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Being human

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“What do I know about being human?"

She leans against the table, quietly contemplating the meaning of it all. To outlive your child is a nightmare but to watch them become something you don’t recognize anymore; It’s another nightmare entirely. With no end in sight, the uncertainty eats away at you. "I’m scared Walt. Everything’s happening so fast. It was just the other day he was fine… I don’t…” She halts, choking back tears. “…I don’t want to lose him.”

Walt turns to put away the remainder of the books albeit haphazardly on the shelf. Turning his attention back to her. “You haven’t lost him Barbara. He’s still here, just gone through a change.”

“He got turned into a Troll! I-I-I didn’t even know Trolls existed until a few days ago… a few months technically…” Barbara runs her fingers through her hair, frustrated.

Walt makes a half smirk but hides it so as not to offend her.

“Is he still Jim then? Is he still my son?”

“Of course. But Barbara…” His tone going serious yet again. Shes worried of what he’s about to say. “You won’t recognize him anymore…” Before she can respond with tears, he adds. “Because he won’t recognize himself.”

“You know that’s the case?”

“I know from experience, that will be the case.”

Her hands crawl up to her chest to clench her proverbial heart. “What can I do?”

He unravels her fingers into his palm, pressing it lightly with his other hand. “You can help by reminding him that your still his family. When he rediscovers who ‘him’ is… will happen in time.” He ends his advice with a gentle simper, doubly reassuring her things will be okay.

The words not only comfort her but send a warm surge through her blood. “Thank you Walt. I really appreciate…” She stutters, unsure why. She withdraws her hand. “– I really appreciate you staying to help clean up.”

“I wasn’t about to leave you alone with such a mess. The kids will be alright without me. Besides my presence might of 'cramped their style’ as they would say?“ He jokes before readjusting the aforementioned books upright.

Barbara already feels more at ease but the tensity is still there. She looks intently at Walt’s back, her stare lingers far longer than it should. Not a single thought in her head, no reason or idea as to why she’s staring and yet she’s looking at him like there’s something strange about him.

He turns around ever so slightly and catches her in his peripheral vision, ready to say something she interrupts with an excuse to pivot from the awkwardness of her staring. "Would you. Would you like some coffee?”

“Coffee!?” He repeats. “At this hour?” He turns his head as if to look at a nearby clock.

But Barbara simply shrugs. “It’s not like I’m going to get much sleep tonight anyway.”

There’s a breif pause but soon he nods to her offer. Given what she’s been through, there’s no reason not to indulge her. “Alright. I’ll take…”

“Three cream, no sugar?”

“You remembered?”

Barbara heads for the kitchen, more than ready to leave the room and catch some air. “You ordered it every time on our dates.” She calls out from the hallway. “I don’t know how you could take it without sugar.”

Barbara hastily puts on the kettle, her hands shaking the entire time. With the water getting ready to boil she gives out a deep, pained sigh. Not even distractions can lift this burden of an uncertainty but they help. Just like coffee helps keep you awake, your bodies still tired but at least you can keep going. The situation hasn’t changed, the world is coming to an end but something as simple as getting the instant coffee from the cupboard helps her ignore the larger situation at hand.

“You seem lost in your thoughts.” She hears from the doorway.

She fumbles the plastic jar. “I’m just… not thinking much really. There’s too much to think about so why bother trying?” She ends in an awkward laugh.

He rest the broom on the kitchen wall and walks over to her. “Need any help?”

“No, it’s instant.” She chirps pointing at the upside down label on the jar. “See? Says it requires ’No tedious effort’. So you can sit down.” She returns to lean against the counter, staring blankly at the wall just as she was before Walt entered.

He nods. “Ah. I see. Well I’ve put everything away and I swept up most of the dirt. That Troll really wreaked havoc in your living room.”

She scoffs, releasing another sigh. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

Her meaning comes through loud and clear. He reaches to brush the left side of his nose and sheepishly continues. “No, it certainly wouldn’t be. For the record, when me and Jim were fighting, I was certain not to leave a mess.”

“Thank you.” She scoffs again but there is a levity to it. “Trying to kill my flesh and blood is one thing but heaven forbid if you get my rugs dirty.”

This time he can’t help but let out a laugh, though immediately trying to rectify it with a clearing of the throat. “Shall I shampoo the carpets while I’m here?” He whimpers.

She knows what Walt is trying to do. After looking everywhere except at him, she finally raises her head. “It’s okay, I think we’re even now. You did save my life after all.” She places the jar down. “And I wanted to thank you for earlier.”

“Save your thanks. I already owed you for having risked your life in exchange for mine. Besides, my motives were selfish, you mean too much to me now before I’d let anything bad happen to you.”

She interrupts him. "That’s not why I want to thank you.”

He tilts his head. “Pardon?”

“You came running to Jim’s aid when we thought he was in danger. You didn’t have to do that.”

Walter utters one of his infamous oh’s. Scratching his head, a little unsure as to how he should reply. “The Tollhunter?” Well, he does have a way of growing on you.”

“I appreciate you coming back to help him.“

He raises his head haughtily, "I came back for you.”

Her smile switches to a surprised frown but Walter finishes with, “Helping him happened to come second…”

Barbara tries to be happy but emotions once again begin to swell and has to draw herself away, twiddling her shaky hands on the counter as she worries over her son’s fate. The kettle whistles blows, interrupting them both. Walt takes his exit, leaving Barbara to prepare they’re drinks and have her needed moment alone.

She comes out with tray in hand bearing two holiday mugs from one of her last Christmases. A trail of steam blows from them as she walks over to the table, presenting it to Walter. She grants him the mug depicting a snow family of three on it. Why she noticed this detail is beyond her but seeing him drink from it with a polite thanks, gives her a strange feeling of security.

“Hold on. Whats this?” He asks out of the blue, peering under the table ledge curious over what his foot just bumped.

She looks as well, spotting the familiar red book in the shadows. “My photo album?” She wonders, picking it up. “It must have gotten knocked under the table during earlier?”

"Sorry I missed it.” Walt replies, reaching to relieve her of the album but Barbara pulls away. She rests it on the tabletop and lifts it open. Walter wonders to himself if he should suggest this may be a bad idea but ceases, it’s not his place to say anything right now.

She skims through the book, looking intently at the snapshots of Jim’s steady growth since birth. Some of the photos were jostled out of place so she neatly tucks them back under the slim plastic sheath. Walter’s eyes follow the path of her hands along each photo, showing her own journey through motherhood. So many photo’s of her and her son, Jim is of course but a baby looking wide eyed at the camera like it was his first time seeing one. There’s also her previous husband James but only in the photo’s too precious to store away. He catches a glimpse of him in one Christmas photo holding the very mug he’s drinking from now. The next page is a series of photo’s from one particular outing at the park but only Jim or Barbara are in the shots now. There was no longer a third member to hold the camera for them.

Barbara stops. “This was our first normal moment together after… after everything that happened.”

He rests his hand on her knee, beckoning her to not linger.

“The forecast predicted clouds but Jim insisted we go ahead with the picnic anyway and it turned out to be sunny. You know, this was the day I decided to go back to school and get my Bachelor’s degree.”

“You dropped out?” He says in suprise.

“Had to.” She explained. “I was pregnant. I had lost so much time with the wedding that raising a baby meant I wouldn’t have time to catch up.” Sipping some coffee, she soberly adds, “I decided to be a good wife and stay at home to raise my family; of course, James was quick to agree.” Her tone comes across as annoyed, hinting to a more troubling aspect of her first marriage. “I don’t regret it though. In the end I was there for Jim and when I went back to school, he was there for me. Despite how hard it was for the both of us.” Her happiness returns, this time with an added sense of mischief. “He was so excited for me too when he heard I was going to be attending school just like him. I remember; one day he came back from making crafts at daycare with this…” She pauses with a snort, trying hard to hold back her laughter.

“Was it the infamous Macaroni necklace?” He jokes.

"No.” She howls. “No it was or he said it was supposed to be a pencil holder that I would use as part of my school supplies. It was made out of clay but…” She blushes again. “It looked, well I think I have a picture of it here.”

She flips a page or two to the one depicting the infamous craft and Walt’s face turns positively red in amused embarrassment. “Oh my!” He chirps.

“Yep! I felt…I felt pretty much the same!” She blushes.

Walter adds. “You think being a boy, he’d realize what that looks like?“

“You’d think that but he was still too young and innocent. When I picked him up that day I remember how he was waving it around trying to show me. All the other parents just stared. His reasons…” She pauses to catch her breath from laughing so hard. “His reasons were because it was for pencils, it needed to be tall and thin.” She snickers.

“ He had to use pink clay…”

"He was mad about that; said he wanted to use green but someone had used it all up. I still have this actually.”

“You do?”

“Jim thinks I threw it out but I have it stored up in the attic. It’s been there for years.”

Walter rubs his face trying to massage out his smirk. “Poor thing probably can’t stand up straight anymore.”

Baraba, of course elbows him in the arm.

"Did you end up using it?!” He suddenly asks.

“No! I didn’t want to give my colleagues the wrong idea. I was just happy to see Jim be so invested in helping me. That Kiddo’s always been looking out for me.”

"That’s because you did a good job raising him.” She hears him say. Barbara only sits there motionless, looking blankly at the album that Walter has to nudge her leg just to awaken her from the trance.

She perks up, albeit dazed and muffles the words sorry. She clears her throat before sipping some coffee, flipping to the next page.

In these photo’s, Jim is clearly older by two years and looking far more like the Jim, Walt knows today or rather yesterday.

“Why is there a band-aid in this sleeve?” Walt grimaces, trying hard not to show disgust over what’s probably an important memento for Barbara.

“That. Oh there’s a story there. Jim was seven. He randomly toke off one day, disappearing for hours. Turns out, he had been chasing after a cat the whole time.”

'I hope that habit doesn’t persist for the wrong reasons.’ Walt thinks quietly to himself.

She continues. "I was so worried something happened to him. Calling his name for what felt like an eternity. I was just about to phone the police when there he was behind my back with an angry cat in his arms and his face covered in scratches. He thought the cat was hurt so he wanted me to treat it. I ended up having to treat him instead. This was one of the band-aid’s I used. I kept it to remind myself that no matter how bad I thought things were, everything turned out fine.” Her words come to a saddening slow. Barbara just stares blankly at the photo of her scratched up son. Her finger slowly tightening over the snapshot, that Walt can see her hand turning white.

“Barbara?”

His words fall on deaf ears, she sits there somberly, fidgeting in her seat trying to battle the negative thoughts in her head. He’s ready to tap her leg once more but as he reaches out the chairs begin to quake! A loud thunder shoots up from the foundation of the house and everything around them shakes in pandemonium.

Walt!” She screams.

He throws his arms around her shielding her from the Earthquake as it reach it’s peak. Books stumble off there shelves in a crash. The lights flicker as the tremor roars on madly; finishing as quickly as it began. Both of them unharmed. It takes a New York minute before his heart stops racing but Barbara has yet to recover, despite the tremor having ended, she hyperventilates on his lapel.

“It’s alright…” He whispers, patting her hair. “It’s alright, It was only a small quake. They’ve happened before.” Walter lies, knowing full well there was something unnatural about the tremor.

But despite his gentle caress, she cannot relax. The earthquake did more than startle her, it’s the straw that broke the camels back. The dam bursts and out from Barbara’s collected self comes a flood of tears. Repeating his name indistinguishably, she lets loose a flurry of muffled wails into his lapel. To her, the world has come to an end, everything she once knew is gone and her very life or worse, her son’s could be destroyed. Walter can do nothing more than to continue cradling her, rocking her back and forth as she continues to shake from crying. He holds her head close under his chin, staring at an empty wall with no lead as to what he can say to rectify the situation. Perhaps holding her is enough? The tears continue with no sign of ceasing, to the point where Walter feels the dampness seeping through his sweater and onto his chest but It doesn’t bother him. A good deal of time passes before the sobbing trickles out into variable sniffling then halting completly. The gentle rocking continues at her silent consent; they’re shared breathing being the lull-a-bye that sends her back to peace. She thinks of nothing else other than the bliss of having someone here at such an ungodly hour.

“It feels like the worlds coming to an end.” Her shattered voice croaks.

Walter sits there contemplating her words. He looks over to the small stereo resting on the self by the couch. He reaches for his pocket and pulls out his phone. Narrowing his brow at the phone screen, he releases her from his embrace in order to get up.

She watches him walk out into the living room. “What are you doing?” She asks.

After a few swipes on his phone, Walt places it in a small slot on the stereo and taps the screen. 'La vie en Rose’ begins to play. “I remember when the world was coming to an end in 1832. Then again in 1918, and then 1939. And somehow we survived, just like now.” He removes his jacket and rests it neatly on the couch. Walking over to her with his hand out, beckoning her to take it.

She blushes, looking at his empty palm. “You know I’m not that good at dancing…”

“Just follow my lead."

Taking his hand, Walt pulls her up from her seat. Together he raises there right hands out in the traditional arm styling of dance; with his left just centimeters off her waist. Pose ready, they pull into the romantic sway of the American smooth. He starts off with a simple step back, turning her ever so slowly around the living room. The song continues on, reciting the happy lyrics of seeing the world in a positive light once you’re in love.

He holds her out to do a slow twirl. Unsure, she tries her best being as awkward as a beginner could get but by Walter’s standards, it’s perfect. Barbara returns back to the comfort of his chest. Looking intently at one another while listening to the lyrics of someone declaring their love, proves too much for her that she rests her head down on his bosom to hide her flustered expression. Her heartbeat comes to a slow, falling in-line with the steady rhythm of their dance. They make circles around the floor not needing to change the songs as each one after another plays only the gentlest of love songs for them to move to. This unexpected romantic moment proves to be therapeutic. For the first time that evening, her mind pulls away from the fear over her son’s situation. Walter’s here to aid her and stay he will remain for as long as she needs. There’s no doubt in her mind about how she feels about him. Their steps become fewer and fewer till it boils down to just them standing there swaying, He could have sworn he heard the muffled words,"I love you, Walt.” but dismissed it. The words I love you are heard many times throughout their songs that perhaps his hope had him mishear things?

The night continues on with the same monotony of them swaying to the rhythm but it’s a monotony they enjoy. With the night drawing on as it is, soon the inevitable dreaded words are spoken by Barbara. “What time is it?”

He stops dancing almost immediately, looking at his watch in shock. “Oh my goodness, It’s quarter to eleven! How’d it get so late?”

“The coffee must’ve kept us up.” She remarks, adjusting her glasses.

He’s absolutely ashamed of himself for having kept her so long. “I completely lost track of how late it was getting. I do apologize.”

“Why?” She asks him, pulling away to take the dirty mugs from earlier back to the kitchen.

“I don’t want to keep you of your rest. I can’t imagine you’ve gotten much of that these past few nights.” Picking up his jacket and phone, Walt makes his way to the foyer. Calling out to her as he gets ready to make his leave. “You have my number, if you need anything or just want to talk give me a call. I’m here if you need me.”

Barbara hears him from the kitchen. Tossing the mugs into the sink, she hurries out to meet him in the hall. Coming to a slow a few feet away from him, she approaches in inches, her hands cupped at her waist. “You’re leaving?”

Walter carries on like he somehow must reason with her. “Well Barbara, it’s getting late, don’t you…” His gaze catches her body language, noting the way she draws her hands up from her lower region to her stomach in the most alluring of fashion. She looks meekly into his eyes in such an admirable way that he hardly remembers what he was just doing. Having been made aware, “Oh…” is the only word that falls from his mouth. He returns her advances with own his look of longing, tossing his car keys back on the end table in the hall.

“Don’t go Walt…” She whispers upon his approach.

“I’m not going anywhere Barbara."