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while the birds cry over gethsemane

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My grave was a grave like any other.

Six feet down. Down, beneath the soil, down, in the dark. My coffin a childish 5’10” long. I did not stay in it for long.

My gravestone was like any other.

Name. Lifespan. A wish for peace where I lay. It was solid—is solid against my back. Cold, like the inside of a coffin. Certain, like the sure, heavy blanket of death. My gravestone did not mark me for long.

I sit before it often, I lean against it like a shoulder. I do this in the dawn—this seems like the only time Wayne manor falls silent. The dawning grey hush over the manor mixes with the distant pollution of Gotham City, and I feel as if I have slipped into a photograph; messy handwriting is scrawled on my back—

a target, a eulogy, a memoriam, in memoriam. What do I say? What do I read?

My ends are jagged, I have been ripped from the family photo album.

My grave drips before me, dew and rain and blood. This, here, above my coffin, is how I rot.

Does the muggy scent of soil pierce through my constant stench of decay? Wash me, hang me to dry. It doesn’t stop, the smell is innate—as is my death. I have begun to feel like a ghost.

I think I may well be a ghost.

I haunt the newspapers from four years ago. My name and Bruce’s face like a mould on their pages. Grief stamped heavy with the press of the print, and they profit nonetheless.

The last time I was mentioned in these flimsy pages, the last time they dredged up my memory (dug me up, ouija & séance), it was a footnote to Bruce’s success. A tragic loss, they said, gone too soon.

But they are wrong. I’m not gone, I’ve never been gone. I persist, like a mould, an infestation. I haunt and I decay and I leave trails of rot and the stench of rusted metal. I am gunpowder and broken ribs, I am burst knuckles and refusal. I rage. I haunt.

Exorcise me, Bruce. Expel me from your home.

God knows it’s not mine anymore.

The soil soaks up my blood like a thirsty child.

The worst of the pit, I often think, was the absolute healing. The fresh start—the clean break.

Scrubbed clean and left red and raw, too hot a bath, skin stinging. Wilting away, drooping slowly, pathetically.

There is no freshness to be found. I wilt and I weep like a two day old infection.

I lost my scars, my testament to survival.

And, at first, when I began to clear out the holy dregs of Lazarus madness from the cracks of my skull, I welcomed the fresh, boyish skin. Unmarred as it was by the streets and poverty, no sign of hands that were too rough or my body used too young.

But they had been my chosen eulogy, my way of telling the world what I was, how I lived.

But I lost it. I lost myself.

So, I fill in the blanks.

 

——

 

It is late morning when Alfred spots me, bleeding away on my grave, heavy with the fog in my mind. My ears feel tinny, and everything is distant. Am I dead again? I must be.

I hear him running toward me, frantic, but then the steps level out as he spots—even from there—that I’m in no immediate danger of death.

He kneels in front of me, cups my jaw, “my boy,” he says, and I wilt, “come inside, I’ll patch you up.”

He helps me stand, I bleed onto his suit. I bleed all the way back to the house. Standing up again has made me woozy, my arms ache distantly.

The kitchen is clean and smells like coffee. It’s tidy, everyone must have gone to wherever they were needed. My blood drips onto the tiles. Alfred settles me on a chair and he begins to patch me up.

But this damage control is skin deep. You can’t fix a leaky faucet with duct tape. So I drip, drip, drip, down the drain like that chronically leaking tap.

I dripped all over my grave. Soaked the soil.

My grave remains as it was; a box, my box, marked by that heavy stone.

Alfred offers me toast. I do not eat it.

He offers me water, orange juice, coffee. I do not drink.

My mouth is gluey and my brain heavy. Everything is slow moving and it is impossibly hard to focus. I see Alfred moving but I do not follow, I do not process.

All I feel is wood around me, wrestling me to silence. All I smell is that soil. That wet, damp soil.

“The manor is empty, apart from you and I, until midday, Master Jason,” his voice is muffled by the cotton lining my head, “Master Bruce shall be home for lunch at half past twelve.”

I don’t answer. I can’t. I’m glued shut, hammered in, nailed down—I am buried.

Rest in peace. Memento mori.

 

——

 

At some point, Alfred has helped me to the living room right next to the foyer. I sleep on the couch like a child. I feel like a child.

I think I may be a bit of a child.

It smells like clean, old fabric.

I do not dream.

I do not rest.

 

——

 

I wake to the rough warmth of the knitted throw tucked up to my chin and Bruce’s rougher hand oxymoronically soft against my cheek.

“Sleep more, you need it,” his voice cracks the dusty quiet.

I want to call him a hypocrite, I want to call him a bastard. I want to break his fucking jaw and scream that I slept for six fucking months in my own coffin. But I don’t. I can’t.

“I need to go,” I mumble, or I try to. But my mouth is still sticky with silence and my voice garbles in my throat, thick and repulsive like spitting tobacco.

But he understands. Inevitably.

“Stay, Jay,” he looks sad. Did he look like that when he found me? Did he look like that when he buried me? Or was that black and white still monument to him in the paper accurate, was he simply steady. Easy and self-assured—merely colourless. I don’t know and I never will. I look at him, he must take it for a glare.

“Jason,” he says, and leans closer to my face, “please stay.”

I haunt you, I think; I haunt this manor, I think; “maybe,” I say.

“Alfred would be pleased.”

“Would you?”

He leans back, frowning, “of course. I’d love having you here.”

I’m always here, I want to say, let me go.

My eyes fall closed, I think I feel the lukewarm slide of a tear dripping over my nose. He strokes my cheek with his thumb.

 

——

 

When Bruce had taken me in I barely trusted him. I was too young to know much about his social influence, and though I recognised the name, the total scale of his impact was lost to me. My trust was dampened further by him sending me to Ma Gunn’s.

But I had left Ma Gunn’s, I’d proved to him the nastiness of the place. (I left, but it remains. It remains inside me. The stiff, spring bed. The boys punching and spitting in the showers. Ma Gunn’s cold, cold eyes. The bruises and split lips. These all live in my chest, taking up time and space that should be full of first-day-at-middle-school embarrassing pictures and bubblegum boyish dares. I resent Ma Gunn.) And Bruce had taken me in after that, I desperately reason; (the damage had been done, I respond.)

The first night in the manor I’d expected him to come into my room and mark his place on me, in me, the way so many had before. But my door had remained shut, and I remained awake.

He’d made me comfortable, and Alfred had made me feel safe, and after a few weeks I trusted Alfred entirely. Bruce worked long hours then, at Wayne Enterprises and as Batman. Gotham still had only Batman, he didn’t have the network he has now. So my days were spent with Alfred—Alfie, I’d call him.

He’d clean the manor daily, floor by floor. A different thing every day. Monday’s were for polishing. Tuesday’s changing the linens. Wednesday’s dusting the delicates—pottery and glass and the like. Thursday’s vacuuming. Friday’s dusting the surfaces. I’d situate myself in a room on the floor he was on and complete the home schooling Bruce had assigned.

I was good at stuff like that. Books and textbooks. Remembering facts. I knew how to read and write and count and multiply from the few years I was at school before Willis had pulled me out. But I was undeniably behind. The education Bruce designed was purposefully trying to get me caught up as fast as possible with the year I should be in at school.

Alfie liked our routine. We’d have lunch together, by that point in the day I was usually done with my work. And I’d help him with other odd jobs. We’d talk a lot. I’d ask him about England, “I was born in a town just out of Suffolk,” he said once. He showed me an old TV show, ‘Miss Marple’, “my town was like a bigger version of that village,” he said. I remember finding the open, quaint villages the stuff of sheer imagination. Quiet and safe, warm and friendly, “until someone is rather creatively murdered,” Alfie said. He’d been talking about the man on the TV with a medieval spear through his chest.

I’d just thought that everyone in Suffolk was doomed to be murdered.

Alfie would wake me in the mornings and, unless Bruce was back from Wayne Enterprises early, he’d get me ready for bed. He’d see my bedsheets tangled and damp from nightmares and he learned near instantaneously that I abhorred anyone seeing me undressed.

Alfie was gentle and removed. He listened. He enjoyed the crassness that I spoke with, likely so entirely different from Dick as a child.

I’d been asking him why I needed to go to school, “I like it here, Alfie, with you.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere, Master Jason.”

“I can just learn here, you’ll miss me, Alfie, admit it.”

“The school Master Bruce wishes you to attend is an excellent school. You’ll enjoy it, young sir. It has many opportunities and,” he leaned in conspiratorially, “I hear the library has been expanded.”

I’d tried to twist my mouth out of the grin it wanted to form. Alfie had sent me a rare smile in return, “and anyway, Master Jason, you need to make friends your own age. It’s important. Perhaps you’ll even find yourself a nice young lady?”

“That stuffs bullshit,” he’d smacked me on the head with a feather duster then, reprimanding me but with a gleam in his eye. I’d laughed, loud and hearty, my laughter made me giddy and his gleam made me bold, “it is though. Love is just some word people use to excuse boning some junkies kid behind a dumpster.”

I thought he’d laugh. I thought he’d smack my head again, covering me in dust and a few colourful feathers. But his face—usually so composed and severe, with those faint smile lines that muttered warmth—had crumpled. He’d frozen, staring at me, eyes flickering from each of mine, a minute side to side as he struggled to decide which pupil to focus on.

My grin melted off my face, slapping onto my crossed legs, squished into the stiff-backed armchair. My nails dug into the padded arms. The grandfather clock down the hall ticked loudly.

“Alfie,” I’d breathed out, “Alfie, it was a joke, it was just a joke,” he’d turned around to face the table he was dusting, his back was ramrod straight, “I’m sorry Alfie, I’m sorry, please don’t be mad.”

“I’m not angry, Master Jason. Not at you.”

Alfred spent several hours trying to get me to talk. But I’d clammed up. Alfred was—is—smart. He knew enough, and me clamming up likely confirmed more than if I had just adamantly laughed it off. I agreed to the tests he’d wanted to run, but had only done so with the explicit promise that Alfie wouldn’t tell Bruce.

Bruce who was so clean, who smelled like that cologne in the glossy black bottle that he keeps on the vanity in his room, who smelled so fresh all the time. Bruce with the clean hair and clean shave. Bruce who I know must have been able to smell me. Bruce who was too polite, too repulsed, to comment on the lingering stench around me even after weeks in the manor, weeks off the streets.

I knew I smelled strange, and had always just assumed it was due to living on the streets and not showering for sometimes months at a time, so the humiliation when Alfie had to explain it was because of diseases was unbearable. I’d been so frail then, starved for food and attention, to do much more than sob into his crisp, white shirt.

“Don’t tell Bruce,” I’d begged, “please don’t tell him.”

A few years down the line I’d recognise that Bruce knew. Of course he knew. This realisation had hit me like a bullet to the back; I remember standing next to him, helping him with a case, my arms cold from the short sleeves of the Robin suit. He’d been muttering about “the smell of venereal diseases”, and I’d gagged.

He’d looked at me, I heard the small creak of his armour twisting with his neck, but I’d already turned and ran to the toilet.

We didn’t talk about it. Alfie and Dr. Thompkins—who’d taken the blood samples and smear tests with a gentle smile and a warm hand—knew the medical bare minimum. They’d seen the scars, the bad stitching where I’d been torn apart, they’d smelt me. But, as much as they tried, I couldn’t tell them about it.

——

When I next wake, the room is lit by the lamps in the foyer. I hear voices in the dining room. Bruce asking me to stay is fresh in my heavy mind.

I don’t want to be heard. So I’m not. I move swiftly and silently through the manor, finding my jacket and boots in the living room with me, my guns and helmet in the cave which is—blessedly—empty.

I get on my motorbike and I leave.

Bruce asking me to stay echoes in my brain. The roar of my bike does not drown it out. Neither does the wind.

When I make it to my safe-house, I see the familiar red gleam of Roy’s bike.

“Jaybird!” He yells as I enter, kicking off my boots, “how was the ‘family reunion’?” He does air quotes with the hand not holding a wrench.

I grunt vaguely, he winces, “that bad?”

My jacket slouches off my shoulders and I toss it into the kitchen area without looking. Roy is looking at my bandaged arms, “Jason…?”

I flop onto the sofa.

“Dude, you good?” He walks toward me, his long ginger hair made damp with sweat, oil is rubbed onto his forehead. He must be tinkering with something. The ceiling light above his head makes his features shadowy, but I can see the frown on his face. His hand is slick and warm when it touches my face, “that bad?”

“Worse.” I say. My mouth is dry though, so it comes out like a wheeze.

“Have you eaten?”

“No.”

“I’ll order a pizza, pepperoni, yeah?”

“No.”

“No?’

“I have a case I need to work on.” Roy’s mouth presses into a line so tight his lips disappear.

“You need brain food, Jay.”

“I have a tin of tuna and a bottle of fish oil vitamins somewhere. I’m fine.”

“Uhm, ew. Correction: you need nice brain food.” I sit up, forcing him to step back or face getting head-butted. The bookshelf directly opposite me is full, obviously, of classics. I’d like to read one, get tangled up in the familiarly outdated language and the simple concerns of a novel with a guaranteed end. The end is the end, there is no glowing green start over.

“Just let me do what I gotta do,” I mutter, “I take it you’re crashing here for x amount of time?”

“If you’ll have me.” I look at him. Roy is smiling faintly, he has a sweaty, grey muscle tee on. He’s put on some weight and he looks healthy. He looks warm. I reach out my hand and take his hand in mine, I tug him toward me. Roy smirks, quick and easy, “you look like shit, Jaybird.”

“I feel like shit. Can you help with that?”

Roy snorts at my terrible attempt at a pick up line, “not gonna lie, I’d feel like an ass if I fucked you right now.”

My smile falls, “why?” My neck feels hot, clammy, when was the last time I showered? I must smell, I must smell of dumpster and the narrows and piss and men five times my age.

“Because you need to sleep, man,” Roy’s eyebrows are pinched again. I hate it. I hate the pity, the implied repulsion. Pathetic stamped on my forehead, how juvenile of me to ever think that someone would be attracted to me, invested in my life. I feel my cheeks flush red in hot embarrassment. I drop his hand and he sits next to me, “Jason, seriously, I’m concerned. You know it must be bad if I’m concerned.”

“Nothin’ to be concerned about,” I drag the coffee table closer to me and turn on my laptop with more force than necessary.

“What happened to your wrists,” It’s not a question, it’s a statement, “Jason, I’ve seen you naked,” my stomach turns at the idea, I feel cruel, subjecting Roy to the sight of me, “I know these things. Please let me in, let me help. I get it, fuck, out of everyone you know you must realise that I get that.”

“You don’t get it, there’s nothin’ to get,” I snarl, I’m standing now, why am I standing, sit down, just sit down, he’s gonna get mad and he’s gonna hit you, he’s gonna put you in your place. But that’s what you’re worth, “it’s just a bad fuckin’ Lazarus day, alright? It’s just a stupid fuckin’-” I close my eyes and run my hand through my hair, it feels greasy, “Lazarus healed all my scars,” I spit out, “sometimes it freaks me out.”

“Alright, I won’t go there,” he holds his hands up placatingly, the wrench is slipping into the gap of the couch cushions.

I stand still, feeling stupid and ugly and too fucking big, too fucking young. My socks are slippery on the hardwood floor, there’s a window open somewhere in the safe-house and the draught is raising goose pimples on my arms. I hear Roy sigh and dig out the wrench from the couch. He goes back to the far corner of the room where a large gun has been disassembled alongside what looks like a fire extinguisher.

“Are you staying?” I ask after a beat.

“You wouldn’t be able to get rid of me if you tried, Jaybird,” Roy throws over his shoulder. I know it’s true.

We work in companionable silence for the rest of the night, my case is coming together, especially after I cracked through into some Russian scientist named Korolev’s files and spent three hours translating stupidly dense scientific essays. Roy does his own thing, at one point he gets up and I hear the shower running. He doesn’t come back into the living room.

I work until the exhaustion is unbearable, until my eyes are stinging with each blink. I can hear the beginnings of rush hour traffic outside in the thick of Gotham. The bats will all home by now. I close my laptop and toss the legal pad covered in Russian conjugations to the floor.

When I flop into my bed next to Roy, I allow him to tug me to his chest, and pretend I’m not filled with guilt.

——

I’m woken a few hours later by Roy poking me in the ribs with my phone. I can see Dick’s calling me. Oh joy.

“What do you want.” Roy groggily laughs at my slurred, morning voice.

“You left,” Dick’s voice has that same patronising tone that it did on those rooftops, those years ago.

“Well spotted,” I grunt back. Dick sighs on the other end of the line.

“You know you could have stayed as long as you needed, right? We all like you being at the manor,” I cut him off with a bark of laughter. I’ve sat up in bed now, Roy has fallen asleep again but his arm is thrown over my lap, “Sure and that’s why the demon child wants me dead and why Drake avoids me like the fuckin’ plague and Bruce—

“Bruce asked me to call you,” I stop talking, “Bruce asked me to call you, Jay. When we realised you had left the living room he went all over the house trying to find you. I’m not gonna lie and say he was frantic or anything, of course he wasn’t, but he was concerned. And worried, Jay. I don’t know what Alfred said to him but Bruce really wanted to get you back here.”

There’s a pause, I can hear Dick rustling down the other end, Roy’s breathing has levelled out to steady in-out.

“Are you really alright, Jason?”

“We’re not a family, Dick.” He sighs again, he must be so sick of me.

“Then, as your friend,” the exasperation is palpable, “are you alright? You didn’t seem,” he makes a weird, high pitched noise as he searches for the word, “all that…right when we were heading back.”

I’m standing up beside my bed now, Roy is looking at me blearily, “pretty sure we’d just busted a child brothel, Dick. Forgive me for not being sunshine and rainbows.”

“Jason, for the love of-” God he must be so, so damn tired of it all, “you know I wouldn’t call unless I needed to. You know I know you hate calls. I’m only doing this becau-”

“Because Bruce asked you? Because he wants to keep tabs on me?”

Because even if you don’t think the same way, I still think of you as my little brother. And the way you looked, for the love of God Jason, it freaked me out. I’m freaked. Alfred is freaked, Alfred’s never freaked. Do you see my concerns?”

I stand petulantly silent. I feel like I’m in that shitty, run down public housing, with Willis screaming at me—whore, useless, waste of time and money—spit flying, mommy’s legs are sticking out the bathroom. Beaten or high or both. Mommy get up, mommy please get up, please make him stop.

A hand grabs my shoulder, I shake it off, “Dick, just back off. Leave me alone.”

“No.”

“For fucks’ sake, Dick, you-” Roy rips the phone out my hand before I can cuss Dick out any further.

“Hey there Dick, I’m crashing with Jay for a bit, you don’t have to worry.” Dick’s crackly voice is muffled, I can’t make out anything he’s saying. Roy stretches and yawns, his tee rides up to show a sliver of his stomach, “I get that, man, I really do, but take it from me, sometimes you need your own space and time to reach out when you need it. I’ll keep an eye on him,” he winks at me, and I breathe out.

I situate myself back on the couch, hearing Roy talking to Dick back in the bedroom. I spend far too long glaring at my laptop screen, the Russian looks like a great cavern of impossible twists and turns. My brain feels so fucking heavy in my skull.

Roy flops next to me, holding a bowl of cereal that I don’t remember ever buying.

“You wanna talk about it?”

“‘Bout what.”

“The…” he waves his hand, “the mission.”

“No.”

“You should.”

No.

“Seeing kids in that situation sucks, dude, but you can’t hold this… misplaced guilt about it. It’ll tear you apart.”

I want to disappear. I want to sleep and actually rest. I want to get on my knees and beg for forgiveness, “I don’t feel guilty.”

“Then what do you feel?” He asks through a mouthful of colourful cereal and milk.

I’m so tired. I’m so, so tired. I ache everywhere. My arms ache, my eyes ache. I hurt so profusely and completely. I long for the simple blankness of my death. Here, now, in this safe-house, I can still feel the complete terror of clawing at the wood of the coffin. It went wrong as soon as I opened my eyes. I was a flaw, a fault in the universe, from the get go.

My death was untimely but it was right and when I opened my eyes down there, when I felt the bruises and cracks and cold, dank, darkness, when I started howling and clawing and screaming for Bruce, for Batman, for dad, I should have known I was not meant to be there. Be back.

Dirt under my nails, dirty boy they’d sometimes groan in my ear, y’fuckin’ like that?

I should have died when that first man tore his way through me, I should have faded out. Bleeding and weeping. I should have died at Ma Gunn’s, should’ve been one of the “casualties of training”, as she’d put it. I should have died when the clown beat me to death and blew me up. I did die.

I suppose I mean I should’ve stayed dead.

“I just…” I begin, but what do I say? Roy, resilient and good. Roy who’d pulled himself out of the deepest pits of abandonment and isolation and addiction. If I told him about Willis, about those hours in the narrows, with those men and those women, he’d be so… so revolted.

He finds my quote-on-quote “resurrection” cool, he says it’s “badass”. But theres nothing cool about fucking a kid, and theres nothing badass about a weak man hiding behind a façade of guns and fists, nothing cool about self inflicted pain.

“I get it,” I whisper. Roy’s finished the cereal. He sets the bowl on the coffee table, partially on one of my files.

“Get what?” He hums, rubbing my back.

“The… kids. The kids in the- the brothel. I get it.” He’s stopped moving.

“You’re gonna have to expand there, buddy, so I don’t misunderstand.”

“Before Batman…I…I get it,” my throat is tight, that hot feeling has returned tenfold, “I get what they…what they went through.’

“Oh, God, Jason.” I’m almost excited for him to stand up and scream at me. It would make things so much easier. I would be alone. I’d be able to sink away the way I want to. Maybe I’ve done it, maybe I’ve broken the tie we had to each other. He can go off and do better, find Starfire again, save the world.

But he pull me against his chest, he kisses my head, when I struggle he holds me fast, “I’m so sorry,” he whispers, “I’m so sorry, baby.”

And I ache.

Ache for the child I was, the child I’ll never be. ‘Baby’ rings in my ears like a bell, tolling the call to mass. A whirlpool of emotions is churning in my stomach, indecipherable against the sound of a crowbar slamming into my gut, against the sound of a bomb exploding—obliterating me.

——

I spend the next few weeks developing my case notes. A vast majority of it is mindless but tedious hacking, delving into files from decades ago and translating said files. I have the odd night here and there where I go out to reestablish my hold on the black market. Fire some guns, break some noses. It’s easy. It’s safe.

Standing on roofs, looking at Gotham, I feel like some omniscient God, staring at all those little people with their simple problems. I envy it. Envy them.

I run into Drake one night, “the new get up is pretty bad ass, I have to say,” I yell over to him. His oil black cowl shines as he turns to face me.

“Thanks.”

“All good?”

“Robbery in the Wells Fargo Doherty Street branch. Handled it. You?”

“Nothin’ to write home about.”

There’s an awkward silence, I turn to grapple away. “Are you okay?” I stop and look at him, his mouth is squished into a thin line.

“Don’t you start, Replacement.” He shifts his weight from foot to foot, a sort of subtle swaying movement.

“Just…if you need help with a case or anything, I’d be happy to help you out.”

“Why? Think I can’t manage on my own?”

“No! No, just that…” he looks briefly to the sounds of sirens a few blocks away. So do I. But they’re only ambulances, “I know you’re looking into Korolev.”

“How the fuck do-”

“I’m the one who designed the filing system for the case notes. Everything you log on the server I see.” I glare at him. He sighs, “Korolev designed the skeleton of the fear toxin that Scarecrow now uses, right?”

I’m silent for a moment. Debating. Then I take my helmet off and walk closer to him. He looks tense.

“That’s what I’d thought. But Korolev’s toxin had a chemical makeup more similar to that of sodium thiopental.”

Drake squints, “like…truth serum? Why would he have leaned toward a truth serum, rather than just solidifying the fear toxin?”

I shrug, “Dunno. Don’t really care. The issue is I have reason to believe Scarecrow is working with Ivy to recreate Korolev’s design.”

His mouth forms an ‘O’, “that is very not good.”

“You can say that again.”

“I’ll…notify the network to keep an eye on Ivy and Scarecrow. You’ll carry on your research, I assume?”

I flip a sarcastic OK sign over my shoulder, already turning and walking back toward the ledge, helmet back on.

——

Children are so trusting. So wholly and entirely trusting. And Willis knew that. He’d won my mother over when she was basically still a child and seen the cracks in her, found the desperations within her. And he’d exploited them.

I wasn’t born on purpose, I was in every way unwanted. My mother had loved me in the deep, set in stone way all mothers do—I had lived in her, therefore she had to love me. But she didn’t like me much. I feel so sad thinking about myself at three years old, chubby hands and chubby knees, sat sobbing next to her while she was high, belt still on her arm.

It’s so sad. Because I was a baby, I was just a baby. I was a baby then and I was a baby when Willis first realised he could make money off of me and I was a baby when that man with the scratchy beard and sweaty neck and slimy tongue had taken everything babyish from me. And then I was no more.

Mrs. Watson, my first grade teacher, always had long beads around her neck that would jingle and crackle as she moved, quietly, between our desks, like the holy ghost haunting pews. She would smile knowingly at our childish questions.

“Where do babies come from?” Jessica with the Wonder Woman band-aid had asked once. Mrs. Watson had smiled that way she always did and tapped on Jessica’s worksheet, “finish your math, sweetheart” she had said.

Mrs. Watson, held me back after school once, “Jason, sweetheart, you know that question Jessica asked during math hour a few days ago?”

“The one about babies?”

“Mhmm,” she sat down in front of me, me still at my desk, her in the aisle cross-legged, “I couldn’t answer it for her. Do you know why?”

“You don’t know the answer?” She’d laughed, blonde curls like a halo, the grey in them picking up the sunlight like silver.

“No, sweetheart, I couldn’t answer because some things children need to be protected from. Do you understand that?”

“I guess.”

“Children, my love, are precious, precious things,” she picked up my hand, hers was dry with chalk, “and every child deserves patience and a listening ear. Never let anyone tell you there is a “bad” child. There isn’t. There are only bad schools, bad teachers, and, sometimes, bad parents.”

“Oh.”

“If we raise children with goodness, they’ll be good, good in all its shapes and sizes. If we raise them with anger and hurt,” she scrunched her nose, “they’ll not be very nice people.” I stared at her with my wide, wide child eyes, “Jason, if someone hurts you, or makes you feel wrong or weird or nasty I want you to tell someone. Because there is no shame or weakness in reaching out. There is always someone who can help you.”

I don’t remember much about the rest of that day. I think my mom and Willis had a big screaming argument. We couldn’t afford dinner again. Willis wanted to get money the way he had last time because “Goddamnit woman, he’s not doing anything else but sitting there.”

“He’s a boy for fucks’ sake!” my mother likely replied, “you can’t do that to him!”

Her defence would stop there. It was only words. Because, deep down, she wanted a high, and Willis had a fist like a gunshot—hard and fast and brutal. And I was a boy. I was just a boy.

That didn’t stop him.

I think about Mrs. Watson often. Her gentle, gentle hands and that crease between her brows. In hindsight I can realise that she knew something was wrong. Maybe she could smell it, could see the bruises, could see that my self isolation from the other kids ran deeper than simple shyness. Whatever it was, she’d reached out to me. But I’d been too young, too engrossed in protecting my mother and too naïve to recognise the impossibility of changing my father, too much of a child to read between the lines, to be able fight back with any force. I think about the times my father would be doped up to fuck and would stumble into the alleyway after whatever John had left, I think about him stroking my hair while I vomited and wailed and bled. “Oh, Jason,” he’d slur, and I’d trust him all over again, “Oh my sweet boy, I’m so proud of you.”