The liquor is nearly gone before I'm out of the shower. I step out, clad in a fresh t-shirt and pants, and the smell hits me like a wave. An uneasy feeling fills my chest, swelling over the edges of the rope which binds my thoughts, my feelings, my everything.
Dad is sitting at the small desk in the corner of the room, looking haggard and tired. There's an empty bottle in front of him, another one half-empty in his hand.
"You wanna tell me what the hell you were thinking back there?" he growls. His voice is heavy and deep, not in a comforting way.
The words I was afraid are stuck in my throat, so instead, I say, "I wasn't thinking."
"Bullshit. You knew exactly what you were doing and now look what you've done,"
Anger bubbles in my throat, past the unspoken (never spoken, ever) I was afraid of you, for me, I was afraid. Because I was trying to help him, not myself, and running away was obviously not in the agenda, and sometimes things just happen.
"Would you rather I had told you the truth?" I say heatedly.
His eyes narrow at that, and his hand grips the bottle tightly. "I had it under control."
I feel the sharp response tingle on my lips before the rope loosens just enough to let it out. "Oh yeah, really controlled there, Dad,"
His eyes glint dangerously. "Don't take that tone with me."
The rope hasn't had a chance to tighten in control yet, so my reply is instant. "Don't blame me for shit that's no one's fault."
Dad stands up with swiftness I didn't think he'd have with all the alcohol in him.
"You need to shut up long enough to realize you're a mistake. You made the wrong decision, kiddo. It's high time you stop letting your brother placate you, and start owning up to your own screw-ups!"
"Aaron would've done the same thing!" I shout, and I know I shouldn't but he's making me so angry and the tightness of the rope isn't tight enough to keep it all inside.
"No," Dad says firmly, and the word is almost a snarl. "Aaron wouldn't have left. Aaron would have followed my orders,"
"Well I'm not Aaron!" I yell fiercely.
"I think we all know that by now," he replies lowly. "Because one of these days, it's gonna get one of us, that ignorance, that stupidity,"
"You don't mean that." You don't, you can't,hecan't…
"I do," he says without missing a beat. "Sooner or later, you're gonna have to start acting like a man, like me. If you don't, that'll be your fault. This just proves it." The liquor bottle on the table glints from the crack of the window shades where the moonlight is streaming through. And I know he's not himself, but the rope is tight around my chest and it's squeezing out logic to make room for emotion.
"…start acting like a man…like me." The thought punches the air from my lungs.
"No." My voice is icy cold, leaving no room for persuasion. But inside, a tiny crack, just like the one in the window shades, is left open. Where words and thoughts and blame can seep through because it has always been there and always will be. I know how to manage it now, but there's always that crack to suck in all the fault and censure, and somehow without it I feel empty.
Dad stiffens at the outright defiance in my voice. "Excuse me?" The words are slightly slurred, but dangerous nonetheless.
Perhaps more so.
"No," I repeat, voice raised. "I will never be like you." There's a poison and hate in my voice that I've never used before and it scares me.
But not as much as the sudden jerk of Dad's hands on my shirt, scrunching the material and lifting me off the ground. Not by much, but enough. My hands automatically come up to push him away, and thanks to the whiskey, rum, and what-the-hell-else, I manage to plant my hands firmly on his shoulders.
It was stupid and I know it from the moment my hands begin to push, but his fingers are wound so tightly in my t-shirt and the rope is bound so tightly around my lungs. I can't think and can't breathe, so I just shove.
The hands that propel me back aren't the hands that helped me take my first step or clapped me on the shoulder or held me so tightly in infancy. These hands are strong, but not in the way I've come to know my father. These hands are baleful and unrelenting as they tighten their grip on my shirt and, with the force of a grown man but the effort of an indifferent spectator, drive me back, off my feet, into the wall behind me.
It wasn't meant to be especially harmful (not that the liquor has a firm differentiation there anyway), and wouldn't have been had I not been standing directly in front of the lamp fixture jutting out of the wall.
Such a small, insignificant thing, easy to ignore, simple to overlook. But the protruding glass cone hits the back of my head like a rocket and I wish I could see stars but all I see is a weary face, animated by anger, framed before me like a grotesque portrait of who I'm destined to become (Oh God, please let that be the Ghost of What May Be and not of What Will Be).
The rope frays as pain explodes from the back of my skull to the front, down my neck, through my face and makes the return trip more than once. The edges of the face blur, but I can still see the anger, palpable, like a living thing only released by the glinting bottle on the table and the empty containers in places I can't see.
"You should've listened to me and now look at how many will suffer." The voice has lost its biting edge, but none of its intensity.
And suddenly, he's right there, inches from my face. His eyes are glassy and hard, like diamonds. Full, dark diamonds glinting with anger and brokenness. There's hate swimming in the brown depths, but I'm afraid to think of who it's for.
He leans in close, those dark diamonds still glinting, shooting daggers at me, fraying the rope even further.
"It was your fault," he exhales roughly. His breath smells like whiskey and rum and regret. "We can't stay. We have to leave. And anyone that's left behind to suffer from your failure?" His grip on my shirt loosens as a large, dirty finger pokes the center of my chest. "You have to live with that."
The last words weren't hard and dark like his eyes, but soft and regretful like the breath slipping out of his mouth in measured puffs. I can't bring myself to look away from the long lines of his face, the stubble on his jaw, the small scar above his eyebrow. The throbbing at the back of my head fades as I picture the glassy eyes instead vibrant, and the smell more sweat and leather instead of rum and regret.
And no matter what my brain tells me or my eyes register…despite the increasing throb in the back of my skull and those dark eyes full of hate…All I can see is Dad. In the driver's seat, at a motel desk, in a bar drinking away. And doing it all with those dark eyes. All I can see is the man who used to pick me up on his shoulders and call me Tommy.
And even though those eyes are still dark and full of hate, they're so much more full of pain that I'm too sad to be mad. He may be drunk, but he's not crazy. He's not stupid.
He's not lying because he's two-thirds full of hard liquor and can't.
Which means he's right and it's my fault, but if I'm honest, I knew that all along.
"You were a mistake, Tom," he says. His hands aren't as tight on my shirt anymore. "You were a mistake and you made a huge one and now you have to live with that." The dark eyes lower briefly.
I don't really know what to say to that, so I don't say anything at all. I'm not even sure if he's talking to me anymore and my head hurts and I just want to cry, but I'm too grown-up for that now.
And just like that, he's gone. His hands let go, leaving me to slide to the floor. Through my foggy vision, I can see him pick up the keys on the table, open the door, then slam it shut. He's gone, probably to either pick up more booze or spend a few hours at the nearest bar, and while the small voice of conscience in the back of my head (battling past the spiking, stabbing pain, making it worse) tells me to go after him (someone could get hurt, he could get in an accident, he's not himself), I can't move.
Because the pain in my head is losing the battle to the pain in my chest. That merciless, ripping pain that comes from inside, from places you just don't talk about. The slam of the door echoes in my mind, and the rope around my chest is tightening because what if he doesn't come back. What if I've fucked up so bad this time that he's just gone and Aaron isn't here and I'm left with the fact that it really is all my fault.
"Come back," my voice cracks. The horrid, rough sound cuts through the room and is swallowed by silence. Tears spring to my eyes (keep them in, never let them spill, never let them out), and I hear the same voice whisper, "Please."
I don't know who I'm talking to; all I know is that I don't get an answer.
A sudden shot of pain in the back of my head reminds me that I should probably get off the floor and check the damage. My legs are shaking slightly as I stand. So are my hands.
I cringe hard as I see the blood slick and wet on the sharp edge of the protruding lamp, and even harder when my eyes fall on the blotchy streak from when I slid down the wall. Moisture slides down the back of my neck and I'm pretty sure it's not sweat.
First things first—clean the lamp and wall. Can't have some maid coming in and seeing the stains, bringing up questions. I stumble into the bathroom (everything is still shaking and I wish it'd stop) and grab some towels.
Making my way back to the wall, I bunch up one of the towels and begin to wipe things down. The blood comes off the glass lamp fixture easily, but when the towel touches the wall, it just smears. I'll have to scrub it with some water.
This time, it's up to me to clean up my own mess, without help from Dad or Aaron or anyone. On one hand, it feels good because it was my fault to begin with and I can make up for it now, fix it. On the other hand, it's lonely and I really want Dad to come back and say he's sorry and it'll never happen again, and for Aaron to appear and tell me everything will be ok.
But neither of those things is happening, so I just keep scrubbing.
When I'm done, I have a small pile of towels stained with red and a little brown with the dust and grime from whatever was caked on the wall and light. There's one clean towel to spare, and feeling the drying blood stiffening in my hair, I figure I should take care of that, too.
The bathroom is small and has dampness to it, but there's a mirror, a toilet, and a shower, so it serves its purpose. The mirror is on the tall side, though, so I have to sit on the countertop and twist my body to see the back of my head.
It looks worse than it is. Blood is matting down the brown hair (Dad says too long, but I act like I don't care what he thinks) and leaves a trail across the back of my neck, seeping a little onto my t-shirt. It's starting to dry now, but still needs to be cleaned up.
I wet the towel and hiss as it wipes the clotted blood from the wound. When I finally get it clear enough to see, I note that the wound itself is only about an inch long and not too deep. But then again what do I know I am a mistake after all. Coupled with the swelling goose-egg just starting to form, it's very tender to the touch, so as soon as I clean all the blood away and stop the bleeding, I lower the towel and sigh.
The lingering pain is still clouding my mind, but I manage to bundle all of the towels together in my arms. I figure, for now, under the bed will have to do. It's late and I'm tired, and the bed looks so appealing.
I shove the dirty towels under the bed without another thought, a hidden secret, a filthy reminder of stupidity.
The thought and memory makes my head hurt even worse, and before I even know what's happening, I'm grabbing the cell phone off the night table (Dad took the keys and left his phone, what if something had happened and I'd never know? Or what if something happened and he'd never know?).
I pick up the phone and hold down the speed-dial because in that moment, I don't know what else to do, and when I don't know what to do, I know exactly what to do.
Talk to Aaron
The phone rings once before he picks up. "Tommy?"
"Yeah," I answer.
There's a curious pause before Aaron says tentatively, "Everything ok? It's almost one in the morning, kid."
"M'not a kid," I mumble. (Can never be a kid, don't think I ever was).
"Yeah, whatever you say…Seriously, what's wrong?"
"Nothing." Everything. "Just wondering when you'll be home."
I can hear Aaron trying to muffle a yawn, and realize that he probably hasn't gotten much sleep, if any. I probably woke him up from one of his few rest breaks.
Because I want you, because I need you, because I'm bleeding and it's because of Dad and not some…, and I'm having trouble telling the difference unless I think really hard.
There's a decisive silence on the other end, and in that moment, I know Aaron's leaving and coming here as soon as his bag is packed. It's just something I can tell, but part of me doesn't dare to hope. The other part whispers weak, wrong, disappointment and doesn't want Aaron around to see that.
"Get some sleep, Tommy," his voice says through the line. "I'll see you soon enough."
Not soon enough, never soon enough.
"See you later, Aaron."
The dial tone in my ear sends a dull ache through my skull.
. . .
He's back quicker than I thought he'd be. It's early the next morning by the time he shows up, which means he spent all night driving, probably didn't even stop for food.
By the time he shows up, I've changed and showered, laid in bed for a few hours (couldn't sleep, but it was nice to lay down for a bit), and gotten up again to pack for the next hunt.
Dad hasn't said a word to me since stumbling in late (even later than usual), and I can't tell if it's through guilt or disgust. I'm afraid to find out, so I remain silent as well.
But silence is impossible when Aaron's around.
"Heya, Tommy," he says cheerfully, striding through the door and dropping his bag. He looks tired but content, which is nice because you can sleep off tired.
You can't sleep off fucked-up, and disappointment, which is fine because—like I said—I couldn't sleep last night anyway.
"Hey," I reply. It's too quiet, too suspicious, so I clear my throat and try again (even paste on a smile for the cause). "What took you so long, rat head?"
Aaron smiles back and I consider it a success.
"Shut up, brat, you're lucky I came back at all."
I am. So lucky. I want to say thank you, but I don't.
Dad walks up to Aaron and claps him on the shoulder. His hands are rough yet gentle, nothing like they were last night.
"How'd it go?"
Asking about the job, always asking about the job. I'm not surprised, but it still makes me a little sad.
Aaron and Dad talk for awhile about the job, and I just sit on the bed because for some reason, when they do that, I feel out-of-place, like a stranger at the party of a friend-of-a-friend. I'm there, but I don't want to be.
My head still aches from last night, and an especially hearty laugh from Dad (only Aaron ever makes him laugh, never me) sends a throb of pain through it. I should re-check the wound, haven't done that yet.
They're still talking, so I figure it's safe to slip into the bathroom for a few minutes.
Another inspection in the too-small mirror reveals an ugly abrasion and slightly swelled bruise, but only when I move my hair out of the way. Positioning the locks back into place around the wound, I sigh and lean on the sink counter. The lights around the mirror are so bright, too bright (throb throb throb through my head).
"Tommy!" Dean's voice is too loud, and I try to hide the wince.
"Shut up, Aaron, it's six-thirty in the morning," I grind out.
I shouldn't have said it because next thing I know, a swift hand arcs toward my head, smacking it playfully.
It doesn't feel playful.
Aaron's headslap sends a jolt of agony through my tender skull and this time, I can't hold back the wince, or the cry of pain. I bite my lip after it squeaks out, but it's too late.
Aaron's eyes go from teasing to worry. His brow furrows and before I can stop him, his hands are examining the back of my head. It takes about 3 seconds for his fingers to find the rough wound, and his eyes instantly go hard.
"What the hell is this?" he says. The concern is thinly masked.
"It's nothing, Aaron, chill out."
And what a shock, Thomas Fence fails once again.
"Was it a bully? Did Dad clean you up? Concussion?"
I try to lie and say yes, but the rope is too tight and won't let me. Aaron is still talking, pushing, demanding, unrelenting like Dad's hands, and it's all just too much.
"It was my fault, okay!" I find myself shouting. The rope is looser now and I can't stop. "He was right, I deserved it anyways."
The moment the words leave my lips, I know I said the wrong thing. I can see the wheels turning, Aaron putting two and two together (because people joke that I'm the smart brother, but he's so much smarter than I'll ever be, and stronger and kinder and just better), and I can't decide if I want to take them back or not.
Aaron's voice is small with caution. "Dad did this?"
Mine is small with shame. "It wasn't his fault."
The crestfallen look on his face (even though he tries so hard to hide it) makes me feel as if I've stolen his favorite action figure and pointed out the hidden crack that he never saw and probably never would've seen had I kept my mouth shut.
It takes me about a minute to tell him everything, from the orders to the rum to the shove to the dirty towels shoved under the bed.
He just looks at me the whole time, trying so hard to keep his face impassive. But he's Aaron and he's always been protective, hot-tempered, impulsive, quick to emotion, even if he never shows it.
And being the person that knows him better than anyone, even himself (especially himself), I see all of his slip-ups. I see the glint of anger in his twitching jaw and the raw sadness in his narrowed eyes.
"Stay here, Tommy," he says. He stands up.
"Aaron," I begin, but there is no real argument in my words.
He cuts me off anyway, but not in a way that makes me flinch or look down sheepishly. "Stay here," he repeats.
The door opens and closes again, and I draw my knees closer to my chest. My head is throbbing, but I can still hear the muffled sound of Aaron's voice.
I can't hear what he's saying and I'm not sure if I want to. It goes on for a bit, my head eventually pounding hard enough to drown out the voices (or maybe they just got quieter?).
When Aaron comes into the bathroom a few minutes later, all is silent and his lips are pinched, which I know by now means he's angry. But then he sits down and just looks at me, in a way he doesn't usually, with a horrible mixture of love and fear, as if he's afraid I'll wisp away on a breeze and leave him behind.
But I'd never do that to him. I wish he knew that.
His hazel eyes are still on me, roaming my face as if it were a rare and coveted thing, something really special that scares him to think of giving up.
Only Aaron could ever look at me like that; only Aaron ever had. The rope around my throat tightens while loosening its grip on my emotions. Because only Aaron can make a fuck-up like me feel so goddamn special, just...just because.
Tears prick the corners of my eyes, and before I can move to brush them away (because Fences don't cry, especially not about nothing, but what defined nothing when I was looking at Aaron and it felt like everything?), he has already leaned forward and put his arms around me. They're tight and firm, but so soft I just wanted to melt into the embrace because it makes me feel like a kid again, and when did 14 stop being a kid?
I don't know and don't care when I can smell gel and leather and love all at once.
And when he finally releases his hold, it's slow and careful till I'm at arm's length and he's looking me dead in the eyes. I can tell that he's examining them to see my emotion at this point. I try to turn my head and look at away but he keeps my head steady, not letting it make any movement.
"Aaron," I start again
"No words," he says as he gently slides his hand through my hair avoiding the injured spot. Then he gets up, walks behind me, guiding me to our shared room of our latest motel. Once we enter the room, he pushes me gently to the bed then turns to close the door and lock it.
I look at him wide eyed, wondering what he's going to do or say next.
"Tommy grab your stuff," is all he says making his way to his bed.
"Huh?" is my confused reply.
"We are leaving now, grab your things, Tommy," he says
I look at him in a daze of all the things that I thought Aaron would say, it was not that. Aaron looks up to Dad, for his advice and everything, I never thought he would, well pull a me and run away. I can't say anything; I am in such a shock.
"Tommy," Aaron says again. It still doesn't pull me from my shock.
"Tommy," he repeats this time, when I look up he's kneeling in front of me with his hands on my knees.
I finally look up at him.
"You need to do this little brother. Okay? I promise nothing will happen,"
I nod in reply, finally getting up from my spot on the edge of the bed.
I move next to my bed and bend over to get my bag underneath it when my eyes come face to face with the blood soaked towels and all the memories come flooding back at once and the rope is constricting my lungs, it's getting harder and harder to breath.
"Buddy it's okay, breath alright Tommy," Aaron soothes behind me
The rope slackens slight, allowing me to breath.
I nod looking away from the towels, grabbing the bag then I stand up placing it on the bed.
I start my packing. I walk around the room taking apart drawers, cleaning off the small table, pulling out clothes from the closet, taking my hidden items from between the mattress and then jamming it into the duffel.
I zip it up.
"Where's your backpack?" he asks
I point to the corner, he grabs it and walks back over taking my duffel sliding it over his shoulder.
"Tommy stay in here till I get back,"
I nod as he walks out the door, locking it within before he closes it.
I don't hear my father's voice so he must be either past out on the couch or out getting more to drink.
Pretty soon there's a knock on the bedroom door, I jump.
"Tommy open up," Aaron says from the other side. I walk over and unlock the door.
He walks in then bends down in front of me, I can't look him in the eyes, and I mean I deserved this didn't I?
I stare at an odd stain on the carpet, trying to make myself look fixated.
"Tommy," he says as he cups my chin turning my face upward to face him.
I try to avert his eyes but it's near impossible.
"Come on," he says he gets up and guides me to the front door.
Just as he goes to reach for the door handle, it slams open.
"Where the hell do you think you're going?!" Dad slurring words yell at us. As the fresh bottle of hard liquor sloshes around in his hand.
His words reverberate around in my head causing it to ache. I can feel the rope slowly begin to make its presence known.
Aaron puts a protective arm out in front of me blocking Dad from me.
"You're protecting him?" Dad laughs, "The Mistake!?"
His words don't hurt but the volume of it is causing my head throb ever so slightly.
"Of course! Dad I will always protect Tommy," Aaron replies taking a protective step forward.
"He deserved it you know, it was his fault," Dad replies the hard liquor is having him tell the truth.
Deserved it… my fault…deserved it…my fault the words are repeating in my head as the rope tightens it hold around my skull, causing the pain heighten extremely. I'm too distracted by what's going on inside my head to pay attention to what's going on.
I am in such a daze that I don't see the hands coming at me, till I fall back and hit my head on the too rough to be carpet. I hold in my cry as a jolt of absolute agony surges through me. But the rope is constricting everything making it hard to see and hear.
All I know is that somebody is picking me off the ground and taking me out the front door of the motel. Right now my mind is in swirls of pain and confusion so that all I feel is the wisps of cool air. And that's when I smell it the gel and leather and realize that it's Aaron, who is now placing me in the passenger seat of Nine C, his car. I can feel him buckle me in.
I still don't see anything and it not because of hitting my head. It's the rope that's closing around everything causing the rim of my vision to start to blink inky darkness.
I feel the car start and everything blurs past me.
I don't realize when we stop.
. . .
"Tommy, come on," Aaron says as he unbuckles me.
I slid myself out of Nine C.
I notice that the rope has loosened its deathly grip.
He grabs my forearm and guides me forward, as I stare at the fading black asphalt.
When I feel a rush of air, I look up.
And I immediately regret it, because I am met with a flurry of bright lights that seem to resound off the walls.
"I need help please," I hear Aaron say loudly. I don't understand who he's talking to, the lights are blinding my vision.
I try to focus on anything but the lights. I am finally brought out of that state when I feel a large cold hand my very thin shirt. My vision begins to focus and I make out a face of a man with a concerned look. He is wearing a long white, doctor's coat.
"Son, what happened?" I hear the man ask
I don't hear Aaron's response.
The nice man turns my body so he can see my back, I comply easily.
I feel him touch the cuff of my neck, then we works his way up and then he touches wound.
It feels like an extreme burn and I can't keep it in, I let out a cry and lurch forward.
"Tommy!" I hear Aaron shout.
"I need a gurney now!" I hear another voice shout.
I can't open my eyes the pain it too much for me. I hear squeaking wheels, then I am lifted off the ground and placed face down on something that is thin and hard, but my face hits pillows, soft.
"Don't worry Tommy," are the last words I hear before I feel a prick and something go over my face.
I don't have a sense of what is going on because before I know it my world fades to inky darkness.