And I’m a stickman
In frames that go one by one
If I sped it up
You’d see I’m on the run
From some monster off-screen
Lonely makes me blue
Envy turns me green
Hate might paint me red
If I load my magazine
But not just now when it’s easy to stay clean
When no one sees where you’re bleeding
Elliott Smith - Stickman
Matt contemplates Fatherhood.
Matt Jensen didn’t enjoy being teenager. In fact the entire period was best forgotten. Loneliness and bullying plagued him for most of his childhood, and not just at school. But he couldn’t remember experiencing anything like the sheer level of drama currently going on at Liberty High. If it wasn’t one disaster it was another. Most of them involving his own son. Kids today did ,clearly, have more to deal with.
He, at Clays age, had been mired in his own suffering. But Clay was the opposite. He seemed indifferent this own misery, even his own safety. Yet he was acutely aware of the suffering of others. It bothered Matt. He was glad his son had empathy, but the amount of guilt and responsibility he shouldered for his friends wasn’t healthy.
2am. And his family was safe, finally. It had been a hell of a day but Clay had been released from custody at last. He'd flung himself into Matt and Lainie's arms at the police station. Lainie had burst into tears. They'd been too tired to discuss anything on the drive home. Matt only knew that Clay was no longer a suspect thanks to some new information. Clay appeared to know more than that but, as always, he kept it to himself.
I'd need a crowbar to pry information out of this kid. He thought sadly. Clay had always been an introvert, but this was something else. When had he become so secretive? So closed off? Sometimes he felt like Clay didn’t need them at all. But then he’d behave in some ridiculously childish way and it would be clear just how much growing up he still had to do.
However, it hadn't been Clay who'd kept him awake until till 2am that night.
After arriving home they'd been greeted with Pizza, coke and Justin, grinning broadly with his arms open to embrace his brother. He'd squeezed Clay until Matt thought his ribs would break.
"Dude!" Clay wheezed "Can't breathe!"
"Welcome home man. I love you."
"Love you too."
Matt did a double take. He knew they were close but he was surprised to hear them express it so openly. They suffered none of the macho posturing he and his friends had as kids. He was glad to see the new generation was getting over that bullshit at least.
After dinner they sat together watching Star Wars on TV. Matt looked down smiling as Clay's head slowly dropped into his shoulder and his eyes began to droop. By the time Luke, Han And Chewie received their medals Clay was fast asleep. They decided not to wake him. Matt Maneuvered his son into a comfortable position on the couch and removed his shoes carefully while Lainie got him a blanket.
Justin took the cushions off the chairs and laid them on the floor beside the couch.
"I'll sleep here, in case he wakes up." He informed them.
Lainie smiled quizzicaly. " Seriously? You sure?"
"Yeah, I... I don't want him to wake up in a strange place and think he's still in lockup."
Did that happen to you when you got out of juvie? Matt wondered. Feeling a pang of sympathy for Justin. The kid really had been through a lot... More than we know... He thought, as he watched Justin make a bed out of cushions and the rug from the back of the couch. Camping in the living room... Ok then... If it makes you happy.
He was happier with the kids nearby that night. He liked his family around him like nesting birds. He could see the relief in Lainie’s exhausted face as she got ready for bed.
“Hell of a week.” He sighed, sitting on the edge of the bed with groan.
“I sure as hell didn’t sign up for this when I saw him on the sonogram.” She whispered. “ Shit…Who knew it would get this complicated.”
Jesus. Me either. “Anyway... Alls well that ends well.”
“Yeah… Until next time.” Lainie murmured as she turned over and put out the light. “We have to communicate better with them Matt.” I don’t want to be blindsided again."
He nodded at the darkness. “This has to stop.”
But sleep didn’t come easily. His mind wandered, stress always did that to him. He thought of Justin, the way he’d provided dinner. He must have been planning it while he was at school. He was a sweet kid, extroverted and cooperative where Clay was intransigent and shy, but no less secretive and isolated in his own way. He felt blessed that the two boys had found each other. Despite their almost opposite temperaments they seemed to bring out the best in each other. Nothing like Matt’s own siblings, who all fought like cats and dogs.
He did wonder though. How much of Justin’s agreeable, biddable nature was down to fear? Clay would yell and swear, slam doors and sulk, because deep down he knew that there was nothing he could do to loose them. And that no punishment would be so bad that he couldn’t express himself.
Justin was… Easy in a lot of ways ( aside from the whole ‘secretly living in their house for a week” thing). But Matt couldn’t shake the feeling that he made life easy for them. He knew that Justin, was starting to relax into the family unit a bit better these days. He no longer flinched when Matt touched his shoulder or tensed when he called his name. That had been the hardest part for Matt. He wasn’t used to a kid reacting to him that way he used to react to his own dad. The first time it happened was shortly after they’d discovered Justin had been living upstairs:
“Come on Justin.” He heard Lainie nag the boy upstairs. Come join us, we’re watching the final Survivor.”
Poor kid had been hiding upstairs most of the day he was still sick with "flu" and they’d insisted he stay home. Clay had yet to make an appearance (if he didn’t show up soon they were going to have to make some calls). Justin was still a bit uncomfortable around them without a wingman.
“N… No thanks Mr’s Jensen I…I’ll just wait here…”
“ Call me Lainie sweetheart. Are you sure? We have popcorn and soda?”
There was a heavy silence for a moment. Matt Smiled as he heard two sets of feet on the stairs.
“ Hey kiddo!” He said as Justin’s, still pale, face appeared through the living room doorway. “Go get yourself a soda and bring in here. It’s kind of a Friday night ritual.”
Lainie sat down beside Matt and cuddled up to him. “He’s looking better than yesterday” she said happily.
A smashing sound from the Kitchen set Matt’s teeth on edge. He waited for the inevitable expletives and a cry of “Glass!” to warn everyone not to walk in without shoes. But none came. He went to check.
Justin was standing by the counter top surrounded by the scattered shards of a broken glass. His hands were over his mouth, his face was deathly pale and Matt thought he looked like he was about to burst into tears. He was shaking with a slight tremor from the top of his head to his… His bare feet.
If he’d been thinking he would have lowered the tone of his voice. He would have moved more slowly. But the risk of the the kid stepping on the glass was too imminent.
“Don’t move!” Matt reached out to steady the boy.
The sound Justin made was horrific. Matt’s blood ran cold for a moment. That was a cry he’d only heard from terrified animals before. He reacted to Matt’s outstretched arm like it was on fire and violently cringed and and covered his head with his hands, crouching down beside the countertop and kneeling onto the glass. He didn’t even seem to notice it.
“Sorry! Please!” He whimpered.
Oh Jesus Christ what did they do to you? Matt didn’t have time to speculate. Damage control was needed. “Lainie!”
It had taken some coaxing before Justin uncurled and looked at them.
“Sweetheart. You’re not in trouble.” Lainie had repeated gently. “ We just don’t want you to cut your feet ok?”
Matt got a dishtowel and cleared the glass out of the way. “ It’s ok Justin, it’s just a glass.” He said softly. “Sorry I yelled, I was scared.”
Justin stared at him as if he’d just grown an extra head. “Y… You’re..n..not mad?”
Matt’s heart broke. “No of course not! It was an accident…Besides It’s usually MY job to break the glasses.” He joked gently. “Now how about you sit at the table and let us… Let Lainie check you for cuts.”
He was careful not to touch the boy, although his instinct was to support him as he stood unsteadily and found a chair to sit on. Instead he fetched the first aid kit and a plastic bowl of warm water while Lainie carefully rolled up his pyjama leg. Luckily the fabric had stopped some of the damage but there were a couple of pieces of glass embedded in his knee and a bleeding gash on his shinbone. Justin looked ruefully at the mess on the tiles, including his own blood.
“I… I’m so sorry! I’ll clean it up!”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ve got it.” Matt said, fetching the dustpan. “Just relax and let us take care of you.”
Lainie began to wash the cut on his leg and he hissed and bit his lip hard. Then started crying. They both knew it wasn’t the pain from the cuts. Lainie stopped what she was doing and hugged him.
“It’s ok, you’re ok now.” She whispered, stroking his hair.
What had he done to deserve a woman like her? He approached the weeping kid and, very gently, continued to fix his cuts.
After the drama was over Lainie went to get Justin another pair of Pyjama pants. leaving He and Matt alone on the living room couch. Justin looked both drained and embarrassed. “Sorry Mr Jensen. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, maybe it’s the flu.” He mumbled at his folded hands. Matt knew he had to say it. Jesus! the idea that anyone would have to say it:
“ It’s Matt, Justin… And, you need know a few things about us and our household.”
Justin looked at him, nervously.
“ You’ll never get in trouble for breaking something by accident. Not even something big like the car.”
Justin smiled. “Yeah right.”
Justin frowned “But…”
“And” Matt continued. “We don’t hit each other. Ever. Do you understand?”
Justin didn’t respond.
“Justin look at me! Hear me. You will not be hit in this house…Or physically abused in any way. I swear.”
They sat in silence for a moment then Justin spoke, haltingly, as though he were reading a really fucked up shopping list.
“My mom’s boyfriend used to hit us…And choke me… When he was mad. Like… Hard…with both hands. I… Actually thought I was gonna die.”
Matt wanted more than anything to hug the kid. He imagined, for a moment, Clay saying those words. His mind rebelled at the possibility. He cleared his throat to say something he rarely ever talked about, or allowed himself to think about if he could help it.
“Um… My dad used to beat us. When he drank, he was a nightmare… Thats why I swore not to be like that myself.”
“Is he still alive?”
“No. Thank God.”
He didn’t know what he’d been expecting but it sure wasn’t Justin putting a hand on his shoulder. “Sorry Mr… Matt… I never knew my dad, but if I ever meet him… I hope he’ll be like you.”
At that point Lainie returned with the PJs and Justin went into the hallway to change. Matt knew she’d been listening. Because her eyes were redder than they should have been. She sat beside him and put an arm around him.
He got up quietly. Sleep wasn’t coming, he decided, so he’d go to his study and read. As he approached the stairwell he heard whispering. He descended the stairs in slow motion to avoid creaking. The boys were awake. He knew it was an invasion of privacy. But he couldn’t stop himself. When your kids don’t talk to you about anything important sometimes it’s tempting to spy on them.
“ I said go back to sleep Clay, you’ve had a long day.”
“ No… Just… I haven’t seen you since assembly… I never got to talk to you.”
“ It’s ok bro… Ancient history.”
“ No it’s not fucking ok… Someone…”
“ Shhh… Its ok… I’m ok I promise. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow, just go back to sleep.”
Clay’s voice had tears in it. Matt hated that sound.
“ I’m so sorry Justin.”
“ Shhh. Don’t cry. I’m ok now. It was a long time ago.”
“ It wasn’t in Juvie was it?”
“ No… Long before that…”
There was a pregnant pause in the conversation before Justin spoke again.
“Clay…Were you ok in County?”
“You mean… Oh… Jesus… Justin…Yeah.”
“ Clay…You’d tell me right?”
“ No really. Nothing happened. Well…Threats… From one meth head… But I think the guard was a friend of Standall’s. He was looking out for me… Although I think its good I only spent one night.”
“ Promise? ”
“ I promise… How did we end up talking about me?’
“ I’m tired Clay I don’t want to go there right now.”
“ Ok… Sorry…”
Matt stood frozen on the stairs until he heard breath evening out and snoring from the living room. He felt hollowed out. He sat down slowly and rested his head on his knees. He said a quiet prayer to a god he didn’t believe in, for the safety of both his children.