couldn't argue back cause Ma and Pop would smack me, and obviously I couldn't fight back cause they were girls, and the school didn't do anything because they thought I was overreacting."

"...... K, um... I-I'm sorry, what's the moral of this story?..."

The man kneeled down, so as to make level eye contact with Nikki.

"The moral if the story is: life is hard, childhood especially, but it all works itself out in the end."

"Oh..." Nikki muttered out, a smile slowly returning to her face. "A-and how did everything work out for you? Did you eventually work through your issues with your family?"

"Ha, ha, oh goodness no, I left as soon as I was eighteen. Worked myself to the bone to put me through college for a doctorate in Philosophy that, while symbolically proving myself better than my neglectful family thought I was, it lead to a first marriage that fell apart, a son that I love more than anything but he thinks my job I worked for years to get to is a joke- and who preferes his she-devil of a Mother. On top of all that, I can't seem to connect to him on an emotional level no matter what I try." He declared, with a big smile on his face, bright as the sun.

"... ... I'm uh..." She started, turning her back to him. "I'm just gonna go unpack now..."

The fantastic motivational speaker patted her on the back in encouragement. 

"You go right ahead green bean." He said, going off to find Candy.

Resolving to pretend this conversation didn't happen, Nikki slowly opened the door to her new room.

The room wasn't huge, and Nikki wasn't the best at measurements, but it looked like there was enough room for both of them. Neil was laying on the bed, very intensively reading through a National Geographic book, Nikki arched her head to read the cover; it was about Marine Biology. Maybe Neil wanted to take up fishing, she thought.

Not in a hurry to engage him in conversation again, she set her bag down in a corner of the room, and kept to herself as she quietly looked around Neil's room. There wasn't much, a dresser, a desk, a bookshelf and a TV were immediately noticable. She walked over to the bookshelf first; on her left. Naturally, she did not immediately recognize any of the titles, and their subject matter. Several books by a guy named Malcolm Gladwell, a book by a man named Hobbes, a book of poetry by Charles Bukowski, and... several books about Walt Disney?

Neil likes Disney movies?... Ha! I would have never guessed.

There were a lot of story books Nikki didn't recognize either, titles like: Catcher In The Rye, Where The Crawdads Sing, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Tietam Brown, Glass Crown, like eight books by Nora Roberts.

Wow... so much grown up reading- Neil must be really really smart- smarter than I even thought! He's so cool... I wonder if he could help me in school? I'd graduate with flying colors for sure! MY shelves back home don't look anything like this, it's mostly Jules Verne, and comic books; and Greatest Detective or not- I don't think Batman will help me learn Math...

Her eyes wandered to the dresser, not long, it was a simple brown box; tall enough for four drawers. Atop it sat a Playstation 4 console.

Oh sweet! Always was more of a Sony kinda gal. Sorry Master Cheif...

His desk was cluttered; she noticed after looking away from the dresser, pencils, and pens thrown about, papers with various writing and numbers about them, a couple figures of what she assumed were of characters from a video game Neil must have liked. No movies, or games were seen, but perhaps they were secured somewhere.

Her scan complete, Nikki wore a bright smile- she thought this room was great! She was even more excited then she was earlier. She wanted to say something to Neil about it, but when her eyes laid on him, he was still lying there, barely budging, reading his book. For some reason, she became nervous again at the idea of talking to Neil. His hostility earlier was finally setting in, and, it made her uncomfortable all of a sudden.

Why was he so mean to me? Aren't we friends? He didn't want to talk to me at all... it was like he barely knew me. Why though? He and I did plenty together at Camp, what's the difference now?

Realizing she was staring, she quickly turned around. Should she read a book? No, no that wouldn't be a good idea, she didn't have the confidence to try and understand what looked like books with too big of words. Her Mom hadn't brought over her comic books yet either. Ask to play a game? Well now, that was a no too, it might look rude- she just got there after all. His toys didn't look like playing toys, and she hadn't watched TV in years.

Puffing out a sigh, she decided to walk over to her bag, lay down, and use it as a pillow. Folding her hands behind her head, crossed her right leg over her left, she lied back, relaxed and just- sat there, thinking. There wasn't anything to do, and maybe it was Neil's pessimism getting to her, but, she didn't feel like running around the yard just yet.

She didn't like to think a lot. Not in an airheaded sense-Nikki was a fully capable of above average cognitive prowess; but rather because, when she thought too much, she remembered too much, and when she remembered too much, she hurt too much. After all, you didn't tell your new friends everything, did you Nikki?

Come on, don't think about it, don't think about it... darn it I'm thinking about it! How am I suppose to forget though? What Sasha, her friends and Miss Pr-

Her eyes widened, breath quickened. 

Stop... stop...  this isn't you - this isn't ME! I-I'M not like this, I'm fun! I run around, jump around... I-I'm unironically quirky and fun! Just.... just forget... forget... think about something else and repress, repress...

...

...

...

...

I wonder how Max is doing?...

Nikki hadn't really given Max much thought today, and the realization made her feel a little bad. Max being Max obviously didn't clue his friends in much to his home life- just cryptic, cynical comments here and there, that Nikki after a point just considered character quirks. Max didn't even tell her and Neil how his night with David and Gwen went, he didn't get the chance to, granted, but she wanted to know. She liked Max- he could be mean, but he was always fun to be around! She liked that for the most part; he let her be herself.

Come to think of it, he hugged us when we left today... he hugged us... he... he never did that before today- I THINK. Is... is he ok? He looked so sad when we left, and... and it seemed like he thought we were never gonna see him again- OH NO! I didn't give him a way to reach me! Did Neil? I don't think so, he didn't say anything... I should talk to Neil about this, maybe he knows, or has an idea.

Nikki opened her mouth to say something, but closed it after a quick thought.

No I should ease him into it, I don't wanna make him mad again, I have to play it cool, and calm; nonchalant- like Ered! Yeah, like her.

She steeled herself, she didn't like being nervous around Neil, but, he put her in this position. She made a mental note to ask him some day about it.

Ok... come on... just ask him- say something- anything! Break the silence... it's making me start to itch.

"... ... u-um... hey Neil?"

No response, just the sound of a page turning.

"... I-I really like your room- it's cool."

Silence.

"I looked through your books a bit- I-I didn't touch anything! But, uh, they look real grown up and interesting, I don't think I'd even understand them, ha ha."

She heard him breathe in through his nostrils. 

"... What games ya got?"

...

"Any sweet action movies?..."

...

...

...

"... ... Do you think Max is ok-"

"For fucks sake Nikki leave me alone!" He yelled, throwing his book at the wall.

The sudden exclamation made her jump- feeling the shock more than the hurt temporarily. 

"Geez what's wrong Neil?? Why are you so angry at me!?"

"This isn't about YOU! I'm fucking livid at life right now- don't you see that!?"

Nikki got up from her spot, standing in front of the still laying down Neil.

"But why!? I was excited coming here, I thought we were gonna have fun together!"

"Fun!?" He asked with an incredulous expression. "FUN!?" He repeated, standing up, looking down at Nikki. "Christ Nikki, tell me you're smarter than that!"

If the girl in question was more susceptible to crying, she probably would have at her supposed friends harshness.

"Can't you understand how this is hard for me right now!? My stupid damn dad, who in case you haven't noticed, I dislike immensely, is in a new relationship with some gold digging trailer park TRASH he just met!-"

"Don't talk about my mom like that!"

"- and she brought her nutty daughter with her! I'll tell you why this isn't 'fun' for me, and why I am NOT GOING to have fun! Do you understand how big of a change this is!? I can't go to my Mom cause of legal bullshit, my Dad won't even let me see her, I'm back with him earlier than I wanted to be, school starts soon, and now, I'm stuck here with you! All my privacy, all my 'me time'- has been evaporated!"

"But I, I-I thought we could hang out! Do stuff together; bond! We're friends, aren't we?..."

"Yes Nikki, but come on, I don't wanna live with you! I don't wanna live with ANYONE I don't have to. I'm a lonely kid who keeps to himself- and I LIKE it that way, you and Max were different, sure, but that was an exception of circumstance."

"But-"

"It's one thing to know someone, it's something else entirely to live with them, Nikki, there are 'things' that come with living with another person, compromises, conflict, tension, just layers upon layers of BULLSHIT that I don't want to deal with!"

Nikki's head dipped at Neil's words.

"My Dad's in a relationship he shouldn't be in, with someone he or I don't really know; and look, I'm sorry if I can't fulfill whatever childish ideas you cooked up in your head, but this isn't easy for me to just accept! My life; my whole status quo has just shifted dramatically, and I'm being expected to just smile and forget about it!? Maybe you can just go through life, all wide eyed and innocent, going with the flow, and thinking as long as you can run around and make random non-sequiturs, and get mud on your clothes things are fine, but I can't! And they're not! Things are NOT fine! This is real life, and sooner or later you're gonna realize this wasn't going to be all fun and games anyway. Aren't you curious WHY you're Mom is even with my Dad?? Cause he has a lot of money! Lots of money, actually has insurance, and absolutely no consideration for his only son! Did he even think of me? Or how I would feel about all this? Did he care about what I thought? Or how I felt? No! He never does! He never considers my feelings or opinions about ANY. GOD. DAMMED. THING!" Neil punctuated the sentiments with a fist to the wall. "He never gives a shit about what I want!  He didn't ask me what I wanted or if I thought this was a good idea- and you know why?? Cause if he DID, Id've looked him in the eye and said: I DON'T want a new stepmom, I DON'T want to be mixed up with your nonsense, I DON'T want the obligation of having to share my room, my house, and my bathroom, with someone else, I DON'T like the idea of you trying to replace Mom, and I DON'T want a sister!"

Just then the door opened. 

"Heya kids! Nikki's Mother and I are running to the store for dinner, be right back, play nice!"

And then it was shut. Things were quiet for a minute. 

"And as for Max? I'm sure he's fine, who cares- why do you care? Do you think he's worried about us at all? Do you honestly think, knowing him, that he's wasting a second of his time thinking about someone else's well being? He probably thinks this whole thing is funny! He never cared about us whenever we were going through tough shit, he just laughed!"

"That's not true!"

"Are you kidding me? We're talking about the same kid right? The kid who made David's life hell everyday? The same kid who gloated to us about how he drove Gwen insane when he spent a whole day making fun of her failures and was the catalyst for making her cry infront of him and David? The same kid that put both if our lives in danger multiple times, and refused to have even the most basic sense of self awareness? Now look. Don't get me wrong, I like him, he's still a friend, but facts are facts, and honestly? If his home life was so bad, he would have told us instead of cryptically alluding to it all time, and spending the whole summer almost getting us killed, and ruining everyone's good mood. "

Nikki's hands turned into fists at her sides, those comments had really gotten to her, because of some reason that she couldn't quite place.

"Whatever, that's not important; my point is,  just leave me alone."

Nikki tried her best to steady her breathing, not wanting to look weak.

"Ok, Neil..."

Chapter Text

Age 10...

Nikki sat alone in the backyard, legs crisscrossed, drawing pictures in the dirt. The yard in Carl's house was as basic as you could get- there were no toys, or jungle gym type structures; just grass, dirt, the fence surrounding the land, and a slightly above averagly tall tree in the back corner of the yard. There was nothing new, or exciting; no plants she hadn't seen before, no bugs she hadn't picked up; the benefits of living with her Mom in the trailer park they'd lived in prior were: it was bigger, and since Candy had known everyone in the park for the most part- Nikki could go anywhere within the confines as much as she wanted to. This 'new setting' however, was boring, and predictable. Nikki couldn't complain too, much she supposed; at least she could go outside, and that was enough for her. That's what she told herself, anyway.

It had been at this point several days since she and her Mother arrived, and while things for the adults were seemingly going fine, things couldn't be worse for the two 'friends'. Nikki tried to engage Neil again over the last few days, but all in vain; he was adamant about keeping to himself, and reiterated himself to Nikki everytime she tried. What's worse is, she had a creeping suspicion that when school started, it would be a very similar experience. She racked her brain trying to understand why Neil had suddenly turned heel on her like this, it didn't seem right.

He was so angry at me, it doesn't make sense... I guess I see why he would have been so mad at his Dad, but he didn't have to yell at me, or call my Mom trailer park trash- that was rude and uncalled for! Is there something I'm missing? I think I remember Neil getting annoyed at Camp, but there were other feelings too, he was patient --well more than Max- creative, always had witty and funny things to say, and even when he got angry, there was never this much... what's the word I'm looking for... heat? When Max got angry, it was more of an annoyed type of angry, I guess? Not really venomous, I think that's the word I'm thinking of, and he never yelled at me like that. Sure he didn't have nice things to say all the time, but, he didn't hurt my feelings like Neil did. I'm still sore about what he said about Max, I wanna talk to him about it, but, that would just make things worse... he'd probably think I'm weird for getting offended by what he said. IS it weird? I mean... Max is my friend, but I don't know... I don't normally get that defensive over someone saying something about someboy else.  Aaaagh this is weird! This never would have happend if Neil didn't go all nuts on me- for no reason- I didn't even do anything!

She flopped onto her back in frustration, frowning at the sky.

Come on, you can't let this get to you- I'm outside! I'm Nikki! I should be running around, digging for stuff, or catching bugs, dirtying up my clothes, getting some scrapes and bruises! This moping around isn't me, and I'm not going to let Neil being a spoilsport ruin my time here.

Successfully re-strengthening her resolve, Nikki rose as fast as she could, and rushed to the tree in the yards corner. Once she got there, she gave the tree a quick survey; getting her bearings. The tree was a dark, rich brown, the leaves subtly beginning to redden ever so slightly, teasing that Fall was just around the corner. She couldn't gauge how old it was or was not; it was old enough to have sections of tree bark separated from the trunk, but Nikki also guessed it looked young enough to support her weight. She looked up, branches looming over her, casting a shadow. She wasn't intimidated, this was child's play for her.

She placed her rough hands on the tree, feeling around for a good enough place to grip, making sure to minimize the amount of splinters and potential give away. Nikki didn't really know the names of trees, other than obvious ones like Pine, or Oak trees, a Redwood even perhaps- so while she may not know it's name, she knew better than to underestimate Nature.

As one or her favorite comic book villians said once: 'Nature always wins'.

Feeling that she'd found suitable grip, she grabbed onto the tree, placing her right foot upon it- trying to feel for a spot the soles of her shoes could latch onto. She would have to get kind of lucky with her left foot when it was time to climb, but usually, she had no trouble finding leverage once she started actually moving. She felt a smile developing on her face, as a sensation of giddiness nestled its way into her belly. This was the kind of stuff you lived for, right Nikki? You didn't philosophize like your friends; you did things- you had fun! Didn't you?

Getting her bearings in order, she started to ascend the tree. Up and up she went, with nary a care in the world, unusually proud of herself for doing such an ordinarily simple task, for her mind you. 

See? Easy peezy lemony squeezy! You were worried over nothing. 

As she ascended the tree, she was already starting to feel like her cloudcuckoolander self again.

So whaaaat if things didn't start out as smoothly as they could have- it can get better! It's weird not being at the trailer park, but hey, change takes time! Mom's adjusted fine, I'm doing... well ok things could be a lot better tbh, but overall, things are good! Who cares if school is almost here and I'll have to make new friends again? I've done it before! So what if Neil doesn't like me anymore, I'll just-

Wait, DOES Neil not like me anymore?

That one temporary lapse in judgment was enough for Nikki to accidentally misplace her right foot ever so slightly, then next thing she knew, she was slipping off. Had she been in a more focused state of mind, perhaps she could have steadied herself- better yet, this wouldn't have happened at all, but, there she was: tumbling down, down, down until with a flat 'thud' her back hit the dirt, knocking the wind out of her body. The shock hurt more than the pain- she hadn't been able to not climb a tree since she was a little girl. She struggled for several seconds trying to catch her breath; no injuries, but definitely would feel sore later. Nothing she wasn't used to.

Ooowwwww... what happened??? That hasn't happened in years... no this- this was a fluke! I'll get it this time, it's not even that tough of a tree!

Dusting herself off, she approached the trunk again, ready for a second attempt. She assumed a similar position to last time; the wear and tear on the tree, while present, shouldn't cause any problems. Once she was set, she started making her way up, once again.

Ok, ok, I just lost focus for a second, I let Neil get to me, this time, I just have to think positive! Yeah, gotta smile, and power on through, I have to convert this negative energy into positve energy! 

It seemed to be working, as she got further up the tree then last time. Up and up she scaled, with a slight trepidation in her movements, but still full of a youthful valor.

Just tune it all out, and not think about anything bad. Don't think about Mom, or Dad, Neil's bad attitude, don't think about Camp, school, the series finale to Legendary Defender, the Flower Scou- 

*YOU'RE HURTING ME!*

And once again, down, down, down she fell, not as graceful as the time before- instead of landing mostly on her back, a good deal of her weight shifted to the right of her hip.

Dammit- what is wrong with me!? I've never had this much trouble climbing such a simple tree; a tree in a backyard of all things! WHAT IS- ok calm down, breathe, you're thinking too much, that's all, Mom always said I do better when I barely think at all! Just... just try again.

Once again dusting herself off, and once again approaching the tree, she, once again, made an attempt to climb it. This time she shifted around to the trees right, the side she'd used previously had become too worn to risk putting weight on it. This side was rougher than the last, more bark was exposed, the risk of cuts and maybe splinters was increased, but at this point, Nikki didn't really care; too caught up with trying to complete this, seemingly now difficult task.

It's just a little skin. It'll be tougher for next time.

Third time is the charm, so they say. Rubbing her hands together anxiously, she felt around the new area of tree, a little more recklessly than she should have. She was impatient, tense; this had ceased to be recreational fun, and had turned into an obstacle. Throwing caution to the wind, Nikki grabbed hold of the tree, and began once more. Up and up she climbed, determined to reach her goal.

Ok, ok just breathe, and keep calm- new idea: convert the negative, heavy energy, into positve, useful energy- BUT, actively make sure to think positive thoughts! What's positive, what's positive... well, it's a nice day out! Sun shinin', birds a-chirpin', barely any clouds in the sky. That's right, you love being out here! I should be a cool archeologist one day- like Indiana Jones! Or a daring adventurer like Robinson Crusoe!

Her new line of thinking seemed to be working out; she reached the halfway point once again. She paid no mind to the ache in her palms.

Ok, so far so good! What else makes me happy? Hmm... well, I love my Mom, I'd probably love Dad if I met him, Football is awesome, I LOVE wrestling, especially the Japanese stuff where they hit harder.

Almost there.

I love exploring, getting messy, and dirty, I like bugs, and snakes- ooo I really liked taking care of that platypus egg. 

Inches away...

Man. There's a LOT of stuff I love! I never really thought about it! Things like the ocean, aliens... UNDERWATER Aliens, monsters, ghost stories, government conspiracy theories, Baby Metal, Harley Quinn, Max, The Punisher, Big Hero 6, cartoons, Rick and Mor-

Wait- MAX!?!?

And the green haired girl came down, down, down- instinctively, she tried to reach out and grab something, but unfortunately, all that happened was her right hand scraped against the tree as she fell. She pulled away before she hit the ground, but the damage was done. Lodged in her hand were three pieces of tree bark, one near the center of her palm, one under the middle finger, and the third next to her thumb. It hurt, of course, but Nikki didn't pay as much attention to it as she should- too focused on her recent failures.

What the hell, man- this is BULLCRAP!

She lay on the ground for a few moments; twice now today Nikki laid on her back glaring at the sky. 

This is stupid -this is so stupid- why is this happening??? Why am I thinking so much? I don't do this, I don't waste my time thinking about how I feel, or let people hurt my feelings- I'm Nikki! I'm supposed to be a fun, crazy, wild child! I act first ask questions later! If I were a character in a series of book, or a TV show; I couldn't BE more out of character right now!

Using her uninjured hand, she smacked the ground in frustration. 

Dammit Neil, this is all your fault! I just wanted to have fun, and you ruined it for me! You're the one that got me thinking and feeling all funny. First you hurt my feelings, then you yell at me, then you shit-talk Max, now I can't climb up a freakin tree! My brain... it hurts... I can't deal with this right now, and this stupid hand of mine....

Nikki turned her head over to look at the damage. She could see the pieces of tree in her skin, they were not terribly big, but big enough for her to handle on her own.

At least Mom won't have to do it... 

Sitting up and crossing her legs once more, she went to work extracting the wood. She began with the one in the center of her hand, being careful not to remove it too quickly- in an attempt to reduce splinters.

Ok, I admit -ow- not my best day... what happened to me? Couple days ago, I'm my usual, high on life self, next minute, I'm questioning my eccentric way of life, like some kinda deconstructive narrative fanfiction about Pinkie Pie, or Goku... wait a minute...

'Deconstructive narritive'???

I don't talk like that! I don't think like that! What the hell is wrong with meeeeeeaaaaaaaaaa-

"-aaaaaaaOOOOWWWW!!!"

And with a mighty pull, the piece of wood was removed from her hand. A small amount of blood leaked out of the fresh wound, it would certainly scab, potentially even scar. The girl wasn't too concerned about it however; as she had already begun to extract the splinter bark from under her middle finger. A fitting location, considering her current mood. 

Ok, you know what -ow- it is? I just need stop thinking! No -ouch dammit!- memories, no pondering about my current dilemmas, no music on repeat; just don't think about anything- anything at all! That's what Mom would tell me to do... actually... come to think about it, why does Mom tell me not to think so much? Is she really trying to help me, or?... Now that I think about it, does she actually listeeeeeeeeAAAA

"AAH! Son of a-!"

She halfway exclaimed, successfully taking out the second piece of wood. Once again, blood left her body, and again, not enough to draw concern -at least from her- although this experience left her feeling more sore than she'd thought she'd be. Deciding to give her senses a break, she allowed herseld a minute to breathe before getting to the last piece, punctuated with her falling backwards to the dirt, gaze directed once again towards the cloudy sky.

Breathe... breathe... bre- oh for God's sake, I know breathing helps me calm down! But how can I stay calm with all this n o i s e in my head!?

She balled up her left fist, and lifted it upward.

I don't need to be calm, I need to be strong, fight my way through this- power through it! That's the only way I'll beat this, I'm climbing this tree... I'm climbing this tree!

She vowed, bringing her fist down to the dirt.

Ok... let's retrace our steps. You were at Camp, things were fine. Made some new friends, went on some wacky adventures, things were definitely fine. Parent's Day come around, Mom and Carl hit it off, things are fine. You come home, Neil now inexplicably hates you , you're questioning every aspect of your life, which is unlike you, you're asking big questions you normally don't, which is unlike you, my confidence is shattered, and oh yeah- I CAN'T CLIMB THIS STUPID TREE WITHOUT SOME RANDOM TRAIN OF THOUGHT DERAILING MY CONCENTRATION!!

sigh... what is wrong with me? I couldn't be more out of character if I tried... out of character? What IS my character anyway? I'm like... wild and crazy, I guess, but I'm not a monster... I'm a girl; not girly -God no- but I'm not... 'boy-like' either... I don't think... I'm not all that smart but I know I'm not dumb... Neil says I'm naive, school psyche's used to say I was too free-spirited, but like, isn't that what I'm suppose to be? I'm ten! Mom doesn't think I'm weird, although I still get the feeling like she doesn't really listen to me...she never answers questions about her past, she never talks about Dad, she didn't even seem to notice what those stupid Flower Scouts did to me- I'm I really that transparent unless I'm yelling and breaking stuff?? Carl is nice but... but what if... what if we stay here long enough for him to ignore me too?? What if he's just playing nice with me so he gets brownie points with Mom??? What if-

STOP!! For God's sake- what am I doing? I'm suppose to be sorting this out, but instead I feel like I'm- like I'm just listing off random events and character traits! I'm not some character sheet for a Dungeon and Dragons avatar, or some fictionalized conception based on someone else- I'm a person! And HOLY CRAP my hand is on fire. I gotta get that last piece of tree out of there...

 

Sitting up, Nikki looked to her injured hand; chastising herself for allowing the wound to go untreated for as long as it did. Just as she had done before, she grabbed hold of the bark, and began to slowly remove it.

Course I'm ignoring the biggest mental elephant in the room, aren't I?

Max...

Of course I realize that I mentioned him on my list of things I loved. That was just heat of the moment right? I mean... the idea is completely ridiculous, I don't... I don't even know what love is! Loving your Mom is one thing, or a form of entertainment is one thing too, but another person that's outside of your family; that's... that's just weird. Weird and scary. Is there a word for liking a friend, like, a lot, but, without actually... 'like' liking them?? I don't know... this is so confusing... Maybe this is something I should actually ask Mom. I mean she should know right? But then again... love is suppose to last forever, isn't it? The love between people, and friends; happily ever after, or whatever? Can't be though, cause if that were true, then Mom and Dad would still be together... right? U-um... d-does Mom love Carl? That... that doesn't really make sense, now that I think about it... they met almost two weeks ago. What if he'll try to take advantage of her!? Or wait... could... what if Mom is taking advantage of him? How does that work? Mom said men are the ones that take advantage of people... besides she- she wouldn't do that, would she? What if- AGH!

And finally the last piece was removed. Nikki moved from her sitting postion to take a prone position on her knees, she took a second to observe her new scars. She was certain they would blend in with the others in time, but for now, she was feeling... apprehensive to the idea.

Normally when something like this happened, Nikki, no matter how battered, bruised, or even bloodied she would get, she'd be able to just kip up, dust herself off, and keep going no problem. Scars were cool, she always thought to herself, but for inexplicable reasons, she found the idea of more scars to be... unappealing. 

People already look at me like I'm a freak... 'ooo look at the girl with the ugly hands!' 

'Look at the girl who isn't like the other girls!'

'Look at the kid with the green hair! Did she dye it?'

As she began to slowly lose herself in the descending spiral of her thoughts, she lowered her head, in thought, in hurt, in confusion, and in pain. Her hands unconsciously became fists at her sides. She ignored the stinging that came from her bloody left hand.

Why does everyone treat me like that, anyway? I've never hurt anybody! I did nothing to deserve what those Flower bitches did to me! I didn't deserve Neil yelling at me, o-or everyone thinking I'm not smart! All I've ever tried to do was be myself- that's what you're suppose to do right!? Especially in America, right!? It's the current freakin' year, people should be who they are, RIGHT!? I don't get it, what... what... what did I do wrong....

To her complete shock, and almost horror, she was taken out of her stupor temporarily by the feeling of a drop of wetness kissing her knee. A tear. She had cried. 

Now for some, this is one of those therapeutic type of things,  but... well... as I'm sure it's being made clear, things are not so simple for our cast of characters,  ha ha ha...

A tear?... wait... I cried? I-I cried!? 

In a flurry she brought both of her dirty, rough, and in ones case, bloodied, hands to her eyes, desperately rubbing at them hoping she was wrong.

I... I... no... NO! I'm not suppose to cry! Crying is... crying is weakness! I-I... Crying is for weak minded girls who can't take care of themselves, and for boys who can't handle their own problems- that's what Mom taught me! She can't be wrong... she can't- I'm not weak! Adventurers don't cry! Mom doesn't cry! Ered and Gwen never cried- I don't think! Oh, but wait, Max told us how he made her cry- MAX!

This all yours and Neil's fault! I never thought like this until I moved in with Neil- until I met you!

The pressure and noise that she was unaccustomed to was becoming a bit much. Her hands found themselves gripping her hair, Nikki desperately trying to calm herself. These feelings of existentialism, and self-doubt, they were new to her, you see. And, the funny thing is, these feelings have a way of creeping up on you and taking you by suprise, either slowly building up, and coming together in one big glorious breaking point. Of course, there's always the classic: sneaks up on you out of nowhere and SMACKS YOU ACROSS THE FACE WITH A DEAFENING SOUND. 

Max and Neil of course had prior experiences with these feelings, and thoughts. Neithers way if coping was preferable mind you, but then again, what can you do? Especially if you're a child trying to figure all of this out on your own. Nikki, well, poor thing wasn't accustomed to these sort of affairs. Oh sure, jumping around and getting dirty was easy, but try to ask the basic of questions about herself, that didn't immediately dissolve into her trying to come up with something other than being a wide-eyed, high on life tomboy? Well, you can see how that turns out.

Come on Nikki, breathe, breathe, you know  that's not fair to think about him like that; Max was good to you. I mean sure he was a little rude, told you to shut up a few times, but he did that with everyone; he didn't treat anyone special. In a way I liked that about him. He was honest, and never not himself; I respect that about him. If he's cool with you, he's really cool with you, and even if you annoy him, he never tells you to not be yourself. I don't know why all of a sudden Neil has beef with him, and I have even less of an idea why it bugged me so much he talked bad about him... I don't know... I need... I-I need to get out of here- I need to go inside... get this stupid hand wrapped up...

Slowly, Nikki rose to her feet, shakier than she'd liked to have been. Now that she had calmed down considerably, the pain in her hand could no longer be ignored- she was hurt. She took one last look at that damn tree, glaring at it, with contempt, and self-dissapointment.

Who cares about climbing some dumb ol tree anyway... always tomorrow...

Nikki dragged herself back into the house, into the living room; relieved to see her mother sitting on the couch, distracted on her phone, while Carl was asleep in his chair, the afternoon news playing in the background. Slipping past them undetected, she quietly slid into the bathroom, ready to patch herself up, and put this whole day behind her.

In the washroom there is a medicine cabinet with a mirror, just above the sink. Nikki being as small as she was, had to climb up the toilet and shimmy herself across until she was face to face with said cabinet, opening it up and rummaging through it for the supplies she would need. Snagging a bottle of disinfect, (which she noted was barely a quarter full) as well as a box of bandaids, Nikki set the box on the counter, held the bottle in front of her, trying hard to find a memory of what to do in this scenario.

I don't usually bother having Mom patch me up anymore... seemed like it annoyed her, and I would just get dirty again five minutes later anyway ha ha... ok... I THINK I remember how to do this. After I clean it, I think all i need to do is bandage it up- it hurts, and the wounds are open, but I don't think I need stitches or anything. Are we out of cotton swabs?

Reinvestigation of the cabinet proved indeed they were out.

Damn... eh, what the heck?

Nikki decided to just say screw it, and simply dumped the remaining contents onto her exposed wounds. 

Huh... this isn't too baaaaaAAAAAAAHHHH!!

The stinging that erupted was a pain anything unlike she'd felt before- it felt like a million tiny needles, on fire, were picking and tearing her skin a part. As the liquid seeped into her bloody and cut up right hand, she slammed her dirty left hand over her mouth, trying her hardest to make as little noise as possible. Thankfully her muffled screams did not seem to attract attention.

It hurts... it hurts... 

She could hear it sting, feel it tingling, her eyes were watering from the pain; her flesh would no doubt be quite sensitive now. Any pain was better than allowing her Mother to see her in such a state. Nikki's Mother was not quite in the same class as Max's parents, to be honest, on the outside, she wasn't a half-bad single Mom. But you see, something I have learned in my years however is that, single parents often subconsciously develop a fascination with teaching their kids strength. Not power, strength; will, self determination and all that, never looking weak, never acknowledging pain, that sort of thing. All without nurturing the intrinsic context of the strength, basically encouraging their kids to tear through life with brute strength, but rather mentally speaking more than physically, although at times they go hand in hand. Nikki hated bothering her Mother, so at a young age she learned to laugh things off, shrug off pain and generally go through life undeterred qnd unbothered... but that isn't working anymore, is it Nikki?

After the pain had finally gone away, Nikki with trembling hands, dried her hand down tenderly with some nearby toilet paper. After cleaning up her palm, she bandaged it up, flexing the injured hand to make sure the bandages would stick. Satisfied with her work, she moved to the edge of the sink to sit, and think. Something she'd been doing a lot of since moving in with Neil, she realized. Her back hunched over, shoulders slumped, bandaged hand resting on her scrapped knee, while she rested her head on her un-injured hand in contemplation. 

All of that was still better than Mom helping me... she would've just dug the splinters out with a kitchen knife again. It doesn't hurt so bad I guess... it was a nice distraction from whatever weird trip my brain is on. Can't talk to Neil about this probably. He'd just find a reason to yell at me again, and I'm assuming he has enough going on in his mind already. I don't think Carl is annoyed by me yet, maybe he could help- ehhhh then again... he wasn't much help last time... I could tell he MEANT well, but still... *huff* I should just suck it up and talk to Mom. I mean, she's Mom! I know that at the very least she'll be honest with me, and I can trust her. Wish Ered was here, she'd know what to do... she's older than me sure, but like, she's not an adult either, I think she could relate a little more to what I'm going through. Man, didn't really realize how few people I actually have to talk to around here... than again, I didn't really need to talk to anyone until recently... at least, I don't think I did. Then there's Max... jeez listen to me, all roads somehow lead to him- I'm like a broken record... in fact at this point I've become a broken record TALKING about how I'm a broken record... is this what everyone goes through at this age? Does everyone start asking this many questions this early? There's so much I don't understand... so much I didn't think I needed to understand. Why now? Why start questioning things now? I was fine until coincidentally barely even a week ago, this doesn't feel right, I-I don't even feel like me right now... well... then again... what IS me?...

Nikki slowly turned around, almost automatically; like in a trance, and caught sight of herself in the mirror. In a daze she perched herself on her knees, looking her reflection in the eyes. She could see the sweat, dirt, dried blood, and grime covering her face, all the stains on her, and her clothes. She had always gotten dirty, of course, but this time, (for the first time) she felt... filthy. Scars and stains she would proudly sport as badges, now felt in this moment, inconsequential, and an eyesore. She softly placed her bandaged hand on the mirror, as if quietly hoping her reflection could tell her something she herself did not know. 

When did she start feeling so weird, she wondered to herself?

Why did she suddenly start getting confused about who she was? After all, all things considered; she was arguably the simplest of her friends, so why all the convoluted nonsense?

Why did she all of a sudden care about what people thought about her? She had clearly never cared too much about negative opinions before, but why was the idea of pressure from our social structure suddenly so overwhelming?

Why did she look up to Ered so much? She seemed to at times crave her attention at Camp, at times more so than Max, the Counselors, Neil, or even her Mother. Why did she feel confused about wanting to get her attention?

Why was Neil rejecting her so much? Was rejection even ththe right word, she wondered? Why couldn't he talk to her about it? Why did at times it felt like their time at Camp didn't even happen?

Why did the Flower Scouts hate her? Why couldn't she be more like them? Was it wrong that she wasn't like them? Was it wrong she didn't want to be like them? Was it wrong they tried to make her like them?

Why was suddenly thinking of other people so much?

Would she be ok at school? Would she be ok without her old friends back home? Would she even make any new friends? Would this new school write her off as a lost cause?

Why why why why why why was she asking so many QUESTIONS???

Why wasn't she acting like Nikki?

Was she depressed?

Was she angry?

Was she sad?

Scared?

Lonely?

Alone?

And of course then there's you, Max, why did she feel so defensive over you? She really only knew you for a few months, and we all know you were less than pleasant for a great portion of that time, so why did she feel the need to defend you? Why did your name suddenly make her feel uneasy?

All of this inconsistent but persistent incessant nonsense kept swirling around in her head, until she made contact with her reflections eyes. The light in them having seemingly dimmed.

"I don't know who I am..."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don't worry, child. All will be made clear soon.

Chapter Text

Enjoying the ride?

"What do you want from me!? What do you hope to get out of this???"

What, you're not having fun? I'm having a blast. 

"Of course you are- you get to sit back and watch everybody self-destruct!"

I know! And we're just getting started.  Everything you care about. Everything you love. I want you to know. I want you to see how they suffered. I'll tear every single thing you have even a shred of affinity for apart, right in front of you.

"What does anything about my life have to do with you!? What could putting me through this possibly gain you!?"

The answer to that is simple. It's not you I want anything from.

"Bullshit- you think I haven't noticed you tying everything back to me? Unless you just wanna write that off as a contrived convenience, whatever you're after involves me. I know it!"

Well now that's not my fault; you're the main character after all. Thing is, I control this story. You're learning only what I want you to learn. 

"You don't control anything! This isn't a story- you're playing with people's lives!"

It's both, actually. Just remember though.. this is all his fault.

"This doesn't make sense... this doesn't make sense..."

I'm afriad what does and what doesn't make sense in the traditional sense is inconsequential at the moment. Besides... I'm not finished with you yet. 

"Stop it... this isn't right..."

I know. Now sit back, and try to relax... Nikki has a few more... chapters left... ah... ha ha ha...

Chapter Text

Age 11...

 

Now then... Nikki wasn't a fan of her birthday being in the fall. She was always the youngest of any group of friends she'd had and turning eleven halfway through the school year really helped reinforce the natural image of 'youth' that seemed to follow her. So now it is November, her birthday last month; the seventeenth of October- and school had sadly gone almost exactly how she thought it would. 

Neil would barely acknowledge her presence, not helped even more by him being one grade above her, and she obviously didn't know anyone there, so she was left alone. Also, apparently some teachers from her old school 'clued them in' on her behavior, so her 4th grade teacher would go from regular teacher to walking-on-eggshells patronizer, and it was beginning to frustrate the poor girl. She felt like an animal in a zoo; restricted, and watched. Not to mention, they had assigned her a therapist- I'm sorry, a 'mindfulness inspiring adult'; they called her, to talk to Nikki everyday at lunch break, so now her already limited freedom at school, was now even more condensed. 

After her episode back in the summer, things started to change for Nikki. On top of becoming more reclusive, she was lashing out more, smiling less. She was barely even Nikki at this point- almost unrecognizable from the girl she once was. She knew it too. Of course she did- how could she not? After all, she was starting to lose her sense of self- which contrary to popular belief, is not the same as losing your mind.

You can lose your mind, but still look in a mirror and say: I'm losing/I've lost my mind.

Losing yourself is when you look in a mirror and say: Is that me? Who is this? Who am I? Who was I? Did I lose my mind? Did I ever have it? Was that me? Did I really use to be like that? Was that me? Do I even like this? What am I? Who am I? 

People who lose their minds, can still know who they are. People losing their minds and sense of self, well.... have you ever woken up on a random, unassuming day, and you found out you didn't know who you were? You couldn't discern your identity from that of your hereditary predecessors? Nikki was in a similar boat, but, the difference here is, on top of wondering why she was the way she was, she was also, curious on other people's perception of her. She knew she looked like her Mother, but as of late she was starting to realize how little they seemingly had in common. She kicked around the idea that perhaps she took after her Father, of course, but considering how little she really know about him, she hesitated to decide if that was a good or bad thing. It's akin to the argument of: lonely vs being alone. Alone is when you are in the act of being by yourself; be it from choice or circumstance. Being lonely is when you're in a crowded room- tens, twentys of people, and yet, you feel like none of them can see you, you feel un-noticeable, like you couldn't talk to a single one of them, or relate or connect to one of them.

And presently, Nikki was feeling very lonely.

Ordinarily she would have had trouble concentrating in class, because she was preoccupied with thinking about what fun she could or would have once the recess bell rang, or couldn't wait to get home to her video games. Now however, she was unfocused because she was struggling to figure out what the point was; going to school. Clearly the school didn't have faith in her, she had a creeping suspicion that her Mother and probably Carl had low expectations for her, so, in her mind, why should she care or try? Sure she did her homework and participated in class as needed, but there was no drive, no enthusiasm, and at home she knew she had no academic help available- although granted she didn't even try engaging Neil much at this point, she didn't want to bug Carl, and she wasn't sure her Mother would be much help. So when her poor grades came, and her much-corrected homework came back, she thought to herself that it was a fitting reflection of her current situation; its a crap shoot, but she had no real help, so what could she do?

Speaking of her Mother, Nikki finally decided to talk to her on this particular day. Her thoughts now and again drifted to the day she couldn't climb that tree in the backyard. The failure. The pain. Most interestingly however; the thoughts- specifically: the introspective train of thoughts that almost drove her mad, and lead to her current melancholical predicament. She had questions. She needed answers. She had hoped her Mother had answers. 

It was a Friday afternoon after school- Neil had decided not to go home tonight; said he would be hanging out with some friends, and his Father had to work some overtime. The scenario was almost contrivingly perfect for 'a' talk- not 'the' talk, mind you. So Nikki came home, threw her backpack on the floor of her and Neil's room, and found her in the livingroom- sitting on the couch, television on, but eyes focused to her phone. 

Nikki was quite nervous as she approached Candy. Part of her was curious as to why; this was her Mother after all, should she not feel safe, and secure with her? Her recent discontent however had her questioning a good number of constants in her life- and more and more each day her Mother was becoming a prominet facet worth questioning. How genuine she was or wasn't, how much she cared or didn't, everyday more and more questions picking apart every teeny tiny nook and cranny her overthinking brain could tear at. Today, however, she hoped to quell those doubts.

"Um... Mama?..." She chided herself internally for sounding so timid.

Candy didn't look up from her phone, obviously not immediately noticing her daughter. She must have picked up her presence though, because Nikki saw her eyes glance towards her, and turned her head in suprise.

"Oh! Hi Nicolette! I didn't hear ya come home."

I walked right past you...

"Yeah... u-um... can I uh... can I talk to you?"

To her surprise, the older woman set her phone down, and patted the couch cushion next to her.

"Course ya can, girl! Come sit by me." 

Nikki did as she was told, and climbed up next to her.

"What's on your mind?"

Nikki looked up at her Mother, and then down at her hands; they were nervously shuffling amongst each other.

"W-well, um... can I... can... I-I can ask you anything, can't I?..."

"Well of course ya can, Nicolette- I wouldn't be much of a Mama if ya couldn't." She reassured, placing a soft hand on her daughter's shoulder. Nikki let out a breath she'd been holding in, a feeling of relief washed over her.

"Ok... Mom?" What do I ask her about? My feelings? School? Say something! "U-um... I'm... having... I'm having a really..." Nikki had unconsciously started to quicken the pace of her breathing; desperately trying to get a question, a statement- a SOMETHING out. "I-I'm having a really tough time... u-uh... a-adjusting to everything-"

*BZZZZ BZZZZ*

"Ah hell, one sec... Hello? Oh hey!... yeah... yeah?... yeah!"

Nikki stared up at her Mother, disbelief strewn across her face, mouth open, and eyes wide in astonishment, lower lip quavering a little.

"Yeah yeah, of course! Oh, hey look I gotta go, I'm talking to the kid right now... ok, see ya soon! Bye." Candy ended the call, and looked back at her daughter. "I'm sorry sugar, what'd you say?"

Nikki had to take a second to regain herself. "U-uh, w-well I-"

"Oh! Darlin'- hold that thought; walk and talk with me, Mama's gotta get changed." She propositioned, as she rose up almost too quickly to register. By the time Nikki had gotten off the couch, her Mother was already halfway down the hallway. Entering the bedroom her Mother shared with Carl, Nikki saw her head deep in her closet, looking for something to wear. 

"Alright go ahead Nicolette, I'm listenin' to ya."

Nikki sat on the bed, back facing her Mother, trying her best to recover. She steeled herself and despite feeling uncomfortable as all hell, she gave her best effort to try and her feelings out.

"Mom? I'm not happy right now." 

"Aw why not darlin'?"

"Well... I... because..."

Nikki turned around, trying to be brave and face her Mother, mounting the bed, her knees on the matress. Candy's head was still in the closet.

"Because... because Neil hates me now!" She proclaimed, louder than she intended. 

"That doesn't sound right, I thought you and him were Camp Camp besties or somethin'."

"We were... until we moved here. He's angry with me cause he didn't want to live with someone else, a-and he says I ruined his 'oh-so-special' privacy, and then- a-and then, I-I couldn't climb a tree, a-and, a-and I hurt my hand, a LOT, real bad, oh-oh AND, School sucks cause the teachers treat me like I'm some kind of special needs kid, cause the teachers from my school apparently 'warned' them about me, according to my school therapist- oh yeah- did YOU know I'd get a school therapist!? I-I'm asking all of these questions about myself and life that I never did until recently, I'm thinking all these things I never did, I feel like people have this idea of me, like, they think they know who I am, but they don't talk to me, they don't listen to me, Neil won't give me the time of day; i-it's like we're not even friends anymore! I can't talk to Max... a-and my other friends too! I feel so alone..." 

Nikki was trying so hard not to cry, she couldn't, not now, not after she finally got some of that off of her chest. She rubbed at her eyes, trying to head the tears off at the past. Her Mother turned around, and faced Nikki, wearing a look of bewilderment on her face.

"I'm sorry, back up a tick darlin', why didn't you tell me about you hurting your hand??"

"... ... WHAT!?"

"And what's this about you not bein' able to climb a tree? You practically grew up swinin' on the damn things, why didn't ya tell me?"

"Did you seriously only get that from that whole thing!?" Candy had turned back around, already looking through her closet again.

"Now what else did you say? School's goin' rough hun?"

"Yes Mom, school sucks because they treat me like I'm weird and dumb."

Candy had finally found what she was looking for; a black cocktail dress- the kind you see at your local clubs being worn by the girls who, when 'their song' comes on, they raise their drink in the air, bounce a little and go 'WHOOOOOOOOO'.

"Well now Nicolette we both know that you always were a little different growing up."

"MOM!?"

"And grades never were a strong department for you, but you always excelled in other areas- and I helped ya as much as I could."

Nikki ran a hand through her hair in frustration. 

"Ok, but look, I'm not in a good place right now, ok?? I've been feeling like I'm, l-like I'm lost and-"

"How could ya be lost?"

"Its a metaphor! I-I feel like I don't know who I am anymore-"

"Well, heck, that's easy, you're my fun-lovin' adventurous little girl! That's all, ain't nothin' complex 'bout it."

"Is that all I am?... I feel like I'm more than just the 'fun' or 'wacky adventuring' girl."

Candy, still facing away from Nikki, took off her shirt, and had slipped off her sandles and pink sweat pants. Nikki wasn't bothered by her Mother doing so. Growing up in a cramped trailer for years, there was never a time, place, or the room for decency. Nikki had no problem changing in front of her Mother, and vice versa, however, something was different for Nikki. Nikki really, for what felt like the first time, really looked at her Mother's body. She looked at her back, her toned shoulders, her skin looked smooth, except for some eye catching marks that she didn't take in until now. There were several scars in various areas, the only blemish on, what Nikki felt was otherwise, almost flawless skin. Nikki saw her hips, her legs, they too were in shape, not yet sagging from the passage of time. And of course her eyes couldn't help but drift to her hair; her bright green hair- it was in this moment, Nikki never believed more, that she looked like her Mother. Would she end up looking like that years from now? In her twenties, thrities, forties; would she become a xerox of her Mother? Was that her fate? The fate of all kids- to just become their parents? Nikki didn't dare to let her mind dwell on that too long... She wondered if she should feel weird?... Is this something other kids do, or have done before? She hoped she didn't seem weird; for wanting to know, in a way, where she came from? After all, she wasn't checking out her Mother- God, the thought made her want to vomit. In any case, her Mother's lack of answers were both confirming her fears, and were starting to make her... angry.

"Ya know Nicolette, sometimes that's all ya have to be." She said, as she slipped on the dress.

"What do you mean?"

Candy walked to her dresser; right next to Nikki's side of the bed, fishing for her earings.

"I mean that sometimes life is all about the waiting game. One day, you'll find that, if ya play your cards right, and if your patient enough, you can have all the fun ya want, and enjoy the finer things in life."

She explained as she found her diamond stud, 14k white earings that Carl had recently boughten for her.

"'Finer things'?... I-I don't..."

"Now stop feeling so down, sugar-cube. Ya know, was written off at a young age too. Couldn't compete with the fancy rich kids, couldn't play sports, but I had wits, women's intuition, and guts. I was able to pull myself out of a dark place- and look at what we have now! Ya got a nice house to live in, an older brother, and Carl'll do nicely. So buck up! The best is yet to come darlin'."

Nikki looked down, as Candy put her earrings on. She really absorbed what her Mother had told her. She'd heard similar things before from her... how she needs to hold out, she was where she was too, women's intuition...

What the hell does any of that mean? What's a 'women's intuition'? What did she mean Carl 'will do'? What- why- WHAT???

"Now Mama's gonna go hang out with her new girlfriends, so get your homework done, and remember to eat something-"

"No..."

"Don't wait up, but if ya see Carl, tell him where I went for me, ok hun?"

"No."

"Ok, I'm gonna go wait outside for... wait, I'm sorry what did you say-"

"No Mom!" Nikki's head shot back up in a flash, her eyes seething with anger, Candy had never seen her like this before.

"Nicolette what is wrong with yo-"

"I'll tell you what's wrong with me, I'm having a crisis that I'm pretty sure most eleven year olds don't have, and you don't care!"

Candy looked appaled, insulted, and returned her daughters glare with one if her own.

"How dare you child, how could you ever say that to me!? I raised you by myself when your Daddy walked out on us!"

"Did he?? Did he really?"

Candy's glare turned icy.

"You callin' me a liar, girl?"

"I don't know, AM I? You never answer any single question I ever ask you, a-about him, about you, y-you deflect everything I say, and sideline EVERY concern and problem I have- you care more about your phone than-"

Candy stuck her index finger in Nikki's face.

"Watch. Your. Tone. Girl. You're on very thin ice right- OW!!!"

Nikki had bitten her.

"Oh I'm sorry- did that hurt? Hey, don't worry, it's just ME. I don't know who ME is, but everone ELSE sure does! No one wants to listen to me, or help me, they just want to ignore, and judge me."

Candy was cradling her finger, trying desperately to hold back her anger towards her daughter.

"I'm being dead serious Nicolette, I don't know where all this is coming from, but you are extremely close to being punished."

"That's just it! You don't know! I've been trying to tell you for the last ten minutes, I've lived with you all of my life and you still DON'T KNOW! You NEVER take what I say serious, not my problems at school, not what happened with the Flower Scouts!-"

Candy rubbed at her eyes in exasperation. 

"Christ, that again? Is that what this is all about? Nikki, I'll tell ya again, they were playin' some harmless, hazing pranks on you, and it was one big misunderstanding. After you left I was told that the girls, and their parents were notified, fined, and removed from the troop."

Nikki squinted her eyes.

"And you actually bought that!? Mom- and I told you this THEN too- every single person that I told you tormented me, IS STILL. THERE. No fines, no one was kicked out, and that bitch Sasha is still-"

"Don't you swear at me, Nicolette!"

"I wasn't- oh for crying out loud it wasn't AT you!"

"It's that kind of attitude that keeps getting you in trouble little girl!"

"WHAT kind of attitude!?"

"Aw hell, now look, my minds goin' a mile a minute- how am I suppose to face my friends and have fun like this?"

Nikki's eyes grew wide in disbelief; she was appalled! How dare she!? She voiced her displeasure very soundly.

"Know what Mom? Fuck your friends!"

Candy's own eyes now shot open, pupils shrank, her hand shot to her chest in shock. What had happened to her daughter, she asked internally. 

"WHAT. DID YOU JUST SAY TO ME!?"

Nikki, consumed now almost fully by her rage, stood up on the bed, and got as close to her Mother's face as she could.

"I said FUCK your friends! What kind of Mother neglects her daugher THIS hard!? I wanted to talk to you, cause I was having a really bad time, and you're doing everything you can to avoid me!"

"I oughta slap you for telling me what you just did! I'll tell ya what kind of Mom I am: I put ya through school, I never beat ya, I never brought any men around ya- I ain't perfect but dammit I've been good Mom to you!"

Nikki rolled her eyes.

"Says the woman who won't believe her own daughters claims of abuse in a corrupt camp system! Says the woman who just told me when I was younger- 'Aw jus go outside 'n play Nicolette- the neighbors'll look after ya, darn tootin'!"

"I don't sound like some two-bit hick! Look, kid, I get it, I understand it's real easy when your growing up to project all your problems on your parents, and think everything is bad, but Nicolette, there are a lot of hardships, trials, and obstacles that I've had to overcome that you don't know anything about! Even with two parents- there's a whole buncha kids that don't understand just how much their parent's have sacrificed for them- how much they've had to give up. I'm sorry I ain't perfect, Nicolette, and I know it ain't been easy, but your life could be much, MUCH worse, and I've worked hard to earn this 'me' time!"

"Ooo nice ripped-from-a-blog speech, Ma- you tell your friends all that crap over drinks?"

Candy's eyes contorted into a glare. Nikki had crossed a line.

"Nicolette I swear..."

"They probably love it too, they're probably like: 'Gosh Candy, you're such a great role model! It must be hard being a single Mom, ignorirng what your daughter tells you half the time, going out almost every other night while your kid that isn't even in double digits yet, sits at home alone, and taking aaaalll the credit for raising her, even though for her entire life, you've been getting help from the entire trailer park, and your ex-husband's alimony!'"

*CRACK*

The sound of Candy's hand connecting with Nikki's cheek was crisp, and almost deafening. Nikki unconsciously raised her hand to her face, rubbing at the sore area of skin, tears welling in her eyes.Candy looked like she wanted to cry as well.

"I... I-I... dammit Nicolette I-I didn't want to- I didn't mean to... I..." Couldn't apologize, but couldn't take pride in it either. "I... a-are you ok?" She reached out for her daughter, but Nikki flinched, and turned away. A sensation of paranoia came over the older woman.

"Nikki? Baby girl, look at me- y-you know I love ya- I didn't mean to... to hit ya like that-" She placed her hand on Nikki's shoulder. "Come on look at m-"

Nikki spun around so quick, Candy almost flinched herself.

"Are you even my real Mom?"

"... H-huh!? What!?"

"Are you. My real Mom?"

"What the hell is wrong with- yes, of course i am! What kind of question is that??" Candy was going through a whiplash of emotions; concern, confusion, anger, regret- all coursing through her body in milliseconds.

"I DON'T KNOW!!! I don't know anything! About me, about you- you never tell me anything, -God, I'm repeating mysefl- how am I supposed to believe anything you say, when you never really tell me anything anyway!? And when I ask you something, apparently you hit me now!"

"Firstly: you bit me ya little demon, and second- I have told you nothing but the truth!"

"Well what about my Dad!?"

"HE is NONE of your buisness!"

"He's my Dad!" 

"He may be your Daddy, but other than puttin' you in me, he ain't nothin' you need to concern yourself with. You may be our kid, but what happened between us ain't your buisness, and BELIEVE ME, one day, IF you ever learn everything, you will thank me for not telling you."

"Mom what's love?"

Candy blinked several times in stunned silence.

"What!??? What is-"

"Just answer my question- please!"

Candy tried to regain her composure, one of her hands dragging down her face in exasperation, pinching the bridge of her nose. She let out a stress laced stream of air through her nostrils. 

"... Why are you askin' questions like that?... Ain't ya a little young to be wonderin' about that kinda stuff?..."

The air, while still tense, had seemed to calmed down, if only slightly. 

"I just... I... I just wanna know... just tell me what you feel..."

Candy crossed her arms, and looked down at the ground, really truly trying to answer Nikki the best she could.

"Love is... ... i-it's many things- a lot of things, all at the same time. It's... it can be wonderful, horrible, it can make you the happiest, or the angriest person alive. It can make ya smile. It can make you crazy. It's good, it's bad... it's something you can use, it's... aw, how can I put it... it's something good that can be used by bad men for bad things."

Only men?... 

"It'll drain your bank account, above all else that's for damn sure, ha ha... it can give, and take away- love ain't black and white, Nicolette. It can hurt as much as it can heal... and... lovin' a kid, lovin' your family, and lovin' someone else are very... very different things...

Nikki rung her hands together anxiously. 

"Did... d-did you and Dad...?"

"I- we... i-it's complicated, Nicolette..."

"Did you plan me?" Candy shook her head.

"No."

"Did... did you want me?..."

Candy was silent for a moment, her left hand unconsciously rubbed at her stomach, her eyes held a gaze of nostalgia, and guilt.

"... Not... not at first..."

Nikki didn't know what to say to that.

"Did you... did you love Dad?..." She thought she'd try again.

"... ..." Candy closed her eyes, debating whether or not to tell her. The consequences could be terrible, from just her one word answer, in ways she was certain Nikki wouldn't understand for a long time. There was so much she hadn't told Nikki, and now she was realizing just how much that was hurting her daughter... it was a classic single parent dilemma; when you raise a child by yourself, you have certain... opportunities. Opportunities to bad mouth, and ruin the other parent, doubly so if the child barely, or never knew them. To give a little credit to her character; Candy never took those opportunities when she felt like it could have made her and Nikki' lives easier, no matter how much or how little truth there actually would be in her doing so, she just couldn't bring herself to. I don't know why, come to think of it... in her mind she was justified, but she could never quite pull the trigget. Curious... after all; the memories, to this day were still very strong, and painful. Very fresh, if you will... She could do it right now, she realized. Nikki would be none the wiser, in fact, it might get her off her back, and one day they could eventually put today behind them. She had her story prepared of course; for years it had sat in the back of her mind, working out all the kinks, and knots. She knew which truths to downplay and exaggerate and which lies to over satirize.

However... looking at her daughter, her distraught little girl, Candy realized that her only real options now were to lie about certain things, and keep up a facade made up of a series of fibs and half-truths, in an attempt to protect herself, and hurt her daughter in the long run, or to tell her the truth and begin the long, inevitable and painful path of for a good deal of the rest of her life having to face the music, and hurt her daughter right now. Ultimately she decided to just lay it all on the line. "... No."

Nikki didn't know why hearing that one word made her tear up. She didn't know the Man who Candy did, she never met him, she doesn't even know his name. Maybe it was something akin to shattering the illusions one has in their childhood- not the small ones like, Santa, The Easter Bunny- the ones about love, good versus evil. Do you remember when you were young? Do you remember when, hypothetically, you would watch something like Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs? You booed the Evil Queen, cheered for Snow White, laughed at the Dwarfs... then you got older, and maybe either you started asking questions, or someone 'clued you in' on something- you learn the Queen's real name, you hear people throw things around about how The Prince that kisses Snow White was actually committing statutory rape, or you hear about rumors, lies, or even truths about the people that worked on the movie, Walt Disney himself. You hear or 'learn' things that become so distorted with the passage of time, you can't percieve any longer what is true or fabricated. You start to wonder, and doubt, you start to over think- you start to denounce such ideas as 'happily ever after'- you learn things like 'cynisim, 'realism', you want to know what comes after happily ever after, you want to see the day after, the week, the month, the years- the REST OF TIME, because the idea if truly becoming happy- which at one point you staunchly believed anyone could no matter what- becomes a FOREIGN CONCEPT to you!

Now of course there are people that surround themselves with these ideas, and shroud themselves in cloaks of irony, and laugh it off, but what if you didn't? What if you actually did believe in those things? Even if you knew that- sure, it was designed to sell a product, even if you experienced real life and the real world, even if you 'wised up' and pulled back the curtains. Even if you didn't really understand what it was or how to describe it, even if you were just an eleven year old girl, boy, anything else in between, and you took the word for granted in everyday life, every single day of your life, until, on some random day, you stopped and wondered what it actually meant:

What if you really believed in love?

What if you believed that (at one point at least) you were a product of some kind of love? But then it suddenly dawns on you, or you learn that in fact, you weren't? Rather... you're a product of something... sinful, dirty, something that you don't really know. That you don't WANT to know. 

Candy looked at her daughter, really looked at her. It was like looking in a damn mirror, she realized what she had done, and even if it wasn't too late to take what she said back, she tried and tried to rationalize it in her head that it had to happen sooner or later. But you knew, didn't you 'Candy'? You knew you were hurting your daughter, before she was even born. Nikki didn't see her Mother raise her hand; caught between wanting to hug her or at least lay a comforting hand on her shoulder, but lowering it helplessly. She wished she could fix this, but in all honesty she didn't know the first step how to.

Nikki slowly raised her head, looking nothing like the little girl from Camp Camp; helpless, desperate, and tired. Very tired.

"do you love carl?..."

Once again Candy found herself stuck. She reached out her hand and laid it on Nikki's shoulder.

"Nicolette... " Fate was on her side today, for as just as she was about to answer, a car horn blared out across the neighborhood. Sighing with both relief and disappointment, Candy removed her hand, and was about to walk out, but she stopped at the doorway to the bedroom, offering her daughter some parting words. "I did what I had to do, and I will do what I have to, for your sake. I just... hope one day you'll understand that." And away she went into the night, driving off to do who knows what.

Nikki stared and stared, in complete silence, at the doorway where her Mother once stood. A flurry of thoughts, emotions, sounds, and memories raced through Nikki's mind. Memories from early school, her time at the old trailer park, Camp, Neil, Max, her Mother, their conversation just now- everything. Her fists clenched. All of her confusion, anger, frustration, all of her old feelings of joy, knowledge, identity, her present feelings of resentment, sadness, feeling like she had been cheated, ripped-off, decieved and somehow lied to, all of her fear; had begun to all roll around amongst each other in a messy, jagged ball of emotion, and pain. There was so much she felt. So much she didn't know. So much rage.

In the lonliness of her home, she screamed.

Chapter Text

Age 11... 

Predictably the young lady in question's life had quite the status quo change following the spat with her Mother. In the days that followed, Nicolette had begun to grow ever distant from her Mother; the older woman guilty about the incident, but not guilty enough it seemed to apologize, or regret her actions enough to take back when she had said and done. Whether she was in the right, or the wrong, and how much so is subjective of course, but to Nicolette, her Mother was undoubtedly in the wrong, and owed her, something to try and make it right.

It was now just over a year since the green haired duo moved in with Neil and his Father, and while some things changed, Nicolette was disappointed when she realized that things had largely remained the same in many areas. Neil still barely talked to her, although, she had noticed a subtle change in the way his anti-social tendencies had been behaving. For one, when she first got here and he had ignored her, his eyes were always glaring daggers at everything, there was an encompassingly hate ridden aura emitting from the boy at all times, his shoulders were tense, and locked up constantly, and his silence was cold, and almost intimidating. Recently though, instead of his aura feeling angry, or hateful, it was more akin to annoyed, but also... nervous? Cautious? Nicolette couldn't quite put her finger on it, but she was aware of the fact that -ironically enough- several months or so after she and her Mother had their fight, Neil had tried in small ways to reach out, start small meaningless conversations, for instance, or engage her in small ways. Which is something he never did before. 

It kind of pissed her off the more she thought about it; why now? Why after every emotional outlet has been exhausted, and mental dead-end been reached, why now was he trying? Did he feel bad, she wondered? Whether he did or didn't was of little consequence, she wasn't quite ready to try bonding with him again anytime soon; quite understandably her feelings were still hurt by the mental gymnastics he made her go through. Only real thing they had done together since they've lived together was watch Fatal Attraction by accident, because Candy fell asleep at the couch, and neither kid changed the channel. 

There was one other thing of note as well, now perhaps she was imagining things, but sue could have sworn that more and more frequently, she was catching him... staring at her. She rationalized that perhaps she was imagining things, but as time went on, she thought for sure he was. 

Her relationship with Candy was at an all time low, they seldom spoke nowadays, limited to mostly 'hi's', 'bye's' and not much else. Both feeling that neither would really listen to their opinions, or understand where they were coming from, so they did the 'adult' thing and never talked about it. Perhaps as a substitute for her daughter, Candy had attempted, and succeeded modestly I might add, to bond with Neil. Not like they were buddy-buddy or anything, but he was certainly more pleasent with her than Nicolette, which made the young girl wonder to herself if they were doing it on purpose. 

As for Carl, he had still yet to actively try and bond with Nicolette, and while she held no ill-will towards the man, she appreciated the distance. She could tell he wanted to, of course, but he always pulled back at the last minute, not doubt afraid he would overstep a boundary. Nicolette often wondered if Candy told Carl about their fight... he didn't let on that she did, but once again, the girl appreciated him not bringing it up. There was one time, however, she asked him if he knew how to 'track' someone; specifically she wanted to see if he could point her in the direction of Max... He laughed it off, naturally, but when he saw how bummed out doing so made her, he retracted himself; clarifying that, 'it's sweet, but no one likes a stalker'.

Whatever that meant, she had thought.

And Nicolette, well, the poor thing had been struck by the old coming of age blues. The seclusion eventually silenced her voice, the lack of support from school damaged her drive, and the actions of her Mother and Neil had firmly set her on the dark, lonely path that life seemingly had paved for her. All those feelings of confusion and anger had fully converted into the infamous no-no word that is: depression. 

You're familiar with the term, yes? No doubt you know somebody that has it, or you follow someone on an entertainment platform who has blandly, and non-descriptivly spoke of it... perhaps you know a thing or two about it yourself, maybe? It's a real shame too... that word, those feelings- they use to really mean something until the current age diluted it's meaning, and oversaturated the world with it. Seems everyone these days suffers from it. I look at it differently however. Depression is something very serious that gets... perverted by influencers, and taste-makers; it's become not a serious mental confliction- it's something marketable, something cool, flashy, sexy- it's become a personal statement, a badge that the foolish and uneducated actually wear with PRIDE.

You've seen it I'm sure. All of these people... using it as an excuse for their, heinous, disgusting actions, spreading misinformation, and truly believing that a self-diagnosis, or prescription alleviates them of any need to change, or self-evaluate. It drives me mad, I tell you. The case if Nicolette is a noticable one to me, because it should never have happened- but it did! She wasn't (metaphorically) born miserable like you Max, she was happy! Loved life! Such an interesting 180, don't you think?

And yet it's evermore interesting, isn't it??? How this thing; Depression, how it can only take a moment- 'One Bad Day', The Joker said once, to go insane. How queer it is how just like THAT -in a flash- all of the emotional pleasantries you had taken for granted are stripped away, and all your left with for the rest of your miserable life is bitterness and a sense of longing that never goes away. It only taked a moment to ruin your life, but it takes the rest of your life, DECADES, to even try to attempt to get to a place of solidarity. Most people will settle for just being stable, not curedstable- they'll KILL for it. If for one measly second of life they can rekindle those old feelinga of happiness again. Nowadays everyone's getting a slice of the big blue pie, be it: Deomcratic people, Republican people, musicians, authors and actors make millions signing of it, writing it, and portraying it respectfully. Therapists make their living off of others pure misery, doctors get their salary off of writing prescriptions for hundred some dollar placebos in a bottle. People saying faith helps, people saying faith makes it worse, people saying you can find calmness through God, or some Eastern technique popularized in a bestseller, others saying youll feel better if you lose religion- it never ends! Healing through recreation, drugs, sex, substances, music; anything and everything that can be sold.

Writers are my 'favorite' they're getting famous off of telling people how to live, how to be happy with themselves, how to care, how not to care, how to 'not give a shit', how to 'not give a fuck'; just ask the profiteers themselves:

Mark Manson

Brene Brown

Jen Sincero

Napoleon Hill's "Think Rich Grow Rich", was released in 1937; it's sold over 100 Million copies. Speaking of Napoleon Hill; fun fact: he was inspired to write it after encouragement from Andrew Carnegie.

And speaking of Carnegie's; Dale Carnegie (no relation)'s "How To Win Friends and Influence People", relased in 1936, has sold over 15 Million. 

So much time, money, and lives ruined and thrown down the drain, all because of one teeny tiny chemical imbalance.

ISN'T IT FASCINATING???

Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked; it was a particularly fine Saturday afternoon, the young lady was sitting at the desk in her and Neil's joint bedroom, working on her weekend homework. Neil was not home; he usually went out on this day for some reason, and did not return until dinner time. Nicolette was curious as to what he was up to, but at the same time, she was not in a hurry to ask him of it. The parents were out with work, and friends respectively. Carl being home late was nothing new, but Candy had been out of the house more frequently ever since her fight with Nicolette, and the girl had begun to grow suspectful of Candy's intentions. A darker, more grown up part of her brain entertained the idea that perhaps her Mother was being unfaithful to Carl, and yet, while it bothered her greatly, she found herself not caring the more and more she thought about it. Not out of a cyncial dislike of Carl mind you, but rather a growing apathetic disappointment with the woman who birthed her. That's what it was, really; she wasn't mad, she was just disappointed. 

She was still pretty mad though.

Ironically, a small positive to all of this was that the isolation and dissatisfaction with herself subtly motivated her to immerse herself in her schoolwork. Over the last year when she would start to feel down, Nicolette would help herself to one of Neil's many books, and read; even if she didn't understand the subject, the plot, or the words- she would read and read and read. She still found enjoyment from her comic books of course, but she found herself gravitating towards the picture-less literature in a way she hadn't before. All of reading requires thought and imagination, books with pictures included, but when the blueprint of a world is presented to you, and it's up to you to construct it? That was an adventure she hadn't quite taken yet. 

Gotta give the kid credit where it's due, a good deal of kids- grown adults as well in fact, would have started becoming a menace, or a danger to themselves and others, as well as lose their drive for creativity. Not Nicolette it would seem, no far from it: she hadn't started lashing out violently, the school faculty obviously wasn't going to complain, her mental prowess was increasing, grades were improving- hell, she almost seemed like a better version of herself!

There's always time for that to change though.

Presently, Nicolette was working on her Math homework, thoughts mulling about randomly withour a particular prerogative or destination...

Ok... ... aggh- it's more F.O.I.L stuff, I hate these problems... well... at least I'm not trying to figure out the degrees of another damn triangle... ... ... should be... 36X squared?... yeah... wonder where Mom's at today... been out a lot lately... I wonder if Carl -divide the denominator- is concerned? Hm. Carl... he's a nice guy. Odd, but nice- well than again I'm not really normal myself... ... I should talk to him more... well... I guess I should talk to him in general... who knows -pathagoream theorem- who knows, he might actually understand what I'm going through... I mean, yeah he's a boy, but it sounds like he didn't have an easy childhood, maybe he can relate to me better than my actual Mother... ... *sigh* -carry the 7- I don't know... would it be weird? We don't talk to each other all that much, but that's probably on both of us.

Nicolette set her pencil down, and leaned back in her chair; staring up at the ceiling, letting her eyes and hand rest.

I appreciate him not trying to force anything though... I always see in like, sitcoms and stuff, the bumbling, awkward, well-meaning Dad- or in this case I guess Step-Dad, who tries too hard to bond with, or impress the kid, and it just makes everything weird and worse for everyone... ... he keeps his distance, and doesn't try to make things artificial, I respect that... Than again, is that fair of me? I mean, I don't dislike him; his son turned into a dick, but that doesn't SEEM to be his fault.. . ya know realistically, he must know something's been up with me, he is a psychologist after all... wait, was that what he was? A psychologist? Or wait, no... was it a psychiatrist? Sociologist?... ... Philanthropist? Political Analyst? Wait I don't even know what that last one is... eh, whatever.

Deciding to move on before she confused herself, Nicolette resumed her homework.

Ok, just a few more... ... can't wait for Takeover tonight, I could watch -negative 6x- I could watch Gargano wrestle Ciampa for years... ... wish I had someone to watch with me though, wrestling is fun, but it's way more fun with a friend. Cause like -42- you can go nuts for the dope stuff together, or, if it's bad you can roast it together! Hm... I wonder if Ered liked wrestling? She seems more into sports, or arty stuff, so who knows... Nerris and Harrison probably not. Ha ha, I can imagine Dolph and Preston talking to each other about how 'barbaric' or 'uncivilized' or something. Maybe Max likes wrestling? If we can ever see each other again, I should try and get him into it. Nurf I could totally see being into it. Man I miss those guys, I wonder if any of them think of me?  Sometimes it feels like I'm the only one that liked that place... ... ... ... ... alright, all done. Just history homework left.

Nicolette moved her math homework, and set it on the floor next to her. Getting a fresh pencil from one of the several drawers the desk contained, she then fished from her backpack her history textbook, and opened her notebook to a new page.

Ok, history of the Ottoman empire let's go... ... you know, it's funny, of course I start actually doing decent in school when I completely shed my old identity... and you know what? I don't know why I even bothered- no one's noticed, not Mom, not Neil, the teachers do I guess, but it's so freakin' condescending. Like, 'oh wow good job this time Nikki!' The hell do they mean THIS time- like me doing good is the exception not the rule, what if I didn't have my fight with Mom and breakdown, w-would I have been able to do good in school? Is life so stupid twisted that I couldn't have had both? I still can't look at the tree in the backyard without getting pissed. Dammit, now I'm thinking about it too much, now my mood for the rest of the day is gonna be shot, but for God's sake dude- I'm nowhere closer to figuring anything about me, my Mother, my life, and now I don't even know who I am anymore. I keep just, going round and around in circles, thinking the same stuff, reaching the same dead ends.

The girl's head hit the desk face first in frustration, nose quite literally in her history book.

All of this anger, this confusion... is this all growing up is??? Where there comes a day when you don't understand anything? Where you start not trusting anything, anyone, and you're not able to believe in anything anymore? I don't have anyone I can count on... you know, come to think about it... this is the kind of stuff Max talked about all the time isn't it? Not trusting anyone, not believing in anything, did it come from this?... what I'm going through right now; is this what Max was talking about? Did... did Max go through what I'm going through? We're the same age so... oh God, how old was he when he went through all of this? I knew he talked more like a grown up then most ten year olds, but, I figured he just watched a lot of South Park... what about Ered? And Dolph, Nerris, Preston- all of them, have they gone through this? Are they going to? What about Space Kid? He's kinda annoying, but he's so... what's the word... I don't know, but, him and Dolph were easily the youngest out of us I don't wanna think of them having to deal with this... Ered was the oldest, maybe she went through something similar, but her Dad's seemed really nice- maybe the better out of the parents that were there that day... Nerris' parents seemed cool too- but still... 

Nicolette slowly dragged her head upward, until her eyes were able to see out of the book; those two magenta orbs betraying how tired, and worn out she actually was. The all-telling redness around her irises made it seemed as though she had not slept for several days.

I feel like if I said 'I don't want to think of anyone else going through this' I would just be dumb. Maybe everyone goes through this, but what I don't get is why? Ugh... I'm just wasting my breath... my mental breath... whatever, I'm losing time on my homework...

Sitting back up, she rubbed at her eyes for a moment, trying to shake their cobwebs. Groggy all, she picked her pencil back up, and glued her eyes back to the book, hoping to resume her work.

Ok... Ottoman Empire, for reals this time... ... ... ... wait, how come there's nothing in here about the Armenian genocide?-

Just then, Nicolette heard the sound of a door slamming in the distance, the noise making her jump. Before she could begin to question who it was, the door to her room swung open; it was Neil. He looked annoyed, as usual, and without saying a word, he set his backpack on the ground, spared a light glare at his roomate, and settled himself into his bed; the bottom of a bunk bed.

About a month into Nicolette and Candy's tenure at Neil and Carl's residence, the man decided to spring for the investment, rationalizing that, thought the children were now siblings, they were getting to the age where the two of them sharing a bed would look... inappropriate. Not that they had been anyway, Nicolette was content with the floor, but the idea of an actual mattress insured she wouldn't say no.

He's home early...

Like usual, Nicolette didn't bother him, and started back on her homework. As she had begun filling in the blanks, and writing short literary answers in silence, she started to lose herself in her work. Her focus was broken by an unexpected interruption. 

"Dad working late again?"

Nicolette had to force herself to not drop her pencil, blinking in silence several times. She spared a quick glance to Neil, who was not looking at her, rather, he was engrossed in a science fiction book he had picked up recently.

"... Yeah... yeah he's out late at work..."

"Mm."

Well.. that was... 'nice' I guess...

She contemplated to herself, as she turned back to her work.

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

..

.

 

 

 

 

 

"...Your Mom out too?"

It took all of Nicolette's willpower to not snap her pencil; she stopped writing so fast. Just what was Neil up to?

"... Y-yeah... yeah she's out, with friends..."

"Mm."

What the hell?...

...

...

...

...

 .. ... ...   .

 

....

 ..

 

 

 

 

 

 

"... ... So we'll probably have to take care of dinner ourselves?..."

Eeeeeever so slightly, the girl's hand began to tremble. She would have almost preferred he didn't try to talk to her at all- she got too used to the cold shoulder- she felt like she was going to snap at any second. Even with his minimalistic attempts at talking recently, this was more than he'd done before, it was making Nicolette nervous.

"... Uh... I-I don't know- probably yeah, I guess."

"...Oh..."

'Oh'?? 'OH'???  Come on dammit breathe; in and out... as long as he doesn't provoke me, or piss me off, I'll be ok...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

...

"... ... Nikki are you ok?-"

That had done it. Pencil snapped, eyes shot open wide, head snapped to her target, emotional threshold giving way.

"Oh fuck you, Neil!"

That had really done it.

Neil lowered his book, shocked by the outburst. 

"The fucks your problem!?"

"What's my problem?? What's my problem!? You're my damn problem! Ever since I've been here you've been mean to me, you've hurt my feelings, and you don't give a crap! It's affected my mood, m-my, my head- my way of thinking! I don't feel like me anymore and it's all your stupid fault!!" Nicolette was practically hyperventilating; wheezing breaths, and red eyes each telling their own story.

Neil, now fully in confrontation mode, tossed his book to a corner of their room, and, stood in front of the still sitting Nicolette.

"Oh I'm so sorry you're so inconvenienced, after you and your mom invaded my house. Forgive me if I didn't roll put the red carpet, but you and that nutty woman stole my privacy, and my Dad!"

Nicolette now rose to her own feet, looking up at Neil. Even with a years worth of time passed, the girl was still shorter than the boy in front of her. 

"Us coming here wasn't MY fault!-"

"But you didn't care all the same! You were oh so happy about getting a brother, you never once considered the ramifications of our parent's actions, or how I would feel!"

Nicolette did of course recall their exchanges on the ride home, and their first time in this room. It felt akin to forever ago.

"You know what? Yeah, yeah I did, I can see that.  But hey, you know what would have helped? Is if YOU- instead of being a spoiled ass about everything- actually tried to talk to me instead of making me feel stupid, and calling my Mom trailer park trash!"

"I said nothing but the truth! Your Mom clearly is only with my Dad for his money!-"

"For God sake I know that!"

"... Huh?..."

"... I know... cause I... I-I got in a fight with my Mom and... look, it was just implied ok!? I don't like it here! My school thinks I'm special needs, my Mom and I had a falling out at the ripe old age of me being ELEVEN, and to top it off- you're a complete dick."

"I'm not a dick!"

"You're a super dick! What kind of friend badmouths the ONLY Goddamn friends he had a Camp Camp!?"

"What- you and Max?"

"Who the hell else!?"

"Look. Nikki. I don't know about you and Max- BUT had friends at school. My relationships with my parents aren't nearly shot as yours and Maxs' and secondly- who the hell else was I going to hang out with!? It sure as hell wasn't going to be Nurf or Space Kid."

Nicolette ran a palm down her face in frustration. 

"God do you hear yourself??? You sound so smug- like you're so much smarter or better than us-"

"Did you not see the shit that I can build!? Of course I'm smarter than any of you! I'm the one who put most of our plans together and built the stuff we used- you and that Goddamn Max- all YOU did was roll around in the mud, and all he did was brood all day and pretend he didn't have an affinity for David!"

"What about Gwen?"

"Eh, he can probably take her or leave her."

"Look, I can't speak for Max, and neither should you, BUT, news flash- rolling around in mud? I. WAS. TEN. YEARS. OLD! What, would you rather I sucked all the fun out of my soul and be scared of the freakin' world like you!?"

"I'm not scared of the world!"

This caused Nicolette to let out a demeaning laugh.

"HA! Liar!"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"'Oh no Nikki, I don't wanna climb this tree, I might fall and diiiieee, noooo Nikki- that has geeeeerrrmms, I don't wanna go on hikes, I'll get sweaty and grooosss- I don't wanna stay up late! I don't wanna this, I don't wanna that, I don't wanna sing the theme song- I don't wanna ANYTHING'! Geez for a boy you were such a wimp! Me and Max had to drag you- force you to do anything fun!"

Neil squinted his eyes in annoyance. 

"Wow. First off, nice reinforcement of traditional, toxic gender roles."

"Nice unnecessary in-hindsight political commenta-"

"Secondly those things you mocked me for? Those are legitimate concerns! I thought I was going to a science camp- I didn't pack for the wilderness- there are bugs, and mosquitoes with diseases! There were wild animals that could rip us apart, I'm convinced Quartermaster has killed someone, and as I explained to you and Max several times I have a rocky medical history and a not so great immune system- but oh no, you and Max had to have your fun, didn't you? Torture David, screw with Gwen- you know what? I bet you and him are really proud of yourselves- you probably thought 'oh this is fine, I'm getting him out of his comfort zone'- do you two realize how uncomfortable I was? How scared my life I was at times? People have comfort zones and boundaries in place for a reason- MANY reasons sometimes, and if they're gonna get out of them, they need to do it slowly, and gradually, ON THEIR OWN. Oh but not you and Max- no, not you two. As long as YOU had fun, and HE got a laugh out of it, it didn't matter, as long as I was the butt-monkey. I-it didn't how many times Nurf punched me, or how many times I-"

"Neil-"

"Remember Tabii? Two 'I's? She would slide up to me, rub me, caress me, I had to push and shove her off me? Clearly sexual harassment right? But no one said or did a thing! All that mattered was Preston's stupid play, or that stupid shit with Bonquisha, no one ever said- 'Hey, Tabii. Fuck off'. Nevermind the double-standard bullshit, I sincerely thought, honest to God, that you of all people would have had my back, after whatever they did to you."

"I-" 

 

 

 

 

*MEMORIES OF PAIN AND HUMILIATION FLASH IN AN INSTANT*

"You know, I just had a thought: why do you get so defensive when it comes to Max anyway?"

Nicolette hadn't really heard what Neil said; she had to try and clear her clouded head first.

"I-I uh don't know what you're talking about."

"Oh come on, yeah ya do. I can bring up Dolph, Space Kid, even your girl crush Ered, and you barely say anything, but bring up Max? You're whole demeanor changes; you get tense, body language gets all different- and I don't know why, I mean, what's he ever done for you?"

She was still quite shooken, but Nicolette was able to clear her head enough to respond.

"Gee, that's such a tricky question Neil... oh wait, I know! Maybe its because unlike you I don't act ungrateful towards one of the only friends I had at Camp! That's what I don't get; Max and I were nice to you, so why are you so angry with us??"

"Pfft you're kidding right? Are you sure we're talking about the same Max? The same Max who daily would bully Space Kid and Preston? The same Max who routinely tormented David, even though that guy was probably the only adult that gave him the time of day?? The same Max that, in reality, was basically the reason the Camp closed-!?"

"STOP IT! That wasn't his fault! I know he wasn't perfect, but for crying out loud Neil either are we! We don't really know what he goes through; what he's been through. Will you listen to yourself?? None of this makes sense; at Camp you were a little pissy now and then, but you were a good guy! Smart! Friendly! But God, you talk like you hated that place, like really hated it. You talk like you hate Max- you sound like you hate me! I didn't do anything wrong to you!"

"I'm simply telling you the truth, Max was like this all the time, but you would just laugh and shrug it off. Besides, it's not about 'hating' anyone- it's about knowing the two of you."

The look of bafflement on Nicolette's face was truly something to see.

"'Knowing me'? You don't know me! You barely know the first thing about me- you haven't been there for all the crap I've gone through in the last year, how could you know anything??"

"I know that you should be thanking me; if it wasn't for me, you wouldn't have become a better version of yourself. "

Nicolette's eye twitched. 

"WHAT."

"You started out as a dime-a-dozen eccentric tomboy too immature for their own good, but now, you're more manageable, and you're doing better in school. So realistically, I should be saying, 'you're welcome, Nikki'.

The camel's back had finally been broken. Nicolette seized Neil by the shirt, and pulled him in, face to face with her.

"If that was your idea of a joke, it wasn't funny! Do you have any idea how much you hurt my feelings!? The domino effect of bullcrap you put me through!? I barely recognize myself, and my relationship with my Mom is shot! How could you say that to me!?"

"There you go again- you think you're the only one with problems!?"

"What!?"

"I've been through more stupid shit than you even know! You can't even begin to know!"

"YOU started this! Why did you even ask how was doing in the first place???"

"I dunno, maybe cause I was concerned about your wellbeing?? Weird concept I guess, huh?"

"You've been rude to me for a year, and without warning you try and reach out?? How the hell did you expect me to react!?"

"I don't know- not like THIS! Something was bothering me, you were acting weird, and I thought we would have, you know, a civilized discussion, and you blew up at me!"

"That's not MY fault! Look Neil, if you were having problems or something, then holy shit dude, why didn't you talk to me before today!? I would have listened- I-I would have tried to help!"

"You're joking right? I knew how this was gonna go the second we were on the car ride home- you were sitting next to me, all hyper and happy, after my dumb Dad got me tangled up AGAIN in his bullshit! I did you a favor! If I wasn't straight up with you like I was, you would have been... you the whole time."

Her grip tightened.

"What. The hell. Does that mean."

"You know what I mean."

And she did. Of course she did. She remembered all of the sneers, and scorns, all the judgmental looks and comments from most people throughout her life. Things that once upon a time were so easy to ignore and tune out, were now blaringly loud- almost deafeningly so.

"... Yeah... yeah I do..." Her grip loosened, if only slightly. "But you want to talk about 'me being me'? Well you know what Neil? This isn't you."

The boy rolled his eyes.

"What are you talking about?..."

"Over the last year, you've changed, you're not the boy I was friends with at Camp Camp. I don't know what happened to you, I don't know why, and I'm sorry. But you had no right to take it out on me!"

"I didn't 'take out' anything on you!"

"Neil I'm not the smartest girl in the world, and I'm not the most... that word that means you can read people's feelings or whatever, but, it feels like you're, like, blaming me for something. I didn't hook our parent's up, and sure, maybe now I sorta get what was going on, but I wasn't the one who-"

"You would have gone along with it!"

"Huh???" Well that had certainly thrown the girl through a loop.

"You would have gone the rest of your life no problem without wondering, or questioning anything! Your Mom doesn't love me or my Dad! She's practically never here, she's always on her phone- it's so superficial and FAKE! I'm thinking to myself, the whole time, every Goddamn time I look at your Mom, I think to myself: 'THIS is who is trying to replace Mom with!? THIS is who my Dad moved onto!?'"

"What are you-?" Neil killed the question before she could get it out.

"But you didn't see that, oh no, all you saw was a family extension and a big sleepover!! All that man does is ruin my life, and no one fucking cares!"

"... No... no, you know what? No! I feel sorry for you Neil, but you are not gonna guilt trip me into apologizing for something I didn't consciously do!"

"Exactly! You have no idea what it's like, knowing that you're never a priority in people's minds!"

Nicolects grip tightened once more.

"Then why. Didn't. You. Tell me!? Why didn't you trust me!-"

"I've had a lot of time to myself this last year. A lot of time to think. And I really see things and my life for what they are. I've grown up, and it's for the better! You're not sad, you just see things for what they are!"

Nicolette's eyes widened; desperately searching Neils' for a sign that he was bluffing.

"Neil this isn't you. This isn't us. Come on man, let's just calm down, and talk this out like reasona-"

"Shove that mindfulness shit- I'm not wrong about how I feel!"

Frustrated beyond belief, Nicolette in her fury, raised a threatening fist.

"You stubborn dick, I outta-!" She couldn't bring herself to say it.

"Ooo yeah, you're such a big strong girl- you feel tough? You gonna hit me!?"

"I FEEL like it! You were one of my best friends, but you've been nothing but as uncharacteristically like that Neil as possible since day one here- day ZERO."

"Go on- hit me! Perpetuate the idea that girls can un-consequently hit boys!"

"This isn't about political commentary; this is about our feelings; what the fuck is wrong with you!?"

"Everything! I'm miserable and no one hears my side of the story!"

"That shit's a two-way street; YOU have to try too!"

"People should make the effort!"

"It depends on the situation and person!"

"That's not fair and stupid!"

"Life's not fair I guess, and YOU'RE stupid!"

"YOU'RE stupid!"

"Smart-aleck wimp!"

"Simplistic tomboy!"

"Know-it-all-know-nothing!"

"2ft tall coccydynia!"

"Buzz Killington!

"Nikki Ninnyhammer!"

"Stuck up geek!"

"TRAILER PARK TRASH!"

"JOBBER!"

"HICK!"

"JERK!"

Without warning, the door to the room swung open, revealing Carl, with the home telephone in hand. Carl ended up not having to stay late after all, but the children were so caught up in their drawn out, and bloated argument; they didn't notice he had been home (and had been listening) for some time now...

"Hey, uh Nikki? Friend for ya and Neil on the phone, said his name was-”

“ IS THAT MAX!?”

" U-uh y-yes- yeah it is, do you have a few minutes to-”

"Gimme that! Max!?

(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)-(-)

It was truly fascinating, bizarringly so- INFURIATINGLY so, how quickly status quo reared it's ugly head... the millisecond of a millisecond that Nicolette had even the slightes of thoughts it was you on that phone- P O O F

All of a contrivingly sudden, Nicolette is Nikki, and Neil is his awkward, bumbling, but lovable nerdy self again. Like nothing even happened. What!? How!? Why!? It doesn't make sense- those two were about to rip each other apart, then you come along and everything is mostly back to normal in an instant. This 'friendship'; it truly boggles the mind...

Luckily it didn't last long.

After their phone call with you, Max, they quickly found themselves in an awkward silence. Both children were sitting on opposite sides of the room, not even trying to make eye contact. The haze they were enveloped in had cleared, and they were returning to themselves- before the day was done, they were able to come to even the most basic if an accord.

Nicolette had been sitting on her spot on the floor for some time now- minutes passing like long hours. The insults hurdled back and forth between each other still fresh, and raw; and with the metaphorical anesthetic that was Max's presence wearing off; anger and hurt had found their way back to her. She couldn't quite tell how much of what she said she actually felt and how much was just in the heat of the moment. She didn't even want to begin thinking about how much Neil did or didn't mean out of what he said. Cleary he had problems that ran deep, she thought to herself, but he wasn't in a hurry to clarify anything, and presently, the young girl was at a point where she no longer wanted to try. She was certain she would never be to really turn her back on him, but still, she was tired of the stress and strain it all put on her.

Nicolette spoke to Neil suddenly, without looking at him. 

"Look, Neil... obviously you have your own problems, and I've got mine... and obviously you're... you're not ready to talk to me about them..."

"..."

"... I feel like you don't know me... but... maybe... maybe I don't know you either..."

"..."

"... I know what you're thinking- I think... you're thinking: 'well of course we don't know each other... we were around each other like... two months at Camp Camp'? And yeah we've lived together for a year, but for... reasons we haven't talked some serious stuff out..."

"..."

"... ... I'm... I feel like I'm... ... I don't know... I just... ... ... I-I don't know anything anymore... ... I'm tired... really tired...

"... ... ..."

"... I think... I think we just need some time... cause clearly you're not ready to listen to me... and maybe I... maybe I don't know how to listen to you... or something... I dont know... nothing makes sense anymore... just... agree to disagree?... I don't know whats going on in your head, and you don't know what's going on in mine, but, can we just coexist?... Until we know each other?"

"... ... ... yeah... yeah sure, whatever..."

"... I don't know what's up with our parents, or if what they have is gonna last, but, I don't... I don't want us to be miserable the whole time... so... sound good to you?"

"... fine by me, Nikki..."

Satisfied enough with the conversation as she was going to be, Nicolette, sluggish and sore, rose from he floor, and dragged herself to their shared dresser. Pulling out some pajamas for the night, she made her way to the door; her destination being the bathroom and a warm shower.

However, as she had opened the door, and was standing in the open space between the room and hallway, she paused. She had one last addendum for her 'step-brother', one last thing she felt had to do. She turned around to face him; the boy still sitting at his spot with his head down.

"Neil."

The sound of his name and the way it was said was enough to make him raise his head, and make eye contact with her for the first time in what felt like days.

"Yeah?..."

"My name... is Nicolette."

"... right..."

She left without another word, shutting the door behind her.

 

Chapter Text

Of course you should blame yourself. How could you not? It well and truly was, and is, your fault. I can see every tremor and quake of regret- on full desplay from your body language. It really is quite the sight. I suppose I would be doing the same, if I had to live with the knowledge that I ruined everyone I cared abouts lives.

"...You're a pretentious shit-bag aren't you?"

Excuse me?

"Blah blah blah, that's all I hear from you. Oh yeah, nice soapboxes, by the why; depression being a cash grab, your prose on pain, and life, your Nietzsche wannabe speeches on the way the mind works- it's fuckin' self-serving wank at it's finest. Also, news flash? You can't just add the -ily, or -ly suffix to everything and pretend you said an actual word; you self-righteous fuck!"

Ha, ha, ah yes, the truth often does provoke strong reactions from the weak-minded.

"Oh fuck off! You're not some enlightened know-it-all, who's 'clued in' to how the real world works; you're a life-hating asshole, who had nothing better to do with their life then try to ruin others. That's all this is, because you, 'Author', 'Narrator', whatever the fuck you call yourself- have such a worthless, and meaningless hollow fucking existence, that you impeded your will upon the lives of a bunch of people you deemed deserved it! Doesn't that make you 'weak-minded'? Because you were either so dissatisfied with your life, or maybe you hated yourself so much, that you use it as a flimsy justification to put yourself on a pedestal, and pick apart every single tiny facet of people's lives- acting like you have this alternative, true perspective on life, but you don't! You don't know anything- you were just a lonely piece of shit with too much time to think!!"

 

 

 

. . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

. . .

 

 

 

 

. . .

 

 

Hmph. Fine. Have it your way.

Chapter Text

Growing up a young boy is a lot tricker than most people know. Perhaps that is inaccurate, allow me to rephrase: it has much more nuance than initially believed- that's it. Every child goes through a similar metamorphosis in their early years, almost completely regardless of age, gender, where they grow up- you know what I mean: the 'terrible twos', 'threenagers' and all that nonsense. The developmental years where the children run, and jump around, scream, yell, hit things, get hit by things, break stuff, drop stuff, so on, and so forth. These years are also however crucial, in ways that current year, children-are-evil America typically tends to overlook, or ignore. The children are also learning, exploring, absorbing- they are also, of course, exposing. Yes... children can expose many things; about themselves, their parent's, their friends, their family- children expose themselves in ways they could neverr completely understand at that stage of their lives.

Prime examples are: if a child is well behaved, is good at school, does their chores, yadda yadda, then, by proxy, it reflects how good their parents are -at first glance. However, if a child is misbehaved, as in they're prone to anger, or shy, gets into fights all the time, or bully other children, then naturally, it reflects on how bad of parent's the kids Mother and Father (or any combination in between), is -once again- at first glance. There are arguments to be made that those sentiments are generalizations. For instance; what if the well behaved child is such, out of fear of one or all of its parents beating it, or yelling at it at home? And what of the ill-behaved child? Perhaps they are the way they are because they have feelings and emotions they can't fathom, or don't know how to deal with in a healthy way because no reliable adult figure showed them how, and they're simply lashing out; in frustration and confusion. Perhaps things are rough at home, maybe they are dealing with a loss, maybe even a struggle of identity; hey, it's possible- seems to happen earlier and earlier with each passing year these days. Maybe the children have questions no one wants to answer, maybe the child wishes they could be truly heard and taken seriously, maybe all they want is to BELONG, maybe they just want acceptance and no one gives it to them, and when they try to earn it, they just HURT THEMSELVES, LOVED ONES, AND ANYONE ELSE THAT CROSSES THEM SETTING THEMSELVES DOWN A LONG AND LONELY ROAD THEY CAN NEVER TRULY GET OFF OF FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES.

Or maybe it's just a chemical imbalance, its been known to happen.

If you were to ask the young boy, he would have told you first that growing up is unfairly rough on the kid at times. Remembering his own childhood- it was a quick, but sure path, to putting him on a bitter binge of memories he'd prefer to forget. He once told someone that he was alone, and that he liked it that way- while not unnecessarily incorrect, he didn't like it quite as much as he implied. He was a boy who liked to think; after all why not? He was easily above the average intelligence expected of kids his age, he excelled in school without even trying- what did he need a social life for?

You lied, of course; when you said that growing up you had friends; its clear you're only saying that in a vain attempt to offset your lonliness; perhaps even convince yourself the memories you were falsifying were actually true, so you could sleep easier. You have no friends. You never did. Who were you trying to fool?

When oh when could it all have began? When was it you became so consumed by your negativity? You think back to when you were a child- as a baby; constantly in the arms, or bosom of your Mother, as your Father slaved away at work. Was it after the divorce; when you pushed your Father away, based on what you thought you knew? What about at school? Where you discovered what it means to feel anger?

Anger... such an interesting feeling... an intense feeling... a... misleading feeling.

Do you remember when you were first angry? Who made you feel that way, and why? What did you feel like doing? What did you want to do to that person, or thing? 

It was some kid he can't quite remeber the name of, but as early as kindergarten, he knew what it meant to want to hurt someone. He remembers being punched, and pushed around, having his pants pulled down in front of the other kids, laughed at, called names. Before he knew what the word even was- he was some bullies victim. Bullies are such a common enabler of negativity, and yet, it was baffling to the boy how very not serious the issue was taken, when he was growing up. Oh sure, he would rant, now there's Be A Star, and all these classes, and courses on bullying in and out of the school yards- so many ways to call someone out, run away, or get help, all these oh-so caring, and bleeding heart parents, and even young adults that do all these marches, and walks, and fundraisers, and superficial online campaigns. None of it ever helped you though, did it? They never came for you. When you were beaten, berated, and for intensive purposes abused, people LAUGHED. God, you could remember it so clearly, couldn't you? They would punch you, call you names, harass you in the bathroom, adults and other kids told you to just toughen up, and/or get over it, all the while those little assholes were LAUGHING at you; and the teachers? The responsible adults that were supposed to look after you, and nurture your mind??

What did YOU do?

What did YOU say?

Where did YOU go wrong?

How did YOU start it?

How could YOU have stopped it?

Why did YOU tattle?

Shouldn't YOU apologize?

Should YOU spend time in detention?

Do we have to talk to YOU after class?

Do we need to test YOU for a learning disability?

Do we have to call YOUR parent's?

Do we need to send YOU home?

Do we need to get YOU help?

Don't YOU have something to say?

Why yes. Yes he did have something to say. The little boy wished with all his might that he could look them right in the eye and say: 'FUCK YOU!!! FUCK YOU AND YOUR VICTIM BLAMING BULLSHIT! I DON'T NEED YOUR HELP, OR YOUR COUNSELING, OR YOUR MEDICINE- LET ME BE MYSELF AND STOP PROTECTING THE KIDS THAT GET YOUR TEST SCORES UP, OR WHO'S PARENTS YOU'RE FRIENDS WITH YOU WORTHLESS FUCKING ASSHOLES!!!!!!'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So the boy grows older. 

He surrounds and all but drowns himself in knowledge, or escapism. When he isn't reading, he's studying, when he isn't studying, he's building, creating, and when that all fails- he's a million miles away; connected in some form to the outside world. He is absorbing, forming- almost transforming, if he were one for theatrics, into a version of himself that he never knew could exist. Who he was just only a few years ago; while obviously smart enough to know it was him, feels like a whole other life time ago; a different world, a different place and time- a different kid, just with the same name. He doesn't go down the route most kids seemed to go down, he would rationalize to himself, he began to excel in school, he proved the teachers wrong, his Mother was proud of him- he beat them! He won! He defeated faliure! Honor roll, awards, praise from his parents, and teachers, accolade after accolade- he should have been the happiest young man in the whole world.

But you never were, were you?

Sure, you got straight A's, sure you found new ways to beat your classmates academically, but no matter how good you did, it was never enough. The more you succeeded, the more bitter you became. Because... why? Why did it take all this work, all this strife and heartache, for these people to care about you? They don't care about your personality, they don't care about who you are- you just make their school look good. These adults... they would try and preach that you had great things ahead of you, that you were special, you had so much potential- but you never believed them, because you thought they didn't mean it- not really. They HAD to tell you that, cause it was their job. Your parent's HAD to praise you- that's what parents do, that's what they are SUPPOSE to do. No matter how much they meant it, no matter how much they poured their souls into telling you they loved you, it was all almost meaningless. Because sure... you wanted to hear it, but not from them, OR the teachers. You wanted your bullies to tell you they were wrong, that they were sorry, you wanted to rub it all in their face GOD HOW YOU HATED THEM. 

The more you accomplished, the more it hurt.

The boy was smart, he knew, even at his young age, that a void was tearing open within him- never to be fully closed, filled, or healed. How could it? Why would it? Nothing would ever be good enough, nothing would ever mean enough- all your life would be was isolation, clenched fists, and middle fingers.

Every day, horrible memories he could never forget.

He started to see patterns in life; or rather he noticed things that, others would argue only he could see. He remembered feeling... lied to, when it came to his anger. In his mind, the way boys, and girls were taught about anget were different. When he got mad, he was consistently told to either swallow down these feelings, or, to turn them into positive feelings, and be mindful, and reach inner calm. However, on the other side, he felt that with girls: when they were angry, they were encouraged to wear their feelings on their sleeves, use them, and let it encourage and empower them- that their anger was a good thing. He felt society was telling him to not express himself, or that if he was going to, then don't do it too much. He felt trapped, censored, limited- like he was being manipulated. 

The reality is, matter of factly, anger is a negative emotion that can be put to positive use, but it's hard to do- and while it could never be denied that what he felt was true in some ways, the actuality of it all is much more complex. The boy knew that too. He was smart. He knew that there were no easy, or black-and-white answers to things in life, even little, or seemingly insignificant things- nothing has, or ever had a simple answer. 

That didn't stop him from wanting one though.

How could he not? All he ever wanted to know was why- why him? Every time- why was it always HIM? Why was HE the joke, the punchline, the e x p e n d a b l e one, the f o r g o t t e n one, the third wheel, the last pick? Why!? And why did no one care!? Why does no one care NOW!? Oh, but the years alone, in an insufferable isolation of his communities making, it hardened his heart -steeled it even- so when someone would try to get inside, you shut them out! DEAFENINGLY SO! You were born an only child; all alone, and dammit all, you THOUGHT you'd be ok with dying alone.

His name, was Neil, and he hated the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But something happened. 

Everything that happened to you; everything that made you what you were- it flew out of the window in an instang. Around family, and their friends, you were cold, distant, a smartass at times even. You carried yourself cloaked in spite, and annoyance, you denounced all sense of comfort around you. 

But something happened. 

You went there...

Camp Campbell....

You don't know what compelled you to act as you did- it flew in the face of everything you swore to yourself. Seemingly in a snap, you developed a -seemingly- new personality, it was the nervous, rude at times, yes, but overall compassionate Neil your friends came to know and love... 

There was a point you'd have thought it á propos- the apathy you held for the world, feeling nothing but contempt for your peers. You did of course, think yourself better than most of the other campers, of course- Nurf, Space Kid, The Flower Scouts, not to mention those dreadful Wood Scouts. And yet, not them. Nikki, and Max... somehow you fit in with them almost flawlessly- you were an equal piece of a thirty-three point three (repeating) set; as oxymoronic as it sounds. 

How all of this nonsense works, and why truly confounds the mind... when you're with them, you're a completely different person- even on the car ride home, as soon as Max was put of sight, it was as if a switch was flipped, and you... reverted? Returned? Became? Or possibly swapped- back to your old ways, with the young Nikki being none the wiser. Is that any way to live? Holding all of your pain inside, never letting a soul in, and then you lash out without prior warning, or discernable context? She said it herself; you are simply unable to articulate your feelings, and that you're not the same boy she met at Camp Camp.

You dodged the statement, of course, but inside you knew she was right- and what about when Max called? Instantaneously you switched back into your, let's just say, 'Camp Camp Persona', and now, you're in conflict. Why? How? What? Many questions that you cannot answer.

And now, you sit on the edge of your bed, legs hanging over the side, Nicolette sleeping above you. You stare at the floor- eyes adjusting to the darkness around you. You can hear Nicolette snoring. On some kind of autopilot, you stand up from your seated position; turning around to face your 'sister'. In sleep, she almost looks at peace... then again, everyone does when they are asleep. It is almost amusing to you; even after all this time, she was still a messy sleeper; covers thrown about, a pillow by her foot, and her limbs strewn about in angles that you swear don't look comfortable. His gaze caught her sleepwear; she always wore a shirt, and shorts, unless it was warmer in the evening. He preferred it when she didn't wear those overalls of hers.

Is it guilt that wells up within you? Is it possibly contempt? Do you want to apologize? 

Are you perhaps overthinking everything? You are, after all, at quite an oddly young age to be contemplating such existentialism on this complicated a level... but you're different- all of you were. Are? As in still? You don't know, did you (do?) even want to know? Do you? You don't (didn't?...) want to know(?).

You look at Nicolette... she is growing, right before you. Your birthday is during the school year, hers is not; a year, perhaps two- you are her senior. In a couple more years from now, you will be in high school; a Sophomore when she enters... how much time has past, since she and Candy moved in? What day is it? What year is it? Is this the first time you've wondered these things, or is it the hundredth? Trembling- you bring the back of your hand to Nicolette's face, the tips of your index and middle fingers softly caressing her cheek... she's a sound sleeper, you do not wake her. Was this your first time doing this? Or your hundredth?... ... Why have you done this before? Is it guilt? Which Neil is this? Is there another Neil?  Why is Neil doing this? 

You are certain she has caught you staring...

There was a point where the stares were of contempt, and venom, but at some point, you are not sure when, it... altered. You ceased to look at Nikkie, and began to see the young girl that was Nicolette. After all... you had the best seat, with the best view in the house to witness her... ... developing. You pull your hand away in an instant. You don't want to think these things, you don't want to feel these things, but it is as if you are being compelled to. You hate what is becoming of you, and yet, you press on, and on. You insult Nicolette, you demean her, her Mother, your Father, like your being controlled to. Puppet. That's what it feels like. You feel like a Puppet, being pulled by strings you cannot perceive.

Does it make you feel good?

How many questions do you ask yourself? How much do you keep locked away? How much more will you deny?

Nicolette snores, as your mind gets louder.

You saw the similarities of your situation, of course. Broad strokes, but a common canvas, nonetheless. Picked on kid, troubles at home, conflict of faith and identity- she was going through what you were going through; or something like it. But there was a difference... sure, like you, she steadily improved in school instead of crumbling under the weight of sorrow, but the key, is that she held onto her optimism. Even at this- perhaps her lowest, at least, the lowest you've seen her, she could still smile, communicate, she had hope... she could still believe in things, in people... she still had faith- a chance. She didn't hate the world, her Mother, Cambell, hell, she didn't even hate you... 

And somehow, someway, you found yourself in equal parts being in awe of her, inspired by her, hating her, despising her, and being jealous.

Why did she get to keep herself together, as you fall apart? Silently, agonizingly isolated from everyone else- unable to form bonds and bridges unless it's with her and Max? Did this make her better than you? Does it make you weaker than her? When you tried to tell her, she reacted like everything came out of nowhere- as if you were an underdeveloped secondary character. Why were you growing up intelligent, yes, but awkward, and cynical- as she grew up, maybe not as smart as you, but she was almost wiser; plus you remember from Camp, everyone gravitated towards her naturally, while usually you and Max would have been left together, or alone, until she came around. Why were you growing up tall, pimply, weird, and she gets to grow up smooth faced, and beautiful?

Beautiful?... ... ...

Yes... beautiful... at least to you. 

You almost want to laugh at yourself... of course this would happen. After all, two prepubescent children developing, and becoming the adults life intended them to be, in the same house? And they weren't related by blood? It makes you sick how obvious it all seems. That was when the stares changed, you realize- when you stopped seeing Nikki for Nicolette, no longer a naive child, no completely... you being a year or so older meant your mind was that much farther along, after all. She caught you staring... she had no idea... has no idea- what's in your mind. What you feel. Over a year of sleeping in the same room, sharing the same bathroom, same utensils, laundry basket, shower, air, closets, soap, wash cloths, and towels- had finally taken it's toll on your mind, your heart, your id, and your ego's. 

All of this distortion in your head, the noise, and clutter- it feels deafening and yet, all this time, you remain perfectly still... hands ar your sides... staring, towering over Nicolette... barely blinking. What is wrong with you, you think. Questions, upon questions, layer and layer of confusion, and disorienting self-disassociation; you want to cry, you want to scream. No... what you really(?) want, is answers... ...

Are you sick?

Is there multiple of you?

Is there a real you?

Who's right?

Nicolette shifts in her sleep, mumbling nonsense.

What's wrong?

What's right?

Are you lonely?

Who's wrong?

Are you angry?

Are you depressed?

Are you lonely?

Do you hate her?

Are you lonely?

Do you hate yourself?

Your hand lingers over her face.

Are you lonely?

Are you yourself?

Did these feelings come out of nowhere?

Your palm touches her cheek.

Are you lonely?

Can you trust yourself?

Your breath quickens.

Did you come out of nowhere?

Are you lonely?

Are you out of character?

Your heart races.

Are you lonely?

What is your character?

Achingly slowly, you slide your hand lower.

Are you lonely?

What is your role?

Do you feel underdeveloped?

Your hand rests on her collarbone. 

Do you feel neglected?

Are you lonely?

Do you want to cry?

Do you want to scream?

You shift your hand forward, slightly. 

Are you scared?

Your thumb presses the left side of her neck.

Are you scared?

Your index, and middle finger press the right side if her neck.

Are you scared?

You slowly...

Are you scared?

slowly...

Are you scared?

slowly...

ARE YOU SCARED?

SQUEEZE-

"AAAAAAAH!!!!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scream that erupted from himself returns Neil to his senses. His eyes are wide, brow is sweaty, hyperventilating, he looks down, and sees his hands, gripping at Nicolette's neck. Terrified, he let's go- jettisoning himself backwards in fear, knocking over some random figurines, and miscellaneous crap at the moment he didn't care to identify, with several loud crashes. Whether it was the scream, the noise, or even the pressure on her throat, Nicolette awoke in a jolt; sitting up in her bed.

"What happened!?"

Neil could only stand in his spot, and gaze at his trembling hands in the darkness.

Not waiting long for an answer, the girl jumped out of bed, and reached for the lamp on Neil's nightstand, tripping and stumbling several times along the way. After said lamp illuminated the room, she stood in front of Neil, left and right hands gripping each of Neil's arms- in an attempt to stabilize him, and calm him down.

"Neil! Calm down, what is it, talk to me!"

Neil didn't move a cell- eyes still stuck on his hands, mind replaying the last several minutes over and over.

"Come on, man, not again; don't shut me out! I-is it- was it a nightmare? Did you hear something??"

The concern in her voice was enough to make him want to cry- their previous argument seemingly forgotten, all she was focused on was making sure he was ok. It was too much right now. He wanted to run, but he was locked in place. He wasn't sure there was even a definition of what was circulating through himself. 

Nicolette saw the distress on his face, never once had she seen him like this. Of course she was still mad at him, but, call it instinct, perhaps, she wasn't about to let him suffer anymore that it looked like he had from whatever afflicted him. Plus, with her being proactive, perhaps he would start to open up to her, and they could bond finally- she could finally start earning browine points with him if she tried to listen and engage. She wondered if there was something innately selfish about that, but now wasn't the time.

She took her right hand, and softly used the tips of her fingers to gently tilt his head up; forcing eye contact between the two. The fear, and sadness in his eyes was tangible. Once their eyes were locked, she took both of her hands, and placed them in Neil's open, shaking palms. She held them, trying to soothe their trembling. Slowly rubbing her thumbs on their surface. 

"Neil... please, tell me what's wrong. We can work through it- together."

She promised with a smile.

It was then Neil truly took in the sight before him. Her smile... the warmth in her eyes... her hair was down- she always wore it like that when she slept, it always looked long, and flowing; the green reminding him of a kind of stream. The shirt hung, just ever so slightly, off her left shoulder, on which several strands of her hair also rested. The shorts went down to her knees.

"I-I... ..." 

Without warning, he sprinted away from her, opening the door to their room, and shutting himself in the bathroom. He didn't come out for some time.

Nicolette was a combination of worried, and annoyed. She knew she shouldn't be the latter, this seems even worse than whatever was bothering him previously, but she felt stuck. It would be pointless to engage him now, he probably won't want to talk about it later, and she damned well knows he won't come to her first, so what was she supposed to do? She opted to just try and talk to him tomorrow, climbed back into bed, and eventually returned to sleep.

In the bathroom, Neil splashed cold water on his face, he was scared confused by what just happened. He knew he had some issues to work out, but still, that was... otherworldly; the experience felt alien... or maybe he felt alien... wiping at his face with a dry washcloth, he stared at himself for a good long while.

Before he could think too much, he resolved that he'd had enough of this madness for one day, he tossed the cloth in the hamper, and went back into the room, and attempted to go back to sleep.

He had failed to noticed that the eyes that stared back at him in that mirror, were not quite his own. 

Chapter Text

Almost forgot about you, Max. Now... where were we? Ah yes, now then...

It's been several months now since Max had spoken to Nikki and Neil. Tonight was another lonely night, with no parents, on a nothing weekend, and on this night, little Max was all alone, once again- lying on his bed, head resting on the arms behind his head. After his little 'episode' he was reluctant to call them- even David had been on the receiving end of radio silence. Max knew this wasn't a good idea, but how was he supposed to talk to them? Talk to her? Awkward didn't even begin to cover what he felt.

His newfound 'activity' quickly made its way into Max's everyday life until it was part of his routine. After each time, it was the only moments of his life he felt any sense of calm and peace. Unfortunately, in exchange for those moments of serenity, he began to feel an all new acute sense of lonliness. The side effect of simulating stimulating encounters, is that, the primal part of that person eventually craves the intimacy implied by the encounter. Not so much the actual act of sex itself, but rather, the emotional connection it can bring. In an obtrusive way, he made himself feel more alone than he was by accident. 

Max passionately loathed the idea of seeming like a kind of 'love struck teenager', or 'some lonely boy who just wants a girlfriend'. He knew that wasn't the case, but, he thought someone who didn't know him could easily make that assumption. He wasn't sure why it bothered him so much...

In an attempt to off-set this new-found lonliness, he tried to double down in school, but all it seemed to do was stress him out, with the unexpected side benefit of annoying him. He wasn't the smartest kid in the world, but school just seemed so continuously patronizing, and boring. There was still no one there he wanted to talk to, the teachers never connected with him, outside of mandatory pleasantries. He missed his friends... he missed David... hell, he could admit it to himself fully now; he missed Camp Camp. 

It's not like he couldn't say it before, but usually, when he missed Camp Camp, it was in relation to Nikki, Neil, David, and Gwen almost exclusively. However recently, he found he missed the rest of the crew too. Even Space Kid, and Preston. If nothing else, they all provided some much needed color, and spontaneity into his routines at the camp. He laughed to himself as he recalled the wackiness any random day of Camp could bring- it almost made him feel guilty. He didn't appreciate what he had back then, and he knew it too- he honestly wouldn't have been suprised if someone told him the other kids hated hin.

It almost feels weird that I feel as guilty as I do... like... not in the sense I don't think I should- I know I fucking should, but it almost doesn't feel right... it's like I don't deserve to feel bad, or regret my actions... fuck am I suppose to do anyway? Got no way to reach them, and even if I could, who's to say they would validate my remorse, or accept my apology? Maybe they don't even give me a second thought- maybe once Camp ended, they threw me out of their minds, and forgot about me... that's fine... I prefer that. I'm not worth remembering anyway.

Max turned his head towards the windoe by his bed, the moon visible tonight. A few stars even as well- somehow breaking through the smog and light pollution. 

God I wish I could get out of here... but that thought makes no sense, really. Where am I suppose to go? I've got no family I can trust, and I don't even know where my few friends live. I have to finish out school so I can work, so I can make money, that's still like four Goddamn years away at least. Fuck... dammit David...

Even David, Max's only true adult confidant, had been on the receiving end of silence recently. The situation was a little different though, Nikki and Neil, he was avoiding, David hadn't been able to talk cause he was working round the clock on something, which Max still didn't rightly know what it was.

Maybe he found a way to get Camp Camp back after all? That'd be sick and all, but... fuck, I'm a little too old for Camp by now, aren't I? I don't know how old Ered was four years ago, but I'm almost fifteen now... I can't be going to a summer camp at this stage of the game, it'd look weird, plus, would they even let me? Well... if David is running the place, he could probably do me a solid, and get me in regardless... hm... heh, maybe I could be his assistant or some crap? I never thought that'd be something I want to do, but I wanna get the fuck out of here.

Max found he was smirking sadly to himself. No matter what, he truly couldn't hate David anymore, or even try to really. He never did, of course, but now it was almost if he couldn't even stay mad at him. Max rationalized perhaps that was nostalgia clouding his judgment, but he didn't care too much.

Besides, it's not just about me- that dude loves that place, even after everything that Campbell prick did, he's told me over and over how he wants to fix things there. Maybe I can't ever go back, but, if he does it right? Maybe he can help some other kids who are going through some tough shit, like he tried to with me... although I guess realistically, the kids would have similar attitudes like I did, and don't appreciate what they have, until it's not there anymore... oh well... that's just the cycle I guess...

Speaking of cycles; the fond memories of Camp usually led to the other Campers, which usually led to David, which always led him back to to Nikki and Neil. Like a kind of mental flytrap. 

Just call them you coward, they don't even know what's going on with you, or what you did. As far as they know, you're still the same sarcastic Max from Camp... yeah... same old same... but... isn't that the problem? No... or... at least it shouldn't be...? I mean... that's why I like talking to them, I think... wait... is that why? Do I only talk to them so I can hold onto the good parts of my past?... We never talk about our problems, or even what were doing, really, we just shoot the shit and talk shit on school... fuck... that's all it is- empty conversations stuck in the past. Everytime I call them, time doesn't feel like it moves forward, it feels like it's turned back- but isn't that what I want??? I can't bring them into my world- I can't!... Is this what the internet calls a 'safe-space'? Am I using them? Goddammit you idiot there you go again- over complicating shit... 

Max sat up in his bed, adjusting so his back was resting against it's headboard, crossing his legs. Eyes hardened by his pensive thoughts.

But life is complicated, isn't it? That's what the last few years have been trying to tell me, it seems, I mean they have to be going through shit too, right? But if they are, or even if they aren't, they're my best friends, I can trust them... shouldn't I? I mean... can't I? Yeah, yeah, of course I can!... So why can't I talk to them???

...

...

Rrr.... of course I know why I haven't called them- who am I trying to kid? I haven't called because of Nikki... fuckin hell...

Yes... ever since his episode some time ago, he couldn't think her, let alone calling her, without feeling a cocktail of nausea, and guilt. Can't say I blame you, Max. It's not everyday you get confusing feelings; that seemingly come from no where. 

I dont know why the fuck I feel so bad... I mean... I didn't ... t-think of her like that, I couldn't. But... is that why I feel weird? I mean... fuck- what DO I mean?? I'm putting thought into shit that doesn't even need it- I didn't, and don't, think of her like that- done!

 

 

 

 

 

But fuckin WHY??? 

Jesus Christ, why is this so hard?? Is it cause I think she's ugly or something??? Cause that's not it- is it cause I don't like her?? No, cause she's one of my best friends- I know I care about her... fuck, I care about her a lot... I remember that night, I was trying to figure this out then, too. All I could focus on was how much she...

How much she meant to you.

... meant to me...

And how much she cares about you.

And how much she cares about me...

I... no, no, no... no you idiot don't get ahead of yourself, think rational... think rational... well... r-rationality tells me that I'm a lonely, self-loathing loser, who's desperate for affection, and Nikki is the only girl-friend I have... yeah... yeah, I-I'm just a sad little teenager, foolishly latching onto the first girl he sees... sees? Fuck I haven't seen her in four years... I'm... not the same Max from Camp Camp... the one she became friends with... the one she liked... rationality... rationality tells me that... the reason... the reason I-I can't think of her like that is because those girls in my head- the ones from the videos, and movies... they mean nothing to me... some of the ones from Camp I could have maybe called friend, but realistically, they're not... but Nikki... Nikki means something to me...

 

Max started breathing heavy. His right arm frantically moving, and pulling through his messy hair. Stir-crazy, yet completely rooted into his seated position. 

Fuck... fuck... get a hold of yourself- I mean by the train of 'logic' I'm on, that'd be like saying just because Nikki and Neil live together- one of them would become attracted to the other, I mean why not? They're not related, they're best friends- sure it sounds like some wacky bullshit from a Pornhub video- but still; I'm imagining stuff where it's not- I mean... fucks sake, how cliché could I be, right? Childhood friend falls for childhood friend? That's... that's dumb, a-and overdone, and generic! What- just cause she's my only girl who's a friend, that means I have to... like like her? But wait... am I making these things up in my head? Am I trying to talk myself out of something based on what I've seen in entertainment? Or is it trying to mask my fears?...

Hmm... good question. Is it?...

I mean... let's be honest... let's be rational... let's... be realistic... even if... even if I did- which I don't- and... e-even if she did- which I know she doesn't-... I don't... I don't deserve... ...

He couldn't even finish the thought; his breath began to quicken, and his heart started to race. This was enough to force him from his bed- he began pacing back and forth all around the room. His steps were clumsy, loud and uncoordinated, his arms stretching, and moving about- any movement he could muster to fight the anxiety rising inside his core.

What's the Goddamn point? I've done so much bad shit in my life, how the fuck could I ever think I deserve anything more than this lonely existence? Isn't this what I wanted!? All I wanted at Camp was to get away, but what would I have done had I been able to!? I hate this... I hate this... I hate being alone, with these shitty, fucking, goddamn worthless- Fuck them! I'll never forgive them- THEY did this to me... ... but how much longer will I use that as an excuse!? I know what they did didn't give me the right to be the piece of shit that I was- but I was anyway! David... David... what the fuck do you see in me??? Why do you believe in me??? I can't take it anymore... I can't take it anymore... I can't take it anymore... I can't take it anymore... Goddammit, I'm pathetic... why couldn't I stay the stuck up asshole I was four years ago? THAT Max was better at pushing this shit down, THAT Max wasn't a whiny pussy! I know people change as they grow up, but fuck, I'm almost nothing like how I was years ago. Is that good? Bad? Ah fuck... am I even Max??? Or am I him in name only?... Am I real??? 

He kept about on a smilar course, until he was in front of his bedroom door; sticking his forehead to its face. The wood cool against his increasingly warm head.

Goddammit... this is bad... this is the kinda bullshit that ruins friendships- what do I do?... what do I do?...

Dazed, he craned his head to the left, catching sight of the desk in the corner of his room. Atop it's surface sat Mr. Honeynuts. Even after all these years, he still kept him. He was never really sure why; he no longer needed him to sleep, or to comfort him in times of fear, or despair. Perhaps he simply couldn't bare to dispense if the old toy; it helped serve as a reminder- of Camp, of his childhood, the bad, the horrible, and the sparse good. It also provoked a question from his subconscious; once upon a time, did his parents love him? At least enough to give him the bear as a gift? He wondered if he would ever know...

Perhaps overcome by nostalgia, perhaps operating outside his bodies control, he walked over to the bear, picking him up with one hand. He turned him over, and around; Mr. Honeynuts was old back then; even older now- his sitches were beginning to come undone in a few places, his one 'good' eye was now loose, and the color of his fur was fading. The white fluff within even showing in a few open spots. Max knew he wasn't alive, nor a kind of sentient being, and yet, as a younger child, he remembered being able to suspend his disbelief for this stuffed bear, and draw inspiration from him; courage. Courage... that's what the idea behind Mr. Honeynuts was really about, wasn't it? Being able to push through fear, and make it to the otherside. Max looked at Mr. Honeynuts, right in his black, corduroy eye, and allowed himself to ask one childish question.

What would Mr. Honeynuts tell me to do? He asked in his mind.

Now of course, Max knew the answer to that: nothing. For he was simply a stuffed toy, nothing more. And yet... Max allowed hinself to be put back in the mindset of four, five, maybe even close to ten years ago: when he would have 'answered' Max.

The boy put the bear in both hands, and extended his arms directly in front of him, and asked once again.

"What do I do, Mr. Honeynuts?..."

Max halted for a moment. He felt embarrassed realizing how low he's fallen, but perhaps in desperation, or in a self-deprecating attempt to humor himself, he used his voice to answer himself in the tone he always used for the bear, when he was alone as a child.

"You'll never know until have the courage to try! So just call them you fucking wimp!"

Max allowed himself a small laugh; puberty had made it almost impossible to replicate the voice he had once used for the bear yet it felt like Mr. Honeynuts all the same. He set the bear, carefully, back down on his desk, took a deep breath, and walked into the kitchen to retrieve his apartments phone. Grabbing it, he paused; nervous, no doubt- but he forced himself back into his room, and shut the door. Sitting on the edge of his bed, Max starred once again at the face of the phone, the luminescence of the numbers on it glowing lightly in the dark. 

Ok... pros:... you call them, say hi, apologize, laugh a bit, go to bed content. Cons:... you pull a dumbass, let your feelings slip, talk about your problems, push them away forever... ... maybe I can just repress these feelings forever and never ever tell anyone?... I mean... just because I might or might not feel something, doesn't mean I HAVE to talk about them, o-or tell her- tell ANYONE! Besides... be -fuck- besides... let's just say hypo-fuckin-thetically, that I have... that I like... that I have a... aaghhhhh an affinity, there we go, for Nikki- so what? Nothing has to change, why should it? Neil and Nikki are both still my best friends, just, you know, I almost jacked off to one of them...... fffffFUCK. Come to think of it... since I haven't seen her in four years, technically, I was imagining a ten ye...... oh fuck, I'm gonna be sick.

Max dry heaved several times in repulsion at the unfortunate implications.

Ok... fuck... I really really didn't need to think about that... I'm just trying to psyche myself out of this- come on, just DO IT. Punch in the numbers and call... ... wait... couldn't they have just called me?... yeah... yeah, why didn't they call me? Are they not... worried- no, concerned?... No... what's the fucking word... ... are they not thinking about me, or wondering where I am... I mean, they shouldn't, but... why does the idea of them not make me sad... didn't I just say I wish everyone would forget about me?... Maybe... maybe I should just... ... ...

rrgh.... ... ... ...

mmm....

aaaaaaaggggh- FUCK IT!

He punched the numbers in, and held the phone to his ear. The dial tone humming into his head.

Chapter Text

 

At this stage of the game, Nicolette could safely say that she was not a fan of growing up.

The last few years were hectic enough, nevermind the entire fourteen. As was now the norm for her, she had found herself once again all alone in Carl's nice house- no Mother, no Neil, no Carl. Out with friends, no idea, working late- respectively.  So, on the couch in the livingroom she slept, a random Kaiju film playing in the background; she was much too bored, and in her own thoughts to look up the title- all she knew was, it wasn't a Godzilla movie, so it probably didn't matter. She was slouched into the upholstery, sinking into it's cushions, eyes red from inconsistent sleep; practically slumping onto the floor almost. She didn't care really, no one was home, who did she have to impress?

As the explosions kaboomed, and the subtitles appeared, and disappeared, and the old English voice-overs left the un-matched mouths from the original Japanese actors; Nicolette sighed, and sank even further, eyes barely staying open. Absentmindedly, she scratched at one of her legs. 

Recently, Nicolette's Mother sat her down for, 'The Talk'. At least she thought so- what no one told her was that, what adults call 'The Talk' is really more like several- because you have the obvious ones: The Birds and The Bees, and of course, dating and (in her case) boys, but there were two more that she wish she knew about ahead of time.

The first one was about all the new hygiene related jargon that got thrown at her. The subject matter made her uncomfortable already, but having to be spoken to about these things by her Mother; with which whom at this point she sometimes forgets to even exchange pleasantries with, made it all the worse. It was a random day, a year ago, maybe two, when without warning, her Mother barged into her room...


 

 

The benefit, Nicolette supposed, about living here was that she could do things and have things she could only imagine back at the trailer park. One of those things was her newfound access to video games, thanks to Neil's library. With him, his Father, and Candy usually being out of the house, the young lady was able to partake in a certain kind of escapism that the outdoors just couldn't quite provide; for better and for worse, of course. 

Nicolette found herself enamored with Overwatch recently; Neil didn't own many games, nor could either of the children purchase them, so, she made due with what she had. She didn't mind too much though, this title was fine with her, she just wish she had a headset; she was tired of 'salty DPS-mains' getting on her case. It was in the middle of a Competitive Match; you win, you get points to ascend to a higher 'rank' as well as points to make a characters gun golden, and Nicolette had her eye on 'golding' the character 'Junkrat's' grenade launcher.

Ugh... God I hate this generation...

Anyway, it was a neck-and-neck battle on Eichenwald, her team had to push the Red Team back for just another minute, and they win the game. From her cross-legged postion on the floor, she was completely entranced by the images on the screen. Nicolette was lobbing grenades, setting traps, throwing mines, stressing as she tried to manage her cooldowns, trying to protect her teams healers -thrity seconds- she almost had her ultimate ability, instinctually she leaned closer to the television, fifteen seconds, fourteen, thirteen, twel-

Suddenly the screen went black.

Nicolette looked around, panicked and confused.

"What the-!?" She turned around to see her Mother standing behind her; putting two and two together rather quickly as to whom turned off her TV. "Mom! I was-"

"I need to speak to you in the bathroom, now." And she left the room without a word.

Frantically, Nicolette scrambled to turn the screen back on, only to be greeted by big red letters reading DEFEAT, and her team screaming incoherently. Sighing in dejection, she shut off the Playstation, and went to join her Mother in the Washroom. She walked in to see Candy running water from the faucet, wetting a wash cloth, as well as a lone razor laying on the counter. 

Needless to say, Nicolette was quite confused.

"Uhhh Mom?..."

Candy turned to face her daughter, the look in her eyes conveyed a sense of buisness, and that she wanted to waste very little time.

"Alright Nicolette, you're at the age now where it's time to talk about... certain things about growing up that we haven't discussed yet."

Already not liking where this was going, Nicolette's eyelids lowered with an air of great unconcern about them.

"Kinda hard to when you avoid me."

"Hush up and listen. Now then, Nicolette, you're at a very important point of your life, and when you're a young lady, there's more to life than just the 'birds and the bees' when it comes to growing up. A girl has to take care of themselves in certain ways that boys don't have to."

Nicolette cocked an eyebrow.

"What do you mean?"

Candy made a face that made it look like she really didn't wish she had asked that.

"Aw hell... well... I'm certain that... you've noticed that some things about your body have changed in the last couple years right?..."

Nicolette looked herself up and down, trying understand what her Mother's point was. 

What does she mean? I mean... my chest seems to be... growing... and I'm getting hair in a couple spots I wish wouldn't. Now that I think about it, certain parts of me seem to be... smelling weird... is it from my period? Mom already taught me about all that though...

"Well yeah, but, that's just cause of my dumb period stuff, right? Mine's already passed for this month though, and you already talked to me about that, so, what's your point?..."

Candy's eyes shifted, trying to choose her words carefully. 

"Not necessarily, Nicolette... a woman's period is part of the process, yeah, but it's only one of the first parts. You... shoot... you see how... I look, dontcha?" The older woman gestured to herself; highlighting her breats, and hips especially. "All.... ugh, 'developed', or whatever?"

"Well yeah, I mean who couldn't? Your rack is huge." 

I blush slapped itself on Candy's face, as her eyes widened at her daughter's bluntness. 

"N-Nicolette! Where the hell'd you learn to talk like that!?"

The girl in question rolled her eyes at her Mother's sudden conservativism. 

"Online gamers, memes, and you."

Candy rumbled her free hand's palm against her temples. 

"Oh my God... I never-! Whatever, look my point is, your body has been going through changes, alright? And now it's about time we talked about how you need to maintain yourself."

"'Maintain myself'? What are you talking about? I shower and put on deodorant like everyone else."

"Right... yeah but that's not quite-"

"I'll have you know I also practice above average dental hygiene for kids my age."

"I understand but-"

"My overalls are always clean, my hair's always done, what more do I need to do?"

Candy thought for a second and made an impulsive decision. 

"Take ya clothes off Nicolette."

Now it was her daughter's turn to blush.

"What!?"

Candy's palm quickly found the front of her face.

"Goddammit- just do as I say, kid! Wasn't a problem when you were small, it shouldn't be a problem now."

"It's not that it's a problem per se, but it's just weird that's how you chose to phrase it-"

"I aint got time to argue with you Nicolette, hurry it up!"

Great, that means she's going out to get drunk again... whatever. Nicolette did as she was told, and unbuttoned her overalls, and slipped out of the attire; now standing in front of her Mother in only her undergarments. 

Candy couldn't help but look at her daughter. It's like looking in a mirror, she thought. A selfish part of her mind was thankful she didn't take much after her Father. It was only in the smaller details, it seemed to her, that she did; the shape of her hands, the way her hair curled, and personality wise- Nicolette (without realizing) in many ways was quite like the man that spawned her; a man the girl has never even met. These traits weren't overt- Nicolette, objectively, looked just like Candy, and yet, those few and other subtle similarities were just enough to remind the woman of the man, their past, and most damnably; their mistakes. She almost detested her daughter's existence for it; despite how irrational the very notion was.

"Alright now Nicolette, obviously you've noticed your body goin through changes."

"Obviously."

"And I'm sure you noticed that, uh, ya know- things... that- ya've noticed... hair in some new spots."

Nicolette raised her right arm slightly; a patch of hair resting underneath. 

"Your legs too."

Putting her arm down, she observed herself to see, indeed, some light fuzz on her limbs. 

"Yeah, so?"

"W-well, I'm sure you have a lot of questions, and you're probably a little confused by-"

"By what, body hair? I mean it's a little weird, and it feels... weird, I guess, but guys have it, aren't girls supposed to too?"

Candy's index finger scratched at a spot just underneath her eye.

"N-no, well yes, yeah but-"

"Like how you have a little mustache on your upper lip?"

"Huh!?" Candy almost smashed her face into the mirror to get a look at what her daughter was talking about. Sure enough, just under her nose, there was a curvy line of hair above her lip. "Aw son of a-" Once again, her palm met her face. She growled in frustration, and turned back towards the girl. "You're gonna learn how to shave, Nicolette!"

Shave?... The word was familiar to the young lady, but yet still foreign, as she did not fully know it's context. Naturally she was quite curious.

"Why?"

"Because-" Candy took a quick breath to compose herself. "because, Nicolette, it's proper for a young lady becoming a woman to... manicure herself in certain ways. The idea is that you take the time to look presentable, and pretty so that you can move up in the world."

Nicolette blinked.

"Then eventually, down the road, you can attract yourself a man -or a woman, I guess, if you want, I don't really know how your generation works-  that can provide a stable income, and a roof over ya head, so that you can coast through life without breaking a sweat."

Nicolette blinked, and cocked her head to one side.

"Ya see Nicolette, the benefit of bein' a woman, especially in today's world, is that, it's even easier to get what ya want outta life- ya can wrap men around ya finger, or you can milk sympathy from other women to help you advance in life. That's what worked for me, and girl, I think it can work for you too." Candy finished with a warm smile.

Nicolette blinked, and squinted.

"... Does any of that remotely sound like me?..."

Candy shrugged at the question.

"Hell I don't know, but I just want the best for ya Nicolette. I know you got your resentments towards me, I get it, but, if ya just let me help ya, I know I could turn ya into an irresistible bombshell."

"Shouldn't what's best for me be being able to work hard, and earn my own living and positions in life, and be a good person? Then maybe IF somehere maybe down the road, I want to, I can settle down with a good person that likes me for me?"

"... Ha ha ha! Oh Nicolette, I forgot how cute you can be at times."

"For the love of- and by the way? I don't want to be a 'bombshell', I wanna be me!"

"And you can be, once you snag yourself a man."

"Mom, I'm not even fifteen; shouldn't you be telling me not to worry about boys, and/or girls yet?? And NOT telling me to put my actual self second to a superficial image of myself that I'm not??? I mean for crying out loud, I don't even have any friends at school, and I don't know the first thing about being attracted to somebody!"

"Exactly, and this-" Candy gestured to the razor in her hand. "- is step one."

"Mom I really don't feel comfortable with this... why do I gotta shave my legs, anyway? My 'shortest' clothing goes down to, like, my shins anyway, and besides, boys get to have their legs hairy."

Frustrated, Candy pinched the bridge of her nose.

"Heavens sake- these are just the rules Nicolette, I don't don't make 'em! Come on now, no boy wants a sasquatch for a girlfriend."

"Shouldn't it be my choice to do this? When I'm ready- if I'm ready?"

"Listen, I'm gonna level with ya kid; I'm fine with your little outdoorsy shenanigans, and your insistence on dressing, and actin all 'boy like'- but I ain't gonna have my daughter lookin like Tarzan."

"Ooooh so like usual, I'm compromising myself for you?"

"Don't you start with me, kid, I'm tryin my best to make you a presentable person of society. Its fine, disrespect your Mother all ya want. Like everything else, it's gonna be one of those things you will thank me for later in life."

"You sure put a lot of insurance into hoping for that, dont you? Mom be real with me, who actually cares? Why do I need to do this weird thing solely because you tell me society demands it or whatever, and you don't even know why?? I don't care if I look pretty, I don't care if I look proper! This is weird, and dumb, and you haven't made a good case for me having to!"

"... ..." Her Mother became... uncharacteristically solemn. 

"Mom?..."

"Nicolette, let me ask you a question."

"O-ok..."

"Do you care about what people think of you?"

As she predicted, Nicolette was quick to reply.

"N-no, no of course not! I don't care what boys, girls or adults think about who I am!"

Her Mother sadly shook her head.

"I thought so... Nicolette... one day, later on in your life... you're gonna... you're gonna realize that you actually do."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"It means that sooner or later you're gonna realize that whether you like it or not, the world is a superfical place, and if you wanna get anywhere, you need to play along. You know what that attitude ya got gets you in life? You end up homeless, or doing less than nothing into your thirties. I don't want that for you... do you know... you don't have any idea what it's like, to be gettin close to your mid-thrities, and look yourself in the mirror, and say: 'dammit... God dammit, my life is over... I got nothing to live for, I can't go more forward than this'."

Nicolette stared, eyes wide and said nothing. She was starting to get cold.

"You don't really realize until you get older, just how much words get at ya, how many of your actions have consequences, how much time you've wasted. I dropped outta High School for ya, Nicolette. I can't ever have a career, or a real salary job, I do nothing all day! I clean up the house, and yeah, I go out now and then, but that's all I got! I ain't gonna let you waste your life, ya hear?"

Nicolette had so much she wish she could say, so much she wished she could ask, but yet, she could only manage one small, meek, and sad little curious question.

"Mom?... ... what... what happened to you?..."


She never recieved an answer, of course. Her Mother quickly carried on like she never said anything. Nicolette almost wondered if that was her plan; psyche her out, and carry on with what she wanted to do. She didn't hate the experience, despite a few nicks and small cuts here and there, she supposed. She guessed that maybe she didn't dislike how her legs looked, and felt, and yet- she couldn't help but wonder what it was all for.

I don't do pretty, or prim, or proper, I don't care about boys or girls liking me, so what the hell??? Mom treated the whole thing like I was... like I was setting myself up for auction. Yeah, yeah that's it- auction. Like- 'hey boys and girls, here's my daughter! Please oh please won't some boy take her away and give her a life, instead of her earning one?' Makes me sick... if I knew my Dad... maybe he wouldn't have let her do this -hell- maybe if Carl was there, he wouldn't have wanted me to have to feel like I need to look good ONLY for the sake of others...

Speaking of Neil's Father; Nicolette remembered being quite.......... 'intrigued' by the way he delivered the other lesson she had to learn:

Boys and how to say no.

You see while Candy taught her how to look good for boys, Carl took it upon himself to try and help her get ready for courting, and dating.

Sweet Jesus...


 

"Carl?..."

"Yeah Nikki?"

"I... ok, look, I really do appreciate you doing this, you know that right?"

"My gut says yes."

"Ok, good... and I like you, you know that, right?"

"My self-esteem says no, but my conscience says yes."

"Ok, good- great. And you KNOW that despite my problems with Neil, I do in fact trust you-  and while we don't really hang out or bond much out of a combination of your nervousness, and my lack of being able to comprehend having any -let alone good- male role model in my life; I know I can come to you for help... right?"

"Depsits our lack of interactions over the years, I can safely say I concur with your inexplicably specific sentiment."

"Ok, dope, sick- awesome... so please know I ask this with complete respect; why the hell are you teaching me like this???"

From her seated position on the edge of her bed; across from her on the otherside of the room was a small makeshift stage, and a red curtain. Coming up from underneath the stage, in front of the curtain were two puppets; both being manipulated by Carl's hands. His right (stage left) hand was a button eyed green sock with exaggerated angry eyebrows, and on his left (stage right) hand was a button eyed pink sock with lipstick crudely drawn on its 'mouth'.

"Aw come on, trust me you'll like this! You see this-" He gestured to the green puppet. "- is the sinister  Oscar The Oppressive! He wants to objectify you and suppress your rights as a woman! But this-" He gestured to the pink sock. "Is the liberated, and strong willed Daisy The Daring! She knows her rights, and she's gonna tell ya all about dating, and how to protect yourself from dangerous men like Oscar!"

"..."

"..."

"... ... ..."

... ... ... ... ...

"You can't be serious."

"Of course I am! Ya mother wanted to talk to ya about this, but I told her I says, 'honey, if anyone knows a thing or two about rejection from women, it's yours truly!' I said, 'let me show green bean the ropes!' And here we are!"

"How are you a licensed, certified professional in this field?"

"Well actually Nikki, I'm not, my degree is in philosophy, not psychology, very different ya know- let alone children's psychology. But I haven't really been of much help to you since ya've been livin here, so I thought I'd take it upon myself to-"

"To put you and me into a scenario neither of us are familiar or comfortable with?"

"That's life kiddo! Alright, so, let's say Sally here is minding her own buisness, then all of a sudden-"

"I thought her name was Daisy?"

"Daisy, yes, is minding her own buisness, then all of a sudden, the evil Oliver strolls on up-"

"Wasn't it Oscar?..."

"Oscar is on the prowl, Nikki! He looking for a independent woman to impede his Patriarchy agenda on-"

"Whoa whoa whoa, hold on, what the hell is Patriarchy???

"Oscar finds Daisy all alone at nine in the afternoon, as he was pacing the pews in a church corridor-"

"Is that Panic At-"

"And Oscar says, 'hey there pretty lady, how about you and me engage in some pre-marital tomfoolery-"

Nicolette's face slammed into both of her palms.

"- now Daisy has a couple options here, but, being an intelligent AND empowered woman, she looks the oppressive one in his eyes, and confidently rebuttals with: 'now look here, you gentrifying brute! My body is a temple, and I'm its keeper! Please refrain from objectifying me, and downplaying my inner strength and Goddess to some toxic masculine fantasy-"

"CARL!!"

The poor-mans puppeteer poked his head out from behind the the stage.

"What's the matter Nikki? Do you not like the puppets?"

"Carl... Carl please..."

"You know it wasn't easy making these things, but, I gotta flashlight- I could try shadow figures if that would-"

"Carl! Look, I don't wanna come off as unappreciative, but dude, this is weird and embarrassing."

The man looked almost hurt at the remark.

"Aw I'm not trying to embarrass ya, I'm trying to educate you! Im just following the guidelines your Mother gave me."

"Guidelines?"

"Yeah things have changed about dating since we were kids; she wanted me to highlight the dangers and fears boys present to women, and how to deal with them. I'll admit my feelings were a bit hurt, but I'm a professional!"

"This all just sounds like socio-meta political commentary! I already know HOW to talk to boys; shouldnt I be learning how to manage and/or deal with these new and confusing feelings?" Like the ones related to Max that three years later I stil know NOTHING ABOUT?

"I'm sorry Nikki, but this what your Mother wanted."

"God... I'm suprised you aren't using sockoroach or whatever to teach this..."

"Sockrates just wasn't gonna do the job this time, so I made these two little guys to help!"

"How did you graduate with that Sockrates gimmick anyway?... wouldn't those stuffy smart people scoff at the idea of teaching Philmosophy with a sock?"

"Well firstly, it's 'philosophy', and second, it's funny you mention it- the professors thought that using a child's medium for teaching philosophical thinking was super profound!"

"... That uh... that means they liked it, right?"

"Oh yeah! In fact I've been talking and working off and on with a ghost writer for a couple of years trying get an introductory text written for the idea, and the rough drafts alone seems to hold promise! We're actually trying to secure a deal with Random House, but St. Martin's has been trying to make a bid every now and then."

"I... uh... r... really?"

"Yeah that's why sometimes I work late- the school I'm at wants a cut, and because I use their teachings as a base, and most of their texts as reference, they wanna supervise and interject periodically when it comes to writing it, but mostly it's me and my ghost writers pet project. I probably won't see too much money from this, but thats fine! I just wanna help kids- life long goal of mine, ya know."

"......... Really??"

"Yeah... yeah I-I know it's not the most... professional sounding profession, but it's something I'm really passionate about ya know?... I don't know, maybe-"

"Carl, dude no, that's sick!"

"'Sick'?..."

"Yeah, that's awesome! I had no idea you were so... so... geez I don't even know; so UP in the world! It's really cool!" She finished gushing with a smile.

Carl was at a loss for words. He came out from behind the stage to sit down in front of it.

"O-oh... I-I... y-ya think so? Ha... no one usually thinks that about what I do... I-I'm just kinda use to everyone... writing me off as full of baloney, or being some old weirdo that works with puppets."

Nicolette was suprised by the sudden dropping of his guard. She was so used to having arguments or being closed off that she almost didn't know how to respond.

"Oh... um... why? I mean... you're like, really accomplished, and super smart?..."

Carl shrugged.

"Well ya know... growing up being bullied all the time by school mates and family has that affect on you...  ya work real hard, try'n power through things, and block it out, but... but that self-doubt they put in ya never really leaves."

Nicolette wasn't sure if she really wanted to respond, but, something about this moment inspired her to take a chance.

"... I... know what you mean..."

"You do?..."

"Yeah... all my life everyone wrote me off as an annoying, one note character... Mom never really had my back... she provided, yeah... could never say she didn't, but she never... no one ever like... asked how I was, you know? They were too busy downplaying my problems, and always so convinced that they knew me, without ever really... without ever really-"

"Gettin to know ya?..."

"Yeah... I've been doing a lot better in school, but, no one's really noticed... always just felt like everyone didn't want to deal with me in the first place, but now it just feels like people willingly ignore me..."

"... ... I noticed your grades getting better."

"You did?"

"Yeah... when you and ya Mother first got here, they were high D's and low C's... now you're at mid B's to low A's... it's really something, Nikki. No tutoring, no after school, no summer school... you did it all on your own. You're a smart kid, ya know."

"... You really... think so?"

"Yeah, I do. It... hurts my heart to hear from you that so many people wrote ya off, cause... well..."

"...?"

"Well... you're a great kid, Nikki... and... I'm sorry that over the course of your life, others couldn't see that."

Nicolette's head lowered, making eye contact with the carpet; a wave of emotion washing over her, at Carl's words. One of her hands rubbed at her eyes.

"Thanks... thank you, Carl... you're a really cool adult... person... guy."

Carleton out a small laugh and scratched at the back of his head.

"Ahh, not really, green bean. I just wanna help ya... I... I didn't... I've... made a lot of mistakes with Neil, and... ... haaah... ya know he over heard me talkin to ya Mother about this idea I had, said it was stupid... eh maybe he was right... I'm the one with the degree, but, he's so much smarter than me... I... I wish he knew how proud I was of him..."

Nicolette looked back up to see a dejected, and... regretful Carl? She wasn't sure what compelled her to say what she said next; pity? Empathy? Affinity?

"Hey Carl...?"

"Yeah?"

"..." Nicolette sighed, but gave the man a smile. "You know... I never did hear all of Daisy's reply."

"Huh?" Carl picked up on it. "Oh." Carl thought about it. "Oh!" Carl realized it. "OH! Y-yeah, yeah, so-" He rushed back behind his little stage and set the puppets back up. "So after bravely defying the dastardly Oscar- Daisy proceeded to lecture him on Female Objectification, and after handing him a pamphlet on work place segregation, and posting about the experience on Facebook-"

Nicolette criss-crossed her legs, and set her right elbow on her thigh; cheek resting on the palm, laughing affectionately to herself. She wasn't sure about the way Carl was teaching this to her, or her Mothers 'outline', but, she found that she liked seeing Carl happy doing what he loves.


What started as grimacing in cringe actually ended up making Nicolette feel a little warm inside. Her and Carl were definitely closer after that day; things went slow, of course, but she was happy to say there was an adult she now knew she could trust. She was just sad knowing it wasn't her Mother.

All this reminiscing was wearing her out; her eyelids were getting heavy, sleep coming ever so nearer. She wished somethings were better, but for now, she guessed this was as good as it would get for a while. Her eyed were just about to shut when-

*RIIING* *RIIING* *RIIING*

God... dammit...

Sluggishly morphing upwards from her slumped position, she sat back on the edge of ththe couch, and shifted over to the far left of it; there next to the armrest stood a small nightstand, and a house phone atop. Reluctantly, she picked up the device.

"Hello? If you're looking for Carl he's working, and if you're looking for Candy, I don't really care, and you should probably just forget about trying to get her to pay off that credit card-"

"Uhh... hey Nikki."

"MAX!?"

"S-so uh... how's it going... bud-?"

"Where the fuck have you been!?"

 

Chapter Text

"Ok, so before you say anyt-"

"NOPE you're getting interrupted! Max where have you been!? I've been worried and thinking about you, and worried- it's been MONTHS!? Where were you!?"

"I-"

"Where were you!?"

"I-"

"Where were you!?"

"I-"

"WHERE WERE YOU!?"

"I was having a fucking breakdown!"

...

...

...

...

...

"... WHAT-"

* C L I C K *

FFFFFFFUUUUUU -

*RING RING RING*

Ok... ok, fuck, just breathe... breathe and DON'T fuck this up again, you idiot!

"... Ok, so-"

"DID YOU JUST H-"

* C L I C K *

FUCKING DAMMIT!

Max drove his head into his hands. How foolish he thought himself to be; thinking he would have to courage to speak to the girl he'd grown strange feelings towards. He was halfway to throwing the phone out the window when it began ringing again. Wobbly eyes observed the screen on the phone's face, displaying the home number of the residence housing his friend.

Fuck... fuck... come on Max, you can do it... you do it... it doesn't matter what... what I do or don't feel, first and foremost she's my friend... ok... ok, here we go...

"... N-"

"MAXWELL, or MAXIMILIAN, or MAXIMUS whatever the hell- if you hang up on me again, I swear, the FIRST thing I'll do if I ever see you again after tearfully embracing you, is chop you in the chest, Ric Flair style!"

"U-uh... I-I you- i-it-"

"Don't go all stuttery on me, you clearly called to talk, so explain yourself! What did you mean you had a breakdown- are you ok? Are you hurt!? Did someone hurt you!?"

FuckfuckFUCK I can't do this, I can't do this- No, no, don't hang up again, control yourself; stop running away!

"It's- I, uh... I-I..."

"Come on Max, don't you pass out on me or somethin', work with me here!"

Say something say something say something say something saysomethingsaysomethingsaysomethingsaysomething

"... S-so what's up, Nikki, how've you been?..."

FUCK!

"Wwhwhat!? How am I!? Is this a messed up prank call!? What's going on!?"

Max regained himself enough to try and pull his metaphorical foot put of his proverbial mouth.

"Ok, ok, sorry, it's just... l-look ok, I-I said that under duress in the heat of the moment- from pressure, I didn't actually have a breakdown- I mean come on, why would I-"

"Ah ha ha no no no buddy, you are NOT backing outta this!"

"Ok, ok, back up, I-I'm getting uncomfortable-"

"'Uncomfortable'!? You wanna talk about uncomfortable!? YOU called ME after months of silence, admitted to an emotional breakdown under duress, and hung up on me TWICE!? I-I mean is it ME?? Did you not want to talk to ME???"

"No, fucks sake, NO-" Kinda. "I just... I-I don't know this is... fuck me, this isn't how I envisioned this going down..."

"Well how DID you think phoning up your friends you haven't spoken to in months was gonna go??"

"U-uh du-well... I-I thought that... ehh ha ha- I-I kinda thought that... that-that I would say 'what's up' and you'd be like 'oh shit what's good', and I'd be all 'not much fam', then y-ya know we-we crack jokes, swap some stories or whatever, and eventuallymaybehint at some problems I may or may not have, OR hopefully kill enough time so that I wouldn't have to... "

"... ... ... ... Max?"

"Y-yeah?..."

"NO."

"Right..."

Fuck. Me. Running... eugh... Goddammit, this is so cringey, and embarrassing, and STUPID... ugh... why doesn't life have a rest button? Or at least a pause?? This is way too much way too fast... I shouldn't have said anything no matter what she said or did... then again why the FUCK wouldn't she leave it alone? And why didn't SHE call!? Or Neil!? I'm not!- NO, no no NO, Goddamn you, not her, no matter what, don't get pissed and push her away...

"Look... I'm not mad alright? I-I was just worried... I shouldn't have yelled at you, ok? I get that, a-and I... I did kinda force that out of you... but like... I don't know..."

Oh... shit... well... I appreciate the apology but now I feel guilty for doubting her... although that being said-

"You could have called me you know..."

"... I could have?"

What the-?

"Uh... yeah... duh... I mean you got my number, don'tcha? Worst that would have happened was my Dad cuss you out in Hindi, and yell for me to get the phone."

...

...

...

"Nikki?"


Nicolette's face was presently face first into a pillow on the couch.

He's right- why didn't I just call him?? It's not like he wasn't not on my mind, and I guess there was no rule saying HE has to call first but... 

She had thought about the boy quite often since he stopped calling; these last few windows looking in didn't quite convey it, but, it was practically daily. She had started to wonder if maybe she had done something wrong perhaps, or made him mad somehow. 

Why didn't I pick up the phone first? Was I too nervous or something? Did I subconsciously think it was weird, or take him not calling as a type of rejection?"

"Nikki?"

Or maybe I'm just a dumb teenager who doesn't know what the hell she's doing, and has no idea how to navigate bumps in the road like this in life...

"Nikki you there?"

Crap, right, he's still on the line!

"Yeah! Yeah, I-I'm still here! And uh, to answer your question... uh... I don't... know?..."

Dammit!

"Oh... ... s'cool, I guess- I mean, I'm not really worth thinking about to be honest, so, can't say I really blame you."

Oh my God, he sounds so... is this still the same Max??? Usually he would have blown it off, or try to make a joke out of it- 'not worth thinking about'??? That doesn't sound like him at all!

"What are you-" She cleared her throat. "What are you talking about? You're MAX, of course you're worth thinking about!"

"Eh." Nicolette's head sprang from the pillow.

Eh!?

"If you say so.What the hell??? 

She sat upright on the couch- pulling her legs into her chest in worried state of contemplation.

This  is starting to worry me... 

"How have you and Neil been?"

How can he seriously move on nonchalantly like that!? What do I do... do I- do I ask him about it? He probably wouldn't tell me... do I answer his question- oh shit, how do I tell him about Neil?? I can't exactly lie to him right now- but if Max finds out about our fallout... i-it might stress him out, and make him feel worse!... Aw man... aw man, what do I do???

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Nicolette made the call to play it 'safe', and answer his question the best she could.

"W-well uh, Ne-Neil's been good... um... he's not here right now, actually, he uh, he's out most days... no idea where; he doesn't... doesn't talk about it."

"Huh. That's weird."

Ok... so far so good.

"Y-yeah, uh... a-actually, I'm mostly home by myself most of the time."

"Really? That doesn't sound fun. Thought you'd be the one out of the house-" She could hear a smirk forming in his voice. "-terrorizing the neighborhood."

If only you knew... but this is good though, he's getting more comfortable- just gotta find a rhythm, and try to get it out of him slowly.

"Heh... sorry to disappoint, but I've mellowed out in my old age... I actually come home and hit the books, and play Neil's video games.

Wonder if he won't believe me...

"Really?

'Really'?...

"Yeah..." Nicolette remembered Carl's comment to her. "In fact when we first got here, I was like, high D's to low C's, or something, and now I'm like high B's to low A's."

"Dude that's rad, congrats. Not really all that suprised though."

He's... not?

"You're not?"

"Not too much, no- yeah sure at Camp you kinda had the... aloof wild child thing going on, but there were times you showed a real... intelligent-ness about you?... Ehhh no, that came out wrong- what I mean is, more than once you showed how not-dumb you are... fuck, no, that sounds like a back-handed compliment..."

The more Max stumbled through his praise, the more flustered Nicolette became.

I'm so confused.

"Basically I knew you had it in you, good job, alright? Proud of you."

'Proud of you'... that sounds nice...

The pace of Nicolette's heartbeat increased just ever so slightly.

"Wow... uh... thanks, Max."

"Ah, well, you know... it's no big deal. Just sayin' my opinion, that's all."

Nicolette was at last more relaxed as opposed to when the conversation had first started. She let out a quiet contented sigh only she heard, and allowed herself to lean onto her right side, letting her legs finally stretch out, so she could be more comfortable. She was not aware that she was smiling.

Hmph... that's just like him; to dismiss being nice like that cause it embarrasses him. He's funny.

"A-anyway, you said Neil isn't there?"

And said smile that she was not aware of disappeared in a flash.

"Yeah. Yeah he's out right now."

"No shit? At this hour? What's my little nerd boy up to, you think?"

The girl shrugged her shoulders, despite Max not being able to see her do so.

"Ya got me. Almost everyday without fail, he'll show up really close to bed time, be in a so-so mood, and go to sleep; rinse and repeat. I guess it doesn't matter too much though- he's super smart, so he probably gets the homework done in no time."

"Hmm... ha ha oh shit- you know what this means right?"

"No?..."

 "I think homeboy's got himself a secret girlfriend!"

Nicolette couldn't stop herself from laughing at Maxs' suggestion. It came to her so sudden and genuine, it almost suprised her.

"Pfft, yeah, ok Max."

"Nah, I'm serious! Think about it; he's out by himself a lot, gets home late, you said he's always in a weird mood-"

Unfortunately he's like that all the time anyway... The girl thought bitterly to herself.-

"-and you said he never fesses up to where he's been right? It only makes sense; at least to me."

Nicolette found herself being charmingly amused by young Maxs' attempts to put the pieces together.

You know if I didn't live here and know Neil like I do, he probably could have convinced me that's actually what's happening. Ha ha, he's a really persuasive guy; he should be like, a lawyer or something-

"That or he's off doing drugs somewhere, one of the two."

Nicolette almost dropped the phone. 

"Max!"

"What? I'm not saying he actually is, or that I hope he is- I account for all possibilities. Assuming the worst case scenario is one of my best qualities."

"You're nuts." Nicolette said as she started to laugh, so much so that she put a hand to her mouth to stifle the noise. I myself don't really see the humor in the exchange, but, like an disease, laughter is infectious- it wasn't long before Max was laughing along with her.

It must have been nice for the two of them. Though the conversation started off on a tense, and confusing note, it seemed the were able to finally reach a plane of normalcy. Their scenarios were quite similar, come to think of it; it was as if a weight was lifted off their shoulders. Max was initially nervous to converse with the girl he'd been more or less confused over for some time, and actually for the first time in a while, not only felt good, but felt good without feeling like he was clinging to the past. Nicolette was much the same; she felt like for the first time in a long time, she was able to actually be honest- with herself, and someone else she trusted, said person was also someone she was more or less confused by. Neither of them really even thought about their feelings as they had been talking and laughing- they were in the back of their minds for sure, but in a way that can possibly only be described as instinctual, they're first thoughts were on the others wellbeing, and just associating- talking to each other. 

It was a fantastic scenario for the both of them really; no parents, no Neil, house all to themselves- no telling when either parties would return. They were comfortable, alone with each other, tomorrow was a weekend- it was practically perfect. Almost contrivingly so.

Now isn't that interesting?


Max was, as I stated earlier, feeling good; very good. So good in fact he thought his previous paranoia to be silly; after all, she was his best friend. He kept replaying that sentiment over and over; as a way to ensure his nerves would stay calm- he sounded cool over the phone, but internally, he was hating himself for letting so much of his self-deprecation show through.

It was one thing when it was David- he knew the Max that Max had grown into, Nikki knew a Max from years ago that mostly just has a deeper voice now. That of course seems to have changed; little do they know it now, but, these two children could never really go back to the way things were. It would be quite impossible to be stuck in the little bubble they, and Neil, somehow created for themselves. 

Good thing, too. Because quite honestly, it didn't really make sense anyway.

Max wasn't laughing quite as continuously as Nikki, there was a moment where he had stopped and was just listening to her. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but hearing her laugh; hearing her happy, it made him feel... a warmth. A warmth not felt in years, a warmth that felt alien. It made him smile. Smile...

When was the last time you smiled? You never really think about it until you find yourself doing it- but sometimes, it feels like you go entire days, weeks or maybe longer even without doing the simple mouth movement. Some people can do it so naturally you almost think them to be strange; disingenuous, but yet when someone else fakes it, you see and feel it almost immediately, without even trying. That's how Max use to be. In this moment, he caught himself smiling, feeling happy; good. His mind started to wander at this foreign sensation; he wondered the how's and why's, culminating to wondering if he deserved to feel this way- good. It all made Max recall how untrustful of David all those years ago he was; for his first several years at Camp Camp- because he couldn't fathom the possibility someone so good hearted existed in the world. It was as David himself said, four years ago:


"You seem to be under the impression that being a good person; that being happy, is either something illogical, or a sign of weakness; can't say I blame you honestly- that's the world we live in now, I get it ."


Max said so himself to the man, and yet, wouldn't you know? Here he is, emotionally confused, self-reflective, and depressed, just like everyone else. You used to think yourself so clever, so ahead of the rest of your generation. But you were no better, never were- it took four long years, but in this moment, it was then you realized how wrong you actually were. The familiar mantras, and doubts were beginning to reamerge.

Fuck, why am I feeling happy right now? I don't deserve to feel happy- not after the shit I've done- aw for fucks sake, how much longer am I gonna beat myself up for the past, I'm better now; I have to move on! Yeah- yeah, and this is step one- confronting bullshit head on, so stop internal-monologuing y ou idiot, and just talk to your friend...

But DO I deserve to move on?? Goddammit, no, how did- why do I ruin everything good for myself EVERY TIME!? She's really happy to talk to me- her, David, and Neil; they see worth in me, why don't I? This isn't fair... this isn't fair this isn't fair I don't deserve this I don't deserve this I don't deserve this-

All of this overthinking, and demoralization; happening in a mere matter of milliseconds- faster than you wouldn't believe unless you yourself had felt it; what Max was going through- the smile was quickly leaving his face.

IDONTDESERVETHISIDONTDESERVETHISIDONTDESERVETHISIDONTIDONTDESERVETHISIDONTDESERVETHISIDONTDESERVETHISIDONT-

Then suddenly- he heard a sound, from Nikki's side of the phone.

Did... did Nikki just snort as she was laughing?...

Everything about his being seemed to pause as he listens closer to confirm his suspicions. 

Yeah... holy hell that's the most adorable thing ever.

And SOMEHOW??? That made him feel better all over again. Hearing the girl laugh on the other side of the phone shut down most of his internal ramblings, and he allowed himself to smile again. 

What???

Hmm... regardless, after Nicolette settled down, she resumed the conversation. 

"Man... I haven't laughed like that in ages- thanks Max."

"Oh, uh, yeah no problem... me too to be honest with you."

"Hm... Max?"

"Yeah?"

"What did you mean by 'you had a breakdown'?"

Shit... shoulda known that was coming... ahhh... I'm gonna regret this but- I'm tired of running from this shit. I'm gonna face this shit head on if it kills me... probably will too.

"Haahhhhh....... you want the short version or the long version?..."

"What's the real difference?"

"Long version is like a recap episode, short version is like a flashback."

"Ah, ha ha, gotcha. Well... you know, whichever you're more comfortable with."

How'd I know she'd say that?...

"Ok, well... shit, alright, uh...ok so like did I ever tell you guys how my home life was? Like did I ever really tell you?"

"..."

"... Nikki?" He heard rustling on the otherside of the line.

"Yeah, yeah sorry- just moving into the room on my bed. Couch is only comfortable for so long, and I wanna put some PJ's on... anyway, no, you never really did clue us in on what life was like at home."

"Ok, thought so... so like... it sucks, alright? Like reall, really sucks."

"Right..."

"But like worse than I ever implied... it's... i-it's tricky to explain, but, as you could assume, my parents suck..."

"Yeah... I... yeah..."

"And it's- they... it's more than just neglect, ok?"

"... I... was worried... ab-about that..."

"Yeah... ..."

"... ... M-max?... Did... do they h... hurt you?"

"... ... ... It's... ... ... not that simple..."

"Max..."

"It's not like that... cliche vision of it- you know where they like... yell and scream at me, chase me down the hall and beat me to a pulp in a corner, o-or with weapons or something... they... it was always more of a... disciplinary thing. Like... I step out of line, they smack me, embarrass them, smack me, do bad in school, they smack me. In a lot of ways, I almost wish that was all they did..."

"What do you mean?..."

"Well... they aren't raging drunks, or crazy religious zealots. Not old-school tough lovers either trying to toughen me up, or make me a stronger person... they just... hate me."


Nicolette's heart broke hearing that. Of course it did. I'm not quite sure what did it the most however. Was it the revelation that confirmed her fears about Maxs' life? Was it the nonchalance in which he stated that his parents hated him? I'm not sure, but whatever she was feeling, it had made he eyes water. Nicolette clamped a hand to her mouth tightly, no wanting to let Max hear her, but not having the strength to hold it back.

She couldn't let him hear her cry. Even if she didn't 'need' to be strong for him, she didn't want to add to his stress. 

"W-what... w-what did you mean by th-they..." She couldn't being herself to finish the question.

"I mean they fucking hate me. That's not hyperbole... I ruined their lives with my existence- somehow, and they just don't like me, simple as... s-simple as that... ..."

The girl's mind was going a mile a minute. She couldn't even begin to dissect the information Max was giving her. How could she? How could anyone, really; even if they themselves were in a similar situation? She had just been told by her friend of almost five years that not only is he hit, neglected, and hated by his parents, he explained these things to her with such a nonchalance- such a sense of normalcy! What really gave her a mental whiplash was him downplaying getting hit by his parents, like it didn't matter- almost as if he didn't matter. His parents hated their only son- she couldn't wrap her head around it- despite any and all problems with her Mother, she could honestly say she never hated Candy, and vice versa. Neil- when he spoke of his Father, it was always in a sense of exaggerated annoyance; anger yes, but she always felt that if they just really talked to each other, they could work things out. 

But this... how could Nicolette understand this? Or Max, come to think of it. She knew nothing of hatred. 

Hatred... that word is one of the only in the english language that still holds true weight, and meaning. Sure it can still be used in jest, but when someone says it, like really truly says it, means it, feels it... it is something truly palpable- tangible. Spine-chillingly real. 

Max... you know a thing or two about hatred, don't you? The gift that keeps on giving. The pain that won't stop hurting. You feel it even now, don't you? 

"Max... I..."

"Fuck, I'm sorry Nikki- I-I really don't mean to make this into an impromptu therapy session, I should just stop."

Nicolette was now presented with a crossroad. On one hand, she of course wanted to be here for Max, because number one: it's the right thing to do, and number two: because who knows when he'll be this candid, this open with her again. On the other... she didn't know if she had the stomach to continue listening. True, Maxs' story was not some, hyper-violent, and grainy disgusting one, like say, that of Dave Pelzers', but still, it was turning her insides all kinds of ways, and her heart was taking a beating.

She of course realized the inherent selfishness of even thinking of putting her own feelings before that of her friends', who, she could assume strongly as a fact, has never told anyone what he was telling her. She wondered how long he had wanted to tell someone his own age all of this?

I shouldn't even think about telling him to stop but... it's Max... my Max... no one should hurt him... I have to power through- I have to be here for him... I know he'd do the same for me, and, if he hasn't told David even, who knows when he'll share any of this again...

I often wonder why she decided to continue to listen? True, as she said, he was a dear friend, but... isn't that what everyone says that's why they would choose to listen? She said 'who know when he'll share any of this again' is that why? That sense of exclusivity into someones mind, and pain? Because it makes her, or whoever is in her place, feel special? Perhaps, perhaps not, but it does make you wonder about the intentions of someone that says they're 'there for you', doesn't it?

"The worst part, looking back, was really just... they... really made me feel like I was worthless... like nothing. Like I was nothing, am nothing, and always will be nothing, you know? They never believed I could be anything... so... when I was a kid, I told myself I was gonna be the only person I could count on, and for a long time, that's how it stayed... until..."

Nicolette was finally able to find her voice. 

"Camp?..."

"Yeah... not immediately... that day you and Neil arrived, that's when things changed. I'd been there for... what was it, two summers, maybe? Ered, Preston, and Nurf were there my first year. I think it was just them that stayed after my first summer- maybe Harrison was there? Or was he next year... eh, I don't remeber, been so long now. I just know I didn't form any kind of meaningful anything with them. Then you two yahoos showed up."

She could hear the smile in his voice, it helped to lighten the mood for her a bit.

"David... fuck, that poor guy- you guys thought I was bad that year, shoulda seen what I put him through my first two summers. It's a Goddamn miracle he didn't try to have me arrested, and tried as an adult; dudes a lowkey saint, I swear... I owe him a lot, actually..."

"Hmm..." She vocalized warmly. "How is ol' David?" She asked in an attempt to reign a good mood back in.

"Couldn't tell you really- I assume good. He and I haven't spoken in a while... we're good, but, he's been hella busy. I don't wanna bug him, he's got enough adult crap to deal with, you know?"

Man... it's crazy to hear Max talk about him like this. He's like... openly admitting how much he likes him, and cares about him. He's really changed... 

The sentiment was enough to elicit a small laugh from Nicolette. 

"What's so funny?"

"It's just... back at Camp, you wouldn't have been caught dead saying anything remotely positve about him! Or at least you woulda tacked on a: 'you're dead if you tell him' at the end. Now you're here singing his praises, and caring about his wellbeing."

"Yeah, u-uh, well... that was a long time ago... character development, I-I guess..."

"Aww you're embarrassed!"

"Shut up, no I'm not! Just that...he and I... we're just tight is all- shut up!"

Nicolette couldn't help but... giggle(?) at Maxs' clearly now flustered demeanor, and said what she said next without thinking much.

"Hahaha! Aahhh, you're cute."


*B U M P B U M P*

*B U M P B U M P*

*B U M P B U M P*

*B U M P B U M P*

*B U M P B U M P*

*B U M P B U M P* 


"U-uh... ..."

"'U-uh' what?..."

"N-nothing, fucking nothing."

It is quite amusing to think that Nicolette genuinely had no idea what made Max stutter so.

"There you go again... I swear Max, you're such a Tsundere."

"Ok what the fuck- David called me that once; what the fuck is a Tsundere!?"

Nicolette found more humor in not answering his question.

"Wouldn't you like to know?"

"Augh fuck it, I don't care- you think I do, but I don't."

Nicolette laughed once again to herself. This quite literally was the most she had laughed in ages. Unbeknownst to her, Max found himself quite enjoying the sound. 

"You know I missed you..." She wasn't quite sure why she said that. Nevermind it being an assumed given, but nothing really prompted it; so it came off as quite random. Still, some part of her just felt she had to say it. Wanted to say it?...

"Yeah... yeah I know, I missed you too... I'm sorry..."

Nicolette shook her head, despite him not being able to see her.

"Don't be... I'm just glad you're ok."

Or as ok as you can be, I guess...

A comfortable silence came over them. Both young adults just appreciating the others presence for a bit. Nicolette wanted to ask Max more about, well, his life quite honestly, but the current ambiance was very pleasant, and she was nervous to disturb it...


Max felt much... what is the appropriate word?... Healthier -that's it- than he'd felt in a long time, needless to say. Like Nicolette he too was enjoying the warm, fuzzy silence between them, and was in no hurry to disrupt it. 

Hah... well what do you know? I did it! I told those stupid demons to suck my balls and they did! Not only did I successfully talk to Nikki, I did it without (moderately) fucking up, re-established our connection, and probably most impressively, at least to me, I trusted her with my stupid bullshit without breaking down... almost... there was a moment or two there where I almost did... and she... probably wouldn't want me to let her know I could hear her holding back... ... ... she... felt sad... over me... ...

Young Max was starting to question things about himself as well now. If it caused him, and apparently her as well, pain, why divulge the information at all? Was he caught up in the moment? Was he so excited to finally have someone to talk to, he dumped all of what he did not caring about the consequences? And then; was Nicolette going to see him different now? See him as weak? A victim? He appreciated her concern, but he shuddered to think she might pity him. 

Was he selfish in a way? 

Did he only extend his hand in trust so he could feel a moment of safety, and solitude? Is it wrong to put your trust in others, and judge their feelings towards you? Is it selfish to confide in someone? To force your person on someones mind? Max didn't know, but, he was trying his damndest to not let it ruin this moment with his friend.

It's weird... knowing someone has your back... eh... that's not fair- I knew she did, Neil too; I guess... I just needed to be reminded... like a fucking sissy... Goddammit... hm... heh heh... she uh... called me 'cute'... I shouldn't take that too seriously, and I won't, but still, feels nice. Fuck dude, if that damn David could see me now. 

"Hey Max?..."

"What's up, Nik?" Euch, said that without thinking... not sure I like that... sounds too... obvious.

"Does... does David know about... ya know, a-about you?..."

Aw shit... well might as well be honest with her.

"Fuck no, you kidding me? Look, David's a bro and all, but... l-look long story short, I've given it a lot of thought, figured out all the possible scenarios, and... and I just can't."

"But... but he's your friend, and you trust him- why wouldn't you tell him?" The genuine confusion and naivete coming from her almost made him want to cry.

"Nikki... and I'm really not trying to sound like a dick, but I just can't, ok?"

"But couldn't he help you out?"

"That's what I'm worried about- Nikki, please, just trust me."

"But Max, you're... agh... I know you -dammit I know you- you're not gonna wanna hear this, but screw it ok? You're not in a safe environment!"

"I've lived through it my entire life, I don't need anyone to worry about me."

"And that makes it ok!?"

"It makes it what it makes it, Nikki, I don't need someone to swoop in and save me, I've made peace with it. Mostly. They don't beat me with weapons until I'm a bloody, broken heap, and they don't even really hit me anymore."

"Everything you're saying? Is freaking me out more! It's normalized in your head now- did you not just tell me they made you feel like a sub-human???"

"Hey- I didn't spill my guts to you so you could use it against me!"

"That's not what this is!"

"I knew this was gonna happen- now you're looking at me like I'm a freakin' charity case."

"Holy shit Max, calm down, why are you getting so angry all of sudden?"

"Cause now you think I'm weak."

"You know for us being best friends, you sure as hell aren't giving me much credit- Max, do you know the difference between pity, empathy, and sympathy?"

"Like I care."

"Max, please, I don't wanna fight with you, especially not over something serious like your safety. And trust me, you know me, I'll fight back. All I asked was why couldn't you, or why didn't you just talk to David, I don't understand how any of that warranted-"

"Because I just fucking ca

 

 

Chapter Text

"What the fuck? Why did you stop!?"

This teenage diatribe drolls on and on for quite some time, and quite frankly, I was getting bored.

"Fuck you! This was important!"

Well now that's a matter of perspective, isn't it? Don't worry, we will soon return. I thought it important to... widen the scope. 

"'Widen the...' no... NO how many did you involve in this!?"

Why, everyone. 

"Why!? What do you want!? What does doing all this bullshit do for you!?"

All in due time, my friend. All in due time.

Chapter Text

Merideith adjusted to the Camp closing arguably the best.

While it was not necessarily easy saying goodbye to the young children she thought fondly of, she was much more accustomed to goodbyes, and dealing with them; being the oldest of the campers. Most of the children went out of their was to say goodbye to her; not too surprising, considering a good deal of them looked up to daredevil, or thought highly of her cool persona.

To no ones suprise, Nikki took saying goodbye the hardest. She didn't cry, but she was indeed sad to see her idol go away.

"I'll miss you Ered! Unless missing someone is lame, in which case, I'll just think of you often, in a, like, positive manner!"

"Don't even trip little dude, just keep being you."

"Hell yeah! Positive reinforcement from a psuedo-rolemodel is awesome!"

Neil didn't have much to say, just a awkward wave and a 'see ya'.

Nerris, Dolph, and Harrison each were more saddened by saying farewell to Ered- with Max, Nikki, and Neil taking up most of David and Gwen's time during most normal days, Ered was the one who watched over them. Sort of. She didn't so much 'take care' of them, or keep any of them out of trouble, but she gave them attention, and humored them. Dolph in particular was taking it quite hard, not all that suprising; after being paired up for that odd thing with the Platypus' eggs, they had taken a mutual, creative kinship to the other. They weren't by any means attached at the hip or anything, but, they liked each others company.

Nerris promised to create a character for her in her tabletop game, Harrison said he wouldn't forget the times they hung out, and Preston said he would always remeber her fondly.

Followed immediately by Nurf's blunt parting.

"... Well fuck, we didn't really talk." 

And then walking off to wait for the bus.

Ered thought that was pretty funny in hindsight.

One by one, she observed the parents, and their respective children drive away on their cars, to wherever it is they lived. She did not find herself to be overly sad, or broken hearted by the farewells, after all, she wasn't really one for melencholy; it wasn't cool after all. Having been here the longest put of any of this years campers, she had grown use to kids coming, and going, some never to be seen again. It never ruined her day or anything, but she had learned to deal with, and ignore it. She was not much for feeling anything almost, come to think about it. Not lost in her own world necessarily, but yet not quite always present. There, but not; in the background. Most intriguing, quite frankly. 

Unbeknownst to several individuals; the young woman was in place for more than several interesting plot points. Since everyone got their goodbyes to her out of the way first, she had ample time to hang out as she waited for her Father's to finish their work, and where she chose to wait, was, coincidentally (almost contrivingly so) outside the back of the counselor's cabin; it was, of course, our of the way, and away from people, therfore, it was 'cool'. Said cabin was the very same that presently had a young Max, as well as David inside. Needless to say, what she heard within was a 'buzz kill', to say the least...

"But why me? After everything I've done to you? That's the one fucking question neither you or Gwen wanna answer. Is it pity? Only because you have to?" 

"Because... it's the right thing to do, Max."

"The right thing to do?..."


 

"You were never ANYTHING like me!"


"... the only reason my parents don't abandon me, is because I'm their Goddamn Anchor Baby."


 

"Max I know you're hurting, believe me, please, but you won't ever feel better about yourself if you push the people you care about, and the ones that care about you away."

"I. Don't. CARE! Not about you, not about Gwen, not my parents, not any-"

"What about Nikki and Neil, Max? You can't honestly tell me they mean nothing to you?"

"They're summer friends, you idiot. We were never going to keep in contact after we all went home."


 

"I don't need your forgiveness, and I never needed your help."


 

 "Why do you think I don't? Why don't you believe me?"

"... Because no one ever has."

It was then she heard one of her Fathers knock on the door. 

"David. It's Detective Miller. My partner Detective Miller and I have given you more than the amount of time you requested to have with the child. We... don't feel any better about this than we did last night, but we need you to answer some questions for our report."

"I understand detective... thank you. I-I'll be out shortly."

"... We... know you did your best, David. Our daughter always spoke fondly of you."

Ered was stricken with quite a lot to think about, as her Father walked away.

Man... that's really rough... poor little dude- kid was always kind of a douche, but I didn't even think he'd have so much... what's the word... like... darkness and stuff inside him. Sucks about Camp, I dig this place- better than staying home by while the Dad's are on missions, or whatever. Bummer... this place was cool enough, I guess. David's gotta be hella sad though, that dude loves this place...  poor nature bro... oh yeah, Gwen's outta work... doesn't she like... really suck at getting another job? Ouch... kinda wish I got to know them better. I think I caused them the least grief outta everyone, plus, they were pretty chill, for a couple of oldies... damn... this is a major damper on my mood- the Dad's better finish this quick- I wanna bounce. 

The young lady sat down, leaning against the cabin. The faint sound of David and then Max walking away quietly helped her shut her eyes, and ease her into a nap.


Much later in the day, as the last car was making its away out of the area, The Millers were still no closer to finishing their work with David. Ered had grown impatient; it had been several hours, and she had already awoken from several naps now; still behind the cabin. Stretching as she sat back up, she decided to walk around the campus- in an effort to kill time.

Place is weird with no one running around.

Hands in her pockets, legs moving in slow even strides, Ered looked over the place she had spent more than several summers at. The tents, the mess hall, the crudely constructed tables representing the different 'camps' the advertisements claimed to offer, and of course the natural land surrounding it all. Not typically one for admiring things, Ered was actually quite enjoying walking around. As stated prior, this was someplace she had spent a good amount of her childhood at.

Man... lotta memories here, guess more than I thought. Like... I'm not sad, but, I kinda figured this place would just be here, like, forever. Is that dumb? Probably, I guess. Dad and Dad always said I had to go here, but, aren't there other camps in this state? Eh, no big- any other camp woulda actually tried to make me participate in stuff, ha, lame. Huh... Wonder what Quartermaster is gonna do now... oh God- what is Quartermaster gonna do?... I never pissed him off, did I?...

Ered's walk had unconsciously brought her to the flag pole. Standing in front of it now, she looked up at the flag she had seen and been made to salute to all these years. 

Man... we tied David and Gwen up on this thing sooo many times. I don't know how that dude didn't call the cops on us... wait... could he have called my Dad's on us?... Is that something FBI bros do? Wait... what branch of government do they work for? 

Before she could think too much on that, something in her peripheral's; something blue. She turned her head down to behold an interesting site; it was Max, sitting against one of the posts that held up the 'Camp Camp' sign. His head was tilted to the side; she wondered if he was sleeping.

Hm...

She decided 'what the hell' and made her way over to him. As she got closer and closer, she could confirm he was indeed asleep. She walked around the post until she was directly in front of him, looking down at the child, resting below her. She was not quite sure what to feel; she did not inherently dislike Max, but they were obviously not friends- they had never been confrontational with one another, and she certainly never tried to stop one of his crazy schemes, but she did not necessarily condone them either.

Little dude almost looks harmless. He's almost a cute little kid when he's not trying to kill David or go on Nihilistic rants all the time. His parents must really suck.

She lightly kicked at one of his shoes, and other than a small grumble, he remained asleep.

Kids all alone... should I like... wait with him, or something? Eh... kinda don't want to- we're not friends, and he should be fine. Guess scoping out that convo he and David had psyched me out a bit- dude'll be fine; there's plenty of adults around. Protective instincts are super un-cool anyway. 

Walking away from Max, she heard the sound of doors opening- looking over to her right; it was the mess hall, and walking out of the frame of the big doors was her Fathers and David; the later with his head down, trailing slowly behind them.

Finally we can get going. All this memory lane reflective-ness is super throwing me off my center.

"We will be in touch, David." Said one of The Millers, as the Paris eyes laid on their daughter. "Meredith, our apologies for the wait, but we are just about to finish up."

The girl rolled her eyes. 

"Ered- and it's about time. I got hella bored waiting for you guys."

The same Miller lowered his head slightly. 

"I know angel, we just have to make a call to the Boss, and we can engage extraction back to the residential base."

"Uhhh that means we go home right?"

The other Miller nodded his head.

"Affirmative, dearest."

"Sweeeeeeet."

The Millers walked past her, each giving their daughter a loving pat on the head, and pulled put their cellphones to begin their call.

"Sir. Decitve Millier and Detective Miller reporting in, the mission has taken an interesting turn..."

They walked off to continue the conversation in private, leaving Ered behind, as she observed them walking away. Turning around she noticed David rooted in a spot ahead of her, looking tired, and several, what looked like, packets in his right hand. Figuring she wouldn't have long to wait, and thinking this could be the last time she'd see him again, Ered decided to talk to the man she had known since she was young.

"What's up, Nature Boy?"

Ha, 'Nature Boy'... that's funny.

David looked up hearing the greeting, and perked up immediately upon seeing her; breaking out of the funk he was momentarily in.

"Oh, why hello Ered! I hadn't seen you since breakfast- how are you?"

Ered shrugged, crossing her arms.

"Can't complain much I guess, just waiting for the Dad's to finish up. How'd talking to 'em go? They got a killer good-cop, bad-cop routine."

"Oh don't I know it! The amount of tranquil fury those men are able to produce is truly terrifying! I'm sure we'll be a great help to each during the investigation after I've had a good long cry!" He proclaimed, hands on his hips in what is essentially his default stance.

"Gotcha, gotcha, so it sounds like they went easy on you."

The smile on his face faltered for a moment.

"W-what?"

"Hey look, uh... not to sound like a creeper, but, I like... kinda heard you talking to the angry child earlier."

"'The angry chi...?'... O-oh... oh no, Max... you heard that?..."

"Yeah I was chllin' behind your cabin."

"Why back there?"

"It was quiet, in the shadows, and out of the way- ergo; it was cool."

"I see... sorry you had to hear that."

"It's whatevs I guess, but what about him?" She used her head to gesture in Max's direction. "Think he'll be alright?"

David turned his attention to the boy, some distance away; a melencholic and concerned gaze in his eyes.

"I sure hope so..."

"... Hey David?"

"Yeah?..." He answered, voice empty, eyes still on Max.

"Um... I uh... ... feels bad about the camp bro."

David shook his head to clear the fog and focused his attention on Ered. 

"What was that?"

"I said sorry about the camp... I heard that part too."

"Oh..." Realization slowly hit David. "Oh. Of course how could I forget- you've been here longer than anyone else! I'm sorry Ered... it must be difficult for you to have to say goodbye to this place."

The girl scratched at the back of her head, eyes looking down; embarrased.

"Well... uh... not to sound like a total puss, but, this place was kinda nice, ya know? All secluded, and away from people and their dumb pollution, loud cars, gum on the sidewalk, and their lame-ass opressive bohemian ideologies that hella poisons our society and suppresses the progression of our various cultures."

"Well I'm not gonna pretend I understood the last quarter of that sentence, but don't worry, I read you loud and clear!" The man then lowered his tone, and set a gentle hand on Ered's shoulder, smiling warmly with a sad smile. "I'm gonna miss you too, Ered."

She didn't really know what to say of course, sentimentalities naturally did not fit her vision of 'cool', but she couldn't deny that she would, at the end of the day, miss this place. She politely shrugged his hand off, and returned to him a matching smile.

"Don't tell no one I said this, but, you were a pretty chill dude, D." And held out her left hand for a fist bump.

David laughed and reciprocated the motion, just as the girl's Fathers were coming back.

"Meredith, time to go."

"Sweet. Catch ya down the road Nature Boy."

"Goodbye Ered! You two as well Mr. and Mr. Miller!"

"Yes. Farewell for now David."

They escorted their daughter to their car, and drove out of the Camp grounds, leaving David behind.

 

 


 

I do not have as much interest in Merideith as I do our main duo, however, I did comprise some interesting snapshots of her life, for your consideration. 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The several years that followed had some very interesting developments.

Without Camp Camp to occupy her summers, Ered found she didn't have much to do. Sure, she loved skating around the neighborhood on her beat up, but reliable deck, blasting Suicidal Tendencies; but she didn't love it with enough passion to be able to do it, and only it, all day. She was always able to maintain being an average student; so, Summer School was off the table as well. When the camp closed, she had just finished eight grade; now she was maneuvering through Freshman year in High School, and she found things... trickier than she'd previously believed.

You see, unsurprisingly, quite a few girls and boys flocked to Ered. Her blasé attitude, and nonchalant outlook on life had made her quite a magnetic hit with the youth. She never outwardly stressed, lost her temper, and didn't ever raise her voice above a mellow, slow drawl. She was legit, and genuine in how little of a care she had, and children her age responded well to it; they always do it seems. I find that as a child gets older, they unconsciously begin a sort of 'quest' for legitimacy; something real, true, and genuine. By the time of High School, and for some far earlier, young adults are very accustomed to dishonesty, lying, and being lied to. They're starting to realize the idealized visions of life that entertainment and certain, though most certainly not all, parents have promised them were either mostly falsified, or disingenuous. They begin to see that things like 'dreams', and 'acceptance' are just marketing schemes for merchandise and subservience. 

Perhaps that is why as teenagers they all seem to begin the same tired searches at around the same time; almost like a hereditaryl hive mind. The changes of hair, attitude, the desire to change their clothes, and get those ghastly facial and ear piercings. It's all in the name of one thing: identity. Teenagers, young adults, even people entering their third or fourth decade, all want to feel unique, special; even if only to themselves, but very few would complain about being accepted by the mass majority- despite what they tell you. They'll do anything, follow anyone, they'll even in big and small ways assume and assimilate the identity of others into themselves, and trick their minds into believing they've always been this and that way. 

And Meredith, was exactly the type of person kids wanted to be.

Cool, calm, collected, and as the developing years had been quite kind to her, as attractive as her. The question logically then becomes, could Ered handle the unintentional, unwanted, and consistently unspoken of responsibility that being sought after, and having an influence on others that being 'cool' come a with?

Well...

Mr. and Mr. Miller were in all honesty, quite good parents. They were kind, supportive, and allowed Ered to essentially do what she wanted; since they had adopted her when she was a little girl. They let her learn on her own, gave her space to flourish and reach her own conclusions; form her own opinions. To the girls credit, she kept her nose clean, and did not engage in certain scandalous activities (yet), and rarely if ever got in trouble with adults, or school faculty. She was never disciplined or punished, or really truly taught right from wrong, or do's and dont's, and on the outside, she seemed like a good girl with the right head on her shoulders. 

Therein lies some gaps.

The Millers were secret agents that worked for the government; they were often never home, they regularly missed events in her life, and though they provided, and were supportive, they had never really taught her anything. Ered has never had to rely on anyone but herself, has never been responsible for anyone but herself, one could wonder if she ever had to do anything at all. One could wonder if she ever had a real friend at all. She had no experience hanging out extensively, being a confidant, or developing her empathetic instincts. While she was not apathetic enough to be stoic or a sociopath, nor uncaring enough to be self-loathing or suicidal- there were some key developmental points she had missed out on. Perhaps once upon a time her Father's never being around bothered her, perhaps being adopted weighed on her, perhaps her being cool was an act of suppression. 

Who's to say? She may hold little interest to me, but I believe that's why I find her earnestly interesting. She could either be really simple, or she could be just as complex as Nicolette and Max; go both ways. A most refreshing change of pace, quite frankly.

Let's peer in on a moment several months into Ered's Freshman year.

Ered had been corresponding with an inconsequential female classmate whose name doesn't matter sometime now; classic miscommunication. Ered thought they were acquaintances, the girl thought they were friends. Emotions in young adults often run high, and are more prone to wearing them on their sleeves; and whether Ered's idea of coolness was suppression or not didn't matter; the fact remains that she was emotionally unavailable a lot of the time- it made her feel weird, awkward, it embarrassed her to no end; feelings and complications. 

The girl and Ered usually hung out after school at Ered's house; since her Fathers were often not home. Usually a few other of Ered's followers would join them, but today, the girl had requested to see her one on one- apparently she was having a bit of a rough go at in school about something, and needed to vent. Ered had casually said 'sure that's chill', and now here they were.

It was as cliche a scenario as you could expect; the girl was stressing out over a boy- and whether or not she liked him, something about her parents, ugh... worthless drivel. They were both sitting on a couch in Ered's living room, and shshe couldn't be more disinterested; she was holding an issue of Thrasher Magazine, feigning interest. Observe for yourself...

"So like I don't know what to do!"

"Uh huh."

"Cause he's super cool and super cute, but my parents don't want me dating yet, and what if my school work suffers???"

"Mm hmm..."

"And we've been friends for a super long time, and like hella flirted, I mean I sent him three winky-face emojis last night, and one of them was the one with the tounge sticking out!"

"Oh wow..."

"Ugggghhhh but like I don't wanna lead him on cause that's really inconsiderate and messed up, but like, what if he gets mad??? Am I not giving him enough credit? Maybe he'll be cool and understanding about it- oh but like, I'm putting him in a really awkward spot, what if his feelings get hurt???"

"Oh, yeah."

"I don't know what to do- what do you think, Ered?"

"..."

"Ered!"

The exclamation caused her to look up from her magazine.  

"Hu-wha?"

"What the hell!? Have you been ignoring me the whole time!?"

"Whaaaaat? Nah bro just uh... ya know..." She gestured lazily to the magazine.

"I'm like really bearing my soul here- you're suppose to be supporting me!"

"Chill, chill I am dude- I'm listening, and stuff."

"But you're like... not hearing me! You're suppose to offer your opinion, or advice, or console me or something!"

"Uh... why?"

"'Why'??? Cause we're suppose to be friends!"

"Oh... we are?"

This caused the 'soul-bearer' to rise off of the cushion. 

"What the fuck does that mean!? Are you telling me the whole time we haven't been!?"

"Yo take it down a notch dude. I mean look, we're chill and everything, but, like, didn't I tell you guys I don't really do friends?"

"I thought that was schtick!"

"What?"

"I thought that was a front! Like, you're all tough and mysterious on the outside, but like, inside you're this sincere, creative person."

"... Huh?..."

"You know like, you're antisocial cause of something in the last or whatever, and you put on these airs to protect yourself, but like, you actually want friends, and, uh, you know... connections and... bonds and stuff."

"... ... What?..."

"Oh. My. God."

"Whoa man, that was a lot of heavy stuff. I don't know what to tell you, but, all that stuff about like... airs and stuff, you got the wrong gal. Whatchu see is whatchu get brah."

"Do you care about anyone??"

"I mean, like, my Dad's are cool. But like long term emotional attachments are so not my style."

"Do you see anyone as a friend??? Is their anyone you're close to at all???"

Ered shrugged. 

"There were some kids at this Camp I use to go to who were sorta chill, but like, I probably wouldn't have hung out with them or anything irl. Suuuuuuper would've cramped my style."

The girl she had been talking to looked quite distraught. 

"I can't believe this... I-I thought... then why always hang out with other kids?"

"They wanna hang with me."

"You and I have hung out like every day for months!"

"I mean, there wasn't like a reason not to."

"A lot of us really trust you and your opinion!"

"That's cool."

"... And???"

"'And' what?"

"Aaah!" The girl exclaimed, as she dragged her left hand down her face in exasperation. 

"I don't get why you're freaking out so much, I mean, I've always been a loner. It's why I'm so cool."

"I thought it was cool too! But... like... you're just lonely, dude." For reasons unsure to her, that word struck a chord with Ered.

"Lon...ley?..." 

"UGH, forget it- forget I even came by today, I'll see you around at school or whatever."

As she began to make way for the door, Ered rose from her spot to try and appease her.

"Look, Sarah, my bad alright? Don't go yet; let's hash this out."

Hand on the door knob, 'Sarah' slowly turned back to Ered, eyes starting to tremble.

"My name is Alex."

"Oh yeaaaaah Sarah's the brunette... well look, Al-"

The door slammed.

"-ex... huh... that was weird."

The word lonely would be permanently placed into the back of her mind.

 

 

I think that's enough of her for now, but we will definitely see her again soon.

 

 

Chapter Text

"This is unacceptable!" 

"Mr. Houston, please, I understand the circumstances are far from ideal, but the staff and I have reached the decision that, for the comfort, and safety of our other students, it would be in everyone's best interests if-"

"You expel my son!?" Shouted Lieutenant Houston at his son's principal.

Poor young Dolph Houston sat in a chair next to his Father, trying not to cry, hands folded into his lap. Seventh grade was near its end, and all he could think about was how he didn't know where he went wrong this time. Again. One minute he was drawing a picture for a classmate he was fond of, and was trying to be friends with, then the next, he's in the principal's office, with his Father debating with said principal; who was at her wits end.

She was an older woman; of thirty, perhaps forty years. Hair blond, oddly shaped, and slowly starting to go white, wrinkles beginning to form, veins beginning to show. She had an accent unique to the area- and she had never really discussed where it was she transferred from. She was a fair woman; she fancied herself as such anyway. She was even-tempered, never raised her voice at the children, but she still commanded their attention, listened to all sides of the story, and as an anomaly in the school system, never really played any favorites. Graduated with high scores as a student, achieved great things as an adult, had a fruitful career; she was practically the poster child for what a teacher should be.

Sadly, she found herself in a position she absolutely hated to be in.

Dolph was an above average student, and a good kid, but he had an unprecedented nact for scaring other children away. After the however many of continuous weeks filled with complaints and phone calls, she could ignore the issue no longer; something needed to be done about Dolph, whether she liked it or not. After unceremoniously being let go from her last school, she tried desperately on a regular basis to appease the staff, the children, and their parents; whom, could not take Dolpn being in the presence of their respective children anymore.

Imagine that? I wonder why...

And there amidst the tension-filled room, where the air felt sterile, sat little Dolph, his tiny legs, in their tiny leather boots, dangled from the tall chair; desperately wishing to himself that this sordid affair could just be over with.

"Mr. Houston, sir, I beg of you just hear me out. Now look, we are not 'expelling' Dolph. Rather... we are simply... wishing to relocate him at another institution -school- that would better suited for his needs."

"Don't feed me that garbage- I know exactly what you're saying; this is far from the first time this has happened to us, and I'll tell you what I told the other schools: I may not be the biggest fan of him choosing art over sports, but my boy has been nothing but a great student!"

The principal pinched the bridge of her nose.

"And I am far from denying that sir, but the fact of the matter is; and I mean no disrespect, but, your son makes my other students uncomfortable. I have a-"

"'Uncomfortable'!?" He slammed his palms on the desk, raising slightly put of his seat. "'Uncomfortable'!? Ma'am, 'uncomfortable' is when you have to hold one of your buddies down on an operating table in the middle of a warzone as they try to pry bullets out of him and you're low on anesthetic! My son is considerate to other kids, and is respectful to his elders. You have no grounds to remove him!"

The older woman took off her reading glasses, and massaged her aching, tired temples. She commended Dolph's Father for his passion in defending his son, but she had a job to do, and consequently, needed to find a way to get her point across to him.

He was so much like the other boys' Mother...

She looked at Dolph; head still down, looking at the floor.

Yet he was so much unlike the other boy himself.

She didn't want to do this, she liked Dolph; everything his Father said of him was true, she honestly hoped he could pursue his love of art, and make something of himself. Alas, she had a whole school to consider; no one wants to be put in these situations, and very few could handle the weight, but, as she was entering her third decade working in the school district, she knew what she had to do. Even though, in the end, no one really wins in situations like this.

"Dolph?" She spoke in a calm, soft voice, trying her best to ease his tension. His eyes raised just enough make contact with her own, but did not raise his head.

"Ja, Schulleiter?"

"Could you... please excuse your Father and I? I would like to speak to him alone."

Before he could answer, his Father spoke up.

"Anything you have to say about my kid, you can say it in front of both of us."

"Lieutenant, please, I don't want to upset him more than I already have." She besieged him, not pleading, but definitely insisting. 

Stuart turned his head to glance over his shoulder; his son coming into view. He hated to see him so distraught. As much as it pained him, the sensible portion of his brain was able to convince him it was perhaps the best option right now.

"Fine... go wait outside, Dolph. Papa ain't gonna be long." 

The boy took in a shallow breath before answering.

"Ok Papa..." He scooted himself off of the seat and dragged himself to the door of the office, quietly turned the knob, and saw himself out. Stuart sat himself back down. 

"Alright, now, what was so important that you saw fit to kick out my son-"

"LT. Houston you're son looks like Hitler."

The man's eyes slowly opened, his pupils shrank, and his face contorted in pure offended rage.

"WHAT THE F-"

"Sshhhhhhh, Lieutenant the children will hear you!" She urged in a hushed tone.

Stuart tried to calm down; breathing in and out- clenching and unflinching his fists. When he spoke again, he spoke in an tense, cold tone.

"What... did you just say about my son?"

"I said... that you're son looks like Adolf Hitler, and I'm sorry, but he make my students uncomfortable, and nervous. That's why I'm sending him away." She looked him dead in the eye, just about fed up with explaining herself; almost challenging him.

The fingers of one of Stuart's hands was practically spasming; fingers flexing and clenching, wanting so desperately to hit something. Shakily, he brought the hand to his face, and wiped down from his upper lip to his chin several times. He crossed his right leg over his left, fidgeting, trying in anyway he could not to explode.

"How dare you... how dare you compare my son in anyway to that monster. My boy is NOTHING like that thing-"

"Stuart, forgive me, I don't wish to insult a student or his Father, let alone one who is a decorated war veteran, but... you can't be that dense."

"WHAT."

"Come on, please, tell me you're smarter than that??? The hair, the suit, his name and accent -how could you not see-"

"That suit, was made by his Mother just for him before she died. She stitched it together with her own two hands, Ma'am, it's not just an article of clothing for him."

"His name is 'Dolph'!"

"Yes. Yes it is, that was the name of his Grandfather; the Father of my late wife. He raised Dolph's Mother as a single parent working at least two jobs when her Mother walked out on them. My..." His breath quickened, and he used his left hands thumb and index finger to rub at his eyes. "My-my wife loved her Father; Vater Dolph was a good man- I always admired his strength. When she came to me asking if we could name our child after him, I told her I says, 'Darlin, I don't think he could be named anything else'. I said that to her."

The principal had been successfully guilt-tripped, but was not about to abandon her ground. She acknowledged his story then rebuttaled in an indignant tone.

"My apologies, sir, I was not aware of that. But that does not invalidate the comparison, as I said, with his speaking accent he-"

"He grew up living on a German Military base, because as you can summarize; I met his Mother in Germany. I made the decision to move there so I could be with them; you know the kid is fluent in both languages almost fully?"

"I... didn't realize."

"Yeah, well with all due respect Miss, there's a lot it seems you don't 'realize'."

The administrator was now becoming more and more visibly frustrated. 

"Didn't your son paint a painting of himself saluting the sieg hail salute?"

"He was innocently giving a greeting to the morning sun."

"Did you know he wrote about his time at Camp Camp in a journal?"

"Yeah, I told him boys ain't suppose to keep a diary-"

"He called it 'Mein Kampf Kampf'!"

"Yeah; means 'My Camp Ca'-"

"I know what it means! How are you so... so... ugh, forgive me, but blind to the connections??? Put an 'A' in front of his name, and his initials are even A.H. just like him!"

"Purely a coincidence." He dismissed with a wave of his hand.

"Was Adolf Hitler not also a painter?"

"Oh ok, so what; every full or half-breed German kid's an evil dictator now? Next I bet you're gonna say that uh, that, what's his name-" He snapped his fingers to help him recollect. "-that-that Van Gough guy's got similarities to Jim Crow, or Chairman Mao?"

"Neither of those are anywhere close to a similar nationality!"

"Ma'am, are you making this about race?"

She blinked and shook her head, confused.

"E-excuse me???"

"You being racist towards my son?"

"... WHAT-"

"You sure are sounding like you're calling my son a racist based on his heritage- do I have to call a lawyer and tell him or her that my son is facing racial discrimination at his school!?"

"... ... WHAT!? What are you talking about!?" 

"You're telling me that my half-German, half-American son is Adolph Hitler, based on, what's the word- superficial similarities! That's offensive!"

"I-I'm sorry, you're telling me pointing out facts is offensive??? Your son looks, talks, and -whether he's aware of it or not- ACTS like him! The similarities go above being coincidence; it almost feels like it was manufactured on purpose- almost as if the two of you are doing this as a sick joke!"

"I fail to see-"

"You're name is even one! Hitler had a half-brother-"

"Ma'am, I swear-:

"Named Stuart HOUSTON!"

"ARE YOU CALLING ME A NAZI!?"

"NO! Did you even see the drawing Dolph made the other student!?"

"I happen to know he explained it to me that he drew a dryer, because the kid he made it for lives in an apartment that doesn't have one, and has to commute to a laundromat, what's your point?"

"Oh for the love of- he drew a gas chamber!"

"You have no proo-"

"And the little boy he made it for is Jewish!"

"Dolph described him to me as being more of a Judeo-Christian-"

"AGH!!"

 


 

Dolph meanwhile was sitting outside the office in a chair, trying to tune out the argument occurring on the other side. He sighed, utterly dejected, and rested his head on an open palm, arm propped on his knee. He missed Camp Camp, he missed David, Gwen, the other kids, even Quartermaster. He wasn't judged there; he was able to be himself. 

This will make the sixth school if they make me leave... it is not fair! I was just making ein painting for mein little freund...  why does this always happen to me? The other children... they always run away in terror, or say bad things about me behind mein back... es ist nicht gerecht! Ich haben... I have no one here who understands me- Papa always leaves me in the Summer, und without Kampf Kampf, I have no where to go I feel welcome...

Since he was small enough to do so, he crisscrossed his legs on the chair, and did the same with his arms; his face taking on that of a pout.

I could be a good freund if they would just give me a chance... all they do is hurt mein feelings, and run to the teacher vhen I so much as sneeze, it's not fair! Ack, I sound like a little child- but it hurts! I do nothing bad to anyone- all I do is keep to meinself drawing silently en the corner... oh... I cannot keep going like this... I'm on the fast track to becoming ein Nietzsche copycat like Max...

In that, he tried to make an effort to fight off the lonliness by tried to think of positive memories from Camp.

Perhaps that ist too harsh; I guess I don't hate Max, but, I am curious as to know just why he hates everyone so; well, with the exception of Neil und Nikki I suppose... I wonder why David invested so much of his Herz into him... still, I wish mein Kampfmates were here... all I do is go to school, then go home. Perhaps if I was back there, I could be joining Nerris in one of her little board games, or go exploring vith Nikki- perhaps Harrison could show me one of his creative little magic tricks! Preston could have even put together one of his 'so schlimm ist es gut' performances! Ah... that all sounds like so much fun right now! Of course Nurf hitting me in mein little stomach now and again vas less than preferable, but David und Gven vould nurse me back to health- un then, I vould partake en the arts und crafts with Ered!

His frown temporarily left as he thought of the older girl.

Ah, ja, Meredith, mein kindred spirit, die sonnets su meinem regen...  I wonder if I pop up in her mind at all? I think of her quite often.

The boy had made himself blush. 

N-not anymore or less than the others of course... that would be weird... ... ... mmm... I wonder if any of them miss me? I miss them, even Max and Nurf to a small, small extent... We were... we were all friends, right? Ja... ja of course, they... they... agh... who am I trying to fool... they all probably forgotabout me... even if we did conveniently all go to the same school, none of them would probably wish to hang out with me. I am fortunate Papa is not here right now; he does not have to witness me trying not to cry... he sure is taking a long time... I don't know why they sent me out here, I can hear them, I'm just trying not to. Well, I guess that's not technically true; I can hear them, but their voices are muddled... Sechs schulen... mein Gott; why does Father even try? It is the same story every time, und no one tells me what I do wrong- it is like they avoid me! Perhaps I should just give up, maybe I... I... vielleicht sollte ich keine Freunde haben ... vielleicht sollte ich allein sein... 


The discussion between LT. Houston and the Principal had quieted down, but was no less tense. The older woman was finally at her wits end, but, she had come to, what she believed to be, a fair ultimatum...

"Sir... I have been patient, and sympathetic to you and your son, but you need to understand, and I mean really understand that my hands are tied- you can't begin to know the migranes this whole thing has given me... I don't want Dolph to leave, Lieutenant; do you know how rare it is to find a kid that's smart, gifted, AND isn't a spoiled brat, AND/OR isn't a total Nihilist before they're even a teenager??? Harder than you would believe."

"What are you proposing?..."

"Now I... I want you to know I cannot promise anything, let me repeat myself: I cannot promise a thing... BUT... I think... I can make it so Dolph doesn't have to go away."

The man sighed a premature breath of relief. 

"Phew... you don't know how relieved that makes me. What do we have to do?"

"The compromise I am proposing is that Dolph ceases coming to school with that suit on, forgoes his artistic outlets on school property, and does not speak German in front of the students."

The mans pupils shrunk again, his face turned pale, and filthy ball of disgust, and discontent nestled in his belly.

"What?... Y-you can't be serious, you're asking Dolph to stop being who he is!? You're asking me, as his Father, to censor him!"

She raised an eyebrow at his exclamation.

"I thought you would be happy getting him to stop his artistic pursuits?"

He let out an annoyed, and guilt laced gruff.

"Ok I know I've said I wish he took an interest in more manly activities, but I didn't want him to STOP doing them his artsy crafty stuff!  I just... I-I just wanted him to learn how to throw a football! Watch wrestling! Make poor decisions with alchohol but take responsibility for them! You can't expect me to-"

"I can and I will! I've tried being nice about it, but there's no easy way around this, Lieutenant! You're son is problematic, and I know I'm already going to hear it from some parents that I'm even trying to keep Dolph here, let alone making him a deal. He's a reasonable kid- smart. He'll understand."

"I... I can't! There has to be another way than this."

"I'm sorry, but I see no other alternative that doesn't make anybody too upset. I'm aware this is a lot to ask, but, if you and your son wish to make this work, like how I am trying to make it work, these are my conditions."

The man's emotions had enough, he launched from his seat in anger.

"Principal Victoria, this isn't right, you can't do th-"

The woman could take no more herself, and launched from her own seat.

"No, Stuart! I've tried everything in my power to be fair, but I physically cannot give you two anymore leeway than I already have. Sir, please, let's be realistic and rational- all I'm asking is that he not wear a certain set of clothing, which he must assuredly have an entire closet he doesn't use, not draw on school grounds; surely he can do that at home, and to just speak English, which he is perfectly fluent in."

"This isn't fair to my boy!"

"Well with all do respect Lieutenant, the fact of the matter is I'm being more than quite fair- than do you know what's NOT fair??? Not fair is being fired from the school I spent almost thirty years at, in some podunk mountain town, to be able to be transferred here only to have to deal with another Nazi!"

The man shook his head bewildered. 

"'Another Nazi'- what the hell are you-?"

"I've learned my lessons, and have payed for my mistakes, and I'm NOT going to risk this position, because of a naive-ridden boy, and his delusional Father."

The Lieutenant squinted his eyes, not quite believing what he heard.

"How dare you... how dare you! I serve this country dutifully, and more importantly, I have a good kid, you are out of line speaking about us like this!"

The Principal scoffed at Houston's defence. She didn't know what what was coming over her, but... no... no she did didn't she? Nature was winning over nurture. As much as she would most likely feel guilty later, she felt she needed to do this, she wanted this. She wanted to take the past out on this man and his son; she was going to do whatever it took to maintain her status quo; just like the family and home she left behind taught her how to do when she was very young. 

"Please, I've dealt with your type before, almost exactly. Sir, he may be a good kid, you may be a good Father- and yes you are obviously a soldier; but that doesn't invalidate the grievances taken with Dolph, it doesn't make him and you any less wrong, in fact, it makes the two of you look bad- worse! You said it yourself; you defend our country, Stuart! Hprobably wouldn't hurt a fly! After today I not only question your judgment, but now I'm reconsidering your sanity."

"You're treading a very thin line of ice here; all I need to do is make ONE phone call, and you'll-"

"Be handed a victory in court without even having to try."

"What!?"

"What will your defence be? 'Please people of the jury, don't force my Nazi look alike son to take off his uniform, trust me, I'm a soldier of the US Army!' A soldier of the US Army, with a Nazi son, imagine that?"

"My boy ain't a Na-"

"Come to think about it, you should practically be begging me not to make a phone call." She finished with a confident smirk.

The man gulped, his anger turned to weariness. His threat had backfired.

"You wouldn't..."

"If I have to."

You... you're blackmailing us!"

"Only... if I have to." She repeated.

"We're all the other has, you-!"

"And this job is all have, and believe me, I'll do anything to hold on to it for at least one more decade, so, if I were you I would choose my next words carefully, Lieutenant. Do you pay even a small amount of attention to social media? You must at least pay a little to the news considering your career... do you see what people are capable of doing with only baseless allegations? Now a days you call someone a rapist, or a Nazi, and all kinds of horrible, nasty labels, and hundreds of people will go on a witch hunt for whomever you call out as such; no questions asked! These people who stage false allegations to ruin careers in the name of making an example, but ultimately ruin the name of which their cause even began, who will hunt you, send death threats, find where you live- theyll end your career, ruin your life, keep in mind, these are just if someone merely accuses someone of such behaviour. Can you imagine what would happen, if there was actually evidence? It there was proof? If you and Dolph were served up to any big or small two-bit news outlet? Just ret to picture the public outcry, when they wake up one morning to see the headline: 'Strong Willed Female Teacher Reveals Nazi Child and His High-Ranking Military Father'. Can you imagine what the media will do to you? A military man? It'd be bad enough if you were a woman, but a man -a white man- with his Nazi son???"

The soldier couldn't believe the words coming out of the teachers mouth.

"These are sensitive times, Stuart... all kinds of tensions run rampant through the counrty, for many, many reasons. There are systems, and subsystems in place trying to ensure that things of a problematic nature are swept away and dealt with, never to be seen again. I know all to well... I lost my last job because of one of them... but, I see now that it does have its benefits, such as now Lieutenant."

"What benefits!? Being able to shamelessly threaten a Soldier and his son!?"

"Yes. Exactly. You, and your son, are problematic, Lieutenant. And whether you want to realize it or not, this is for the best. I'll call the parents, talk it over with them, and then Dolph gets to stay, you won't risk losing your rank, your career, and possibly even your son. Do we have a deal?"

Stuart's head looked down at the desk, eyes wide; she had him cornered. He turned his gaze over his shoulder to the door; the school year was just about over, and he would have to leave again soon. His heart ached at the thought of Dolph having to try making it in another school all over again. He didn't want to, God did he not want to... but...


... Hmm... it has been quiet for some time now... Papa raised his voice again, but I could not quite make it out...

Just then the doors opened, greeting Dolph to the site of his distraught looking Father, and his Principal, hobbling along with her came. Initially relived to see his Father, he soon grew nervous seeing his face; something was wrong.

"Papa? Ist everything ok?"

Stuart looked at his son, trying his best to put on a strong, brave face, but he just couldn't, not after the series of conversations he'd just had.

"Yeah... yeah everything's... fine... let's go home son... we have to talk about some things."

Of course Dolph had realized immediately that something was wrong with his Father, but it had been a long, tiring day for both of them, and the boy did not want to be around the principal any longer than he already had been; so he did not question the Lieutenant's answer.

"Ok... auf viedersehen, Schulleiter Victoria... I will... see you Monday?" He nervously inquired. 

The woman stole a glance at the man whose back was turned to her, and gave Dolph a smile that was meant only for herself.

"Yes. I believe you will, Dolph."

Chapter Text

"Because I just fucking can't Nikki!"

"Augh!!" Frustrated to almost her wits end, Nicolette temporarily took the phone away from her ear. She didn't like getting mad at Max, honestly, especially after going without speaking for the amount of time they did, but this was becoming annoying. She cared about him, of course, she knew that much; she just wished she could understand why he was being so stubborn, and that he could be more forth coming with context. Rationalizing to herself that all of this 'unsaid, unspoken' stuff was not her style, she resolved to push the matter, even if he didn't like it.

It was ok to do so if it's in the name of being concerned, and a good friend right?...

"Max, man, I really don't get you..."

"Aw geez, here we go-"

"No I mean seriously, I really don't get you sometimes. Like, I try to get you? And then all I'm left feeling is confused." In more ways then one. "I don't wanna sound overdramatic or anything, but come on, I thought that out of everyone else you talk to, or know, that you would at least be able to talk to me about this kind of stuff!"

"...And why would you think that?..."

"Are you saying I'm wrong!?"

"NO! God- just, tell me why you think that?"

"Come on Max, I'm not the brightest person, but I can understand subtext."

Max went silent for a second.

"Y-you can?"

"Yeah, I can, but I guess not correctly; I was under the assumption that we were best friends."

"... Oh... y-yeah o-of course that's what you meant." His tone sounded neutral, but unbeknownst to Nicolette, it hid well the feeling of relief, and perhaps even the tinest bit of disappointment that Max was presently feeling.

"What in the fu- hello??? Are we on the same planet- what do you mean: 'Of course that's what I meant'? Am I missing something here???"

"No, no i-it's just... good to hear I guess."

"...You mean... you didn't assume that already in the first place?"

"Huh?"

'Huh'??? Why does he sound so confused? This isn't hard! Unless-

"Did you not know that??"

"Uh... I-I mean I, you know, had a good guess, I... guess."

Nicolette smacked and dragged the palm of her hand down her face.

"I swear to God... do you do this on purpose!?"

"Do what on-"

"Be all aloof, stubborn, and give little to no context to stuff you say and do??? Do you think you, like, look cool or something?"

"No! I'm just not good about talking about shit is all!"

"Do you realize how it makes me feel to think the entire time I've known you, you've been living in a crappy home, and I didn't know!? Do you know how... h-how like... useless and guilty that makes me feel??"

"Oh yeah, you know what? You're right Nikki- you're right; I'm so so SO sorry that my inability to properly deal with such an intense, personal, and sensitive subject to me has been such a burden on your day."

The girl flopped backwards onto her bed; exasperated. 

"That wasn't what I meant, you dick!"

"I don't know how many times you've talked to people in my situation, but it's something that just isn't easy to talk about, Nikki! Don't you think I wish I could easily talk about this shit?? It's like a weight, you know? Every single day it compresses into my chest into the Earth, I think, I suck at metaphors- point is: I can barely focus, or function at times cause, most of the time I just wanna scream!"

Nicolette could barely think if something to say at Maxs' statement. ,

"I..."

"I beat myself up in my head every day I don't confide in people more... augh... actually know what that's bullshit; it's really just you and David I feel that way about. I feel like an asshole and a bad friend- and look; I was right."

Shit-!

"H-hey, Max- that isn't what I-"

"Doesn't matter what you meant, its the truth. I'm a piece of shit son, and a piece of shit friend."

"Stop it Max! Come on dude, all this self-hatred isn't you, I-I didn't know you felt this strong about all of this, or anything about your past until today, but you're not less of a person for it, you know that right???"

"Tch, right... 'this isn't me'- what the fuck is me then, Nikki? A sarcastic life-hating asshole? A smug little bastard that doesn't believe in happiness? Or how about the asshole that tried to ruin a guy's life solely based on the fact that I didn't like that he was happy when I wasn't? Yeah I don't exactly have a lot of great options to choose from."

"I don't know! This stuff is confusing and I'm not equipped to deal with it Max! All I'm doing is telling you the truth; you never said anything about your life, so how was I suppose to-"

"What was I suppose to say!? That I'm a victim!? That I'm in desperate need of saving!? How was that suppose to go??? Was I suppose to call you and be like: 'Heya Nikki how ya doin buddy- say guess what? My parent's are neglectful assholes and smack me around once in a while!' Cause you're outta your mind if you think I was gonna do that! God, you people all act like it's so EASY to just up and talk about this shit, but it's not! It's fucking not Goddammit!"

"Why are you being like this?? I just want to help!"

"Exactly! There is nothing I hate in this world more, than my past. I didnt want anyone to know, especially not... you..."

"Why the hell not???"

"... Cause you'd see me as weak. You, Neil- you guys would look at me different, and judge me, and everything I say and do by it."

"You sure have a low opinion of how I look at you Max..."

"I don't want to be pitied, Nikki, I... I don't know, I just wanted people to see me as I am, not as what I've gone through- that make sense?..."

"I guess?... I don't know..."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"God, I don't know Max! I guess I just don't understand why you're so reluctant to even try."

"just said that it's-"

"No I mean, seriously; in a way, you're lucky."

Max was deathly quiet for a moment, and when he spoke next, his voice was flat, and cold.

"What. In the fuck. Is that supposed to mean?"

The tonal shift was so jarring, so sudden and... angry? At her? Well, suffice it to say, it almost scared her. She tried to not let that show in her response. 

"W-well I just mean that, you have me, you have Neil I guess, and you have David! He invested so much time, a-and effort into making you happy at Camp; some of the other Campers I'm sure were a little bit jealous, probably. I mean, Ered and Nerris had alright folks, but everyone else probably could have needed his help too. Plus me and Neil don't really have an adult figure we can rely on, or trust-" That's not fair I guess, Carls' cool; but that's a recent-ish development. "-I don't have any friends at school, so all I meant was-"

"That I should be grateful that I'm such a fucked up loser!?"

"What the- no! You know that's not what-"

"Nikki I'm only gonna say this once, you're right, ok? You are without a doubt my best friend- Neil is too, no shit, but you and me; we're tight, always have been.

It made Nicolette feel quite warm inside hearing that.

"But you got no idea what the fuck you're talking about."

Those same insides now felt sour.

"I don't care what friendships, or meaningful bonds I got out of, or cause of this- nothing is worth dealing these shitty parents. Fuckers- you know one thing that sucks about them? I mean really fucking sucks? They are the Goddamn best at getting sympathy from people cause of our immigrant background. That's how they're even successful here! People look at them as these picture perfect hardworking people, and they give them jobs and opportunities time, and time again. Everyone born on the soil in this fucking country grows up being taught that immigrants and the communities they live in are these OH SO WONDERFUL tight-knit families that look out for each other, love their kids and culture, and always have each others backs- well they don't! These poverty-ridden assholes are just as conniving, and scummy as the people that are born here!"

Nicolette tried to speak, she really wanted to, but Max's voice... such anger, and pain. It killed any words that tried to form from her mouth.

"They use ME to get that sympathy and get ahead in life, but make me feel like a fucking bug! But you know what? Honestly? Fuck all of that, and them hitting me, or calling me names; what I can't fucking stand more than all of that, is the loneliness. Cause it doesn't matter what you, or David, or anyone else did, do, or does- they beat so many feelings of worthlessness into my brain, that- I could be in a room full of people that all liked me, and I called my friend, and I would still feel outcasted, I would still feel alone, and that I wasn't good enough, or was fucking something up, just with my mere fucking presence. Do you have any idea what that's like? To feel like your very existence was a burden? That no one understands you? That everyone sees you as like, a project, or a charity case?"

Nicolette started to bite at her nails, trying not to let Maxs' words hurt her. She wasn't quite sure why they were; he didn't really say anything hurtful directed to her specifically. Was it relating to earlier when she mentioned how helpless she felt? Or was it that ever present shattering of status quo that had been looming over this bloated conversation?

This pain... had it always been there she wondered? In Max? It was far from the first time she questioned how long he had been hurting, but, after this day, it felt like it had been his whole life he'd felt this way. It almost brought her to tears; it wanted to anyway- not because she was an emotionally weak person (she hoped), but because, as obvious as this sounds, he was her friend, and to her, it wasn't right how much he was hurting.

Max...

His question did not go unnoticed; of course she felt that way, she knew exactly what that felt like- she'd dealt with it head on several years ago now. Or tried to. Her situation was odd, in that unlike Max, where it was constant, her's was sporadic. She rarely spoke to her Mother, spoke very sparingly to Neil, and while Carl was someone she liked, they still had some ways to go. She hadn't mentioned one word of this to Max as the conversation had gone on, and she was starting to wonder if it was selfish of her. Obviously she refrained from talking about herself because she wished to focus on Max, because he needed it, yes, but maybe also so that she wouldn't have to talk about herself

What I've gone through's nothing compared to him... how am I suppose to confide in him when my problems are super less severe? Would he tell me if they were? He still hasn't told me why he won't tell David anything... dammit, I'm no better than him; he said straight up he was hoping he didn't want to talk and I pushed him on it- he's probably braver than me all things considering; he actually tried. I'm so stupid;  of course he would react like that; this is painful stuff, and he's dealt with this all his life, and suddenly I come in, force him to talk while giving my two cents ... would... would it even be ok??? To talk to him about myself, especially now? I don't want to make this about me and sound like a whiner, but... would it make him feel better- more comfortable? Knowing I can relate? I don't think that was a rhetorical question he asked... dammit... I don't know what to do here that doesn't make me feel like a bad guy. Does he think I don't care about what makes him comfortable or not??? Would this make him feel worse? AAAAAH!!!

Her free hand smacked her head so quick it stung her eye. Dread and confusion flowed through her, as the palm dragged down her face.

My head hurts, my brain; it's all over the place- I can't focus!...  Besides... my own Mother doesn't really care about what I'm going through, neither does Neil, how do I know he will? Should I... ... what should I do?...


Max meanwhile was on a completely different train of thought:

AAAAAAAUUGGGGGHH YOU FUCKING IDIOT! All you had to do was NOT tell her, and look what you fucking do! Stupid stupid STUPID!

Max was starting to become uncomfortable in his skin. He started to feel uneasy, itchy, guilty. He jumped up from his bed and paced around the room, a million thoughts and feelings intermixing in his brain. 

Dammit dammit GODdammit, now she's not saying anything, fuck! Of course she's not gonna talk to me now; I made it sound like our friendship meant nothing! That's not what I meant... that's not what I meant, I-!... I-I care about her a lot and... and now it doesn't even seem like it... fuck... FUCK, one of the most important people in my life, and I'm an unappreciative asshole to her- she's probably got problems too, and I just laid a massive guilt trip on her andGODDAMMIT she still isn't talking!

Anxiety was beginning to creep into his subconscious as his breath began to quicken.

youfuckedupyoufuckedupyoufuckedupyoufuckedupyoufuckedupyoufuckedupyoufuckedup

He looked around for something- ANYTHING, to break the silence he was entrapped in.

YOUFUCKEDUPYOUFUCKEDUPYOUFUCKEDUPYOUFUCKEDUPYOUFUCKEDUPYOUFUCKEDUPYOUFUCKEDUPYOUFUCKEDUPYOUFUCKEDUP

Not thinking clearly, he decided to vocalize his anxious ponderings. 

"Goddammit say something!"

"I'm thinking alright; what the hell am I suppose to say??"

"Fuck- anything! I don't care I just... augh, this is stupid and awkward I don't know how to do this; I'm sorry alright!? I shouldn't have thrown that shit on you- I know I must look like a stupid asshole.

"No... you don't... you never look stupid... kind of a dick, not gonna lie, but you're not an asshole either...

"... I... you... I don't want you to think I don't value us being friends..."

"I don't..."

"I meant it; you are my best friend."

"I know..."

"... ... ..."

"... I do, by the way... know what it's like..."

"Huh?..."

"To feel all that stuff you were talking about... I know what it's like..."

"... What do you mean?"

"... ..."

Max took advantage of the silence to walk over to his dresser. His usual hoodie and Jean's had started to feel stale; as he'd been wearing them all day, and different clothes sounded refreshing. He set the phone down on the wooden container's surface, and removed the sweater, but not before remembering to put the phone on speaker, just in case. Just as he opened the drawer, she spoke again.

"I mean I know it's like to feel all burdeny, and judged and stuff. I've... felt that way for a long time..."

Well this was certainly news to Max.

"To who?" He asked as he slipped off his shirt. Who the hell could have a problem with her?

"... Felt like everyone. Things... went pretty sour pretty quick, after we said bye four years ago..."

He found the shirt he'd wish to wear for the night, and began slipping it over his head.

"What happened?"

"... Well... you want the long version or the short version?"

"Whichever one you're more comfortable with."

"Alright, so... uh, hmm... Max?"

"Yeah?"

"What do you think of my Mom?"

Max stopped mid shirt pull, and stared at the phone bewildered for a second before answering.

"Uh... is that a trick question?..."

"No, I'm serious; when you met her at Parents Day, what were your first thoughts? Like full honesty, I don't care."

Max's eyes rolled up in thought.

"Uhmmmm... I don't know... seemed kinda like, distant and disconnected I guess... sorta airheady maybe? Well until she saw Neil's Dad. That shit was more 'love at first sight' than pre-Frozen Disney movies."

"Pfft, that's funny... yeah, you hit the nail right on the head with her. See, what happened was: one day I just sorta... realized it."

His shirt was now on, and he began the search for pants.

"What, that she was an airhead?"

I probably shouldn't be so douchy; it is still her Mom...

"Nah, I always sorta knew that. It was the distance thing I figured out. I was having a rough time adjusting to the neighborhood here; my whole life I was use to the open, and in hindsight pretty dangerous environment of the trailer park we used to live at, and here it's like boring suburbia; white picket fence and two point five kids kinda crap."

"Jesus Christ- that kinda shit's real?" He asked, as he grabbed a pair of soft pajama pants.

"Dude you have no idea; we're talkin like community meetings, Home Owners Association, 'welcome to the neighborhood potlucks'- Max, we got Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses."

"Ha ha holy shit, really!? Do they like get in weird, polite, passive-aggressive, bible thumpin turf wars?"

"Ahh you kidding? Hell no; I asked about that once, and the Mormon kid I was talking to said: 'we believe to each their own, and if we see each other, we will be polite and be on our way.'"

"Whaaaaat? That's fucking boring."

"I know!"

"How do you not go stir-crazy over there??"

"Like I said, I've mellowed out in my old age. It's not too too bad honestly. I guess it's nice to have a boring community where nothing bad happens... I assume."

How  do you do it? One minute you're causing emotional damage, the next, you're in a state of normalcy. Flowing from feeling to feeling in an instant! It's unnatural, yet natural at the same time... How do you do it!?

That all sounds like a breath of fresh air compared to this almost ghetto I'm living in...

"You live in a ghetto???"

...

"... I... said that out loud?"

"Yeah?..."

"Oh..."

"... S-so anyway, yeah not too bad I guess. The adults around here are alright."

"Even the ones running it? I figured they'd real sticks in the mud."

"Nah, the whole operation is run by these two gay dudes who moved here from Colorado. They're kinda weird, but they're nice- they said that since they were both getting older, they wanted to move somewhere quiet for their golden years."

"What or where the hell in Colorado could be noisy?"

"Ya got me."

"Anyway, so it seems like the neighborhood is alright; was it school that had you down? I'd assumed you and Neil would have stuck together."

"Ehh... well... see that's where it gets tricky... ok, so, you and I are in the same grade, but, as you know, Neil's a grade above us."

Max began to disrobe his pants, and put a leg in the new ones.

"Yeah, he mentioned that before. Still, that shouldn't have stopped him or anything, right?"

"Well... ... so like I don't have any friends here, and the teachers think I'm a total basket case. I use to have to talk to a counselor at my old school; I guess they thought I was a potential maniac or something. When I moved over here, I guess they made a -what's it called- a portfolio? They had a file on me; and basically a kid therapist talks to me all the time to make sure I'm not climbing the walls or something."

This shocked Max, mid pant leg insert.

"What the hell? That's dumb- why would they do that??"

"You knew me when I was younger, I was always acting crazy all the time... I didn't have great grades, I was always getting dirty, and most of the other girls wanted nothing to do with me. They probably figured something was wrong with me."

Max had finally got his night wear on, and sat back down on his bed.

"That's stupid; there's nothing wrong with you."

"Hmm, that's nice, but, you don't have to sugarcoat it for me; it's cool, I've mostly made peace with it. I lost my edge when I moved here, and I've mostly grown out of it I guess... I... can't even climb a tree anymore."

Somehow hearing that made Max's heart twitch.

"Can't climb a tree?? That's impossible; you're Nikki!"

"I know... that was the problem. Everyone wrote me off as 'just Nikki'... 'just Nikki', the weird, adventure seeking tomboy who got on everyone's nerves- that's what they all thought I was; the kids at my schools, the Flower Scouts, my Mom... I went through a period where I realized I didn't really know who I was... tomboy, adventurous, wacky, quirky, loud; thats what everyone always labeled me as, and that was how everyone talked about me, or in a few cases to me. It felt like I wasn't a real person, you know? Felt more like I was just a random collection of cliche character traits, who looks and talks like a girl... least I think do... am... was- whatever; it's fine, I'm better now. Like I said, I'm not the same person you met four years ago."

"Shit Nikki... I'm sorry."

HOW do you keep doing this!? What's the secret- where is the answer!??

"Don't be, it's fine, really. Just had to make some changes to myself, and now... now I'm a better version of myself than I was when you met me. I'm doing good in school, and I'm not some weird spazz breaking stuff all the time anymore. It's all good, you know?"

No, Max did not know. The young man was thrown through such a loop it almost gave him a metaphorical whiplash. The way she was speaking... she seemed so conditioned to believe that what people thought about her was right, so sure that what she described was for the better. He couldn't believe his ears. Especially that bit about not knowing who she was; it was childish, but all he could think was:

She's Nikki, my Nikki; my friend... who the fuck would ever tell her...

The question died as soon as it formed. He couldn't risk getting upset right now.

"Nikki, do you hear yourself!?" Too upset that is. "You sound like a robot. Look, I'm all about doing better in school; fuck, God knows could improve, but, but...  no, NO, Nikki, that isn't right."

"What are you talking about; I was a menace- I bit David and other people on multiple occasions, and gave people nothing but headaches. I was always all air headed and stuff, and I never took anything seriously. "

"Ok sure some of that's odd, but it's not like 'let's completely dehumanize everything about you' odd! Nikki, you were ten, I mean... don't beat yourself up over acting like a kid."

"What are you talking about? You didn't 'act like a kid' when I met you. You were ten and talked like you were in your mid-twenties!"

"That's... that's different!"

"Why? Cause it's me not you?" She asked, and Max could tell by the tone of her voice he was challenging him. Interestingly, the answerabout to her question  was indeed just that:

"Yeah."

"... Huh???Guess she wasn't expecting that... "How do you figure?"

Max's face became warm, as the metaphorical frog was caught in his throat.

"W-well, uh.... 

"'Well uh' what?" She huffed into the phone. "Look, Max, I appreciate the effort, really, but we both know you're not good at these things, so don't worry about it. I don't want you to force yourself."

Ok that kinda hurts, but whatever; I gotta focus.

Max decided to try and do what he had been doing all night, and went with his gut.

"You're right, I'm not good at this, so pay attention cause I'm only gonna try to say this once."

Both teenagers held their breath, for different reasons.

Max fell back onto his bed, trying to steady his breathing. His free hand clenching and unclenching in an anxious manner. He was, after all, about to lay a lot on the line. After all; he didn't really know what to say; half of this conversation was him throwing caution to the wind and going with his gut,and trusting Nikki with his baggage, yet it was this moment that made him take pause. He wasn't a self-help speaker, or anyone's therapist, certanly wasn't a motivational person by any means, but the idea of Nikki feeling this way outweighed most insecurities he felt at the moment. Of course there was also the complications of his new, strange feelings directed towards her; which of course he qas no where close to really figuring out- if he did make an attempt to console, or reassure her, was he confident that he was doing it in the name of being a good friend?

Or what if there was another meaning to it? What if this situation was Neil, or David in Nikki's place, or hell, anyone else in general. What if it was his old Camp mates, people he'd met in the Hindi communities, his own parents; presenting him with this emotional baggage- would he be nearly as willing to even consider saying anything to make them feel better? Would he really mean it if it wasn't her? Would he even mean what he might say if he said it to her? Or was it all his hormones doing the talking? So many questions, and so very little time to even begin answering any of them. 

Nicolette meanwhile on the other end of the line was practically welded to her own bed in anticipation. This whole night was a candid conversation with her best friend; something she never thought she would have with him. She thought themselves to be close, naturally, but this was an unprecedented level- an unthinkable amount of Max then she had ever experienced before. It almost felt unreal. She couldn't really describe it, and while she felt quite foolish dwelling on it so much, the nagging thoughts, and questions just wouldn't leave her mind alone. After all, much like her friend, she too was presented with strange, and weird feelings she was no where near reaching an understanding towards, and arguably, she had been dealing with the issue longer than Max.

It was an odd thing to behold; outside looking in. Max, who had been stricken with these ill-timed, and conveniently confusing feelings for a little more than three months, seemed to have a minimally better grasp on them, as opposed to Nicolette, who had been afflicted for the better part of three, going on four years. Most odd indeed. The argument could, theoretically, be made that Max had more experience dealing with these 'serious' emotions compared to her- but what is a serious emotion anyway? Joy, anger, depression, happiness, confusion, arousal,  fear- every emotion is just as complex as the other, really; who's to say that Maxs' more negative mindset and upbringing is more 'real' than Nicolette's (at the start) more positive one? 

Real... a deceptive, simple word- but I suppose that subject can wait. All that mattered at the moment was Maxs' next words.

"Look, Nikki, I... aaaugh fuck, ok look I know this is gonna make me sound like a total fuckin hypocrite, and I know I should take my own advice, or whatever, but, like... y-you didn't... I don't think you needed to change..."


*BUMP BUMP*

*BUMP BUMP*

*BUMP BUMP*

*BUMP BUMP*

*BUMP BUMP*

*BUMP BUMP*


"Y-you do? Don't? U-uh... you don't think I needed to change?..."

"Yeah- I-I mean no, no I- yes I don't think you should have had to change. And, like, I don't think it's bad that you're doing better in school and stuff, but like, I think it was wrong that people told you that, you know, you- who you were, wasn't a good you... i-if makes sense..."

"Max..."

"Like, that whole 'better version' of yourself thing is bullshit-"

Excuse you?

"-I don't think anyone should have to change who they are; in the sense that- you never hurt anyone. Fuck dude, everyone at Camp Camp liked you- a lot! I was always skulking off somewhere, angry at everything, Neil was busy doing some impractical yeah somehow plausible sciencey shit; you were the only one actively making friends at that place. Scratch that; you were basically the only having fun!... Well I guess Space Kid enjoyed himself, but... ok and Dolph, probably, but that's it!... ... Know what; I can't remember Nerris having a bad time, Ered neither... Nurf I guess- fuck it; you get my Goddamn point don't you?"

On the other end of the phone, on top of her racing heart, Nicolette's ability to speak was steadily becoming impaired. Max sat back up; at the edge of the bed, anxiety, concern, and adrenaline coursing through him.

"Max, I... you don't... ... you really mean all that?"

"Yeah... I mean, why wouldn't I?..." She doesn't believe me?...

"Just... I don't know, seems weird coming from the guy who used to hate it when anyone was having a good day...Oh... right.

"I wouldn't say I was that bad, but... but you're right... like I said- I'm a total hypocrite- but I'm serious, Nikki... if you could ask Ered, Nerris, Preston; any of them- they'd back me up on what I said."

"You think so?"

TELL ME!!! Tell me how it works!

"Yeah- look, Nikki, you said earlier me being like this isn't me? Well this isn't you. Insecure, and stuff, you're like, tough, and brave and shit- you laugh in the face of adversity and danger. And I don't think you don't need me to remind you about that. I mean- i-it's not weird or wrong to have moments of doubt, and feel bad about stuff; no, that just means you're human- I'm not saying you feeling bad or questioning things is... is... what's the word?? Well- out of character, is what I'm getting at. I-I mean, I mean, you're not NOW, either, I guess? No, fuck wait, I contradicted myself-what I mean is- you were a good character- person, and you're a good one now... ya know? I-I know I'm all disorganized, and awkward right now and shit; and you probably think I'm just being nice, or making it up, or that I don't mean any of it, but I'm not- I'm not making any of it up, I mean. Any 'you' is a good 'you', just... you know... don't feel bad about who you were, or who you are, just be... uh... you! Yeah, yeah, that's it; just be any 'you', you can be, cause... cause... ..."

Nicolette didn't respond, but her breathing was heavier now.

Max was on some kind of endorphin induced high; he didn't know bearing your soul could... could feel so good. Was this feeling at ease, he wondered? Was this fog in his head actually clarity? Was he making a mistake? He didn't know, didn't care, really. For the first time in a while, he felt good, and didn't feel bad about it. 

He felt warmth. He wanted Nikki to feel that too.

"Cause well you're just... you're you..."

Nicolette... blew her nose? No... was that... a sniffle?

"That... t-that isn't a bad thing?... Being me?"

"Fuck no... you is -no, you are- great. Yeah... you're really great, Nikki..."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*CLICK*

"What the fuck!?" 

Chapter Text

Nerris was-  that really is her actual name isn't it?...

Anyway.

Nerris was a girl(?) who was many pieces of things. Quiet, but not necessarily shy, energetic when the situation called for it, but not a spazz, calm and collected, but not anti-social; Nerris was a child who was, quite simply, in her own little world. In her own world, but not in the sense of like how Nicolette used to not be able to discern between the two, or how Meredith never let anyone into hers without ever realizing it. She was open if you asked, nice if you were nice, rude if you were rude, pleasant and respectful to elders, and strangers; Nerris is a perfectly in the middle individual- with potential to be even more to boot.

She was the kind of person who liked what she liked, and what she liked, she focused intensely on. Most of what she put all her focus on were recreational hobbies; but it made her happy. Her parents were always so supportive; not without their own reservations, of course, but her Father in particular (who you could make the argument she was closer to), always let her pursue her interests. As such, she found great enjoyment, and freedom within this 'Dungeons and Dragons', creatively, and personally.

At this particular moment in time, Nerris was at the kitchen table, after a long day at school. She was working diligently on her many custom characters; managing statistics, crunching numbers, planning for deterrents and various outcomes, and of course, putting together their various stories. She didn't really have anyone to play with except her Father, and less and less frequently her reluctant Mother; as any other potention players at school either grew out of it, or just didn't want to learn, some more vain children feeling it could damage their social standing. It did not matter all that much to Nerris however; it was enough for her to just work on them and play once in a while.

One dayI'm gonna get outta this town and become a world wide famous Dungeon Master by day, with the secret identity of an underground, yet world renowned Baker! Just have to finish grinding in the sewer level that is school and I'll be there in no time! After all, my impeccable skills cannot be matched, of course. Perhaps contested only by the Elder One, but I'm fast approaching to surpassing him!

As you can see, she was looking forward to the future! She was not the most academically inclined, especially not out of this cast of characters, but she wasn't on the route to failing either. Sure, she did not have many friends (noticing a theme here?), but she had a good relationship with her parents, something that admittedly is quite rare at times. Nothing could stop her, or deter her spirits, Nerris The Cute was gonna conquer the world! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

:)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nerris' Mother came into the kitchen, planning on having a discussion with her. Her husband was not around; she made sure of that. Knowing that they are very close- a one on one conversation might, she hoped, increase the poignancy and impact of what she felt needed to be discussed.

The need to do so arose just a few days ago...


 

After Nerris left for school, the Matriarch sat her spouse down for a discussion. For some time now, she had been worried about her daughters future; though she loved her dearly, she also wanted much more for her than just wanting to play her 'silly little board game' all the time. There were other concerns as well, but we'll get to that. 

"Honey..." She started out cautiously. "I'm concerned about Nerris..."

Her husband set down his morning paper, turned down the volume of the news coming from the radio, and adopted a look of worry. 

"Why? Is she having trouble at school?" She shook her head.

"No no, she's doing fine... could be a little better if I'm being honest, but she's getting by." That relieved him some; visibly.

"Oh good... well, what's on your mind?" He asked as he laid a comforting hand on both of hers that were resting on the table in deep thought. She smiled a little at his gesture of love.

"It's just... I don't know... don't you think she's getting a little too old for that game of hers?"

She knew her husband had strong opinions about this subject; that's why it suprised her he maintained his cool. He did not take his hand away, but the warmth on hers noticeably dimmed.

"This again? Baby why do you keep bringing this up? It doesn't interfere with her schoolwork, and it makes her happy! That's what should matter most, right?"

She scoffed in thought... if that's actually a thing.

"Yes and no. Don't you think she could be doing even better if she maybe... put the toys away for a while?"

"Now you know she would hate you calling them toys." He said, smirking, trying to add some levity. While she appreciated the thought, she wanted to continue moving the conversation forward.

"But you get my point. Our little girl is so smart; she has the potential to really be someone! She could be an even better version of herself than she already is!" She proclaimed hopefully, and proudly, with a bright smile, and shining eyes.

"But Nerris is already great just as she is! We shouldn't try to be overbearing, and dumb down her creativity, I don't think." He said, steadily becoming more emotional.

"It's not downplaying at all, really; it's encouraging it- nurturing it. You know when she focuses on something the results are great."

"But what she focuses on she's invested in, you can't just expect her to care about something that's not interesting to her." She shook her head, believing he had missed her point. 

"But she can with time, I want to try weaning her off the game. Try and get her to try new things, explore other areas of her creativity she hasn't tapped into yet, find a career."

"I mean... I've see her watch Food Network all day before, maybe she'll wanna try going out for a food related job?" She waved a hand at the idea.

"No, no, I mean a lucrative career." He pulled his hand away, starting to become annoyed, but also concerned. He hated it when she pressed this issue, but she seemed to be extra persistent today.

"I don't know... I mean D&D isn't just a game to her, it's her safe space; it's where she's comfortable. I just don't think we should be worried about it if it's not an issue that's harming her... like if it was a bad group of friends, or if she started watching that Ninja kid stream Fortnite that's one thing, but she's just having fun."

The woman rested her hands in her lap, not liking her husbands constant deflections.

"But babe, look at her; when she comes home she goes straight to her room and starts working on her character cards and spreadsheets, for a boardgame no one at her school plays."

"She gets her homework done. Besides, I play with her, and you have too. Don't you remember the good times we've all had?"

She broke eye contact, and stood up from the chair, beginning to pace. Her husband remained in his, and watched her.

"Babe it's been four years since she left that Camp; I did the right thing and humored her back then, she was young- and yes, I had fun sometimes, but I thought she would grow out of this by now. I know she doesn't play with the stuffed animals anymore, but she's getting to the point to where she seriously needs to consider a career path, and her future. I don't really like the idea of her going through her teens, and twenties just... living with her parents playing a board game."

The man was becoming tense.

"She's not in High School until next year; and you remember how it was for us- they'll cram all that 'choose a career or be nothing' jargon down those kids' throats enough as it is. I don't feel right doing that to her at home. Besides, you've seen the economy, no matter what she does or doesn't want to do, it'll be really hard on her to live on her own, let alone afford school in the first place. I'm not saying I don't want her to le... to leave one day; but I don't feel comfortable sending her out there, the way the world is."

His wife rolled her eyes.

"I wasn't even talking about that, but since you brought it up; it's not about her living here- it's about living her and only playing the game. Iwant her to do something. I know there are communitie, and groups and stuff, but Dungeons and Dragons can't sustain a living."

"It can if you're the guys from Adventure Zone..." He muttered to himself, envious.

"She can create and learn all that stuff for her game without even trying... I really wish you could see it from my point of view, you know. Everytime I bring this up, you always have to fight me on it." He steadied himself, knowing what was coming next.

"I'm not fighting you, I'm speaking in defense of our daughter."

"So am I not allowed to be concerned for her, or worried about her future??"

He stood up from his chair now, and gently placed his hands on each of her tense arms, softly rubbing up and down.

"No, no, of course not baby, that's what makes you a good Mother, and you are, I mean that. I just don't want her feelings to get hurt; I'm not saying she would, but, I don't want her to be mad at you. Have faith in her; I mean -just as an example- look at me! I've had my job almost twenty years, and I won the Dungeons and Dragons Open Championship five times in a row; my fifth and final win, and that sweet trophy, were my gift for Nerris' first birthday... do you remember that?" He soft-balled to her with a smile. Despite herself, she couldn't help but smile at the memories. 

"Yeah... of course I do."

"That's right, look." He slowly spun her around to look at the big photograph that adorned their fireplace. Indeed, it captured the moment in time that was a baby Nerris being held by one of her Fathers hands, clutched close to his chest, and the trophy he was gifted in the other. His wife hugging him from behind.

"We were so happy. I've always said this, but, if you look at Nerris' eyes, I swear they must be glowing in that shot." He then attempted to recreate the image, and encircled his arms around her waist. She didn't refuse. "And you remember where we grew up... bad schools, parents that weren't really around all that much, no reliable adults. Plus you can't forget the white friends we had who weren't racist, and our black friends that all thought they were- 'member Jack?"

She laughed aloud before she could stop herself.

"God, who could forget him?"

"Yeah, him and Steve bickered like an old married couple every damn day. Even when Steve and Linda got serious, and Jack had... other priorities, we stuck it out. Nerris can have all that too- but only if she wants it. All I'm trying to say. And I think..." He spun her back around, and rested his hands on her hips. "... we should support her no matter what she wants to do. Long as Nerris The Cute is happy, that's what should matter most... right?"

She was far from satisfied, and less than convinced, but, she saw how much this whole thing meant to him. She decided, for her husband, that she would drop this particular subject for now...


 

With that neat context in mind, let's observe this talk she planned to have with her daughter. Approaching Nerris quietly, she attempted to get her attention.

"Nerris? Sweetie?"

"Huh?" She turned around, eyes lighting up upon seeing her Mother. "Oh, salutations Mother! I'm arranging my Elven forces for upcoming battles."

"Yes, I can... see that." She acknowledged, bemused; as if Nerris had just proven the point the girl hadn't even known she'd made.

"Would you care to join me?" She offered, oblivious to her Mother's maternal-instincts induced internalizations. "Some of the Battle Mom's will soon go into labour; perhaps you could help me come up with a convincing birthing scenario." She finished with a braces-ridden smile.

Her Mother crinkled her nose.

"I think I'll pass, thanks... can I sit down?"

Nerris rolled her eyes, turning around back to her work.

"Of course, you're the Elder One's Queen- you have free reign."

"Thanks..." She answered, taking her seat. Suddenly she had no idea how to approach this; despite the reservations she had about Nerris' life choices, she was still her daughter. She conceded that her husband was right- she couldn't risk hurting her daughter, but she still also believed that she was in the right.

Nerris had various sheets of different kinds paper, several unique brands of pens and pencils strewn about the table, and a calculator off to the side. The kitchen was organized chaos if you asked Nerris, but a total mess if you asked her Mother. Her eyes would dart back and forth between graph paper, character cards, lined paper, the calculator; rinse and repeat effortlessly; further proving in her Mother's mind that she was doing the right thing trying to seperate her from the game. Afterall, if she could do this for a board game, who's to say what she could be capable of in school? Yet, as she observed the focused, but undeniably content look on her daughter's face, and the at peaceful look in her eyes, she began to second guess herself. Could she really go through with this? Suggesting to her daughter to stop playing and investing some much of her time into her game? She had good enough grades, was never in trouble, and like her husband mentioned, she was happy. She was desperately trying to find ways to rationalize her line of thinking, trying with great effort to minimize the guilt slowly bubbling up inside her as much as possible.

"Nerris?..."

"Yes, Mother?" She responded without taking her eyes away from her work.

"I wanted to talk to you about something."

"Clearly." Eesh... blunt and to the point, just like her Mother after all... Thought the older woman, feeling like she was looking through a lispy reflection. 

"It's about school, well, next year specifically..." Nerris continued about her buisness; silently signaling for her Mother to continue. "... High School is just around the corner you know... are you nervous about it?" She asked, hands sitting neat and folded in her lap.

Ok, this is good, an innocent, engaging question to encourage her to be open, and be honest with me.

"Not particularly."

... ... ??? That's it?...

"Are you sure? It's quite a change, you know- a really big step forward. If you have any questions you can ask me, dear." She prodded, making sure to keep her voice even and leveled. Knowing her daughter as well as she did, she knew better than to think that Nerris was 'distracted' at the moment; she would eaisly be able to detect something was off about her mother.

Ok, that was better; offer guidance but really subtly push the idea that she needs to actually consider these things.

Her daughter only shrugged.

"My academics are at an average success percentage; I believe High School shall prove little different to my present performance. Graduation in give or take four and a half years is practically guaranteed. Your offering of counsel is declined, but of course much appreciated, Mother."

Dammit this isn't working... should I be more direct? No, no, I should keep the pace steady. Can't risk putting too much pressure on her.

The woman decided to initiate a closer presence to Nerris, and rested her folded arms on the table, leaning forward; careful of course to not mess up any of the girl's work. 

"Have you been... thinking about any boys at all?"

That caused Nerris to let out a dismissive scoff.

"Not particularly."

"Oh... how about... girls?"

"How to interact with them? Or about them romantically."

"Uh... either?..."

"Not particularly. For either inquiry."

"... Any questions about the changes your body has been going through?"

This question was another one that had lately been on the woman's mind as well. She had noticed once or twice that Nerris did not seem to particularly... develop as she thought she would. She was still very thin, and certain... well, upper and lower areas were quite flat, if you get the picture. She felt gross thinking it, but, the woman remembered one time when she and the Mister had a discussion about that, when both had a few too many drinks. Her opinion was, being Black parents, there were certain physical attributes that she had assumed Nerris would grow into. Her exact words were:

'Why does my baby look like a damn twig- she ain't got nothin to shake for the boys!'

Not her proudest moment, naturally, but she still felt the concern was warranted. She was worried if perhaps it was a nutritional, or anatomical deficiency of some sort; she just seemed to stop developing in certain areas. She was tall, of a sorts; shorter than her Father still, but almost taller than her Mother, but Nerris didn't really...

She doesn't really look like a girl...

There it was. True, some of it came from the fashion choices Nerris unconsciously took, but to her Mother, she thought that Nerris didn't really look like a female, or act like one. Backed up (in her mind) by the fact that multiple times she had kids, and even parents come up to her and double check if Nerris was one or not.

Doesn't help that she does that whole 'elf-kin' crap...

Of course, Nerris was not aware of the hidden meanings of her Mothers' questioning, so she answered honestly. 

"No. I don't really pay such thoughts any mind."

"... A-are you sure?"

"Yes."

"... Um... well, why not?"

"There's nothing really to talk about."

"Sure there is, it's not like nothing happens all day at school."

"Then allow me to rephrase my answer; there is nothing I want to talk about. I go to class. I take notes. Eat lunch alone. Take notes. Come home."

"Any subject you're having trouble in?"

"Not enough to risk ruining my current GPA."

"Any... subject you want to do better in? Or any new ones you think you want to take?"

"I think the High School you plan for me to go to has a Cooking Class that looks sort of fun."

"Baby I mean an academic class."

"..." Shoot...

"You been making any friends?"

"No."

"... Enemies?"

"Of course not."

"Any crushes?"

"You inferred that already."

"Have you had any moments of teenage angst or existentialism?"

"Do I look like that Max kid I went to Camp Camp with?"

"Have you started... listening to Music?..."

"Just Nightwish and the Kingdom Hearts soundtrack."

"... How about-"

"Mother." She stated, agitation apparent, but eyes not looking away from their work. "You're asking questions that make it sound like you don't even know me. Is this about D&D again?"

Caught.

"U-uh... nnnnno?"

"Ugh. You always do this- every four and a half to six and three quarter months you ask these questions that dance around what you really want to talk about, and it's usually about me playing my game 'too much'. I already know exactly what you're gonna say."

Her Mother recoiled in offense. 

"I do not do those things! And what do you mean you know what I'm going to say-"

"That I'm getting older, that I should start focusing more on school, I can do so much if I channelled that creativity to my school subjects, and considering you brought up High School, you were probably going to say something to the effect of me having to consider a lucrative career. Did I miss anything?"

"... ... ... Did your Father tip you off?"

"No, it's just that one of us actually knows the person their talking to."

This isn't going anywhere, and now I'm feeling guilty and awkward. 

Caught red-handed, her Mother took a second to lean back into her chair and think of her next move. Nerris was correct- she predicted every single thing she was going to say, to a paraphrased 'T'. She had almost wanted to neglect her next array of questions, but, she was desperate at this point to draw some kind of reaction out of her daughter, even if that meant playing a little hardball.

Would she feel guilty later? Most definitely. Did her curiosity outweigh her inhibitions? Absolutely. 

It recalled to mind, the second half of the conversation she had with her husband on that eventful morning...


They had stayed in their embrace for more than several minutes. His eyes were closed, his insides warm and content. Her eyes were open, and she was feeling contemplative, and cool. The subject of doing better in school was temporarily staved off, but the next subject matter was... delicate. 

"Baby?..."

"Mm?" He hummed into her neck.

"There's... something else I've been thinking about, relating to Nerris."

He remained silent.

"It's... do you feel like... she's really, uh... girly, at all?"

His eyes opened.

"Hm? 'Girly'? What do you mean?"

"Wrong word, let me think... does Nerris act 'girl-like', to you?"

He pulled back a bit to look her in the eyes.

"I'm not following."

She took a moment to cast her eyes downward, as she tried to articulate herself once again. Instead of phrasing it as a question, she thought maybe voicing her opinions straight out would be better. 

"I don't feel like Nerris is a real girl." 

Unfortunately, that didn't seem to help.

"Huh??? Ok, now I'm really confused- I know you're not trying to say Nerris is Pinocchio or something, but, are you saying?..." He intentionally left the question open as to help her fill in the blanks.

"... Ok, do you remember all those times parents and their kids would ask us if Nerris was a girl or not?"

"Yeah?..."

"And she hasn't really... developed that much physically, right?"

"That's... weird, but, sure?"

"And she's never really shown an interest in boys, or girls, right?"

"I guess not."

"Other things too; the way she dresses, acts, her overall appearance...  so... I've been thinking... what if she's... on the Gender Spectrum?"

"The... what?" He asked, extremely confused.

"So you know how there's boys, girls, girls who think they're boys, boys who think they're girls, girls who like to dress up as boys but don't think they're boys, boys who like to dress up like girls but don't think they're boys, and gay people?"

He blinked.

"U-uh... y-yes?"

"Well, I've been doing some research- there's all this crazy knew science that turns everything about what we know about identity on its head." She proclaimed, as she took out her cellphone. "I heard about it on a bunch of talk shows, news broadcasts, and poorly written articles on the internet. So like I said, one day, I started doing some research on my own, and I think Nerris might be... mentally a boy, physically in a girls body."

"... Uhh..." He scratched at the back of his head. "This is a lot to take in, are you sure you know what you're talking about? Don't a lot of people have to go through, like, years of soul searching, and self-reflection until they come to terms with the different identity inside them?..."

She rolled her eyes.

"Pfft, why would anyone need to do that when all the answers are just a few screen taps away." She 'rationalized' gesturing to the phone in her hand.

"Shouldn't Nerris be the one trying to do this research if she feels it within herself questioning who she is? Have you tried bringing this up to her?"

"No, but it's fine! See by doing this ahead of time, we can be even better parents and know what to do, and know how to cater to her needs! His needs! It's! Whatever."

"But realistically wouldn't we need to like... not change the way we treat her? Cause we've always loved and supported her anyway? Bout the only thing that would really change is what pronoun we use, don't you think?"

"Ugh, just listen. So, it came to me about a year ago-" She walked from her husband to the couch in the living room, bringing the phone closer to her face. "- cause she's in Middle School, right? And she's never like, been intrested in boys, or girls, doesn't really have any friends, and is all quiet right?"

The husband sighed a reluctant breath, and sat next to his wife. 

"Right..."

"Well that, combined with her androgynous appearance, I started to wonder if maybe Nerris thinks, or feels whatever, that she's a boy? Her name isn't really forthcoming of a specific gender, the way she does her hair can be either or, and she used to do that 'Elf-kin' thing all the time. It all makes sense."

"... ... It... does?"

"Yes! Now look at this:" She brought the phone into her husband's vision. "A 'Transexual', is someone who uh... feels that... who they are isn't who they are! And uh... they feel that who they were born as isn't who they are- but like, internally, I think. They may want to have Hormonal Replacement Surgery, or a sex change!"

"Hormonal what?..."

"Replacement Surgery! Uhhhh-" She clicked a link. "-oh! 'A form of hormone therapy used to treat symptoms associated with female menopause, these symptoms can inclu... ... ... w-wait a minute that doesn't sound right..."

"Mm hmm. Honey, maybe she just likes wearing what she wears? And so what if she doesn't have curves like her Mama, she looks just fine to me."

"Ok but- what do you mean by 'curves'?"

"You know what I mean." He said with a wink.

She rolled her eyes and scoffed, pretending it didn't make her blush. 

"Anyway, maybe I was off on something, hold on..." She typed several qualites she noticed about Nerris into Google's search bar. "Ok! Here we go- 'Gender Fluid'."

"Sounds... pleasent."

"See, told you I'd figure it out- being Gender Fluid is: 'having a gender identity which refers to a gender which varies over time. A gender fluid person may at any time identify as Male, Female, Neutrosis, or'-"

"Hold up hold up hold up- what the hell is 'neutrosis' supposed to be?"

"Uhhmmm..." She clicked the link. "It is a term that's 'often associated with a "neutral" or "null" gender. It may also be associated with genderlessness, and shares many similarities with being Agender.'.. Wait..."

"You said 'A Gender'?"

"No it's like one word, it means-" She clicked the link. "Basically... genderless... yeah that's what it says."

"Wait so, being 'neutrosis' means it's neutral, but CAN be genderless, but 'agender' is literally JUST being genderless??"

"Um... yyyyyes?..."

"Whaaaat the... now I'm just confused..."

"Anyway, back to Gender-Fluid-" She brought it's page back up. "So where was I... ok: 'their gender can also vary at random or vary in response to different circumstances. Gender fluid people may also identify as'-"

"Wait, ok, so, you're telling me that one minute they can identify as a male, then in the same sentence, they could hypothetically uh... go girl?..."

"M...maybe?..."

"Baby are you sure we're not in way over our heads trying to understand all this? This is a whole realm of stuff that's why outta our expertise; if these articles or whatver it is you're reading off to me are this detailed, then I guess it sounds like a lot of this stuff has been around a long time, but my point is we didn't grow up with it. It's Nerris' generation that did. If Nerris were to feels or think about this stuff, shouldn't we let her tell us about it, if she does the research? Give her the space and time to figure it out for herself? She would honestly be able to explain it a lot better to us if she did."

"Please, I'm her Mother, I think I can handle this."

"But Baby-"

"Moving on, it says they can potentially be 'multigender, non-binary and/or transgender' see, there's that one again."

"Mm hmm..."

"Uhhhh, oh, ok, 'Genderfluid people may feel more comfortable using gender neutral pronouns and have a androgynous gender expression.' Doesn't that sound like her???"

"What the hell is 'androgynous gender expression'?"

"Uhmmm-" She clicked it's link. "-it's when a person 'uses appearance, mannerisms and other personal traits to communicate their gender.'"

"Ahh I don't know, Nerris isn't like that though; it sounds like most of these definitions take into account people doing these things on purpose. You and I know Nerris; she doesn't think like that. She sees a shirt she likes, she wears that shirt, she likes the look of a game, she plays that game, she wants her hair in that cute forward-curl-do thing, she wears it like that. She's not trying to draw attention to herself or anything, is what I'm saying."

"Hmm, maybe you're right... and you know the more I think about it, I don't think she would even know how to bounce back and forth between personalities... genders, whatever. Are they the same thing in the right context?..."

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but, Gender Fluid almost sounds like -to me- that it treats 'gender' as more of a state if mind than an actual label, or something."

"Maybe??? I don't know... let me go back to the Gender Fluid page... ... well... pfffff- she could be Genderflux?"

The man; fatigue from these mental gymnastics setting in, regretfully followed along.

"Aw geez... ok, what's 'Genderflux'?..."

"It saaaaays... 'an umbrella term for gender identities in which the gender or one’s perception of the gender’s intensity varies over time. It can be seen as a form of genderfluid-'"

"A form of???"

"-'on a spectrum from agender to one or more other gender identities. Genderflux people may also identify as  nonbinary, genderqueer and/or transgender.' Um... I-I don't..."

"..."

"Lemme read on; 'Genderflux people tend to fluctuate on the spectrum of one gender where the intensity is from 0% that gender, which would be agender, to 50%, or demigender, to 100% which would be the full or whole of that gender, or anything in between such as libragender and paragender. For example, a boyflux individual can fluctuate from agender, to libramasculine, to demiboy, to paraboy, to male, or never experience some of the genders listed/a unique gender that is not/can not be labelled yet.'... ... ..."

"... ... ... What the fuck does any of that mean!?"

"I don't know! I... I-I thought this would be easy, but now, a-all I have is questions!"

"Is this all actually backed up by real science!?"

"Kind of!? All this gender study crap can't seem to decide if it's a spiritual thing, a mental thing, a science thing, or if it's all just hypothetical!" 

"How does anyone figure out who they are anymore!?"

"I don't know!"

Both of them slumped back into the couch. Even though he was against this conversation in the first place, even his mind was trying to wrap his head around all of this. He said he'd except Nerris no matter what and that's the truth, but he didn't know if he would ever, or could ever understand any of this.

She was on similar train of thought, except, she felt defeated. She prided herself on being smart, but what started as something she thought was simple, had spiraled out of control into something she couldn't quite perceive as real. They both took more than several deep breathes, and tried earnestly to resettle their nerves.

"Hey... there was one of those 'genders' you mentioned earlier..." He wasn't sure he wanted to continue this path of research, but he also wanted to perk his wife back up."I think it was... 'Genderqueer'?"

She was uninspired to continue, but didn't see a reason not to.

"Uh... ... Genderqueer is... 'an umbrella term for gender identities in which the gender or one’s perception of the gender’s intensity varies over time. It can be seen as a form of genderfluid on a spectrum from agender to one or more other gender identities. Genderflux people may also identify as  nonbinary, genderqueer and/or transgender'..."

The poor mans head started to hurt.

"Ugh..."

"Yeah... I don't know, maybe you're right; I was just overthinking all of this... I was so sure I was onto something..."

There was something that did noticeably catch his eye.

"Hmm... hey, can you click on the one that says 'nonbinary'? That one's come up in a lot of these."

"Yeah, sure... ok, nonbinary... ... ' describes any gender identity which does not fit the male and female... binary'... hey..."

The man caught on to her musings.

"You said 'doesn't fit male or female'?"

"Yeah... yeah... I mean... l-like I said, physically ans mentally she's not really all that traditionally girly, or feminine..."

"But she's also not really all that traditionally boyish in demeanor or personality either... like... she doesn't really dress as a boy-"

"But she doesn't dress like a girl either..."

"Huh... you just might be onto something... keep reading!"

"Ok, ok! Uhhh 'those with non-binary genders can feel that they: have an androgynous; both masculine and feminine gender identity such as androdgyn'-"

"Both... not one or the other..."

"They may have an identity between male and female, such as intergender.' So... in between?"

"It's like... what, both but not both at the same time? Maybe??"

"Maybe??? I don't know, gimme a sec; they could also 'have a neutral or unrecognized gender identity', and/or 'have a weak or partial connection to a gender identity'... 'neutral'... ... 'neutral'... huh..."

"Theres that word again too... In the middle... see when you said Agender, it didn't really sound right; Nerris being without a Gender, or however it works... N-now look, I'm not saying we figured it out, cause we still don't know if there's anything to figure out, but..."

"It kinda... sort of..."

"Makes sense..."

They exchanged glances to each other. Both unsure, both confused, both concerned. She was certain they struck gold, and he was worried that maybe, this was a realm of reality they should not have stepped in.

Not wanting to be tied to this conversation anymore, the Patriarch sprung up from the couch. 

"Welp, I'm gonna go to the store to pick up Dinner, I'll see you later baby."

"Bye..." She exchanged and sealed it with a kiss that held very little life in it. She didn't mean to blow him off, but she just couldn't get the idea out of her mind.

Could it be?...


Well... let's find out.

As one could expect, the older woman hadn't the faintest clue how to approach such a delicate matter. She sort of hinted at it by asking if Nerris had questions about her body, but this topic is a little more complicated that just physicality. As she and her husband painfully discovered. So what would she lead off with, she wondered? Hypothetical question? Rhetorical question? Open with a joke? Should she just give up, she momentarily entertained? She'd read stories before about parents and kids losing their relationship with them over these things; she was doing the right thing, wasn't she? She was being a good parent, right? Taking the initiative, and confronting this head on, right?? Like most scenarios of this natural, she would just have to swallow the bile in her throat, and press forward. 

"Nerris?"

'Mm?..."

"..." Shit, what do I say? 'Sweetie do you feel like a girl? Do you feel like a boy?' Maybe he was right.. I... I should just leave this alone... no... no I... I'm doing the right thing- I'm being a good parent. Maybe that is all I have to do! Yeah, just ask Nerris what she feels... mm... I don't know something doesn't feel right... agh, it's just nerves right? Come on, I can do this. "I've been thinking- well, more like, I've been wondering... how... how do you feel?"

"I don't follow." She answered, eyes still on her work.

"L-let me rephrase... um... I think the question is... who do you feel?"

Nerris' eyes scrunched in confusion.

"Now I really don't follow."

Aggggh dammit, come on just SAY IT!

"Do you feel like a girl?"

Nerris paused. Then, for the first time since her Mother sat down, she took her eyes off of her work. She did not look at her Mother, rather, she just looked straight ahead, to the wall at the end of the table. She didn't say a word, she just sat there, and looked, and looked, and looked at the painted border of wall in front of her. Eyes not quite wide, not quite blank, yet they conveyed a quiet kind of intensity to them; focused in her thought. 

Her Mother was silently over the moon on the inside. Had she finally struck gold? Hit pay dirt? True she hadn't answered the question, but she was thinking about it. What an improvement, she thought- hoped. She decided to press her luck.

"Do you... feel like a... like a boy at all?"

Again, Nerris did not answer. Merely kept staring forward. After maybe a minute and a half went by, Nerris set down the pencil and paper she had been holding, and bridged her finger in front of her face; elbows propped up on the table.

Her Mother felt confident, and brave; she once again tacked on another question.

"Do you feel like... neither? Both? Something else entirely?"

Yet again, Nerris did not answer, she jusy say there in silence for some time. Thinking... thinking...

The silence mattered little to her Mother, as she was already celebrating victory in her mind. She had done it, she thought; solved the riddle, cracked the code, finished the puzzle, and all that. Most interesting, really. Growing up a child in The Eighties where she and her husband were born, she could never have percieved nor considered she would be in this situation. She and her husband had never had a real issue with a person from the GLBT, or LGBTQ- whatever sordid moniker they go by now; no more than any other person, but you see, their knowledge of it stopped at the G L and B, you see.

When they were children, Transexual's in their world were considered an unpredictable anomaly still; and cross-dressing was typically seen and/or used as a form of comedy, with the exception, of course, being the iconic Buffalo Bill, and perhaps technically David Bowie. Up until recently in mainstream human society (or America at the very minimum) that was all there was to most people; lest of course we forget about the 'they should just make up their minds' jokes that were once hurled towards Bisexuals once upon a time. It seems strange that someone from that era of long ago would quickly, readily adjust to these new age ideologies.

So the question then becomes: how genuine IS Nerris' Mother? Is she doing something good? Is it coming from a place of love? Or vanity? Would she truly be able to accept Nerris if she did prove her theories correct? Or would she fold under the weight of reality?

How or why does any parent, or guardian, family member, friend, what have you, try to understand... well, anything? About people, love, life, taboo, status quo? How genuine are they? Did they do it because they wanted to? Or because someone told them to? Do they believe these concepts of identity? Or do they feel like they have no choice- like they're expected to; supposed to? Do they accept you because they want to? Or have to? Because they love? Or just don't want to lose you? Can you truly say for sure that you know one hundred percent that the people that say the care about you, understand you, say they love you, that you're important, that you're valid, can you truly say you believe them? And if you can, is it because you can? Or because you feel that you need to?

Do you understand those around you? Or do you expect others to understand you, and you're exempt from learning about others? What does it mean to understand someone, anyway? 

There are consequences to everything in life, does that extended even to being yourself?

Anyway, all the while, the woman sat there, expectantly, and anxiously awaiting for Nerris to answer. It had been several minutes of them sitting in silence, and she was trying not to show it; but as the minutes dragged, she had almost began to fidget in her place. Finally, however, after all this build up, and suspense, Nerris came to her conclusion, and was finally, FINALLY able to give her Mother an answer.

And she answered with a shrug.

"I don't know."

And to her work she returned.

Her Mother sat there, unmoving, shaken up, confused, shocked, disappointed, angry(?), flabbergasted; and many more adjectives- all at once. Had she really just heard Nerris right? That was it??? After all of that time she had researched the subject, thought about it, investe time, and energy in learning, and trying to understand it, not to mention the immense weight on her shoulders she felt just trying to even get the dialogue STARTED. 'I don't know'??? That's all she had to say!? 

No, no that can't be right... she can't just- not know! She spent so long thinking about it- she has to have a better answer than that; a more concrete one anyway. Maybe... maybe she's just confused, and needs some help figuring it out? Yeah... yeah maybe, maybe she's really internally conflicted- she needs her Mother's guidance, that's all!

"A-are you sure that's all you have to say? I know it's a big obstacle... thing to to cross- get over, but if you're confused, maybe I can help you?..."

"Appreciated Mother, but that most likely will not be necessary."

"But... but aren't you curious? About who you are, or how you can be? Could be?"

"Not particularly; I already know that. I'm Nerris The Cute, and I just want to play D&D."

Her Mother sat there, silent as a stone, absorbing what Nerris had said to her. Sitting, thinking, lamenting, pondering; going over the conversation they'd had today over and over in her head, trying hard to figure out if perhaps she missed something. How could Nerris give such a complex, and complicated subject, such a simple answer? Was it truly that easy?? Had she miscalculated somewhere? Was Nerris really so sure? Was she just trying to mess with her Mother's head? Was her husband right? Did she put far too much thought into all this? Was she wrong? Oh, it was all so maddening! To think that after hours, and hours of research, it all came to an end with an answer that wasn't even thirty words! It was inconceivable! No big reveal, or massive heart to heart, Mother to Daughter moment, no big confessional, tears, or fanfare- nothing! Just like *that* the questions were asked, answered, and already Nerris had moved on like it was no big deal!

How could her daughter live like that, she asked herself. When she was a child, compared to Nerris; she was a practical, and pragmatic young lady. Always knew what to say, and do, planned for every scenario, had her whole life mapped out. Her Daughter... so much like her Father; taking life day by day. It made her confused, upset her almost, maybe, though she would deny it, it made her jealous as well.

She just kept sitting there, staring blankly, intensely, at her Daughter, who of course was none the wiser; diligently working on decoding her- like a Formula to a Trigonometry problem. Sitting, and staring, and staring, and sitting- silent, not moving a muscle- but her mind going miles a second, the gears in her head becoming sore, and worn. All because of something that, quite frankly, just simply didn't, or possibly even couldn't, understand. 

Slowly, she eventually rose out of her seat. Jaded, fatigued, dazed, and yes, confused.

"I'll start dinner when your Dad gets home, sweetie." She said, hollow, and tired.

"Fare thee well, Mother."

The woman then slugged her way back to her room, and laid herself down for deep long nap.