That afternoon, Dean comes home from school with Matt and Tom in tow. I can't help but smile when Tom walks into my room, exactly like he used to. Like this was his room too. I have to admit, I smile because he also does a great job of taking my mind off things I don't want to be thinking about. And right now those thoughts are practically eating me alive.
I told Jackson what happened.
"You just keep that pretty mouth shut, okay? They're going to ask you questions and they're going to want to know the answers, but you stay silent, okay? They don't need to know what happened. They don't need to know about me, or even about you. You just go in there like nothing ever happened. Got it?"
Okay, maybe I didn't tell him exactly what happened and maybe it wasn't exactly articulate but it was something. And if I can tell Jackson something, then what's to stop me from telling everyone everything?
You know exactly what's stopping you.
Tom collapses on my bed face first with an exhausted sigh, mumbling something into the blanket. I almost want to laugh, feeling the tug of a smile at the corners of my mouth. No laugh surfaces however. It doesn't matter though, because already he's managed to make me feel less like crap.
Rolling over, he sighs again before sitting up on his elbows to look at me, sitting on my desk chair.
"That was 'I hate school', by the way." He looks so sad and frustrated as he says it. The smile instantly falls from my face.
"You didn't always." I comment, because it's true. He used to love school. Neither of us were ever the sport type, but unlike me, Tom had brains in his head and knew how to use them. School was where he thrived. I don't understand how it could have all turned around so fast.
"Yeah, but that was when we suffered through it together." He says off-handedly, sitting up completely and instantly the guilt kicks in. Me. It's because of me. Always because of me. Everything's my fault.
"It's okay though." He continues, rummaging through his back pack and pulling out his laptop. "Because soon you'll be back and they can all suck a dick, mother-fuckers. Wanna watch a movie? You've got a lot to catch up on."
"A movie?" He says, holding up his laptop as he powers it up. "You wanna watch one? I mean, we don't have to, but I don't know how much you've seen and how much you've missed when you were away and-,"
"What do you mean I'll be back?" I ask, ignoring his movie comment because he obviously hasn't understood the weight of what he's just said. I move to the edge of my seat, noting the fact that this is probably the most questions I've asked since coming home.
Tom looks confused for a moment, and then suddenly looks guilty, staring intently at his computer screen like he's focusing on picking a movie or something but his hands are flat on the mattress, giving away his true intentions.
"When you come back to school." He says lightly, like it's not a big deal. Like it's even a possibility.
"I'm not going back to school." I say immediately, but it doesn't come out as strong as I had intended. Tom looks back at me with sad eyes and when I meet them he quickly tries to cover it up with a small smile.
"Well, I mean, maybe not right away." He corrects. "But you'll be coming back eventually. Right?"
I stare at Tom for a moment wondering if he's being serious or not. Unfortunately, it's clear as day that he is. He honestly thinks I'm going to go back to school. After all this time, he thinks I can just slip back into a normal life like none of it ever happened. Doesn't he realise that I haven't even read a book, a sentence, a word that wasn't cooking instruction on +the back of a book since that day in the park. How could he expect me to return to school when I probably know less than I did when I was twelve? If I even considered going back for a second, they'd probably have to start with me from scratch, or at least I'd have to redo the grade I was in when I left. I think it was grade seven which would put Tom in grade nine? Ten maybe? Shit. I can't even do basic maths, let alone join a school where everyone knows fucking everything.
"No." It's as simple as that. No. I can't go back. I won't. There'd be no point.
"What do you mean, 'no'?" He asks like I was a parent that just grounded him for two weeks. "You have to. We've still got, like, two and a half years left of school. You can't just not go back."
"I haven't touched a text book in three years, Tom." My words have a bit of bite behind them, but I'm not really surprised because I'm around Tom, and he makes it so easy to be myself. Well, my old self. I don't know why it's different, but it just is.
"I can help you." He says instantly, sounding excited at the idea of tutoring me. "My grades dropped slightly after... you know... but I got them back after a while. Please, Sam. You have to come back. Please."
I don't want to talk about this anymore. I'm sure this conversation's going to come up with my parents later – a lot later, hopefully – but right now I don't want to think about school. Tom seems to understand because he looks back down to his laptop before turning back to me.
"How about we watch Guardians of the Galaxy? Chris Pratt is a God among men." He asks like the whole school conversation didn't even happen. Like I had simply said "okay" to his offer to watch a movie in the first place. Maybe this is why I feel so comfortable around Tom. I nod and shrug, having no idea what he's actually talking but grateful for the fact that he's letting the subject go so easily. I head over to the bed, and we sit on my bed, our backs pressed against the wall and our feet hanging over the other edge, the laptop resting on Tom's thighs. He's right. Chris Pratt is pretty awesome.
But even with Chris Pratt and green alien women, I can still see that Tom's not completely over the idea of me not returning to school. He doesn't seem mad or even sad, maybe just… hopeless. It's heartbreaking. I understand that he might want me to go back to school, but I don't understand why it would mean so much.
After about an hour of comfortable silence I decide that I can't just let the idea go.
"Tom?" He makes a noise of acknowledgment but doesn't tear his eyes away from the screen. "Why do you hate school so much?"
He looks at me, confused for a second before realisation dawns on his face. He immediately turns it back to the computer, his finger tracing the edge of his side of the laptop.
"I already told you." He says, trying and failing to sound nonchalant about it. "We just don't click."
"You used to love school though." I repeat, twisting to face him more even though he's still not looking at me.
"That was before-,"
"There's more to it than that." I'm aware of the irony here. That I'm pushing Tom to talk about something when I can't even say a single fact about the last three years. I know that I can't expect him to tell me anything and that it's completely unfair, but... I'm curious.
He's silent for a while, watching his finger trace the screen and I eventually give up, presuming he's not going to tell me and settle back in to continue watching the movie when he speaks.
"I don't hate school." He corrects. "I just hate everyone there." He sounds so depressed and almost angry about it and my gut sinks.
"Were- were you bullied? Or something?" Tom lets out a bitter chuckle and shakes his head.
"No. I wasn't bullied. I mean, a couple of dicks tried once but Matt and Dean took care of that." I can imagine that. Dean and Matt standing up for Tom against a bully, threatening to hurt them simply by intimidation of build and hierarchy. I know they'd never actually hurt someone. Well, maybe if they hurt Tom first.
"Then, what?" I prod gently, twisting to face Tom again who glimpses at me for a moment before his finger takes all his attention again. With a big breath, he begins.
"I don't know," He starts, "Everyone there are just so fake. You know how before everyone just kind of left us alone? No one bothered us but we weren't particularly popular either? Well the second that word got out that you were missing that completely changed. Suddenly everyone in the school was my best friend. People I had never spoken to, people in other year levels, would come up to me and ask how I was doing. Everyone pretended to care. People who probably didn't even know your name before were suddenly so worried about you. It made me so angry, Sam, because if it hadn't happened, these people would have continued to walk past us in the halls, not sparing us a single glance, but because of something tragic, something horrible, that's when people started to care and that's not right. I just wanted to yell at them that it's no use caring about someone when they're not here anymore. Maybe next time, make the effort to get to know someone before a tragedy strikes, you know?"
Tom looks to me then, a hot anger in his eyes that I can imagine burning when this was all going on. I don't completely understand what he's talking about, but who am I to judge? I wasn't the one that was left to deal with it all. I don't know what he went through or what he experienced.
"Anyway," he continues, a lot less angry, a sadness overcoming him, "That went on for a month, maybe a little less, maybe a little more, I don't know. And it's stupid, I know it is, but no matter how angry I was at their sudden compassion, I was even more angry when it all went away. After a while people... I don't know... they moved on, I guess. When there was no new news about you and when the papers and news shows stopped reporting on you people just seemed to forget about you. Even the teachers. The day they stopped bothering to read out your name for the roll, not even hesitating before they moved on to the next person, I just walked out of the class. I remember it because by then Mum had made me promise not to run off or skip school, so I called her and told her to come pick me up. People forgot about you, Sam, and I hated it because I couldn't. I wouldn't. I didn't want to. I wanted people to care and worry about you. It was horrible that I felt like I was the only one remembering you."
Tom roughly wipes a hand across his cheek, trying to wipe away the tears falling down his face. It doesn't help though. They just keep falling and he snorts, forcing a fake smile.
"Of course, now that you're back people care again." He continues bitterly. "They all want to know how you're doing, where you've been, what happened. I bet most of them don't even remember what you look like, let alone actually care how you are. They just want to be a part of the gossip. They want to pretend they're decent humans. They're not. They're all fake bastards that I'm forced to associate with eight hours a day, five days a week."
So it was because of me. Of course it was.
I want to apologise, but I already know what he'll say. He'll try to convince me that it wasn't my fault and that I had nothing to do with it which is ridiculous. Everything he's said is completely because of me. It's about me. Even when I wasn't at school I was still the cause of him hating it.
I don't understand why he cared so much. Why did he care that people pretended to care and then forgot. I forgot. I forgot a lot. Besides Tom, I don't think I can remember anyone's name, let alone gave them a single thought while I was gone. But I also know that he wouldn't understand me asking why he cares either.
And I can see how sad it's making him, thinking, remembering that time. I can't imagine how it would have been for him. How much did he know about the investigation? Did my parents keep his family informed? Did Dean tell Matt who told Tom? Or was it simply a case of me being there one day and gone the next? No explanation, no answers. How alone was he through it all? Dean and Matt had each other, and I know Dean said that Tom hung out with them a fair bit while I was away, but he obviously doesn't have the same relationship that those two have with anyone. Did his Mum help him? If so, how? How could she have possibly know how to help someone going through what he went through?
Would it have been better for him if he had forgotten me too?
So I don't say anything. We settle back into our spots and continue watching the movie. Well, kind of. I mean, I have no idea what's going on anymore and even if I wanted to I can't find the energy to focus on the stupid movie. And I know Tom's thinking the same thing, but neither one of us stops it. We just sit their, both staring at the screen, both thinking about things another galaxy away.
About fifteen minutes before the end of the film Matt and Dean barge into my room, Matt announcing that it's time for them to head home. I can't help but stare at the smile on Dean's face he way he just seems to glow like his happiness seems so seep out of him unwillingly in Matt's presence. I don't understand it. Tom doesn't protest or complain. He simply shuts the laptop and shoves it back in his bag, grabbing my wrist and giving it a gentle squeeze accompanied by a small smile before leaving with his brother.
Dean flops onto my bed with a kind of giddy smile on his face, staring up at the ceiling as he exhales a content sigh. We're silent for a while before he turns his head to the side to look up at me.
"How you doing?" He asks innocently, obviously not understanding what a heavy question it really it. How am I doing? Seriously?
I think about bringing up the topic of school, wondering if he's thought the same as Tom. If Mum and Dad have thought about re-enrolling me, then there's a good chance he's know. So instead I think back to the day I've had and the words just slip from my mouth.
"What's PTSD?" I blurt out without thinking and watch as Dean's lazy smile slips from his face and I can practically feel the tense twitch his muscles do.
"Why are you asking?" He asks almost nervously. "Where did you hear it?"
"Today at Caroline's," I explain. "She told Jackson I was traumatized and suffering from PTSD."
"She told Jackson?" That's the part he picked up from that sentence?
He pauses for a moment, watching me closely like he's trying to figure out how I'm going to use the information he could give me, and whether it's worth the risk of telling me. I mean, I could just look it up on the internet if he didn't answer.
Eventually he looks towards my window where the sun's setting and casting my room in that gorgeous orange colour. It really is a nice view.
"PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder." He explains simply, his eyes fixed on my window. "It's when people are still suffering from a traumatic event in their past. Like when soldiers panic at the sound of a balloon bursting or thunder or something because it triggers unwanted memories of bombs and war and stuff."
"She's saying that you're still reacting to things that have happened to you."
Well I can't dispute that. Maybe she knows what she's talking about.
She said it's going to get worse before it gets better. Could she be right about that too? I mean, I feel like I'm getting better, not worse. Maybe I've passed the 'worse' stage already and because I haven't spoken to her, she doesn't know about it. She probably doesn't know about my meltdowns or my nightmares or my lack of sleep or any of that. For a week I haven't had any of those. I'm getting better. Definitely.
Jesus, but what if she is right? I don't want it to get worse. It can't get worse because it's already so fucking bad.
But of course it's going to get worse. Only a few hours ago I let slip things that were supposed to stay inside my head forever and ever and never come out. Things that could make him made. Things that will make him made. Shit, he's probably already mad cause he probably already knows. Somehow, in some unfathomable way he probably knows everything I've said since I got home. Everything I've done. He probably knows what I will do. He knows before I know, that's always been the way. He always knows everything. Well, except that one time when I... God, what if this is it. What if this is the end.
"Sammy?" Dean nudges my leg gently, bringing me back to the present.
"Is that why Jackson was in such a weird mood when I saw him?" He asks, well, probably repeats actually. "He was moping I guess, but worse than usual which is saying something."
I shrug, not really sure if it's the reason or not. He didn't say anything to anyone once we got home. He went straight up to his room and I presumed he was still there since that's pretty much what I did after I managed to avoid Mum's questions about him. I guess they hadn't expected him to give them the silent treatment and stupidly turned to me for answers.
Didn't they know by now?
"Okay. Well dinner should be ready soon."
It was more awkward than usual as we all sat around in silence. Instead of Mum sneaking worried glances at me, they were directed towards Jackson as he sat silently, absently spearing his fries with his fork but rarely putting anything in his mouth. Even Dean seemed worried about him, continually looking between me and Jackson like he'd be able to eventually see what happened between us.
To be honest, I don't know why he's so quiet. I thought that after I told him something he'd keep coming back to me, asking to know more. I thought he would have told everyone by now. I thought maybe him and Mum and Dad would have discussed it at length while I was up in my room. Maybe they might have even called Mike by now. But instead he was acting like I had said something to hurt him. Did I? Did I say something wrong? He wasn't overly happy to hear what I told him, but he didn't get mad either.
Jesus I don't know.
Is there anything you do know?
It wasn't until after dinner, when me, Dean and Julia were in the couches watching TV, Mum and Dad were washing the dishes in the kitchen and Jack was up in his room when I was finally approached about it, though, not by the person I expected.
"I'm need to pee." Dean groaned as he abruptly pushed himself off the couch when an ad break started during whatever comedy show it was we were watching.
I watched him wonder off, already feeling alone without his presence, even though I was far from the only person in the room.
"I know it's not place," Julia started after a few seconds, her voice just above a whisper so that only I could hear her. "But thank you for what you did today." There was no sarcasm or anger in her voice, only pure gratitude. I looked at her, confused by this sudden conversation. We had hardly spoken a word to each other since she was always with Jackson and I had tried to avoid Jackson as much as possible. Now, after the most significant thing I had done since getting home, it was her who was approaching the subject with me.
"He got really drunk at a party one night at Uni and just spilled his guts about everything that had happened." She continues. "We went back to his room and I asked about the pictures he had of his family and he just started crying. I figured out what he was saying eventually but he was crying so hard he could barely talk. He told me everything that happened and everything that was going on at home with your parents fighting and stuff and that that was why he had chosen to study criminal psychology at university. I had never seen him that open and honest before. Of course, the next day he went straight back to being the closed off jerk he acts like. Even when he got the call from your Dad he barely let anything slip. He just drove, straight faced and silent the whole time. It wasn't until he got home from today that I saw him again. The real him. The Jackson that loved his brother so much that he dedicated himself to trying to find you. I know he's still kind of acting standoffish and stuff but he's just catching up on three years of blocked emotions that you somehow managed to unblock today. I don't think you understand how grateful he was that you felt like you could talk to him. It's… it's good for him. And you I think, but you've made him really happy. So thank you." She gives me a gentle smile before turning her attention back to the T.V.
And I'm shocked. Stunned even. That was a whole lot of information I wasn't prepared to be told. He's studying criminal psychology? To… find me? What? He gave up any other career opportunity so that he could try to learn about the man who took me. Which also meant that he knew I hadn't run away. Even three years ago he knew. God, I have so many questions to ask her but Dean suddenly plops back down on the couch beside me, and the moments gone.
What was it exactly that made Jackson break down? Was it me? Was it Caroline? Was it what she said? Or was it what I said?
I made him happy by telling him, what, twenty words? Maybe even less? I don't know. How could that make him happy? I didn't even really tell him anything. I just told him that I didn't run away. That I fell off my bike and the guy that took me helped me. That's it. I didn't say what happened. I didn't say who he was or where he took me or what he did to me or… what he made me do…
If that's all I had to say to him to affect him as much as Julia says I did, then what would happen if I-
No. No, no, no, no, no.
Shit. I can't even let that thought cross my mind. For god's sake, what's happening to me? How can I even be imagining something like that? After… After everything? I mean, how long have I been home now? Two weeks? Three? I don't know, all the days seem to merge into one and all the nights seem to drag on forever, but I know a week ago, I wouldn't have even considered telling anyone anything. Hell, even this morning I was doing well.
"You understand me, Sammy?" I was looking out the window, the familiar park lit by a street light on the side of the road and a few sparse ground lights along the path. The park. I turn to face him immediately, and nod several times, trying and failing to hold eye contact. I'm still waiting for him to drive off, to turn the car around and say 'sorry', just like last time.
But we've never gotten this far before. So maybe…
"You tell anyone anything, then you've broken your promise." He says like he's talking to a little kid. Am I a child? I don't even know anymore. "And if you break a promise, you know what that makes you."
A bad boy.
"A bad boy." He concludes. "And then I'd have to take you back." I force myself not to shake my head and begg him to not take me back there. I'm so close, I can't fuck it up now. He smiles gently at me, the same smile he gave me in this exact park forever ago, the same smile he gave me the first day I woke up in that room and the same smile he gave me almost every time I saw him after that. God, I hate that smile. If the other expression wasn't a terrifying mixture of fury and hatred, I think I'd prefer to be looking at that one right now.
"I know." I mutter softly instead. Looking down to my lap. I can feel it now. My chest tightens with a weird combination of fear, excitement and dread. This is actually happening. He's saying goodbye.
His hand reaches out and my body twitches with the effort of holding in the flinch. He doesn't like that. Don't fuck it up.
"Good boy." His hand brushes my hair behind my ear, his hand holding my head momentarily and I for a moment I think he's going to say something. Either that or he's about to jump me. But he drops his hand with a small sigh and that smile. Then he tilts his head towards the door, signalling that it's time to leave. I hesitate, my mind doubting every move I make. Is he going to wait till the very last second, before he grabs me, throws me back in the car and drive back to… that place. I look at him, my hand hovering on the handle of the door and he nods before looking out his own window. With his back turned, I pull the handle, the door clicking open with a sound that's deafening in this silence. He still doesn't look at me.
Just fucking do it!
I push the car door open, the cold air outside hitting me instantly and for a second, just a fraction of a second, I want to close it again and stay in the warm car. But I don't.
I look at him again, his hands clutching the steering wheel as he now stares straight ahead.
I kick my legs over the step and plant them on the concrete.
I'm not technically getting into a strangers car, I'm just sitting on the car seat. My legs won't even be in the car, they'll still be on the footpath while he's checking my knee. What harm could it do?
"Sam?" I can't help but jump this time, my legs swinging straight back into the car, pulling the door almost closed as I do. "Go. Home."
I look at him one last time before pushing the door open, bounding out of the car and walking – almost running – down the footpath.
Home. I can't risk it. That was his only condition. I could go home. I will stay here, forever and ever, if I just keep quiet. It's not that much to ask. Who cares if they never know what happened. At least I'm home. What would they prefer? To know what happened to me and have me disappear again, or to have me home, safe, here, and not know anything.
I shift in my seat to look at Mum and Dad in the kitchen. They're not talking. They don't talk much now if they're alone. Maybe it's to avoid fighting. But I wish they'd fight. I wish they'd get it all out and to fix whatever tension there is as opposed to them not talking to each other at all.
Maybe that's the same as me.
I mean I'm home, aren't I? I'm with my two brothers, my parents, my friends. They care. They're trying to protect me. Maybe, just maybe, they'd be able to protect me from him if they knew what they were protecting me from.