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Every day was the same. There was an incessant pounding in the back of his head, a tap-tap-tap that matched up almost perfectly with the humdrum of daily life. Up far too early for a dead-end job, ending his nights with as many beers as he could manage to choke down before the only bar in the whole goddamn town closed for the night. Sometimes he dreamed about going into Zuzu city, finding a bar where he could at least see a few new faces, but it was impossible. The bus was broken down and he had lost his license a year before, due to the incident. He was trapped.

No one knew that the incident hadn’t been an accident. Not the cops and definitely not Aunt Marnie. She worried about him enough to put any more burden on her than his being around already did. Single car into a tree. He had been drunk, he was always drunk, but not drunk enough to not know what he was doing. He walked away with a few stitches, a broken finger, and a totaled car. Sometimes he hated himself for panicking and hitting the breaks.

Sometimes he hated himself for a lot of reasons.

Emily, the cheerful blue-haired barmaid, was the only person that bothered trying to make conversation with him anymore. He wasn’t sure why she did. She was nice and he was… not. But she chattered on to him night after night about this and that and he would halfway nod his head sometimes, when he could manage to get himself to put in enough effort to at least pretend he was listening.

Those days were few and far between. He would more often clutch the bottle of cold beer in his hand and stare at the wall across the bar. She would still talk. She didn’t seem to need encouragement. He wished she would just give up on him like everyone else had when they realized his scowl was etched into his skin and not a conscious choice.

Nothing ever changed. There was Marnie, chatting and getting far too friendly with Mayor Lewis, Robin and Demetrius dancing to the music that was already giving him a pre-hangover headache, the kids tucked away in the corner of the arcade playing yet another round of pool, Clint staring lecherously at Emily from across the bar because he was too much of a pussy to actually talk to the girl. Shane had considered intervening and giving him a little encouragement just because the distraction would get Emily off of his back, but there were limits even to his assholishness. Clint worried him sometimes, the way he practically stalked Emily and drooled over her. Yoba only knew what the guy would do if he got her alone. It was better that he remain afar.

Friday’s were the worst.

All of this was appraised with the sluggishness of his third - or was it fourth? - beer. He could almost hear his liver screeching out a plea for mercy but all he could do was bring the rim of the bottle back to his lips, slumping halfway against the wall behind him.

Part of him thought that he might stand there in the hopes that one day he’d be drunk enough to take a trust-fall into the big ugly brick fireplace.

He was stuck on auto-pilot and he wasn’t sure how to turn it off.

When he moved to the valley there had been a fleeting moment of hope. He thought that maybe getting away from it all - the city, his past - maybe it would help. Instead he felt more caged than ever. Everyone knew everyone and gossip spread like wildfire; cheerful and kind to your face and whispering behind your back. He hated every minute of it and he had no way to claw himself out.

Lewis was glancing around the room, his hand sliding slowly down Marnie’s arm, and Shane was pretty sure the nauseous twist in his stomach had nothing to do with the alcohol.

He tilted the bottle back, draining the last bit of it into his mouth before he slid it onto the edge of the bar. “Close me out,” he said, forcing his eyes away from the mayor and his aunt.

“Early night,” Emily commented, reaching for his empty. “That’s good!”

He just grunted, digging through the pockets of his sweatshirt for his wallet. It was in the third pocket he checked, his shorts pocket - he was a disaster and he was more than aware of it.

Emily gave him his total and it took him a minute to get his fingers to cooperate with him and separate the bills out. He didn’t say anything to her after he handed over the cash - he never did, even after her cheerful “We’ll see ya tomorrow!” Tomorrow was today and the day after - he didn’t want to think about tomorrow or next week because it was nothing but crushing bleakness.

There was a stumble in his step but he hardly noticed it anymore - no one commented on it or asked if he was okay. The only person that ever did was his aunt and she was far too concerned with her gross affairs to even notice that he was leaving. He was grateful that it was a short walk home because there were nights that he couldn’t quite remember how he made it to his bed.

He wasn’t that bad off tonight, but he almost wished that he was. He might have to crack open a few when he got home - he was just at the edge of his anxiety and he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to get much sleep with his consciousness intact.

That was his train of thought as he stumbled through the double doors of the saloon and bumped straight into someone he had never seen before.

“Oh! Sorry,” a feminine voice said. “I didn’t see you.”

“You should pay more attention,” he gruffed, steadying himself with one hand on the doorframe. He was embarrassed but he’d be more embarrassed if he fell over.

“I will from now on!” she answered, far more cheerfully than he had the patience or the energy for. “I’m Amelia - the new farmer. Mayor Lewis told me this would be a good spot to meet some of the locals.”

“Finally fooled someone into taking that shithole of a field, huh? Good luck with that, city girl.” It was a guess but he was pretty sure it was a safe one - he recognized the slight regional accent in her voice. He’d put money on the fact that she was city born and raised and he didn’t have money to be losing on unsure bets.

“… it was my grandpa’s,” she answered, actually sounding hurt. He wished there was better lighting so that he could actually see her. The curiosity was so intense that he was almost tempted to go back inside and hope she followed him. “Are you a resident or a tourist?”

He actually laughed at that. “Tourist, that’s a good one. I live here. You’ll learn to hate it too.”

“What’s your name?”

He squinted in the dark. If nothing else, she was persistent. He had no idea why she was still trying to talk to him. “Shane,” he answered eventually. “I’m trying to go home if you can just -“

“Yeah, sorry,” she said, shuffling to the side and out of his way. He made it five steps down the paved walkway before she gave a; “It’s nice to meet you, Shane!”

Somehow he thought that might be a lie.

—-

The first thing he always checked on when he stumbled his way inside the little farmhouse was Jas. He wasn’t sure why. She was always out cold.

He would still stand in her doorway for a little while in the dark, listening to see if he could hear her breathing. He had fucked his own life up beyond repair but Jas - she was something else, something that he was terrified he’d drag down with him. Shane would never understand why her parents entrusted him with her. When they first asked he laughed - he thought it was a joke - but he agreed anyway. He never imagined that she would actually fall into his care. Sometimes his head still reeled with it all. He tried not to think about what had happened but it was difficult with the little girl around constantly. She looked almost exactly like her mother and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t see anything else.

Shane grew up in a broken home and he had no idea how to be a father figure. He tried his best but like everything else, he was absolutely sure he was failing.

Jas was the sole reason he moved back to the valley and he did his best not to let her know how miserable he was. Marnie had saved him more than once - she was more of a surrogate mother to him than an aunt - and when everything happened so suddenly she was the only person he could think to turn to. Pelican Town was safe, the perfect place to raise a little girl. She could adventure off with her little friend Vincent and Shane never had to worry that she was in danger. Someone always had an eye on her. It was one of the only positive things that he could come up with about living there; even if the residents hated him, he knew they’d look out for Jas. It was one of the few reasons he stuck around.

She was happy enough; or, she seemed like she was. Always full of energy and excited to see “Miss Penny” and Vincent. She skipped to her tutoring sessions. It had taken a while to get her there, but she was young enough that Shane wasn’t sure she really understood what exactly she lost. She had finally stopped asking about her parents a few months before - he was grateful for that but he couldn’t help the creeping anxiety every time she asked if she could “ask him a question.” He was running out of things to tell her, running out of explanations to give. Every time it was brought up, it was like another prickly barb that reminded him that it should’ve been him.

He pulled her door closed as quietly as he could, checking to make sure Marnie had taken her key before he locked the front door.

Sometimes he thought he was just exhausted. If he could crawl into his bed and never leave it he felt like he could be content with that. Every day was like a battle against lethargy. Marnie had suggested that he might actually be sick, but every blood test he submitted to came back perfectly normal. He tried cutting back on drinking but his moods grew steadily darker; the last time he tried, he had gotten physically ill.

He closed his bedroom door behind him before he dug under his bed, finding the warm can of beer that he knew was tucked down there. It gave a satisfying ‘pop’ when he cracked it open and he sat on the edge of his bed, ignoring the unpleasant taste of the too-warm liquid.

This was it, he thought. All there was for him. Drinking alone in the dark. It was absolutely pathetic - he was pathetic and there was no way to deny it to himself.

Sometimes he would lay on his back in bed and stare at the ceiling, trying to remember the last time he had actually wanted to live life. When he realized he wasn’t sure there ever was one, he took another drink.

He had never really had ambitions; he barely graduated school and when Joja showed interest in him, he had dumped everything he had into it. An office job was more than he ever thought he’d have. He hadn’t been happy but he had been content enough.

Then life happened. An influx in drinking, too many call ins, a demotion or two, and then, suddenly, a little girl that he had to play dad to when he could barely take care of himself. Transferring had been the only option.

If he could go back in time, he never would have made that phone call.