He is six years old. This is the first time his soul will leave his body. He doesn’t know what else to call it, having been taught since he could speak that there is nothing but the physical. He’s not sure how else to describe that feeling, when he feels himself multiply, feels his shadow sever itself from the anchor of his feet.
His soul leaves his body because his body hurts too much. He’s constricted by thorny vines, ornate with poison flowers that release their scent into his young lungs. Later he will hear what good TV it will make, once they figure out how to rewrite the part where he throws up from the pain. Good TV, his suffering. Good TV, and money, and fame. Those are the things he’s been told matter, even if not outright.
Out loud, he’s told that what matters his respecting his father, respecting the sciences, and saving the world. If that’s so, then he knows they have a lot of work to do. Most of what he’s seen of the world has been grim and dangerous. Most of the world has tried to kill him.
But he can’t be scared if he’s not himself. So he leaves his shivering body behind in favor of the void.
His sons are six years old. He’s got them wrapped in soft blankets with their spelling books, tucked into a corner of the couch. They’re safe there. Safe, because it seems at all other hours of the day they are in danger.
He folds his arms. He never had it so good. He never got the warm embrace of microfleece and the assurance that the day was over and you would just get to drink a glass of warm milk and go to sleep. He never had a gentle giant scouring the perimeter. He tries so hard not to hate them for it. He tries so hard not to wish he’d been so lucky.
He stares out the window into the white snow that covers the compound. It’s so clean and blank. Refreshing, but unfamiliar. He has no idea what it’s like to feel like fresh snow, untainted and welcome for its beauty. He knows what it’s like to melt away and reveal yards and yards of mud.
Springtime came in the form of two baby boys, once. The euphoria of their birth only lasted so long, though.
He’s eleven years old. He’s discovered the Action Man’s stack of girly mags, all glossy and almost pristeen from how carefully they’ve been handled. Crazy, given how hamfisted he is. How unforgiving when he wraps an arm around Rusty’s waist to haul him away from danger.
“Put those away, Rusty,” his father warns, his tone all at once friendly and threatening. The shame he feels is palpable as he slides the shoebox back beneath the bed.
He rejoins the picnic. A girl, about his age, in a yellow dress, holding a plate of fruit salad and a bottle of Coke. She smiles at him, and his mouth hangs open. When she waves his grins stupidly, and stuffs his shaking hands into the pockets of his shorts to go greet her.
“Do you want some soda pop?” she asks, tilting the bottle toward him.
“Y-yeah--” He learns her name. Elizabeth.
“Rusty.” A heavy hand falls on his shoulder. “Come with me.”
He sees her pout and roll her eyes as he’s guided away. Later that night, making a trip to the kitchen for a glass of water, he hears the creaking of a mattress and his father’s grunting. It’s a woman-- Elizabeth’s mother, squealing with delight beneath him.
Suddenly he’s not so thirsty anymore.
His sons are eleven years old. Super Nintendo is their latest obsession, and he allows it, if only for the practice of hand-eye coordination.
“Doc, they’ve gotta get outside more, it’s summertime…” Brock protests, cracking open a beer and leaning his elbows on the counter.
“And do what? Get sunburn? Not until there’s a cure for skin cancer, mister.”
Brock rolls his eyes. Playful, at least, never with any real measure of scorn. As the years wear on they’ve grown friendly. They’ve fostered their in-jokes and daily routines. And he can’t even resent him for the way he has with his boys. How they flock to him, cling to him. He’s the same, pathetic way. Brock is a beacon of safety and security, even when they aren’t in any real danger.
“Just cover ‘em up with sunscreen and let me teach them football, Doc. They’re too scrawny…”
“Hey!” Rusty protests, lifting up his own skinny arms, nearly spilling his drink in the process. It’s a little too early to feel so buzzed…
“You oughta get some exercise too. Come on, just for an hour or so, then we can...I dunno, sit in the dark or whatever it is you do for fun.”
He’s charmed by that pleased look on Brock’s face. He can tell he won’t be taking no for an answer, and if Rusty’s honest, there’s little that man could ask for that he could deny him.
He is sixteen years old. He’s face-down on his too-small bed, feet hanging off the end as they have been for years. His father refuses to let him move up from a twin. He’s been crying, but his body seems to have run out of water, and all it will let him do is shake and heave. It’s been loud, and he knows his father hears him. He’s realized too late that that man has never been ignorant of his pain. He knew it, he saw it, and he caused it, all the while flashing his famous smile and pretending there was nothing amiss.
If his father won’t care that he can’t put himself back inside of his own head, who will? On TV his father loves him. On TV your father is supposed to love you, that’s what they always say, more than anyone. Except maybe your mom, but he hasn’t got one of those. No one’s going to care, no matter how much he hurts, no matter how far away his soul and his shadow get from his body.
“Maybe I should just die… ” he mumbles into his pillow, his voice all snivelly and helpless. There’s not anything keeping him here save for the guilt his father has instilled in him. And it would sure as hell be a damn good act of rebellion.
But as with all things, he’s just not brave enough, and he knows there will be no grown-ups around to save him from himself.
It’ll get better, maybe. Soon he’ll be grown himself, and he can leave, and he doesn’t have to be Rusty Venture anymore.
His sons are sixteen years old. They’re tucked safely into their learning beds, and he’s got a nightcap in his bony hand. Dressed in his terrycloth robe and slippers, he wanders about the rooms like a dissatisfied housewife. One that doesn’t even do any cooking or cleaning.
It’s quiet, because Brock is downstairs no doubt ruining his eardrums with headphones, lifting weights heavier than Rusty’s own body, grunting like an animal and being more of a man than he could ever dream. It’s almost cruel, to have to live with him. It’s cruel to see him keep the boys calm and happy, cruel to feel as if their friendship is rooted in pity and obligation. Brock could do better than babysitting...he could be out saving the world, not saving some middle-aged washup and his idiot kids.
Rusty used to be worth protecting, maybe. Back when he was charming and small. Now he’s outgrown his cuteness, and he’s only small in his heart and mind.
In his aimlessness, he finds himself in his bathroom, looking in the mirror at a stranger who has his face. He touches the stranger’s cheek, and he doesn’t feel a thing. He sees the stranger’s cheeks get wet, but his own feel dry as a desert. His hands open the medicine cabinet, his fingers twist open the cap of a bottle of expired pain pills.
It’s his throat that burns with the sheer volume of what he’s tried to swallow. It’s his head that feels light as he sits on the bathroom floor. But it doesn’t feel so bad, because his body isn’t attached to his heart. He left that behind long ago.
But his throat burns anew with calloused fingers shoved down it, chalky bile flowing from his mouth, stinging his teeth as he’s held by the shoulders over the toilet.
“Dumbass…” Brock scolds, if gently, shaking him as if he can get all the poison out that way.
“Don’t apologize to me, Doc. You’ve got two kids.”
“They don’t--” He hurls anew, fingers gripping onto the toilet seat. “--need me.”
“Shut the fuck up, jackass!” He rights him, dabbing at his messy lips with a hand towel. “So you’re shitty, okay? That doesn’t mean you go and kill yourself like some kinda quitter. You stay alive.” He pokes him in his skinny chest. “You get better. You...take a fuckin’ shower because you’re covered in your own sick.”
Brock helps him into the tub, sits facing the door, close by in case he decides to drown himself in bubble bath.
He’s forty-two years old. He’s trying to put his soul back in his body.