Chapter 1: My Lucifer Is Lonely
*Violence, near-death experiences, descriptions of injuries/burns, threats of violence, minor self-harm, references to past abuse, drug use (weed), descriptions of nightmares/body horror/horror elements, humorous conversations about fetish (feet, inflation, furry/monster girl, memory alteration), online artistic sex work, sexual flirtations, mentions of auto-erotic asphyxiation, past Dirk/Jake, fridge horror child endangerment, implied child sexual abuse, child abandonment.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Your name is Dirk Strider. You’re nineteen. You’re standing in front of your very first house, which has been bought using the money you’ve been saving since you were fourteen and doing illegal commissions for creeps online, then sixteen, when you were getting paid under the table to beat similar creeps up in real life.
Speaking of creeps, you’ve bribed one to move all your shit up to Northeastern Oregon from a previously purchased halfway-to-Texas point storage facility. He drove it here in an unmarked white truck. You’re pretty sure he banged around some of your electronic stuff that you couldn’t fit in your own flatbed, but you won’t cause a scene; you’re ready to be young and alone.
He takes the time to salute you before getting back in his truck and rolling it down the driveway. The one that’s purely gravel and around a mile long. Maybe even longer, but you didn’t ask when you bought the place, only took silent notice. That mien made the seller a lot more nervous and prone to divulging information.
“A steal,” the seller had simpered. “A fixer-upper,” they then changed to when one of the windows slammed itself shut. “Nothing better out here for miles. Lot's-a room for the price, in this economy...” They had quailed under your scrutiny as you kicked abandoned items around in the foyer; the previous tenants apparently couldn’t get out fast enough, leaving a trail of toys and clothes and pictures behind. The old, peeling wallpaper on the second floor revealed nonsensically scrawled messages in green. “A bargain for a first time buyer.”
Brown-noser with something to hide.
It was hot upstairs, almost unnaturally so, but you’d felt worse coming from Texas. This was roadkill county in a totally unremarkable state – surely you had the skills and drive to disappear here. You tried not to exude ‘desperate runaway’ vibes as you’d forked over the cash and signed documents with the increasingly unprofessional seller.
And then you try – and fail – not to exude ‘easy pickings’ vibes when the ghost starts to show up.
Because this house is fucking haunted.
House abandoned, too long of a violent, mysterious backlog of previous buyers and renters. Unexplained noises, sudden temperature flux.
The unerring feeling of being watched.
God, no wonder you could afford it. Your ensuing burial will likely cost more, should anybody care enough to pay for it. Though, considering you’re probably going to get knifed in the middle of the night by Ye Old Ghost that’s been haunting here since the 1900s… should anybody know to pay for it. Your body could rot here for months, unfound.
Suppose you don’t get offed immediately – you have the dreary feeling that dealing with even the most minor of hauntings will be a tiring, stressful experience likely to stack traumas upon traumas like an unfair game of Jenga called ‘the bitch end of Life.’ And right after you’d so hoped to get away from that sort of lifestyle.
These thoughts do not necessarily procure the healthy sleep you’d been promising yourself.
It’s your first night here. Everything’s fuckall dirty and like hell are you gonna clean it. A lot of the objects littering the floor, as it has come to your blandly horrified attention, are a conglomeration of different decades. Many a family has left footprints behind.
You’re considering hiring an exorcist or something before you touch any of this shit. And before you suffer from so much buyer’s remorse you pack up and decide to become a homeless hillbilly.
The light in the kitchen pops into tiny shards as you’re standing right under it. Sparks and glass rain down into your empty ramen bowl. You shake your head and body to get it all off, haphazardly tossing the foam container in the trashcan with no plastic bag. That’s gross. Reminder: buy trash bags.
Reminder: Buy a lot of things, actually.
As you step over the mess and go into the only other joined room, you make a note to fiddle with the electric wiring up there before replacing any bulbs.
The living room is occupied by a shitty green couch, a weird coffee table you avoid looking at because it makes you illogically mad, and a badly taken care of fireplace you’ll have to clean and make usable when winter comes around. You’ve looked it up online, and it only gets up to around the mid-80s out here in the summer, so you don’t think you’ll have to plead with an AC window unit ever again, thank god.
For now, you sit down on the couch and tap assurances of your successful arrival at Unnamed State to your friends. All three of them. You hesitate in sending anything to a fourth person… Nah, he’d appreciate better security than this. You’ll mail the bastard a letter.
Dad wouldn't have expected you two to converse via snailmail – he’d be monitoring the internet, thinking he could cut the legs out from under the both of you. Hal will know what to do to keep himself safe.
You used to have way less faith in your twin, you recall as you thumb at a line of bandages nestled up in between two of your bruised ribs. But he’s been a main factor in helping you escape, in keeping you alive when all Dad seemed to want to do was have you dead.
Suppose Hal’s repaying the favor from all those years ago...
Your couch musings are interrupted by an ominous rattling noise, once again coming from the kitchen. You consider pretending to ignore it for about half a second, but then what you suspect are the glass shards come whizzing past your face, nicking the left ear, you decide that that sounds like a stupid idea liable to get you killed. You turn around with your head propped up on one hand, hopefully shielding your mouth from view and any expressions you accidentally make with it.
The noises stop. Nothing else is thrown. A bead of sweat rolls down your back, and it’s such a normal occurrence to your mind that it barely registers.
You blink slowly, calculating.
Perhaps whatever this thing is – poltergeists are ghosts that can move objects, which is what you think may be rooming with you right now – it wants attention. Simple. Maybe you can flip this script. Maybe you can do what no one else has done before, what all other tenants have failed to do, and –
Two iron-brand hot hands clamp down onto your bare shoulders, tanktop straps burning up into ash, skin sizzling.
“Fuck!” The hands shove you forward and you roll, not allowing yourself to get pinned on the floor. You flatten your body underneath the artsy woodchip coffee table in between the couch and the fireplace.
You feel like your entire being is burning up with a fever that permeates throughout the whole room. Your shoulders are tight, and from your peripherals you can see the red hot skin of the burn. Your shirt is in tatters, barely clinging.
As if in a nightmare, you can feel something hovering above you. A presence.
“MY NAME IS CALIBORN.”
You scramble out from under the furniture just in time to avoid being crushed underneath its fists, splintering the table into pulchritudinous pieces.
“THIS IS MY TERRORTORY.”
Prepare to die, the Jake part of your brain quips.
And then it starts throwing those pieces, smoldering the edges where it touches them, and you’re dodging without thinking. Superficial splinters from where one chunk hits the wall over top you and bursts flutter against your burns, and you nearly scream.
You have to get out of here.
Heading towards the front door in a dead sprint, you give up dodging and do your best to divert anything thrown with the meat of your arms and thighs. Unlike in a horror movie, the door isn’t locked, though the knob is suspiciously warm in a way that worries you about the skin of your hand. Still, you throw it open and stumble out into the night right as ‘Caliborn’ chucks the kitchen garbage can at you, scattering whatever trash you’ve put in there all around.
“SO EASY.” A laugh that should not be a laugh filters out from within the house, door hanging open, you standing in the front yard tearing off the rest of your ruined shirt. “AND HERE I THOUGHT. I HAD FINALLY FOUND A CHALLENGE.”
“If you think this is gonna be easy,” you round back with, using your rag of a shirt to wipe the sweat from your face before tossing it down, “you’ve got another think coming. Leave the door unlocked. Caliborn.”
It grandly throws all of the broken table shards at you before slamming the door.
Reminds you of a tantrum-ridden child.
Your bare feet crunch against the gravel mixed with soft powdery dirt. Somebody’s blowing up your phone – it keeps flickering in your pocket. The sounds of the forest deafen the white noise already in your head.
“Feels like home already.” You flick wood dust out of your hair and absentmindedly begin gathering the shit strewn about. It’s mostly the pieces of wood from that table you never liked the look of. Some if it is trash. Your used ramen bowl is among the victims; you turn the dented garbage can right-side up and deposit it back inside.
The wood, you make a lazy pile with, and then use your lighter and a handful of dry grass to set aflame. A nice little self-congratulatory bonfire. You roll a somewhat damp log over and sit down on it.
You use the bonfire to light your last paper-thin toke of weed from Texas. You were saving it for your inevitable breakdown over running away from a nineteen-year long abusive father, but honestly, you think you’ve got bigger fish to fry now.
This could be a good thing, you try to convince yourself. A poltergeist just for you, to take your mind off all the other shit. The anxiety over what is to follow, lying to your friends, leaving behind your brother. Hell, you even heard whispers outta Hal once a few years back about Dad’s other kid having it worse than you ever did, but you’ve never met them, and also Hal used to play the 'we could have it worse' card a lot, so you try not to think about it. Think about what Dad would want with another kid when he had two self-proclaimed failures right there under his thumb.
You sigh smoke out of your nose like a dragon. It burns. The fire, sitting so close, burns, too; your eyes, your throat, your shoulders, the palms of your hands.
You force your mind to uncover memories that it had tried to block out to protect your psyche.
Red eyes, like hellfire. They can’t compare to the fire you look at now, not nearly burning hot enough. You catch yourself before you lean even closer, like you’re already trying to recreate the trauma of what happened. The overbearing heat of the room compared to the warmth of the fire, the coolness of night against your back… It isn’t the same.
You stub the butt up against the wettest underside of the log, tossing the empty paper into the fire. Floating in that space of almost-calm, you raise your hands to the fire, palms out, and warm them beyond comfort levels.
You cross your arms over your chest and place both warmed hands onto the burns spots of your shoulders.
It hurts, but the heat can’t be replicated.
You switch between gazing into the fire, at the quiet house, and at unanswered messages on your phone before you eventually plop down into the grass and doze the rest of the night away.
Somehow, you get that sleep you were convinced wouldn’t happen.
Waking up with a strange pain ricocheting from your throat down your shoulders in the middle of the woods leads you to a relatively minor freakout, in which you’re convinced for a good minute that Dad really had finally gotten tired of your shit, slit your throat the full way, and then dragged you into the woods to die.
However, simply touching the old scar on your throat and finding nothing new is enough to calm you down to a more reasonable level. You remember why you’re in the woods, staring up at the small break in the canopy that designates your house and driveway. Yours.
You are, technically, at home. Debateably alone. This should comfort you.
It does not.
And yet, when you boldly march back inside the surprisingly unlocked house to finally treat your burns and possibly re-wrap your ribs, no spookums come to greet you. As when you first moved in yesterday morning, all is silent. Except now it’s creepier.
Your bare foot kicks a severed doll head across the foyer, knocking into a pile of old clothes that look like they’re from the 60’s.
Nevermind. It’s always been creepy. You were just in denial before. Now you have tangible proof that the tension is not imagined, it’s real. And it will burn you if you aren’t careful.
The bathroom is upstairs, which you think is a weird design choice, but then again, upstairs is where the two bracketing bedrooms are. And perhaps, when this house was built, it was by people who never gave thought to others who could not use stairs. Or maybe people who had no foresight for when avoiding stairs in their life would be tantamount to not dying.
You consider your own personal bias against stairs as you use your first aid kit to treat your burns and re-wrap your previous injuries, the handprint-shaped bruise around each wrist going uncovered. You’ve been thrown down enough stairs to now avoid them on instinct. You know a few creative ways to do so. One of them is to bypass the stairs whenever necessary, though it’s easier to do this while coming down than when going up.
So you use the upstairs railing as a launching point, leaping down to the first floor. Nothing breaks. You count this as a win.
Then the heat of the first floor gets to you, and you sweat for more reasons than just one.
“WELL. WELL. WELL.”
“’Sup.” You try not to stammer and shake in ways you’ve never known yourself to do as you maneuver around the strange, esoteric presence now hovering over you. You think the red amongst the green cloudiness might be its eyes, but you can’t seem to muster up the courage to look directly at it.
This is already going badly. You and fear, honest to god fear, do not mix. You wish you’d saved that last smoke. You fucking need it.
“DIRK STRIDER.” The entity glides about the ruined living room, seeming to simultaneously suck the morning light into its black hole of a ‘body’ and yet also give off its own sickly green glow that ducks into corners and digs its fingers into your eyes. “WHAT IS A LITTLE BOY LIKE YOU. DOING SO FAR FROM HOME. I WONDER.”
“Meeting hot single specters in my area.” You act like you’re utterly preoccupied in sweeping every single speck of detritus from the kitchen floor with a janky broom you found. You don’t look up. “What about you, broski. How long have you been in the scene.”
“LONGER THAN YOU. HAVE BEEN ALIVE.”
“AND LONGER THAN YOU. WILL LIVE.”
Several rusty knives of varying sizes rattle themselves from the drawers you hadn’t bothered to peek in yesterday, floating into the air and pointing down towards you like shark’s snouts.
Well… Now this thing is making it too easy.
The fact that Caliborn launches them at you one by one is simply laughable. You dodge – of course you do. It’s astounding, for a moment, how little brain power it takes for you to slide neatly past every single one of those tiny little knives. You’ve had worse, you’ve had so much worse. You could almost cry. To think you’d been worried or whatever.
You smoked weed for this.
When all of the knives are embedded deeply into the walls, so deep that the poltergeist seems to have too much trouble getting them out to bother anymore, you continue sweeping guilelessly.
Although you can’t help but give it an admonishing, “Rude. And,” like a mocking echo of its own words yesterday, “Too easy.”
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN ‘TOO EASY!?’” The ghost bellows much louder than you thought possible, and you flinch in a way that makes you nervous again. “YOU FUCKING FREAK.”
“Wow. So did you find this place on the app too or what. Wasn’t your profile the one that said ‘masc 4 masc’ or am I still dreaming.”
Caliborn visibly sags, like a sack of goo with barely any tangible form. “OH. MY GOD.”
And then it disappears.
Check and fucking mate, my evil sir.
You smugly sweep until you begin to realize that you have no dustpan, in which you simply shove all of the shit into the corner where the trashcan has yet to be replaced. You scamper your way back upstairs, where your unfinished room is. You have a goddamn letter to write.
Caliborn is a green fissure at the edge of your vision, a constant rotation of murals like a figurine in a music box, only what comes out of him is bitten off words from his lockjaw personality. Permanent skeletal grin with one gold tooth, none of them white and none of them dulled down to anything other than predatory.
It's been two weeks. The everything is still dusty as fuck minus maybe your room and all three of your plates have been smashed. You eat off paper ones that aren't as satisfying for him to tear apart, though one single time you found them soaking like a semi-sentient mass in the only working toilet. You're honestly surprised he hasn't resorted to more guerrilla tactics such as tampering with what little supplies you have to sustain yourself, or smashing the plumbing or something incredibly inconvenient in this stage of living, but he seems to prefer more direct, immediate approaches. And reactions.
“You say you used to be human,” you begin, mid-God of War play session, when you spot his green visage from the corner of your eye, “but you look like a shitty rendition of an oni. An oil painting of one. Made by a child. Why the green.”
“IT IS NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.”
Didn’t seem like none of my business when you randomly three nights ago started bragging about how powerful and dangerous you were as a human before proceeding to try and tip everything on my bed onto the floor, you don’t say. It would be an angry mouthful.
“Did your death involve one of the seven deadly sins.” You track his movements from the edge of your shades. He’s moving closer. Several of the abandoned pieces of old shit on the shelves left by hastily vacated past families rattle and fall. Kratos gets killed. “Envy, maybe. Did you die green with envy, Caliborn -”
He smashes your Playstation to little bits and pieces.
You sit back and drop your controller laxly to the ground, crossing your ankles and putting your hands behind your head, exposing your bare armpits and neck.
Caliborn’s unearthly growl shakes the room with malice at your casual display of cool-headed indifference.
“YOUR FOUR HUNDRED DOLLAR BRAINDEATH MACHINE WAS JUST DESTROYED.” The poltergeist that is currently sidling up to your squishy mortal form that still does not give a shit sounds like dropping several tons of logs onto concrete. “BECAUSE YOU DO NOT KNOW WHEN TO LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE. DIRK STRIDER.”
“Guess so,” you respond. Shrug the shoulders he burned, but couldn’t permanently mark. “And what’ll you do about it. Caliborn.”
He echoes you entirely wrong by smashing your only remaining cup onto the hardwood right at your feet. Bits and pieces gouge into your toes, and you curse before yanking them up onto the couch. Now there’s blood on the ugly thing. Can’t say you really mind.
Caliborn laughs, big and loud and pleased, before disappearing. The temperature of the room lowers by several thankful degrees, and you may not be a Texas rodeo kind of bitch anymore, but you notice when you’re no longer profusely sweating.
So… This is going alright.
You haven’t had a full night’s rest since that first day here when you slept outside. You’re not desperate enough to do that again, though, not nearly cowed enough to escape with your tail between your legs. You can doze, from time to time, usually right after he majorly fucks with you and then disappears in a pissy huff, but you know from experience that it isn’t enough.
In fact, you were using gaming as a way to try and stay awake. Occupy your mind. Now, it’s smashed into so many chunks, you’re unsure if you can fix it later. The drag of tiredness, of nearly seventy hours without actual sleep beyond your last fitful doze, is muddling your thoughts and emotions.
You’re glad Caliborn didn’t push for more, just now. You’re unsure if you could’ve run and dodged properly if he had. Shaky on if you could’ve put up anything more than the unconcerned front you were using to mask your exhaustion.
As if pulled down by some gentle force, different from any other force you’ve dealt with thus far, you stretch out sideways on the couch, unheedful of the blood you left at the very edge. This is where you kip usually, anyway. Your bed, which lacks a boxspring and frame, tends to be occupied with projects you are unwilling to move.
And now you are unwilling to move. A slow, delirious sink down into darkness, eyes rolling so sweetly back into your head almost as soon as your body settles into one place like a ship come to moor.
The soft, sugary spinning of red…
Mixing with green like pastry batter, the kind Jane would drip drip drip colored oil into during Christmas, Hanukkah, any day she gets away with it. It swirls into your body that doesn’t exist in this state, a dull, fuzzy, dizzy numb thing that you don’t feel like paying attention to.
Candy-laden dreams. But there’s nothing wanted about this sugar. The feeling of being watched, hot hot hands around your neck like a dream that isn’t a nightmare, but should you not want it, a nightmare it can turn into.
You can’t breathe.
Caliborn tightens his clawless hands around your neck and you don’t burn, but you don’t breathe either. As if you’d lost all structural integrity, the pressure collapses you inward, and you’d scream if only you had lungs. Your eyes roll inwards, down, down the esophagus, into your stomach where you can see two shiny wet snakes writhing where your intestines should be, coughing green syrup –
You wake up to the morning sun filtering in through the windows and a heart beating hard in your chest. You are breathing.
It takes you a few minutes, but you eventually roll off of the couch and almost immediately step onto the still-shattered mug littering the floor. You don’t place a hand to your chest, as if that would calm your nightmare-scared heart, when Caliborn flutters at the edge of your vision, near-invisible against the sunbeams infesting your living room.
“Did you, by any chance, put your ‘hands’ around my neck last night.” Whatever he was about to bellow like some kind of open satanic furnace is interrupted.
He recovers quickly. “DREAMING OF ME? I REMAIN UNFLATTERED. DESPERATE NELLY.”
“Of what context is this accusation of ‘dreaming of me’ laid in, exactly.”
The poltergeist moves beyond your peripherals. The heat of the room kicks up a notch. Or perhaps he’s simply gotten closer. You don’t move, gazing out the window. You can’t tell if it’s because of fear or not.
“THE CONTEXT IS MEANINGLESS. I WILL WRAP MY HANDS AROUND YOUR NECK. AND MAKE YOU SING. FOR ME.”
“If I’m being choked, there will be no singing involved.”
“DO NOT GET TECHNICAL WITH ME. HOW WOULD YOU KNOW UNLESS YOU HAVE BEEN STRANGLED BEFORE?”
“I’m not at personal liberty to answer that without your ‘context’ first.”
You pause. Are you trying to one-up him, or are you trying to goad him into attempting to one-up you? Either way – whatever this is, it’s fun when you win. As most things tend to be.
“I’ll have you know that I select my safephrases on a case-by-case basis,” you inform him with a tone that you understand conveys a blasé air, walking your fingers up the wall since he has no chest to do so on, “and right now I’m getting ‘Sesshomaru’ vibes. Thoughts?”
That line of inquiry is thoroughly shattered, like the mirror Caliborn vaults over your head, when he goes, “THAT IS ABSOLUTELY VILE!” and then disappears from the room.
It seems your ghost is a vanilla schmuck.
Your foot’s scab from last night agonizingly pulls itself off with the next step you take, scuffing your soles across the roughened old wooden floors.
It seems you have some cleaning up to do.
You get a letter back from Hal.
You had to pick it up from the only postal office in town, one of the few employees there acting mighty confused when they had to call you to tell you it had arrived, only to be greeted with one of your answering machine bots that sounded only adjacently sentient.
Your twin’s letter is written in one of his nonsensical codes he delights torturing you with that’ll take you days to figure out, should you care to decode it at all. You can already predict the contents of the letter, however, namely it being a landslide of botheration and aggro-entwined euphemisms to your current status as AWOL while only a small portion will be dedicated to information you actually give a shit about.
Instead of dealing with any of that nonsense, you shove it into your bereft filing cabinet and continue with your commission. Somehow, Caliborn has yet to destroy your custom rigged tower nor your expensive drawing tablet, which is great, because you haven’t had as much luck in selling your skills as a robotics engineer. Shipping is too expensive for your current lifestyle to offer your services anywhere but within the state, but boy oh boy is Oregon a dry place for electronic creation. Unless you suddenly have the deep enough pockets for Oregon State University.
Your other survival-based selling skills, thankfully, need not be contained to one state.
“WHY DO YOU DRAW THE FEET LIKE THAT?”
“Because that’s what the commissioner asked me to do. Is paying me to deliver the goods.” You draw another line, delete it, draw it again. Switch to a different layer.
Caliborn seems utterly goddamn fascinated by you penning this niche ass furry fetish art. He’s so distracted, apparently, that he forgets whatever annoyance he floated in to waste your time with.
Do ghosts get bored?
“FEET DO NOT LOOK LIKE THAT.” Your personal poltergeist is insistent, his voice and presence circling around your head like a cartoon tweety bird. “YOUR ART IS HORRIFIC.”
“Eyup.” Time for shading. “Seventy-five dollars an hour, tho’.”
“INFLATION.” You nearly give him a laugh, but stay strong once you realize that he most likely means the inflation rate of money. Interesting.
“Nah, none of that here,” you say anyways, because you honestly cannot help yourself. “Just some good ol’ catgirl feet. Adding that would cost extra.” You wink in his general not-direction from behind thick shades.
Caliborn seems to finally understand anyways. “OF COURSE SOMEONE AS LOW AS YOU. WOULD ENJOY SOMETHING SO DEPRAVED.”
The room begins to become heated in a way it wasn't before, and not in the sexy way. This makes you aware of how the temperature your Not So Friendly Neighborhood Spook exudes may or may not be attached to his mood. Something to note for later.
“PERHAPS I SHOULD CLEANSE THIS METHOD OF DEPRAVITY.” You begin to sweat, your computer fan whirring at the increased temperature, dangerously close to overheating. “NO SUCH THING IS A GOOD LOOK. ON YOU. BUT PURITY WOULD, AT LEAST, SMELL LESS PUTRID.”
You make the mistake of going, “Don’t you fucking dare,” which so obviously indicates to Caliborn that he should destroy what you cherish that you might as well have put a glowing neon sign around your head that says ‘DESPERATE.’
Before he legitimately wrecks the only thing you have left to make money with, AKA to pay the steep price for making the mistake of being alive, you decide to experiment. How corporeal, you ponder, does this manifestation get?
How far can you go?
From underneath the lumpy, unslept mattress, you pull a long, thin box made of a thick material.
And from this box, you retrieve your katana.
You don’t care to waste time on a monologue. As much as you’d enjoy getting in a few verbals jabs at the ghost’s expense, which you are confident in your ability to, time is not on your electronic’s side today.
You turn, using the force of your body to deliver a slash directly where the specter of green was making itself visible, obviously readying to kill your computer and tablet.
It does not pass straight though, but neither does it catch the same way it would on an object, or living body. It’s as if you’ve attempted to cut through jello, a thick stew that could corrode metal.
As it is doing now.
“WOW.” For all it seems you cannot move, you grip your blade tighter; custom made by your horrible fuckoff father, gifted to your on your eighteenth birthday when he’d tried and nearly succeeded in slitting your head from your body, and once used to commit a true atrocity. It suffers in the miasma, boiling, turning red hot and bright. “YOU REALLY ARE A MORON.”
“Yea, I think I get that,” you admit as you unwillingly pale, face-to-face with the fucked up metaphor that melts dangerously close both in vision and in eyes, right before Caliborn takes one of his limbs and yanks the pommel from your hands like one would easily snatch it from a child’s.
It’s a bad angle. With no direction for which to be grounded on, gravity ceasing to make sense, your ruined sword flips downwards, towards the floor, floating in green space. You don’t make it out of the way in time, taking a deep slice to the right thigh with one of its malformed shards, cooled by the air so that it no longer glows hot.
There is no convenient cauterizing, because the world doesn’t have mercy on pieces of shit like you.
You begin losing blood. A few nonsensical expletives let loose from your throat without your permission, but you’re too busy stumbling a retreat, grasping at walls in attempts to stay upright as you calculate your rate of survival on the way to the medkit stashed in the bathroom.
“OOPS.” You don’t know what that means, coming from him, considering how much he seems to delight in slapping his ownership onto any and all actions or traps or injuries he may create, but you don’t have the time right now to debate the latent personality contradictions of your resident haunt when you run the very real risk of failing to clean out, sew shut, and maintain shut this injury.
It’s fine, you tell yourself as you wash the dirty bathroom floor with your own lifeblood, you’ve done this before. You’ve had worse before.
But back then, you also had other people living with you. Ones who weren’t already dead. At least half of one who could flip a coin, see where it lands, and perhaps care enough about you that day to keep you from dying.
You are not fully aware of what Caliborn is doing, or where he is. All you know is time, ticking down, the slow drain of yourself like forgotten food cooling in a trashcan, familiar pain, familiar shaking hands and uncontrolled breathing, familiar thread, familiar needle, how warm and oily blood is before it becomes friction and flakes.
It could almost be like a comfort in its familiarity. You are even graced with the presence of crippling shame at making such a glaring mistake.
Just like home, you think, laying there covered in sweat and blood. A long track of ugly stitches mar your thigh. Just another scar, you think. You’ll never be pretty enough to go to the ball now, you think.
Caliborn unexpectedly appears, dropping something so hot and compact onto your stomach that your first instinct is to fling it into the nether, which you fail to do because you cannot move individual limbs optimally right now.
But then you become slightly more aware, realizing that it isn’t dangerously hot so much as uncomfortably so. You crane your head down, wondering when you got on the floor when you’d started out sitting on the toilet, and spot a semi-burnt bread pouch in a plastic and cardboard foil.
Wuh-oh. You believe you’re being courted by death.
“EAT.” It commands you. “EAT, YOU IGNORANT, FRAGILE WHELP. HOW ELSE WILL YOU SURVIVE?”
It is a highly effective courting.
Like a delirious fawn whose mother was just shot, you listen to the king of the forest and you eat the fucking Hot Pocket(TM).
“How’d you heat this,” you ask with a tinge of that delirium. If he’s destroyed your microwave over one hot pocket you might actually buy that Holy Water online after all.
“HOW DO YOU THINK I HEATED IT, DIRK STRIDER.”
Oh. Shit. That’s right.
Listen. You’ve lost a lot of blood.
You chew your over-cheesed bread pocket. Some sticks to the corner of your mouth and cannot be reached with your tongue. “Hey, I can’t always be a winner. I’m dyin’ here.”
“YOU ARE NEVER A WINNER. NOT IN MY HIGHLY QUALIFIED BOOKS.”
“That’s just your opinion, macho.”
When you crawl back to your room one shower and several painful hours later, your computer has blue screened from overheating, and your tablet is on the floor, but neither of them are non-functioning.
You continue to lie to your friends about your safety levels and being found, dodging the issue of where exactly you are now located for a precious more amount of time. You are an asshole. You do it anyways.
Naturally, it startles you badly one day when a vehicle can be seen and heard making its way up your twenty-minute long forest driveway.
You haven’t ordered anything. You didn’t tell anybody where you are. You have a PO box.
For one heartsplintering moment, your entire being soars with the idea of it perhaps, in some far off alternate reality, being Jake English come to find you. Come to rescue you from some of your bad ideas, and their even worse outcomes. Like he always grandstandingly promised he would, not so long ago.
The way Jake had looked at you with such open adoration those first few months was the stuff of nightmares. You’d reacted like a skittish animal at nearly every turn, running away and yet somehow managing to be overly clingy and attention-whoring at the same time. Building some kind of false version of yourself for him to love instead of who you really are, which is basically the equivalent of a tar monster given sentience by the gods only to ravage the townspeople until brought to death by some dashing hero. One wearing thigh holsters, perhaps.
When you split, he blamed himself for bungling the relationship up. You had only laughed, because you felt weak and incredulous. Him? Messed it up? No, it was you who was to blame. Neither of you could come to an agreement, and you both left each other frustrated. Which basically described the whole six month relationship in a nutshell.
Not that you wouldn’t sell every single organ you could possibly get away with on the Black Market for one more try at Jake English.
Anyway – you break from your mental fantasies and realize than an honest to god motorbike is valiantly attempting to conquer your gravel-dirt bumpkin drive. It’s making admirable progress of it.
Caliborn mercifully does not attempt to thwart you when you launch yourself from the upstairs hallway down to the first floor, though you do nearly impale your foot on a nail he’d apparently left up and ready for you. You’ve really got to start wearing shoes around the house, though you suspect he’d only find more imaginative ways to spike you in response. You’ll get house shoes when you feel like you want to up your own ante.
An over-eager and yet simultaneously nervous wreck, you rub at the ache in your previously sliced leg as you open the front door and wait the few agonizing minutes for the motorbike to slide to a dust-filled stop.
You feel like a Grade A dumbass though when Hal throws his helmet off in a practiced flourish. His identically coiled bleached hair is mussed in what he probably thinks is an artful way. “Hello, Dirk. Nice digs you got out here in bumfuck nowhere. Met any hillbillies with memory alteration fetishism yet?”
You’re damn close to slamming the door on him when you notice a tiny child sitting in between his legs, strapped to him with a black belt. Their own little helmet is shaped like a dinosaur’s head, green spikes and everything.
As you observe in muteness, Hal unstraps the kid and removes their helmet for them. “This is Dave.”
Dave is your youngest brother, and you, technically, should know this. You’ve ‘known’ this since he was born in some hospital in the same state as you, but you’ve never exactly gone out of your way to meet Dave, or particularly care. He was apparently taken to your father’s other apartment in Houston. The one, as you think about in retrospect, that he worked his smuppet business in.
That thought does not bode well.
You glance down at Dave with eyes that seem to weigh ten tons more than they did a moment ago. Dwarfed in a bright orange hoodie, he’s holding something black and soft in his arms and is looking out into the woods.
“He’s going to be staying with you from now on,” Hal continues, and you’re shaking your head No before you can even think about it.
There’s no way you’re letting a kid of an undetermined age beyond ‘small and close enough to infanthood that it’s uncomfortable to be around them’ stay in a house with a fucking heinous, bad-tempered poltergeist that has either frightened away or killed all previous tenants. You’ve only persisted for so long because you’re tenacious like the devil himself. Also you were out of options, bar returning to your abusive father.
Obvious to you, the poltergeist was the only option.
Hal walks up to look you in the face, and it’s as uncomfortable and prickling with tension as it’s always been. “Oh come on you big baby, he’s like two feet tall. You’ve got loads of room in this woodside crackhouse you’ve desperately holed yourself up inside of. He’s adorable, loves applesauce and crows, and he’ll have a running commentary about all the stupid shit you do on a daily basis by age six at the latest, thereby proving my functions as your twin brother completely obsolete.”
“Your ‘function’ is not to dog my every decision with our grating voice.” You eagle-eye Dave, who is now poking at a complicated structure next to the house that may or may not have been a compost about five years and twenty tenants ago. You’re still not entirely convinced there isn’t a body buried under there. “You don’t have to be here.”
“’Our’ voice, dear brother?” Hal says in a lilting tone you know he’s been practicing since he could first talk at the lonely and frustrated age of thirteen, post-debilitating accident. “So you admit that, in a vacuum, we both exist as basically the same dude -”
“Dave, no,” you call out in your sternest voice possible, which is apparently too stern, as Dave lets go of the side of the compost-cum-murder-coverup-site like his fingers are on fire and stands there looking down at his shoes, still as a statue, plush something shoved up into his jacket front so that it distorts his shape.
“See, you’ve already got the parental instincts down. Now all you need is a sexually unappealing middle-aged body and a boring last name, and you’re kosher enough to sell on shelves.” Hal slaps you on the ass and you whirl around, but he’s already flitting his way over to Dave to pet the kid on the head like a dog. “Bet you the door’s unlocked.”
Dave spares you a little look, and you accidentally make eye contact, though he won’t know that from behind your shades. His eyes are a startling blood red color that bleeds over into his sclera, and for a moment you think of Caliborn. You begin to sweat as Dave’s hand pushes the door open. Hal was right. It’s unlocked.
“He’s albino,” Hal says without prompting. “And the red is from a blood leak that is otherwise totally contained and not dangerous to him lest he do something to cause it to leak even more. Or – unless you do something, considering he’s yours now.”
“Mine.” You echo, stupidly, which you expect Hal to immediately berate you for, but instead you’re skittering forth on some sort of innate hunch you didn’t know you had beyond panic to watch Dave creep further into your house. He pokes at all the old, varied umbrellas and walking sticks in the weird vase by the front door that you still haven’t gotten rid of. You think Caliborn may try to skewer you with one if you did.
You belatedly obsess over how much leftover blood you have yet to clean out of the bathroom. What a biohazard. You consider with only half a logical mind about the possible ways you could bribe Caliborn to burn the rest up, and then you ask yourself what the hell your problem suddenly is.
“Yes, you overeager bitch,” Hal speaks up front right behind you in that barely-contained tone of voice he gets when he’s ever ignored for anything longer than five seconds. Drama queen. “I got Dave out of there at risk of my own remaining limbs. No need to thank me or anything, considering you didn’t even offer to take me with you when you fled by yourself. Dad wasn’t happy, if you were wondering. Not happy in the slightest.”
“Wasn’t any time. Or plans,” you tell him distractedly. Dave is now fiddling with some dirty keys on a ring. You have no idea where he found them. You resist the urge to snatch them out of his hands and immediately stab him with a tetanus shot. “Besides, you weren’t the one with the boyfriend.”
“Hm, yes. Where is Jake, by the way?” Hal has that little grin, mean as anything. Your own mouth turns down, so you pretend like you’re uber focused on how Dave is kicking random dirty shit across the floor in the entrance way. “Shall I guess? Is he hmm… Upstairs, breathlessly awaiting your return? Or maybe for you to finally clean this shithole up? Dave, please put that down, it’s probably got rat poison and desperation on it.”
Dave puts whatever the hell he was holding down and shuffles off to find something else to poke at. His little white head is like a beacon in the relative darkness of the hallway. Caliborn had smashed any lights you’d put in, so you hadn’t bothered for more in a while. You guess that’s a fight you’re obligated to revisit, now.
“He’s not around. You can’t leave Dave here.” Hal rolls his eyes in a perfect circle because he’s never learned that ‘rolling your eyes’ doesn’t mean a full 360 roll. It makes him look possessed. “I’m serious.” You decide not to mention the ghost, and end up not being capable of mentioning anything specific at all. “Why can’t you take him with you. Surely you don’t trust me with him – you didn’t trust me enough to inform me you were coming.”
“Because now I am the one with the boyfriend,” Hal says with much too much delight, completely bypassing your accusations about trust, and your stomach sours. Dave almost trips over the single stair up into the living room, and ends up retreating back to the entryway instead. “His name is Equius. His QPP named Nepeta offered the bedroom above her cat cafe in Japan to me. I’ll be pursuing a robotics degree there. Obviously, I couldn’t stay at dear old Dad’s if I was being a huge queer, now could I? My neck isn’t as durable as yours was, Dirk.”
“And neither could Dave,” you question in your perpetually flat voice. You seriously wonder what kind of woman would ever let your dad get her pregnant, a white one if Dave’s features are anything to go by, but then you remember the man’s strange ability to become a snake charmer at the opportune moments. Some people, regretfully, looked at him and thought that they could tame that crazy amount of unfiltered danger. Horny opportunistic morons that kept giving that man helpless babies.
You’d suspect Hal got his own disorder from y’alls father if you didn’t already know mental illness doesn’t really work like that, and Hal also at least engages in struggles to be a better person. Ineffective as that might be, in your opinion.
If he’s got a boyfriend who readily accepts him into house and relationship, though, then there’s hope for him yet.
“Nope.” Hal shoves a red stick of bubblegum into his mouth, and when he speaks, his fruity breath wafts over your face. You fight not to cringe. Cherry. “Really, Dirk, leaving an impressionable and easily scarred four-year-old in the possession of Dad? Because that’s what he’d be,” your brother pops his gum in a sickeningly pink bubble, “a possession. The item of a cult, run by one man. You don’t want to know what I found when I went in there to get him, Dirk. You don’t.” He steps back and opens his arms, as if he expects you to step into them. “Unless you do?”
You shift uncomfortably at that declaration, ignoring whatever twisted version of comfort Hal offers. The heavy pause is enough for Dave to come scampering back towards the front door, and for a moment you’re fearful that Caliborn has made an appearance and Dave’s about to come out screaming about a ghost, but instead all you see is a roach dogging his heels like a heat-seeking missile.
Hal’s smile grows big and trained. “A friend is trying to get to know you, Dave!”
Dave makes a tiny noise, the first you’ve heard out of him since he suddenly toddled his way into your sphere of reference on the back of your brother’s bike, a contraption you aren’t entirely sure how it came to be owned by Hal, but you are not going to ask, because you’re positive that that’s something Hal wants.
Flapping his hands in the air a few times before abruptly ceasing all movement, Dave crouches down and allows the biggest goddamn roach you have ever seen in your life to crawl onto his hand.
“Wow, ew,” Dave says, spinning twice in complete circles, before launching the roach into the woods with a jerk of his arm.
“Aww...” Hal says in faked disappointment.
You just stand there and watch all this go down.
“Okay Dave, take Sprite and get inside!” Hal tells Dave with carefully tailored excitement, and Dave barely hesitates to yank the plush out of his hoodie – a crow, you realize, with big fluffy wings that flop around limply – and hop back into the house before turning around to wait for more instruction. “If you stay inside, Dirk can’t throw you out as easily. And if he tries anyway, just hold on to the closest thing and scream as loud as you can, okay!”
You make some sort of aborted hand movement that is firmly between a ‘what the fuck’ and a ‘don’t you fucking dare leave me with this’ as Hal swings a leg back over his bike and slides the helmet into place on his head. The second helmet is easily shoved into a compartment due to its tiny size.
“Hasta la sayonara, Dirk. Don’t find me at the address I’ve left in Dave’s pocket if you need help! I will sincerely not await your letters in the near future!” Hal shouts as he starts up the bike, kicks off, and is rocketing back down the driveway like a bat out of hell.
Dave looks shellshocked, which is much like you feel but refuse to show. He half-yells a, “Wait, Hal, wait!” He stops right before he runs outside the house, looking down at the threshold like it’s a barrier he simply cannot cross.
And then he points those little peepers at you, and you can’t tell from where you’re standing, lost, in the circle of the beginning of the driveway, whether they’re bloodshot from emotion or they look like that normally.
He then surprises you by turning tail and fleeing into the house, much deeper than before when he was being a total contradiction by timidly exploring yet also sticking his little mitts on everything he could reach. You chase after him, forgetting to shut the door as you nearly slide right past him in the living room.
He’s tripped over the lamp Caliborn threw down the other night. The bulb had long since been obliterated in a previous supernatural tantrum, but you kept the thing around because it has a kitschy 60s shade with terrible art. Now it’s a child hazard.
Now everything’s a child hazard.
There’s no parental instinct that takes over to tell you what to do like you’ve always read in books and seen in movies where the deadbeat dad is suddenly tasked with keeping a small child safe, sane, and fed, and like some descending angel, they are leveled up to Parent Tier with only some vague nudging from the plot devices they stumble across in their new relationship.
Instead all you get are sweaty palms and a four year old who refuses to let you touch him as he cries out for the other dude who looks exactly like you that’s left him high and dry.
“Fuck,” you say, real eloquent like, in a way that isn’t appropriate for a four year old’s delicate little ears. The ones that are turning so red that you’re becoming worried whether he’s breathing or not in between all that yelling. “Dave, I’m. Hal’s left. It’s me – Dirk. Hal isn’t coming back.” That was likely not the best thing ever to say. “I’m your older brother.”
Dave only squalls louder, squashing the plush crow Hal had probably lovingly sewn for him to his chest and getting snot and tears and spit all over it. You resist the knee-jerk reaction to yank it away from him to clean it, because that’s not the most emotionally grounded thing to do right now.
Every attempt made to hold Dave close ends in higher-pitched screams, ones you could avoid if only you’d plug your ears. But again, that is productive solely to being a selfish asshole, and not productive towards being someone Dave would stop crying for.
Thank god Caliborn isn’t here right now, you think, as Caliborn seeps into the room like a malignant devil who heard his name from inside your mind. He’s green and heat, and he is not welcome.
“SILENCE THE CHILD. OR ELSE I WILL DO IT MYSELF.”
Dave hops up and down on his feet and buries his face into his crow completely. His cries are muffled now, and he can’t dodge you when you scoop him up in an inexperienced way and nearly dump him right back on the floor again when he squirms.
You mumble a distracted, “Wait,” as you slide past the poltergeist hovering at the edge of the doorway, a ghostly wallflower. You set Dave down on the couch, where he rolls to his side like some kind of encumbered and overwhelmed pumpkin.
You flex your hands a few times, then sit down as well. Rubbing his back seems like a good idea, so you do that. Nothing explodes, so you keep doing that.
It takes less time than you thought it would for something to change, and that’s more scary than you were expecting, because the change comes from Dave going lax and quiet. You spend a few long seconds entrenched in sheer panic before you realize that he’s literally cried himself to sleep. You wonder absentmindedly how long he and Hal were on that bike for.
A new situation you must now deal with drools on your ugly and definitely not sanitary couch.
Caliborn hovers threateningly over the long unused fireplace. He’s a miasma of sharp colors, never locking together long enough to form a full figure. You make eye contact through your shades, and his eerie red eyes are startling enough to your survival-based system that you look away involuntarily.
“Don’t touch him,” you start out with, gaining steam. “Don’t scare him, or throw things at him, or yell at him. Hell, don’t even look at him. Don’t do anything to Dave. He’s off limits. He’s,” fragile, different, scared all on his own, precious, “too young.”
Caliborn lets out a rumbling growl that shatters any lingering peace your new guest has brought into the house. “DO YOU THINK YOUR PITIFUL PLEAS WILL STOP ME? THIS IS MY TERRORTORY. YOU ARE MERELY A PEST, SOON TO BE SQUASHED UNDERFOOT.”
“You feet can’t be corporeal,” you divergently argue. “You think I’m fucking around right now then you’re stupider than I thought before. I don’t care if you throw your tantrums at me, but you are not allowed to do that shit to Dave. He didn’t come here on purpose.”
There’s a breath of hot air sweeping throughout the room before Caliborn disappears and reappears somewhere much too close. “IS THAT AN INVITATION?”
Unconsciously, your hand curls over Dave’s tiny shoulder like it could protect him from everything and yet nothing at all. “Is it.”
Caliborn’s green grin sparkles with his gold tooth. “DIRK STRIDER. YOU ARE ALSO. STUPID.”
And then he fades in both vision and presence. Dave’s breathing evens out. Yours begins again, unaware that it’d stopped at all.
Shit just got really fucking complicated, didn’t it?
Chapter 2: All Your Colors Start To Burn
*Implied/referenced child abuse, description of injuries/burns, threats of violence, child endangerment, mentions of attempted murder/attempted kidnapping, nightmares, mild misogyny, humorous references to kink, child neglect, mentions of drowning, unsafely scissor actions, cruelty to insects.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When Dave wakes up sometime that early evening and is no longer singing the song of his people – that is, traumatized little kids – you force yourself to explain the new home situation to him. Who you are, who Hal is, who Dad was as someone who will never show up again.
For better or for worse, he takes it stoically. So much so that you’re worried he didn’t understand a word you’ve said, but then he gives the tiniest nod known to man, and you feel acute relief.
You get stuck on explaining Caliborn. Who he is, what he is, what he wants… It’s a mystery even to yourself, though you’ll hesitate to admit non-control in the face of an innocent child.
So you don’t. Not in full, not as much as you should, and you know it. You tell Dave that the house is haunted, but it’s okay because you struck a deal with the ghost, who might be scary, but has agreed not to hurt him. Again – you didn’t exactly get a written contract from your poltergeist, but you’re trying your best to believe in this verbal agreement yourself. Believe that you’ve got everything under control here. Everything safe.
Dave has nothing to say to that, unsurprisingly. You think he may be in shock. You think you may also be in shock, faced with the reality of your living situation. Of what, exactly, you’ve resigned yourself to, now exposed from an alternate perspective. You stare at him in silence for longer than necessary, as if you aren’t going to have the time to in the years to come.
Lord almighty… Years. Years. Kids, for all they are already born as people, grow up. And now you’ve got one.
You’re going to have to find a dentist and a doctor and… Wait, is a pediatrician the same thing as a doctor? Do you need both? How old until kids should be shipped off to school? Does this sleepy town even have a school? Surely, it has a school system, if not three age tier public schools and a community college…
You need to find a fucking weed dealer first is what you need to do, or else your neurotically fried mind is going to be less than helpful for this kid.
Then again… do you really want Dave exposed to drugs like that? You heard smoking weed, or anything really, is bad for pets. Not that you’re… comparing Dave to a pet, you just meant, with little kids and all… pets are theoretically comparable in terms of constitution… Which isn’t to say that… You… Uh…
Goddammit it’s been less than a day and you’re already fucking things up.
You slap your own knee and barely remember Dave is still there, sitting on the couch with you, when he visibly flinches. He’s not not peeking at you from his peripherals, and you’re struck with a feeling of helplessness that you cannot stand.
“I’ll go get your room situated,” you tell him in a quiet voice, getting up. There’s wet tracks of various child fluids soaking into your shirt but you act like it’s no big deal, for his sake or perhaps more selfishly for your own. “Stay down here for now. If Cal bothers ya’ just uh… Just holler.”
Another tiny nod that could be easily mistaken for a flinch. You’re unsure when physical comfort should happen, so you don’t touch him as you walk past the couch, the kitchen, and then up the stairs.
Time to run yourself chore-ragged in the hopes of having some time to figure all this shit out. It basically never works but you’re about to do it anyways.
You drag the full-sized mattress out of your room and into Dave’s new one: the left room bracketing the bathroom in the second floor hallway. Building him a metal frame out of spare bits you brought in the move but have no idea what they were initially meant for, you lament that you’ve yet to sleep a full night in your room anyways. Dave can have the bed, yourself taking the ugly couch downstairs like you had been already. Your room could be used for more projects now with the mattress gone.
Still, his seems woefully bare. And dirty, since you’d never cared about cleaning spaces you weren’t actively using, or ones Caliborn would mess up again if you had gone out of your way to clean them. You compromise both of these problems by dragging up the miraculously still intact broom and a bucket of soapy water to give the place a general wipe-down. If you feel like a total idiot when you have to get on your hands and knees to clean under the now ten-ton metal frame bed you built in here without forethought, then the only one who has to know that is you.
And also Caliborn, who hovers over your shoulder like the worst hot, dry Texas breeze. He refrains from showing himself, and your anxiety builds over what he might do next, but he doesn’t break anything, either. He does, however, ghost an unsettling laugh every time you bang your knee on something, which happens more times than you care to admit.
You’re almost relieved that he’s so obviously haunting you, instead of being an unknown integer that could possibly be haunting Dave instead.
When you go back downstairs to empty the water bucket and smack the broom against the side of the house to deposit the dust, Dave is sitting in the entrance way with the door open, watching and listening to nature. If he’s never left Houston before now, then this must be his closest encounter with it. You prop the dusty broom up on the wall and decide to disturb his peace as later as possible.
You leave him one of those cute but inadequately sized Uncrustable PB&J sandwiches you’d been shamefully subsisting off of for like three weeks and a bottle of water. You’ll get the strawberry jelly and apple juice later. Kids need a lot of nutrients. Supposedly. No, not ‘supposedly’ – factually.
You don’t wait around to watch him eat since you figure that’d be creepy coming from a guy he got dumped on the doorstep of less than a day ago, so you make yourself busy and re-purpose a side table discarded near the edge of the kitchen and haul that upstairs to Dave’s room.
It fits perfectly next to his bed, but the room is still missing a lot. Stuff you can’t provide right now, not without leaving, or not without inviting delivery people up to your isolated plot. His mattress has no sheets nor boxspring, but you make do with a few abandoned quilts you’d previously washed. They look handmade.
You get an idea on how to utilized the unused, and begin installing a pole in the doorless closet for hanging clothes from. You took it from your own closet because none of your shit will ever get hung up and that’s the truth. Despite only having the one set of clothes he’s currently wearing, you hope maybe Dave will be cleaner than you if you encourage him to properly organize now.
At that harrowing thought of the predicted future, you have to pause in consideration. Absentmindedly, you test the strength of the metal pole by grabbing it and putting most of your weight on it. It’s solid.
You need to contact Roxy and ask them for help. Help of the haxing flavor.
Technically, Dave isn’t yours. He’s your younger brother by about fifteen years – another note to make: you need his birthdate and SSID – but he’s not your kid. Neither you or Hal could legally run off with him like this.
You wonder about Dad's 24/7 surveillance with the cameras. You were ballsy enough to steal or destroy them whenever you found them by the time you hit puberty, but Dave is only four. And Hal is definitely skilled enough to get past anything Dad set up, you don’t doubt that. You need to know what Dad intended to do about his bastard child he undoubtedly wanted to ‘train up’ like he did to you, and tried to do to Hal before your twin lost several limbs and gained the ability to verbally flay people alive. Namely you.
Thankfully, your unnamed mother paid for Hal’s hospital and therapy bills; Dad had easily admitted on planning to give him a mercy death. Then you and Rox had stepped up to build his prosthesis, even though you still think Hal was a total ungrateful wad about it.
You come back to yourself because of the way your forehead is painfully being pressed into the pole in front of your face, and how that pole feels about a hundred and fifty degrees hotter than it should be.
Jerking your head back with a hiss, you nearly jump right into Caliborn’s writhing mass of cherry-green hate, except the air around him is even hotter than the metal pole was. If you try to walk through him like a fucking ghost from Harry Potter or some shit, you’ll be boiled alive.
So of course that means the asshole is going to essentially hotbox you in this closet with his own weird spectral particles while you sweat and twitch.
“THE DECORATIVE LITTLE MEAT SACK. HAS LEFT THE BUILDING.”
“Okay.” Caliborn does not leave. Forcefully up close, his shifting non-form is dizzying to take in visually. “Then move so that I can prevent this.”
“IT HAS ALSO CONSUMED THE OFFERINGS.”
You blanch. Then you understand. “Great; he’s fed, watered, and wandering out alone into the woods like the remix of Little Orange Ridin’ Hood I don’t intend to experience. Now move.”
The poltergeist responds by pressing what you assume to be his equivalent of a thumb, or a claw, into your hip where your shirt rides up. You make an involuntary noise at the pain of searing flesh, unable to back away even as your instincts make you spasm and hit your head on the closet rack, but as soon as it’s happening, he’s stopped. Gone.
You don’t waste time gawping at your new injury. You race over to the open window of the bedroom that conveniently looks down onto the dirt-gravel clearing right in front of the house.
Sure enough, pale little Dave in his orange hoodie stuffed full with plushie is wandering around, poking at things on the ground that not even your eyes can see.
“Dave,” you call out. Instantly, he freezes and spins around. He looks up a second later, fists clenched. You can’t make out his expression from here, but you feel guilty anyways. “Stay where I can see you. Don’t wander too far. It’s not safe.”
He doesn’t nod, or move. He simply stares upwards.
You nod for him, then step back from the window until you’re sure you’re out of sight, and give a great billowing sigh.
The itchy, throbbing pain of your hip makes you bite your lip as you look down, pulling your shirt up to inspect it.
Jesus Christ, it’s an ugly wound.
The only thing that comes to mind as you take it in, this strange little circle with unevenly overlapping ends like an untied spooled string, or a snake curled in on itself, is ‘That’s a brand.’ It’s bright red and going to blister, you’d wager. Going to scar.
You side-step and lean against the wall next to the window, curious fingers poking at the new injury even though every touch hurts.
You really need to talk to Roxy.
Nightmares. You thought you of all people knew intimately what a nightmare was before, but you didn’t truly know until now, until here.
It won’t stop – the nights you manage to meet full REM sleep for redundancy meetings are full to the brim with fear that you have no control over. Once you’re down and out, you are not let go until the sun rises. It’s an ineffectively effective way to get full nights of sleep, which is entirely unlike you and so obviously you end up fighting it for a few days before collapsing.
You have always been a lucid dreamer. Before your insomnia set in, before sleep became an unnecessary facet of humanity that you wished you could edit out, you were a lucid child first. It was never allowed to detract from your waking life’s awareness, but it was another way for your to cope with your increasingly violent father, distant twin brother, and doomed obsession with a green-eyed boy.
However, since you’ve come here, and aside from the first night you’d spent outside, your unconscious lucidity has vanished. A gift you took for granted all your childhood, like a metaphor it gets snatched away come adulthood. In your dreams, you are not in control. When you wake up, you are faced with a reality in which you are still not in control, at least in some areas. Especially when Caliborn and Dave are in the same room as you, their expectations and unpredictable behaviors spreading roots and making unavoidable ley lines out of your veins.
What’s even more frustrating is that, for all that your nightmares are terrifying and awe-some as they occur, you simply cannot force yourself to fully remember them when you wake up. You shake and you shiver with a triggered fight-or-flight attack – which, granted, isn’t anything new to you – but you cannot recall your dreams like you used to.
What sticks with you is mostly feelings. The feeling of spasmodic fear, the feeling of hands crushing parts of you that shouldn’t be crushed, the feeling of dream-like lack of consequences and carelessness. But never events, never words, never heavy symbolism.
Dave has not exactly reported a lack of sleep or tainted dreams to you, but then again you wouldn’t yet expect him to. Things are… rocky, to put it simply. Awkward. Quiet. He hasn’t cried like he did when Hal left, but he also hasn’t shown any emotions other than perhaps apathy or nervousness. With your own uncontrollably flat mien and near-inability to ‘normally’ interact with people IRL, much less children, you have no clear plan on where to go from here. You try your best, you tell yourself, while you distinctly feel as if you are hardly doing anything correctly at all.
You are not equipped for other people, or translating your obsessive affections into something tangible, usable. You’re still learning how to buy groceries for two people, how to budget, how to interact with someone who doesn’t want you dead, how to interact with a thing that may or may not want you dead while it has access to the person who doesn’t want you dead.
It’s hard. It’s hard and nobody understands, you mentally whinge, even as you are objectively aware that nobody understands because you haven’t given anybody a chance to yet.
Caliborn seems to be the only one in higher spirits (hah), appearing more often and now beginning to set things on fire instead of only heating the room or the skin. It’s a concerning leap of power levels, but your hypothesis on the matter go untested and unsolved while Dave is around. Were you alone, you’d’ve suicide bum rushed the thing at least three separate times now, but you’re not, so you have to settle for making peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches with a knife that’s too hot to be comfortably handled.
Although your theory that the ghost gains more ‘energy’, which is what you’ll call it for a lack of other terms to use, with the higher count of people living in his ‘terrortory,’ seems to hold steady in that Caliborn has not attempted to truly kill the either of you, despite having multiple opportunities to do so.
Dave periodically calls you ‘Hal’, or perhaps asks for Hal’s presence in a way you can’t understand, and you seriously don’t know what to do with that. Before Hal’s need of prosthesis and his penchant for hair bleach, it used to be the other way around; people at school would call out for Dirk, and instead get your bitchy, mute twin with the personality disorder and eyes consistently red with an obvious, self-medicated high. The last time you fought with him about stupid shit, it was a point he continuously brought up.
Now all you can imagine is his smug, smug face as he perches on his bodybuilder boyfriend’s lap in Japan, surrounded by cats, dumbbells, and expensive machinery.
Technically, you both got a happy ending, since any ending is bound to be better than spending the last of your exhaustive days with your shitty family, but you’ll be damned if you ain’t jealous of him right now.
“Mmmph! No!” Dave whines as you once again offer him a spoonful of applesauce.
You don’t understand. Hal said Dave likes applesauce. Why won’t Dave eat the applesauce? Is it you? Is he sick? It it the texture? The flavor? Did Hal lie to you? No, he wouldn’t, not if it meant putting Dave in danger of starving. You hope.
Dave drags his crow plush back onto his lap even though you told him not to do that because the toy – named Sprite for some reason he won’t tell you – would get dirty. And he would get upset if Sprite got dirty. But now that it seems like Dave is done with eating forever and ever unless Hal magically reappears to make it all better, Sprite is back in his zip-up hoodie.
You resist sighing too obviously and cap the applesauce. “Okay. Come get me if you’re hungry.”
Dave tries to hurriedly hop down from the counter while you’re putting the applesauce back in the fridge, which makes you feel stupid for turning away in the first place when you knew he’d do his best to become the world’s fastest kid to escape.
His untimely descent onto the linoleum where he would surely splatter into a bunch of tiny, fragile child pieces is halted when Cal abruptly appears directly in front of him.
Dave freezes up in what is undeniable horror. The poltergeist, from toe to tip, towers over him like the demon you once accused Cal of mirroring.
“DO NOT JUMP DOWN WITHOUT ASSISTANCE.”
“Don’t touch him,” you warn as you notice one of Caliborn’s previously incorporeal hands form into a hot red barrier near Dave’s head. “Your corporeal form is several thousand degrees. He’d be safer jumping down and skinning a knee than he is holding onto you to do it.”
Caliborn makes some sort of unsettling growling noise. The refrigerator door smacks into your hip, right where he’d branded you, and then slams shut again. You sincerely have to fight back a yell at the pain.
“FUCKER.” The poltergeist sibilates as you walk past him and ease a fright-stiff Dave down to the floor, where he bolts immediately for the stairs up to his room. “HOW WILL THE CHILD ONE DAY MAKE A PACT WITH ME FOR HIS SOUL. IF WE DO NOT RAISE HIM TO DEPEND UPON MY PROWESS? MORON.”
“We’re not raising him anywhere to do anything. I’m raising him not to be a fuckin’ fool who makes soul-selling pacts in the first place.” You peel an orange. Dave must bump into something, as there is a clattering sound from above. There’s no child screams, though, so you respond by tossing the rind into the overflowing trashcan. “Is that compost pile outside home to any illicit murder victims of yours or am I good to tear it down.”
“COMPOST?” Cal moves around the kitchen in an indistinct pattern. “THAT IS NOT A COMPOST. THAT WAS A SHITTER HOUSE.”
The poltergeist laughs at your mildly disgusted expression and disappears.
Another unidentified vehicle is making the valiant journey across the untamed valley of your driveway.
It rocks your equilibrium, once again, but this time you’re almost positive it isn’t anybody you know. Hal’s already set off across the sea, Jake is a pipe dream at this point, Rox promised not to try too hard to find you, Jane doesn’t even know you’ve left, and if it were Dad or one of his ‘friends,’ they wouldn’t bother to use the driveway. Too obvious of an entry point. You comfort yourself with the macabre thought of how if Dad wanted you while knowing where you are, you’d be dead or kidnapped already.
Dave seems curious, but not afraid. Still, he listens intently when you calmly instruct him to stay in his room, and to keep out of sight of his window.
Once it gets close enough, you identify it as a navy blue van. A large one, but not as large as the white moving truck you’d used to transport your stuff here. You stand and wait outside in full visibility like you did the last time somebody dared disturb your ghost-infested peace. For a moment, you wish you had one of Roxy’s big hunting guns to heft, even though you have no idea how to use one. You figure it’d look more intimidating than the weebish faux-katanas you were ‘taught’ to use.
Doesn’t matter, though; once your single katana was melted and used against you, it seems as if Caliborn might’ve eaten it somehow, because you sure as hell don’t know where its remains went. You’re almost glad for being absolved of duty towards your old affects, but mostly you just feel apathetic about it.
When the van stops, quite slow and easy compared to the dramatic dust cloud Hal had stirred up, a middle-aged or possibly older woman hops out with a big, easy smile.
“Good morning, Mister Lalonde!” She crows your recently changed last name (courtesy of the only Lalonde you know, who seemed unduly excited for you to ask to borrow their name) waving you forward, before circling around back of the van, yanking it open with surprisingly steady arms. “I’ve some packages for you today, young sir. Five of them, actually.”
You pause, before stepping forward to go look. You admit you’ve never been faced with this amount of open enthusiasm from a stranger before, but nothing about her is triggering any of your warning sirens. Despite this, you are hyper aware of Dave’s hidden location inside the house.
“My name is Miss Maggie,” she tells you, her diction clear and loud, but not painfully so. “I work at the town post office, and boy let me tell you, there sure are stories going on around town about you and this old house.”
You’d rather like to know what these random podunk people are saying about you when you’ve never even met any of them, but Miss Maggie interrupts by dropping a large box at your feet. “That’s not important right now, though. Here, let me carry all of these inside for you. Is your tyke too shy to come outside? I’ve been told these are all for your little one, Mister Lalonde.”
“My younger brother,” you correct, and fumble to help her carry all five boxes inside before this fifty-something year old woman decides to make like Wonder Woman and heft two in each arm or something. You stop her before she breaches the threshold. “I’m sorry, but who sent these exactly. If you know.”
For a hot second, she is visibly awash with wide-eyed panic. “Hal Strider – I’m so sorry, I thought maybe one of you had gotten married or changed names. Said he was your brother. Was I mistaken? Do you need help?”
You try not to sigh in a mixture of relief and frustration, plopping the first box down into the entrance way and gesturing her to do the same. “No, it’s alright. He is my brother, yes. He decided not to warn me that he’d apparently ordered an entire store’s worth of stuff for our younger brother.”
“Oh, okay!” Miss Maggie says with another great big smile. The two of you go and grab another set of boxes, and you hurry slightly so that she won’t have the chance to grab the last one. “So ah, er, Mister Lalonde, do you mind if I ask why someone as young as yourself is out here all alone? And with a little brother? If you’re raising him without any help, well, I...”
You deflect slightly. “Hal had already been accepted into a college overseas. And, well, our parents aren’t around anymore…” Technically true.
Thankfully, she nods quickly and easily, obviously eager not to press anymore buttons. “Right, right – sorry for being such a pest, Mister Lalonde,” she apologizes, and somehow manages to make it to the fifth box before you can. You try not to feel uselessly awkward as she carries it to the house by herself.
“It’s not a problem.” It is something of a problem, from your perspective as a paranoid abuse victim who knows your Dad will latch on to any leaked information like a leech to the hapless protagonist’s leg, but you leave it at that.
Miss Maggie briefly looks up at the open window of Dave’s bedroom, no doubt where the kid is eavesdropping, before seeming to remember her place as a simple delivery person and giving you another smile, reaching out her hand for a shake. “Just a few papers to sign, and you’ll be all set.”
Several minutes later, she’s back in the driver’s seat, buckling in. She pauses before leaving, however, to lean out her window and say, “Hope you enjoy your stay in Gravity Falls, Dirk! Some pretty weird and unexplained things have happened here, you know.”
“Oh, have they,” you drawl, desperately fighting down the urge to tell her that one of her unofficial customers is a ghost.
Her van is barely beyond the treeline when you turn around to find Dave already sticking his hands all over the boxes haphazardly left in the doorway. Caliborn is, surprisingly, hovering over top of him, the half-opened kitchen scissors floating way up above his head.
“TRIED TO OPEN IT HIMSELF.” Caliborn is a snitch. You raise an eyebrow down at Dave, who throws himself on top of one of the boxes and whines with his cheek pressed up against it.
“I can do it!” Claims the four-year-old, scrabbling at the indestructible shipping tape like a cat with rubber nibs on its claws.
“Well, if I also only had one set of clothes to wear, I’d probably be eager for something new to change into, too.” While pushing back the strange jealousy you feel over Dave no doubt being so eager to open the box because it’s from Hal, you reach up and snatch the scissors out of the air with your superior height. Caliborn gives them over with minimal fight, though you can tell he nearly cut you with the light resistance he pulls the other end with.
If it were one of your first weeks living here, you’d honestly question his restraint, but you’ve learned better by now.
You only stay with one box long enough to shove it further into the house so that you can close the door, slice them open, and then move on to the others. Dave descends upon their contents like a starving hyena, pulling out what appears to be mostly clothes, toiletries, and snacks mixed in with a small amount of his old stuff from Houston.
You’re impressed at the lengths Hal seems to have gone to get what’s rightfully Dave’s back from your collective father’s clutches. But now you’re wary of what he could possibly desire as payment. No lunch is ever free with your twin.
Dave snatches a blanket out of a box and sprints behind the couch, clutching it while peering around the ugly green furniture as if he’s waiting for you or Caliborn to come take it from him. You feign disinterest as you begin categorizing what you find, putting them into piles on the thankfully now much more clean floor around you, making mental notes of what will go where, what needs to be washed before Dave uses it, and so on.
There’s a note from Hal in the fifth box, but you pocket it for later, almost positive that it will have child-unfriendly language somewhere in it. Since it’s from Hal, Dave would definitely want it if he knew about it, so for now you give in to subterfuge.
Dave tiptoes out of his hiding spot after a few minutes of peace, now trusting that his comfort item – a clean white, blue, and yellow My Little Pony baby blanket – will not be harshly stolen from him. He drapes it around his shoulders while he pilfers the piles, making excited little movements whenever you dump something new in front of him that you’ve deemed safe. At some point, he sneakily opens one of the included packets of soft, dried apple slices. You run your fingers through his childishly soft and clean hair to reassure him that he’s allowed to eat it.
About an hour of categorizing on your part, too-quiet rambling and playing on Dave’s part, you stand up to stretch and realize that he’s fallen asleep curled up on the couch. You quietly gather up all of the new clothes you need to wash, make sure his blanket is tucked in tightly around him, and are off to go hand-scrub everything down. You check the weather on your phone and find that it isn’t supposed to rain today, so you can hang everything out to dry on the line behind the house with no hassle.
Seriously though, you’ve got to think about getting a washer and dryer. Perhaps even you could afford one of those minis you saw all over the internet a few years ago. When you thought you’d be living alone with barely one load of wash every two weeks like a dirty heathen, you didn’t mind doing it old school, but now the amount of clothing needing to be washed every week has increased exponentially.
Figures Hal couldn’t send you one of those, you complain mentally as you clip damp shirts and pants and underwear up onto the line. You feel vertigo as you imagine yourself as some kind of beleaguered housewife from the 40’s, quietly keeping her complaints of her soldier husband to herself as she raised his children.
With that line of thought, it’s no wonder Caliborn’s sudden appearance startles you into dropping your handful of pins.
When you bend down to pick them up, a lick of flame touches your nape, and you drop your pins all over again when you slap a hand over the back of your neck and turn around to almost glare, steeling your expression at the last moment.
“Shouldn’t you be watching over Dave,” you chastise lightly as you pick up the fucking pins all over again. “Making sure he doesn’t try to harness the awesome power of scissors once again to tear open the walls in his sleep.”
Caliborn doesn’t respond, knocking your bottle of washing soap over so that some of it spills into the grass. Thankfully, your reflexes are fast enough to catch it before it empties entirely.
“GIVE HIM NIGHTMARES. IF I STAY TOO CLOSE.”
It’s strangely considerate. “Didn’t know you could travel outside the house like this,” you say instead of acknowledging any of that, pinning up your own underpants to the line.
A mysteriously hot breeze ruffles them, but Cal seems to stop before he tears them off or sets them on fire. He can be strangely coy at times.
“NOW YOU KNOW.”
You make a mental note that he seems weakened in both power and visibility when this far from the house. As a minor test, you spend as much time outside as feasibly possible while still having something to do.
Sure enough, he barely speaks, nor interacts with anything beyond a few pinpoint touches of fire every now and again to trip you up. You, at first, mistook it for an invasion of fire ants or bug bites, which gave him no end to the entertainment that is you looking around and slapping your own calves in bare-faced confusion.
When you sit down on the backyard’s perfectly shaped Sittin’ Boulder to read Hal’s letter, the ghost’s presence has faded almost entirely. Though you’re positive he’s somewhere nearby, given his reluctance to be alone with Dave.
You have no idea at what age you’re supposed to stop sitting with kids while they bathe, but when you checked in on Dave one time while he was in the bath and saw him completely submerged, you damn near had a heart attack.
Fortunately, Dave claims that he was simply “swimming,” which would be adorable if you’d known that in the first place. You’ve taken to, at the very least, sitting next to the tub while he scrub a dub dubs. You don’t know when you’ll stop and go back to the ‘occasionally checking in’ system, but for right now, you feel like your heart wouldn’t be able to handle not having him in direct eyesight.
Dave floats a rubber toy around in the tub, soap bubbles stuck to his head like he doesn’t give a crap about actually cleaning up. He doesn’t know what shampoo and conditioner is, or why he might want to use some. Doesn’t read the ingredients in his soap. He’s just interested in playing with water.
Kids are scary.
Their bodies are so tiny. You don’t think you were ever that tiny. For once, you have no accurate probability-based prediction for the future – you don’t know who Dave will be in a month, or a year, or five, ten, twenty. If you’ll still be here, with him, when that time comes. If he’ll continue on as this quiet, timid, yet curious little mind, or if he’ll grow into someone loquacious, determined, and creative.
You reach over and play with his hair, and he lets you. Doesn’t react, but doesn’t shy away, either.
You poke his nose, and he gifts you with a small smile.
He’s so amazing.
At that thought, you feel encumbered with something complicated. Feelings of blooming affection mixed with possessive thoughts that have no place sullying this innocent scene. You’re giving him a bath, not a baptization. There’s no significance here. He most likely won’t remember this, years down the line.
It’s just another bath, to him. To you, it’s a cornerstone.
He doesn’t truly need any help in getting in or out of the tub, but you find yourself hovering anyways, holding up the towel for him to run at like he’s throwing himself into a pile of clouds. It’s a cheap, but fluffy, thing that you’d bought at a dollar store. You got them in a variety of colors, because you heard kids like colors.
He giggles openly, and dances around in his birthday suit like this one yellow towel is the best thing he’s ever touched, and you… Don’t know what to feel.
As per usual, once he’s been released from the bathroom, he bolts to his room like he’s training for the Kentucky Derby. Today, however, things end a mite different, in the way he halts before his open bedroom door, turns around, and gazes at you.
You’ve been frozen in place with the abrupt change in routine. You stare back, lost.
As if to oppose you, he rocks back and forth on his heels. “Can you…?” He doesn’t finish.
“You need something,” you question. “Is that big ol’ bogeyman in your room. Need me to chase him out.”
“No...” He hedges, looking around the hallway like he can spot Caliborn seeping through the walls. Despite being invoked in everything except name, the ghost does not appear. “Um, can you come do my hair?”
You say, “Yes,” without thinking first, because your following thought is ‘I don’t know how to do any hair other than my own.’ And Dave’s hair, thin and pale, is nothing like your own coils that can hold volume better than a full glass of water. It’s how you get the spikes to form easy. But it’s also why you near constantly wear a black satin headband, because as cool and essential as anime hair used to be to you, now it simply gets in the way of your fraught lifestyle.
Nevertheless, you make your way into Dave’s room like one would make their way into a lion’s den.
It looks a lot different now that there’s somebody living in it. You’ve slowly but surely managed to fill the room with stuff Dave seems to enjoy, despite nearly all of it being from the same penny pinching store as the towels are. You’re glad Dave has yet to give a fuck about the difference between a knockoff piece of game hardware and a genuine one. You can’t say you dread the day he does, though, imagining what he’d do in a game like Skyrim or Minecraft.
He pile-drives his own bed, which shudders fantastically because it’s the first bed frame you’ve ever slapdashed together. He doesn’t seem to care, rustling around on it in his cute little panda Pjs like it’s a bouncy house.
Your li’l bro seems to notice you hesitating. In response, he sits primly on his legs in a folded position, then gently pats the space beside him while looking imploringly at you, stuck standing in the doorway like you ain’t never used one before.
You snort. “You got your brush.”
“Have you readied your scalp for the battle to come.”
He doesn’t seem to fully understand what you mean, but his face becomes determined anyways. “Yes.”
Don’t laugh at him, you tell yourself as you situate your body behind his on the bed, do not laugh at him or else he’ll never let you in here again.
For some reason, Dave had picked out a girl’s brush at the dollar store. It’s pink with large particles of glitter baked into its semi-transparent appearance. You can’t imagine that a brush of plastic could be the healthiest, least friction-creating choice, but then again, you’re used to kinky hair.
Wow that was very wrong to think while next to a child. Shit you’re goin’ to hell.
You begin gently brushing Dave’s thin, wispy hair. Perhaps too softly, as you catch a few surprise tangles and have to use more force than you thought you would need to, although Dave doesn’t do so much as sniffle. Maybe he’s not tender-headed.
Once you think you’ve gotten everything smoothed out and detangled, you sneakily unwind one of the thin black satin scrunchies you constantly keep on your left wrist and tie a tiny ponytail onto one side of Dave’s head.
To your dismay, before you can surprise him with it in the plastic hand mirror he has, it slides right out.
Your attempts to not glare down at his hair like it’s some kind of alien species all fail as he picks up the scrunchie that fell to the bed with confusion, handing it back to you without turning around. “What’s this for?”
“Tying your hair up,” you answer, hopefully with as little disappointment in your voice as you’re capable of. “Well, tying my hair up, anyways. Don’t think your hair’s meant for being contained, li’l dude.”
Oh no. Now you’ve got Dave offended on his behalf, as well. His face scrunches up and he paws at his head, grabbing little fistfuls and pulling outwards, “No, wait try again. I’m ready this time.”
Well, that’s adorable. Dutifully, you make the second attempt, this time with a thicker bunch of hair, but he’s only got so much to play around with.
It slides out faster than you can think ‘It’s not nice to tell a four-year-old “I’m sorry that your mom gave you her untameable white people hair. Some day you’ll understand gel and hairspray.”’
You pat him on the head and take the culprit scrunchie away before he can cry or attack it or anything awful like that. “Hey, amigo, it ain’t no thing. Don’t worry about it – everybody’s got different hair. It’s like a blank slate. When you get older, you can dye it whatever color you want. How about that.”
Dave seems to consider it, dragging Sprite into his lap. “What about red.”
“Red sounds like a great color for your little head.”
Oh. Well, kids aren’t born knowing any language at all, you suppose. “Means ‘friend’ in Spanish.” You stand up from the bed, returning his girly brush to where it was on his side table. “Back in Texas, all the kids learned a bit of Spanish in school no matter who they were. Guess you’ll find out if you learn it when you start school. Some places teach French.”
Dave squirms around in his bed until he’s tucked under the covers, plain white ones because apparently there’s nothing fun for non-twin sized beds, thereby negating the need for you to do it for him. “I get to go to school?”
It’s a weird question, but you can’t pinpoint how or why. “Yea. You’re four years old, so you’ll start in Kindergarten. After that, you go from First Grade all the way up to Twelfth Grade, which is when you’re eighteen years old, and legally an adult.”
You’re unsure if that was all too technical of an answer for him, but he seems satisfied with the information you’ve given. You bid Dave goodnight from within his room instead of outside of his room this time. His question discomforts you, stuck on the back of your head as you walk downstairs.
‘I get to go to school?’ You can’t tell if you should be concerned. Did Dad tell Dave he wasn’t allowed to go to school? Why? And if not that, then has Dave never heard of school before?
Maybe you’re overthinking it, you argue with yourself, sitting on the downstairs couch in the dark, staring at nothing. Dad sent you and Hal to school. Why wouldn’t he have sent Dave to school? Dad definitely would not have qualified for home-schooling, so, why…
Not for the first time, you ache with the fridge horror of what could’ve possibly gone on in the apartment Dad kept Dave in. All four years of it.
It’s bizarre, but you almost wish Caliborn would show up, if only for the distraction.
The other day while in the midst of your thorough child-safety-ifying of this dirty old haunted house, you’d uncovered a whole stack of yellowed newspapers. Most of them seem to be deliberately collected from a bygone era of original Garfield cartoon strips. You’d glanced over them with mild interest, and then passed them on to Dave before Caliborn could get the bright idea to set it all on fire.
You are simultaneously delighted and tortured to know that Dave adores panel cartoons. Your interpretation is that it’s cute and fascinating to experience. However…
Meme status has been achieved.
Dave slams his overfull mug of AJ onto the table next to you, shouting, “Bean me!” for the third time today. A big glob of juice splashes everywhere, including the side of your left hand that is limply holding your cellphone.
You startle, and go, “God bless it,” in the most Texan twang that has ever graced your lips.
Dave looks over at you as if you’ve thrown a handful of roaches at him.
“Sorry,” you say, first and foremost, even though you’ve baldly cursed right in front of this four-year-old before and he’s barely reacted. “Isn’t that a little too much juice, hombre. Can your bladder fit that much AJ.” You pray the day that Dave learns what ‘bean me’ really means never comes. You can’t imagine what he’d be like on caffeine.
On the other hand, should your hypothesis of Dave potentially having ADHD be proven correct, perhaps he never will get the taste for an upper like caffeine in the first place.
He appears as if he’s seriously considering your scenario. You mop up the mess with a wet rag, and by the time you’re done, he’s absconded to some secret place you’re rarely allowed to go. His bedroom, namely. You’d be concerned if you didn’t already intimately understand that sort of defense mechanism.
You won’t admit it to even yourself at this point, but worrying about Dave and just what exactly your shared father did to him in those four and a half short years keeps you up at night.
That and Caliborn’s incessant rattling of the incredibly lopsided kitchen table you’ve yet to fix.
Not that you get an admirable amount of sleep in the first place.
After you’re done chugging the dubious contents of an off-brand energy drink, you go outside to prod curiously at the ‘shitter house.’ Potentially, it could become the new rotting home of all the orange peels and apple cores you and Dave leave behind every day.
Several hours later, the sun is going down. You’ve gone back in multiple times for some tools, which you really should move to the shed that sits behind the house, but frankly you don’t trust that thing not to be full of nasty shit like spiders and old politically conservative signs so you’re avoiding that. Best to focus on the actual living space for now.
As you rip the dilapidated wood structure down with your gloved hands, you uncover a couple of disturbing things such as: somebody stole the toilet and filled in the hole for unknown reasons with black shale. The door, which isn’t even recognizable as a door at this point, had been essentially welded shut with some substance you are unsure the origin of, but makes you suspiciously glance back at the house for any sign of Caliborn. And last but NOT LEAST is that there is an entire army of spiders in the far right corner. Hal would know whether they’re dangerous or not, but you don’t.
You take the hose and drown them all with great prejudice, glad that Dave isn’t out here to witness your ruthless murdering spree. You’ve been told before that kids don’t like seeing their guardians be afraid of stuff, and you are definitely possibly maybe afraid of arachnids, or really any insect that can touch you and make you feel like ripping your own skin off. So basically all of them.
Barely a minute later, however, Dave appears. Probably to see why you viciously sprayed something that is right up against the side of the house.
“Hey,” you say in a way that is, in your opinion, lame as hell. Either way, it fails to sway the godless persuasion of a small child, who makes his way over to curiously stare at what you’re doing. “This is gonna be a compost, where we throw food waste. Orange peels and apple cores. No meat, though.”
Dave doesn’t acknowledge what you’re saying, wandering even closer, picking carefully around the wet spots in the dirt. When he somehow manages to slip anyways, he does so with a nonchalant little, “Whups,” and then rights himself by clinging to your leg.
You look down and try not to panic, because that will surely make Dave panic, and then he’ll never casually touch you ever again.
While you go back to valiantly attempting to pretend like you know what you’re doing with this project, being observed by these wide child eyes full of wonder and trust, Dave begins to wind clumsy figure eights in between your legs, so you spread your stance a little so that he hopefully doesn’t fall again.
He doesn’t seem to take notice of your careful nuance. Go figure.
When you realize that you can’t get anything done with him underfoot like this, you say, “I’m busy, dizzy. Best go find something to do, before Caliborn gets all up in a tizzy.”
Dave makes a small chuffed noise, but listens, and detaches from your legs. He stands to the side and purses his lips, looking around for something to do.
You get an idea. Reach into your pocket for the crumbled up packet of tropically orange bubblegum sticks, and hand him one.
When his tiny fingers start to close around the stick, you yank it back lightly. “You know not to swallow this, right.”
Dave makes a face. “Think I’m stupid?”
“No, I don’t think you’re stupid. I think you’re four and a half, and the amount of things you do or do not know is not something I’m familiar with yet.”
At that declaration, you give him the gum. He stuffs the empty wrapper in his pocket, his careful chewing motions exaggerating his chubby cheeks as he swivels his head around and taps his fingers against his elbows.
“Why don’t you go try to find some bugs to poke at,” you suggest for him. “You can call Hal whenever he gets settled and tell him all about the kinds of bugs that are here.”
Dave seems unequivocally excited about that, and gallops side-ways off to the edge of the woods. You make a note on your phone to grab some poison ivy and oak and sumac lotions along with bug spray when you make time to go into the nearest town. ‘Nearest’ being almost 30 minutes away. Someplace called Gravity Falls. They at the very least have their own drug store and grocery, though the selection is mighty small compared to what a city rat like you was once used to.
You’d trade a minuscule family-owned grocery store for a huge city store with everything you could ever want any day, though, if it means peace of mind and safety.
As you take a hammer to the rest of the broken structure, you absently wonder if Miss Maggie will be there at the post office should you mail a few letters. You figured you’ll send one to Roxy, Jane, Jake, and of course another to Hal’s new address, like this is the fucking stone ages and not 2019. If you knew what you were doing, you’d go all Pen Pal on their unsuspecting asses and put postcards and leaflets and photographs in there, but you don’t, so they’ll just have to be happy with hand written plain white papers.
You get back to work. Surprisingly, you don’t have to studiously remind yourself to consistently check on Dave every few minutes, as the anxiety that courses in your veins like the blood that you were born with keeps you on your toes.
Dave mostly crouches around different fringes of the woods, carefully overturning rocks and small logs. There’s probably lots of bugs under there, like worms and rolly pollies, which aren’t actually insects apparently, but you aren’t going to ruin his fun with true information. School can do that for you.
You make decent progress despite your frequent stops to worriedly ogle your new kid. Sometimes he goggle-eyes you back. Those are weird moments, since you’re usually too far away to speak, but not so far away that he can’t see you freeze like a computer and slowly, with Dial-Up connection speeds, cycle through your options. You settle on a limp wave most times. Others, you make the both of you uncomfortable by doing nothing at all until he looks away first.
Christ on a cracker you are bad at this, you think as you finally get the entire old wood structure torn down. The fullest, least rotted pieces will be re-built into the compost structure. You debate on whether you want to get started on that today or save it for later.
As you suck water from your bottle and wipe sweat from your upper lip, you note that Dave has been continuously glancing at you from your peripherals. This makes you worried. He might have gotten into something he shouldn’t have, and now thinks he’s going to get into trouble. Waiting for you to notice.
You also begin to wonder if he’s thirsty. You feel guilty, looking down at the bottle you brought for yourself. You didn’t make sure he was ready to spend hours outside like this. You come to the stuttered conclusion that he possibly only came outside and stayed outside, doing what you’d told him to, because he doesn’t know yet that his life and choices don’t have to revolve around you.
You walk over to him. All he’s doing is sitting on the conveniently shaped Sittin’ Boulder. He seems tired, or maybe bored. Both.
“You wanna head inside.” You proffer the water bottle in front of his face.
For a moment, you think he’s not going to take it. That you’ve miscalculated. Are kids more hardy then you’d been lead to believe? Is he so disgusted with you that he won’t want to drink after you?
Then, he shocks you with his speed as he snatches the bottle from your hand. He doesn’t go to drink it though, freezing once again with eyes wide, pointed at your boots. They’re pretty muddy.
You both pause. He must be waiting for you to make a move.
“Are you thirsty,” you ask. “You should have some water even if you aren’t thirsty right now. You’ve been out here for a few hours. I took a drink earlier. It won’t bite.”
Finally, stiltedly, he takes a drink. You’re grateful you got water bottles that were easy to drink from with only one hand or with minimal grip involved, since you’re now unsure if a kid as little as Dave could get a normal bottle open.
You’re overwhelmed, the moment a singularity of emotions, by how much you don’t know about Dave yet, and about how much could go wrong.
With every desperate swallow Dave takes, an increasing mountain of shame builds inside of you.
You don’t think you are currently the optimal version of yourself to do good, or be good. Whether you were born like this or you were raised like this, it doesn’t matter.
But you want to do good. You want to be good for him, for the friends you’re strategically ignoring, for the brother you selfishly left behind in your crusade to escape your shared shitty situation, for yourself… Maybe not that last one so much.
When Dave’s done, he’s practically panting. He clutches the bottle close to his chest and slightly bows forward, as if he’s going to throw up.
“Are you okay,” you question, and it feels inadequate on an entirely new level. “You can have the rest of the bottle. We can go inside whenever you’re ready.”
Dave mumbles, “Okay...” He toys with the water bottle, and doesn’t look like he’s about to get up any time soon.
Your penchant for diving into projects for hours on end with no breaks is not something a kid should’ve unwillingly partaken in. Maybe he’s so tired he doesn’t feel like walking, or even worse, can’t walk.
“Do you want me to carry you?” You ask with so much actual inflection for once that you almost don’t recognize who said that. “I… wouldn’t mind.”
For a moment, it seems as if Dave will not react, or answer you. But then you hear a soft-spoken, “Yes.”
Okay. Looks like you’re about to carry a kid for longer than two whole seconds. If it’s anything like carrying a computer tower, you’re all set, but if it isn’t…
You nearly forget to take off your dirty gloves first, banishing them to the ground beside the Sittin’ Boulder to easily find later. You reach out to Dave, hesitant yet determined not to show how much you don’t know. You need him to trust you, so that you can trust yourself.
With little more than a gesture, Dave is leaning towards you with his hands up and out, fully expectant that you’ll catch and support his weight.
You do. It’s easy, yet strange. A new experience. He weighs much less than any computer tower you’ve ever handled, but he’s softer, and warmer. When you heft him up into your arms, he naturally sits astride your left hip with his legs spread on either side of your torso, hand not holding the bottle coming to rest upon your shoulder, like he’s done this before.
You cannot reconcile the image of Dad actually holding Dave, taking care of Dave in any way shape or form like one is supposed to care for a child, so you don’t. You push it away. Who cares if Dad might’ve changed your diapers once, and then changed Dave’s. Who cares if Dad had Hal’s baby pictures, or took ones of Dave. You don’t care. You shouldn’t care. It doesn’t matter.
Dave is yours now.
Chapter 3: There's A Dog In My Heart, And It's Teething
*Violence and threats of violence, description of burns and injuries, vivid descriptions of loss of control, horror elements, implied child prostitution, past child abuse, sex work, abusive relationships, past attempted child murder, emotional manipulation, implied survival sex, awful flirtations that border second-hand embarrassment, dehumanization, possessive behavior, minor torture, little kids cussing, referenced bullying, implied child neglect.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
As innocent as a barium swallow, there is a tension between Dave and Caliborn that you admit to being torn on how to deal with.
Dave doesn’t like to acknowledge Caliborn; you make early conclusions that Dave must try to distance himself emotionally from stressful things happening right in front of him, and can predict why and how he does this, but that doesn’t lead you to a solution on it any sooner. At least, not one that fully weighs the proper responses to both a human child’s fear and an incomprehensible being of death’s compulsive desires.
Caliborn wants attention. You can spot this from a mile away. You won’t say it out loud because you recognize his ability to kill you in the most bloody, violent ways possible, but he does. From you, specifically, but from Dave by proxy as well. Technically, Caliborn 'promised' not to interact with Dave directly, but it happens sometimes whether you want it to or not, mentally flailing with the truth being that you still have no means to ensure Caliborn sticks to his end of the ‘bargain.’ Every single time, Dave will either freeze up and play possum, or he absconds. Usually up to his room, and sometimes out of the house entirely.
You’d immediately considered leaving for Hal’s or Roxy’s once the reality of Dave staying crashed down upon you in many weighty pieces, but that plan was nixed near instantaneously because you know, without a doubt, that Caliborn will react very, very badly to any attempts at moving out.
Before, when it was you alone, you’d been fine with this reality. A possessive, violent, volatile man-adjacent that didn’t want you to leave or ignore him? God, finally somebody who was as clingy as you, just as manipulative and needy and ruinous of convention. Beggars can’t be choosers. So what if he burns you? You wholeheartedly understand that you deserve the pain.
But as soon as Dave came into the picture on the front of Hal’s valiant petrol-spitting metal steed, your worries shifted drastically. Dave doesn’t deserve that pain. Dave doesn’t deserve a lot of things you currently do not have the proper control over.
You wonder if he’ll hate you when he gets older. You would. You’d hate you.
If you make Caliborn mad – which seems to happen pretty fucking often – will he go back on his word and terrorize Dave? Dave is already obviously uncomfortable with Caliborn around in the first place, try as he might to put on an expressionless face about it. What, realistically, could you actually do to make Dave safe and comfortable here if you can’t move him and you also can’t move Caliborn?
You ponder these worries for so long that you are blindsided when the two answer it for themselves, ignorant of your unspoken planing. You witnessed it firsthand, and felt entirely powerless to stop it.
Dave was picking his nose, which you’ve caught him doing before and told him not to do because, as you’ve explained, it’s unsanitary and could get him sick. He still does it sometimes anyways. It’s pretty gross, but you won’t act like you didn’t also do gross, unexplained things as a kid.
Before you could make a move to stop him, however, Caliborn appeared in front of his face. “DON’T.” The thing from every child’s worst nightmare growls so much louder and deeper than any lion, tiger, or bear.
Dave looked directly into the poltergeist’s burning eyes, red of blood to red of hell, and he let out an earsplitting scream of absolute terror, falling right where he stood.
After that, it was something of a blur. The temperature of the room kicked up to a near unbearable level, then abruptly cut off. Caliborn disappeared as quickly as he had appeared to scare the actual, literal piss out of Dave.
You remember, after the fact, how you’d pulled out all the stops trying to comfort Dave. Back rubs, wiping his tears and helping him blow his nose, a warm bath with the pink bubbles, fresh clothes, cuddles in his bed while you’d let him watch some pre-chosen videos on Youtube from your phone, talked to him about the computer tower and monitor you’ll fix up for him someday, and a promise extracted that you’d sleep in his bed that night, despite no sleeping whatsoever occurring until Dave uneasily dropped off come five AM.
But more vividly, beyond that, you remember the night terrors he’d had.
Even now, you won’t let yourself go into detail. You give him a spare pair of shades you’d brought with you, but they’re ill-fitting and you can tell.
“Wear these,” you impart the importance of them to him seriously, “and Caliborn can’t give you nightmares anymore. Nothing will be able to scare you if you wear your shades. Promise.”
He slots his pinkie finger intertwined with yours and shakes it up and down.
Like a dutiful little soldier, he wears his new shades every single day, only ever removing them to bathe or sleep. Sometimes not even then, as you’ve witnessed, but you won’t snatch the safety blanket you’ve given away so soon. Honestly, he should’ve been wearing sun protective eye wear before now anyways, but you chock it up to Dad’s negligence.
Caliborn befuddles you by completely vacating your sphere of awareness for three whole days. He doesn’t do something so oblique as apologize, which isn’t what you’d expect from him anyways, but he does make himself scarce enough that Dave has time to calm down.
Tellingly however, one day while you’re brushing Dave’s hair in his room after a bath, strands mostly untangled but you know the kid enjoys the preening anyways, a crow touches down on the ledge of his open window.
Dave gasps in wonder, struck still with his mouth open like a fish. You gently lower the pink brush and gaze openly at the corvid as well. Its eyes are backed by a red glow, almost imperceptible. When you check, Dave doesn’t seem to notice, consumed by the magic of wildlife.
The crow drops something heedlessly, and it clatters to the wood floor with the sound of the dimensions of an object that is small and metal. The doubtlessly overshadowed corvid gives out a haunting caw! and flies off, wingspan large and glossy black.
Almost immediately, Dave is practically using your thighs as a launchpad as he throws himself to the floor, putting his grabby little hands all over his bird-given gift. He desperately scratches at the window ledge, trying to hop up onto it, head straining to look out of the window as if he can spot the elusive bird once more.
You manage to distract him from his self-made mission of throwing himself into the air and falling to his death by asking, “What did it bring you, Dave.”
He eagerly hops over to show you, possibly mimicking the way the crow had hopped across the window sill, but you aren’t positive.
In his little hand is a somewhat tarnished silver ring. Bland in design, but shiny, arguably something a normal crow would pick up should it be compelled to. Not that you think Dave would know or care to know this. There’s a barely-there design on the flat of it that is an ouroboros Celtic knot. As if unconsciously – which is absurd, because you pride yourself on being in control of your body if not also mind at the least – your hand drifts to your right hip. You clench a fist before skin can touch skin, and lay all of your fingers flat on top of Dave’s quilt.
You notice that it is a simply massive ring, likely made for hands larger than a child’s, and you find yourself offering, “I have a chain we could put that on. Wear it as a necklace.” Dave bounces in place and looks at you with unabashed glee, something that makes you feel almost faint with relief and yet also unfairly brings back feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. “After I clean it up, ‘course.”
Eager to have Dave be okay again and for Caliborn to stop creepily, uncharacteristically skulking about, you wash the tarnish of the ring off in a bowl of warm water and dish soap. You get your pliers out and carefully bend a delicate pewter grey chain to accept the ring. Dave peers while you work, as if he’s making sure you don’t hurt the ring with your tools. You might get an actual silver chain to match it later, but for now, Dave acts like it’s his birthday.
“’M gonna go see if I can find Garfield,” he announces to you five minutes later, shoes half-tied, trying to run out the door without clarification. His new necklace bounces freely down his chest.
You chase after him, still drying your hands on an ugly mustard yellow dish towel you have no idea the origins of, or when it ended up in this house, but have added to your mishmash amount of laundry each week anyways. “Hold up, Speedy Gonzalez, your shoes are untied. Who’s Garfield.”
“The crow.” Dave is jittery, but stands in one place while you bend down and tie his shoes for him. When you’re done, you shove him lightly on his head, and he rockets out the door.
When you just so happen to look down on the floor to see what your bare feet are crunching though, you come to realize that Dave has stuffed his pockets full of unwrapped snack cakes, creating a crumb trail right out the door.
You get the broom and lament over how many more bugs will undoubtedly infiltrate the house because of this, but you don’t complain. You’re in too high of spirits to grumble.
One of the mugs sitting precariously at the edge of the counter from where you were mixing water and soap is suddenly overbalanced, rocking in circles several times before coming to rest with barely a centimeter between safety and ceramic doom.
You try to hide your uncontrolled expression in your shoulder under the guise of wiping away sweat from your upper lip. The hot ghost of touch across your right hip is the most overwhelming sensation you’ve felt in the past three days.
This place is so fucking backwater, you swear. The Elementary school’s homepage alone is like hitting a random URL on the WaybackMachine and it stops you at a site made during Internet 1.0 by somebody who only wanted one page to post an endless scroll of shitty cat pictures taken from a disposable camera.
The phone number at the bottom of this inaccessible modern disaster is giving you anxiety sweats, which is embarrassing as hell. Your stomach cramps, and it’s almost as if you know that you’ll inevitably give in to calling the school itself instead of languishing online. Like some deep, primal part of you can already smell the Eau de State Funded when you’ll be forced to drive down there yourself to pick up stacks upon stacks of papers. You have no printer at home. Even if you started out with one, you would’ve torn it apart. You have a headache now.
You don’t know much about enrolling kids into school, but you do know that you need to learn. Dave needs you to learn how to do stuff for him, because he can’t do it himself yet. You cannot fathom attempting to get Dave to navigate this nigh unusable website by himself, this year or any year thereafter. You have no other choice but to call, and then to inevitably look into some administrator's face, to get involved.
Well, that is technically not true. You do have the choice of home-schooling, but you’d shot that option down no matter how much better of a route it seemed for your delicate sensibilities. You won’t exactly be going to any PTA meetings, cozying up to any 9-to-5 Ma’s and Pa’s, but you also refuse to trap an impressionable, timid, traumatized kid in one haunted house alongside you and all of your own problems.
Dave needs to have a chance to get away from Caliborn. From you. To see what other kids act like with their own families, how they talk, how they make friends – basically how not to grow up like you. Othered and isolated, too damaged and flat in your affect. The struggle to be better than who you were taught to be, the constant failures. The unerring want of being needed, yet needing at the same time. The haughty disdain for other’s failures, as if you had not yet learned the definition of the word ‘hypocrite.’
At age four, Dave got out of a bad situation much earlier than you ever grew the chops to. The entire time you’d knowingly been taking what you’d been taught to heart, as if it would make you stronger. Irreparably hardening yourself while obsessively keeping up with martial arts training, the interest in anime and art, the stupid fucking Japanese swords, the sex work Dad seemed to introduce to you as young as possible. He had one more pair of tiny hands sewing, directing the stop motion, responding to forum comments. Nasty ones. You and Hal, when you actually acted like twins, or maybe partners in crime, created chatbots for Dad to use when y’all were barely thirteen. It boosted his ratings and views.
He rewarded you by crippling an already disabled Hal beyond his definition of usefulness.
Caliborn shades into your bedroom with a near-imperceptible fluctuation of heat. His green, waxy, dripping form coming through the wall so suddenly startles you enough that you accidentally jerk a knee up, colliding with the bottom of your desk and doubtlessly scraping skin, hard enough to bruise.
He laughs the same way a disaster siren would. Of course he does, the bitch. Everything from a mild inconvenience to genuine, life-threatening pain is simply entertainment to him.
Perhaps something uncontrolled shows on your face or your body language, because instead of disappearing from sight and hovering in order to cause havoc at unseen intervals, his existence glides closer in a nearly-smooth arc from the high ceiling down to your level. How generous of him.
“THIS IS NOT FILTH.” Caliborn’s nearness to your precious electronics gives you slight anxiety sweats. That or it’s just your body’s natural response to his hot countenance at this point. “I APPROVE.”
“You approve of anything I do so long as it isn’t what you identify as ‘filth.’” You click off of the school’s web page, telling yourself that you don’t have a chance at getting anything done with him being present. “What’s up, verde. Is Dave in the cookie jar again.”
“IF THAT IS WHAT YOU BELIEVE.” Caliborn seems to be ignoring your second sentence entirely, leading you to believe that Dave is indeed in the cookie jar. He’s gonna ruin his dinner. “THEN I HAVE. A REQUEST.”
You pop your mouth semi-smugly as you take upon the arduous task of opening your ancient pirated art program. It loads as slowly as possible. “Knew you’d come around at some point, big guy. So, what you looking for – I’ll give you a special discount.”
“BECAUSE I AM A SUPERIOR BEING.”
“Because I know you have no money. C’mon.” You delicately run your fingers across your tablet, as if this is a magic show and not a borderline coercion scenario.
Interlocking webs of heated lines run up and down your left arm. You imagine Dave’s necklace chain dragging across your skin after being heated in a fire.
“SOMETHING SALACIOUS.” Caliborn’s bodyless voice cants from side to side behind your head. Surround sound features. “PERHAPS NOT EVEN YOU. FILTHY LITTLE BOY. CAN ACHIEVE WHAT I AM LOOKING FOR.”
You epicly force yourself not to laugh right at him. “Well this filthy little boy will try his best, sir. But you need to tell me what to do first.”
It feels almost as if Caliborn presses himself up against your upper back and head for a moment, but you know that if he truly did that, you’d be dead. It exists as a pressure, one that you do not enjoy but can seem to do fuckall about.
“I WANT YOU.” Sweat rolls down underneath your shirt. “TO DRAW.” Your computer fans make a concerning noise. “EXPLICIT.” You genuinely cannot tell if he’s dragging it out on purpose or because he’s seriously embarrassed. “HAND-HOLDING.”
You can’t help it – you’re at least mildly disappointed in what you consider to be a misuse of your true skill. “Fine,” you mumble. Goddamn, to think this dangerous supernatural entity is vanilla as fuck is irony at its best.
You draw two people holding hands. One of them shorter, and stockier, the other tall and thin by comparison. If they have lightbright green and neon orange eyes respectively, Caliborn won’t understand the significance.
Caliborn requests drawings along a similar vein for over two hours. Hand-holding, hugging, a date night setting with candles and moonlight and everything, marriage ceremonies, literally looking at listings for houses and touring said open houses, adopting pets and kids and such. Dumb, wholehearted shit. You sit there and basically pen out this entire, if disjointed and sloppily done, friends-to-lovers-to-parents comic starring your RPF OCs for the superheated dick that refuses to move any further than a few feet from you, making this all an uncomfortably sweaty venture.
“SAVE IT. SAVE IT.” Caliborn insists you keep every single scribble you do, including the utterly incomprehensible ones that look like several circles representing a larger picture that will never be completed. You corral them all into a folder that you name ‘Li’l Cal’s Big Sexy Adventure.’ He smacks you on the back of the head with one of the CPUs you have lying around.
The gap moe is real, and your egregious stalling attempt has hit peak idiocy.
“Alright. I think we’ve done enough fuckery for today.” You close out of the art program before Caliborn can demand more PG unpaid commissions, and massage your hand. “I’ve put off a phone call all week. Need to get it done. It’s for the health and safety of Dave.” So don’t even think about fucking it up, is what you don’t say.
Unsurprisingly, the poltergeist hovers like a hanged body over your shoulder, peering at your screen as you reluctantly flip back to the Elementary School’s page and highlight the toll-free number, slipping your headset on and instructing your console to begin the call.
The several rings in your ears dies within the heat, a feeling not unlike what you would imagine trying to slowly shove heated clay down into your lungs would be like. Before your eyes, your computer overheats, and bluescreens, prematurely ending the call right as someone’s voice greets you with a pleasant, “Hello -”
You yank off your headset and stand up, your computer chair rolling across the floor and hitting the other wall with the force of it. “What’s your problem,” you demand of the tainted air, diffused with green and red eyes. “I literally spent hours with you. Aren’t you satisfied. Aren’t you all tuckered out.”
“YOU DO NOT SEND HIM AWAY.” Caliborn oozes around you unsmoothly, seeming to leave bits and pieces of himself behind until he is more of a disjointed cloud than anything once resembling humanity. “YOU DO NOT GIVE HIM AWAY.”
“What.” You attempt to stay calm, but while sweat pierces into your eyes you can’t help but close them. What projected weakness you display. “It’s school. Kids go to school. Did you not know that.”
“WE CAN TEACH HIM. EVERYTHING. RIGHT HERE.”
“That sounds lovely, believe me. Believe goddamn me.” You stop attempting to follow his rapidly dissipating form with your eyes, and simply stand there in his heat like a housefly staring into an electrified rod. “But no. He’s going. I can’t teach him to read and write and socialize anymore than I can teach him how to snowboard.”
Something of his touches the side of your neck, and it feels like a heated rash blooms there, irritating more than just skin. “SO. YOU ARE ADMITTING YOURSELF INCAPABLE. OF CARING?”
“No.” You accidentally flinch away from him when his eyes abruptly appear, in tact, within your peripherals. Goddammit, keep it together. “Don’t twist my words. I am only admitting that I am not the best teacher for a kindergartner.”
“I WILL TWIST ANY PART OF YOU. AS I PLEASE.”
You involuntarily swallow in preparation for a literal twisting of limbs that never seems to come. “You won’t,” you say, with all the confidence of someone ice-skating for the first time.
“DO NOT PLAY BETTING GAMES WITH ME. DIRK STRIDER.” The slamming open of your bedroom door momentarily distracts you from the sudden searing pain of your right hip. You are cowed from pain, holding on to your flesh for all it appears currently unburned, though previously scarred. You grit your teeth. “THE ODDS ARE NEVER IN ANYONE’S FAVOR. EXCEPT MINE. AND LEAST OF ALL. YOURS.”
“I’m not betting dick nor shit,” you insist between ground teeth, “If I’m gone, you get no supply of energy from me. Whether ‘gone’ refers to death or simply moving the fuck out is one in the same, I reckon.”
Caliborn is silent.
You allow yourself a triumphant smirk that will surely be regretted as soon as it’s shown. “So my theory was right – you do need us here in order to become more powerful.”
He rounds on you, for all he is nothing but blistering green smoke with eyes. “SHUT. IT. YOU KNOW NOTHING. PATHETIC LITTLE WRIGGLING WORM. COME TO MY TERRORTORY FOR SHELTER. FROM YOUR SAD LIFE. AND THIS IS HOW YOU REPAY ME?”
If he has hot breath to waft into your own nostrils, it is the very air around you. His eyes are a horrifying visage to be faced with, but you are unable to fully look away from the nightmare. You are no so much standing your ground as you are frozen still in horror.
“GIVE ME THE WARD.”
You snap out of this enrapturing staring contest with spots in your vision. “What? Don’t call him that. He’s Dave. And no, I’m not giving him to anybody. Especially not you.” He’s mine, you claim in every medium but verbal. He’s mine.
“YOUR WARD. YOUR BODY. MY TERRORTORY.” It feels as if something slithers across your foot, but when you look down you see nothing. “ERGO – MY WARD. MY BODY.”
You suck in a fortifying breath of several hundred degrees. “No. A thousand times no. Sorry, sweet envious heart, but I didn’t stick around here, didn’t continue dealing with your constant slew of violent crybaby shit just to be somebody’s new plaything. Or victim. Or whore. Or housewife whore – whatever the hell it is you’re on.”
Being in this room is literally unbearable at this point. You attempt to not make it look like you’re retreating when you escape into the hallway for some slightly fresher air, but with the way your traitorous body stumbles its way there, you aren’t sure you achieve that affect very well.
“OH, DIRK.” The poltergeist follows you out, its coo like sour milk. “YOU HAVE NOT A SINGLE THOUGHT. IN THAT LITTLE BOY HEAD OF YOURS.”
Before you can retort with something along the lines of, “Keep calling me a little boy and I’m gonna start getting some ideas you won’t agree with,” your body becomes tilted to a dangerous degree, and you find yourself bent forward over the railing of the second floor stairs without express permission from your brain.
“SINCE YOU ENJOY JUMPING INTO BOILING POTS SO MUCH.” Caliborn sibilates directly down into your ear drum.
You aren’t sure how, but when he pushes you over, a move so telegraphed it’s a wonder you didn’t dodge it, you end up landing on the couch instead of flat on your back on the hard wooden floor.
Nevertheless, it takes the wind out of you, and your mind tries to play catch-up. Humans can only move and interpret so fast, you reason, staring dazedly up at the ceiling as green fills your vision, fills the room, along with the glow of something being set alight by supernatural means.
The couch is on fire and your hip scar burns, burns brighter and hotter than you’ve ever hurt before, you can hardly mentally come to terms with it. But your body doesn’t care, fed from years of survival training – you wail like an animal, muscles cramping up and down your torso, making it impossible for you to do anything but bow upwards like a fucking possession taking place.
You lash out, kicking and punching and desperately grappling with nothing, there’s nothing to grab at, nothing to scream your agony into the face of. There is shapeless green observing your sacrificial suffering in an empty house, and such a thing gives you no comfort.
Just as your eyes begin to roll into the back of your head, entirely involuntary as everything else that makes up your cellular structure is begging you to keep them open, keep the enemy in sight, it all lets go the same way the world’s largest rubber band ball could suddenly snap and concave.
It’s the most comparatively astounding relief you think you’ve felt since… you don’t know. The echo of the pain refuses to reverberate. You might not have ever had a relief such as this, the payoff come so quickly and explosively. The other injuries, other pains of your life have always been a slow crawl to recovery.
Then again, you think as you pant on this smoldering sofa, body a livewire of mixed signals safety-danger-safety-danger, you’re not sure you’d consider this a recovery. More like an instant bereftness of anything at all.
There’s a discomforting chuckle from somewhere in the slowly cooling room. “YOU AND YOUR MASS HYSTERIA.”
It takes you a few deep breaths before you can speak, and your voice comes out horribly exhausted when you do. “I am only one, solo hysteria.”
“INCORRECT. YOU COULD BE SO MUCH MORE.” You think you might see the vaguest of outlines of his face, though the only reference you have is the potential framing of the eyes and the slant of incomplete lips beneath it. “YOU ARE MORE. TO ME.”
His furnace mouth gapes wide, wider than any jaw has the right to unhinge, and in the form of uncomfortably hot smoke with the embodiment of the Evil Gaze he drifts through your body, dissipating.
The temperature in the house finally drops, but the couch is still smack dab in the middle of its final, burning hour. Its blackened husk crinkles beneath you as you sprawl, emotionally unencumbered for once because you simply have no other energy to spare beyond existing.
The sound of tiny boots pitter-pattering closer from outside, the shifting of gravel, makes you belatedly aware that, at the very least, Caliborn was courteous enough to do all that while Dave was outside of hearing and hurting range.
Dave opens the front door. Dave closes the front door. Dave re-opens the front door, but just a little.
“Hey,” you tell him, entirely inadequate once again in every numerous facet of your being, “So. Guess what.”
Dave does not ‘guess what.’ Presumably, he’s struck dumb, staring at you lounging on this couch, which is still somewhat on fire, and is very much a goner in terms of any future lounging.
“We get to go get a new couch.” Dave’s nostrils flare at the smell. “Right now.” You levy yourself up off of the lost cause furniture and brush debris from your person like it’s simply dust and not leftover assault. “You ready to go or do you need anything first.”
Dave does not need anything first, so you bundle him up into your truck without properly wiping down his muddy rainboots first. He’s quiet, and you don’t blame him. You cannot even begin trying to explain yourself, so all you do is dig around in the glovebox for the burn gel you keep stashed there, and traverse the driveway using your knees to steer as you rub some on to the various parts of your body.
“While we’re out, we need to go to the Elementary School,” you inform him, “to get you registered as a student.”
“Really?” Dave asks, slightly more animated now that you look less like a corpse in the making. “You’re gonna do that?”
Despite every part of you illogically weeping at the idea of walking into a school voluntarily, you say, “Yea. I’ll do that.” A pause as you hit the main road and turn left. “What color couch do you think we should get.”
You reach and rub a hand gently over his head, and think, quite justifiably violent, God-for-fucking bid if Dad didn’t get Dave his immunizations.
It’s Dave’s first day of school. And no, you can’t come with him.
Yes, you asked.
Yes, you asked again. If only to be sure, and all. Thankfully, the receptionist was kind to you and your new worries. You were told that open house touring for first graders would happen after summer break, but for now, Dave was lucky to be getting a spot so late in the year in the first place due to a small rash of people moving away, and taking their kindergarten aged kids with them.
The dawn is dewy and blue as you load an anxious Dave up into your white truck and drive him the full 20 minutes to the main road. With his crow-given ring hidden under shirt, he mumbles to you a bit about how he’s “got Sprite in my Pinkie Pie backpack, all up and cozy with my folder and notebook and new pencils and crayons, aw yeah, I’m gonna make so much amazin’ art the teachers won’t know what hit ‘em, they’ll be shittin’ themselves with the fear of art put in them...”
You lightly remind him not to cuss in school, but you’re preoccupied. You barely remember how public school works considering you’d gotten accepted into an online community college at age fourteen and never set foot in a school again, so you give Dave about ten one-dollar bills just in case.
“Kindergarten isn’t exactly the epitome of your future school experience,” you tell him as the both of you sit in the truck with the windows down, waiting for a lumbering yellow bus to come by and ferry your kid away. Dave is munching on a strawberry breakfast bar, even though you already fed him scrambled eggs and an apple. He’s probably nervously trying to put his energy into something distracting. “But if you have any trouble with the coursework… the kids, the teachers, whatever – I’ll beat it all into submission for you. All you have to do is point me.”
Dave nods and wipes some crumbs off of his face. They all fall somewhere into your truck but you don’t outwardly show disgust. Memories for later, you convince yourself, even though food rotting in a car is gross.
You have a hand-vacuum, but you had to hide it after Caliborn turned it on and stuck it to your head in your sleep.
You hear the bus long before you see it, as the main road at the end of your driveway curves heavily around the tall hill it hugs. The bus sounds like a wheezing, heavy metal dragon, and you can practically feel the palpable anxiety that surrounds Dave at the sound.
“Hey, Dave. One, two, or three.”
You give him a little smile. “Pick one, two, or three.”
Dave sniffs allergy snot up his nose and looks over at you. His round shades practically eat up his face. “What for?”
“Trust me, little dude, you’ll find out later. It’s a surprise. One, two, or three.”
The bus is now visible around the curve, throwing lights and sound everywhere like some kind of cartoon beast.
Dave, visibly panicking, wheezes, “One!” And then grapples with the handle to the door as the bus slides to a loud, screeching halt, flipping out its STOP sign.
Dave’s forgotten to fully re-zip his bag after fishing out his breakfast bar from earlier, so you do it for him while he’s engaging in an intense battle with the door. He gets it open seconds before you consider also doing that for him, and then sprints off towards the bus with a red face before you can say any parting words.
Huh. Guess he was embarrassed. There’s already several kids on the bus who watch him hurriedly hop on as the new kid in between Spring Break and Summer Break.
God you hope he has a good time. You don’t know what you’ll do if he doesn’t.
You back the truck down the driveway; it’s an interesting challenge for yourself, driving backwards. Shut it off and lock it. Return inside the house. Stagnate in the living room. It’s a lot cleaner and more well-lit than when you first got here, you note with a detached sort of sense. Dave forgot his AJ bottle on the kitchen table, but you’re hoping that the vending machines at the primary school will have something to tide him over. Then again, you might be overestimating the public school’s ability to understand the innocent necessity of snacking.
You walk into the kitchen to put it back into the fridge. It’s slow going, almost as if you’re moving gently to avoid jostling a new injury.
It’s quiet. Not even Caliborn is haunting you in any visible way. You know now that he could simply be shadowing you, imperceptible to your human senses, but it doesn’t worry you right now.
You’re sitting at the kitchen table before you’ve gotten a true grip on yourself. Poke at the little Bionacle toy you’d found wedged behind the toilet in the bathroom a few days ago. After sanitation, it’s a pretty solid little contraption, and Dave likes it. It seems he picked his stuffed crow to smuggle into school instead of the much easier to conceal plastic toy.
As you make the little robot man walk a janky line on the table, you become aware of the tears on your face.
You’re crying. You don’t know why you’re crying, even though you do, actually, know why you’re crying. It’s an indescribable feeling of sadness and want that even your lexicon cannot grasp, no matter how long you dwell upon it, aching for words. If only a specific definition could logic it away, like bringing up a list of symptoms to a doctor with no diagnostic theory yet established.
You bury your face into your hands and quietly allow the waves of unbearable worry and helplessness to wash over you. You block yourself off, as if there were anybody around to witness this moment of true weakness. Caliborn’s seen you cry before, because he was the one to squirt truck oil directly up into your eyes that made you shed tears for a solid half-hour.
“Speak of the devil,” you mumble out in a horrifyingly unstable voice, sucking up snot and wiping a few tears from your dripping face before giving up. Caliborn slides up behind you.
His appendage – hand, possibly, should he contain himself to those dimensions today, which is never a guarantee – hovers in front of your neck before coming closer, closer, a dangerous degree of heat tracing up your chin, forcing your head to tilt up, up, further upwards lest you allow yourself to be burned in more places than only your branded right hip.
With your head bent back and neck tensed to a near painful degree, ghostly hand still holding your position with its searing heat, you look directly up into Caliborn’s terrifying, hellish eyes. It’s a fight and a half to keep from flinching directly into the fire.
“If you say ‘you look pretty when you cry’...” Your threat goes unfinished, and when you swallow down the tears, your adam’s apple comes obscenely close to being truly burned.
Caliborn flashes his golden teeth at you. Without further fanfare, he vanishes to the other side of the room.
You groan when you snap your head back down to look at what he’s doing, your neck muscles stiff in a painful way. He’s opening the fridge and dragging out one of the fish you caught from the lake the other day. He doesn’t bother to shut the fridge again, a cold waft of air colliding with his heat and making the air shimmer. You shiver.
His entire upper chest is visible, a green expanse of almost-human musculature. The poltergeist dangles the fish over his gaping mouth, a dark forked tongue lolling out much longer than your mind thought possible in its narrow experience.
A blinding light of a furnace hisses inside of his body cavity as he lowers the fish downward, red eyes pinning you to the table. The fish bubbles, then steams, a long ssssssshhhhhhhhhhhh of sound erupting as it’s cooked, disappearing nearly all of the way down Caliborn’s extended throat before he yanks it back out, crispy and a golden-blue.
Your shiver is an uncontrollable tremble now. You used to think you’d never truly be scared again, not after a childhood with Dad, or the aftermath of the accident with Hal, or that final strife on the roof where you’d nearly died.
But the Devil himself is in your kitchen, surrounded by the smell of cooked meat, eyes on you, the same eyes that watch you when you sleep, could watch your little brother sleep, and you realize that this is the time when you are truly well in over your head.
And then the Devil slaps a paper plate down in your vague direction and flops the fish onto it with a comical splat! and the spell is utterly broken.
“EAT, YOU SAD SACK OF SHIT.”
Caliborn exits stage left. Or stage ‘wherever ghosts go when they dramatically disappear into thin air.’
You collapse back into your seat. Tears dry on your face. You’re damn near positive that if anybody were to touch you right now, you’d piss yourself. It’s not exactly a pleasant thought.
You gently flutter a hand up your hot reddened neck and laugh quietly, incredulously to yourself. It seems as if death still intends to court you.
And then you eat your favorite fish with your hands like an animal because Dave is at school and Caliborn is something so, so much worse than you could ever even try to be, and this is a thought you use to comfort yourself, whether it will continue to be the truth or not.
When you’re done with that, closing the fridge door finally and tossing the used plate away, you walk upstairs on frighteningly unsteady legs. You hesitate before ultimately deciding that, yes, you can sit on Dave’s bed, if only for a moment. You won’t touch anything besides the floor, the bed, and the air, and you won’t snoop. Dave will never have to know.
You use this quiet moment to call in the order to the bakery nearby. Dave chose ‘one’, so you’ll get him an apple pie. Two would have been strawberry cupcakes, and three would have been rainbow Dippin’ Dots. All three are Dave’s favorites, but you knew that if you’d asked him outright which one he’d want, he’d waffle until the very last minute, and then you’d have no answer at all.
You’ll pick the pie up right after you get Dave from school, since you’d promised to. He said he wanted to know what it was like to ride the bus, and decide for himself if he’d rather you drive him or he’d like to ride with all the other kids.
The sheer amount of anxiety pangs you get from thinking about whether or not Dave will like the surprise stalls you for a few moments, but when you hear Caliborn rattling something around downstairs, you boot yourself back up and jump down the railing to go prevent whatever damage he’s using as an excuse for attention.
If Caliborn doesn’t stop rapidly slamming the front door over and over again, you’re going to spontaneously contract rabies. You heard it’s a hot commodity these days.
“Can I have someone over for my birthday?”
You’ve bought dishes – cheap, plastic ones that won’t leave glass shards when shattered – between the time Dave started school and now, the winter. There’s a fire in the hearth you never have to stoke, because Caliborn keeps it lit. He’s using logic that you cannot fully understand; your theory is that it’s some sort of power move, or one of those incredibly small and unlethal tasks the poltergeist gives himself to keep you ‘happy.’ Keep you kept.
Dave is helping you wash those dishes now, as he asks his question while standing on the wooden stool you made for him out of all the excess firewood you’d chopped and then could not use within the supernatural fire that heats your home.
“Only one,” you ask him, instead of interrogating him over his past birthday experiences, or perhaps lackthereof. “Here.”
Dave takes the wet plate you’ve handed him and inexpertly begins drying it with that ugly yellow cloth you intend to shred some day. “There’s this kid named Karkat,” says the kid, “and nobody likes him.”
You don’t understand his reasoning. “And do you like him.”
He only shrugs. “I ‘unno. He’s kinda annoying, and…” A pause as he nearly overbalances while placing the plate onto the stack of dried ones. “And he hit me.”
“What,” you say, too intensely, hands clenching dangerously on the fork you scrub. You know this in the way Dave’s face blanks out, his movements becoming mechanical.
“With mud,” he clarifies. You force yourself to relax, highly aware of the pair of near-permanent eyes on the back of your head. You have a volatile audience in attendance.
“Then shouldn’t your logic be that you don’t want him anywhere near you on your big day.” The previously lukewarm soapy water becomes something closer to boiling. You try not to react suddenly, sliding your hands out of the sink and fetching yourself a towel.
Dave only shrugs again.
“A’ight.” You help Dave down from his stool, throwing both of your damp towels somewhere random on the counter, leading him away and towards the couch. Yes, the couch is red. “I’m making the executive decision to leave the dishes for another day, ‘cuz it sounds like you’ve got a lot on your mind right now, homie.”
That cheers him up some. He goes directly for the remote the same way any kid who hasn’t watched TV in a few hours would, and you let it happen.
You try your best to get him engaged in things other than burying himself into television and Youtube, worried that he’ll become like you did – avoidant, self-absorbed in a perfect online image, superficial around friends. In your defense, it was a machine method you’d created as a young teen in order to come to terms with your awful living situation, alongside your arguably even worse personality, but you like to convince yourself that Dave won’t ever have to do that here. Won’t feel the need to fake who he is as armor.
And if that means you’ll have to work and engage ten times as hard as your dad ever did, despite it not being your natural disposition, then so be it.
“Wanna tell me about this Karkat fellow,” you prompt Dave as he flicks through the Children’s section on the streaming service Hal hacked the signal for. Hal is well on his way to becoming the ‘Rich Yet Distant Gift-Giving Uncle’, that’s for sure. “He ever hurt you more than some mud. Not that mud in your face isn’t terrible. It’s basically a crime if it gets in your hair.”
Dave smiles at that. He settles on a show called ‘Infinity Train.’ He’s watched it at least two times before. “Um… People like to call him Beep Beep Meow, ‘cuz of his name. And he drew- threw mud at me because I called him Beep Beep Meow, but he’s never done that to anybody else that’s called him...” He trails off, getting a little absorbed in his show.
You’re not bothered by this – you get what he means. You don’t know if this is what all kids do, but he seems to have a hard time focusing on just one thing. “And are you gonna call him names other than his own after this.”
He stills, looking down at the floor, as if he’s only now realized that he might get in trouble for calling another kid names at recess. “...No.”
You pet his hair back, ignoring the still strange texture. It’s so thin, like doll’s hair. “Can you imagine if people at school saw your eyes, and started calling you Red Eyes instead of your name. And how bad that would feel. I bet you’d start throwin’ some mud, too, kiddo.”
Again, he doesn’t turn his eyes up to you or his show. “But nobody can see my eyes. You got me shades.”
“You’re not in trouble.” You move his shades up and place them into his hair so that you can see his expression better, which is novel that he lets you casually move him and his affects around at all. His eyes, their red spilled over into white like splattered paint, are glassy. Uh oh. “I’m trying to understand why you want this kid to come over for your birthday. Do you want to apologize, or is it something else.”
Dave shrugs. His face scrunches up some, but he thankfully doesn’t cry, because if he did, you’d probably consider throwing yourself into the fireplace. “He doesn’t have any friends. And I don’t really, either.”
Calculations swirl inside your mind, mostly dealing with your misstep regarding whether or not Dave understands what a conventional children’s birthday is supposed to entail, others dealing with why, exactly, Dave seems to want this Karkat kid around in a house with a scary ghost.
You begin to make note of a potential revenge streak Dave may get as he grows older, when kids can be substantially meaner, and worse things can happen to him than simply being hit with mud. If his first instinct is to tempt those kids into his literally haunted house as punishment, you’re gonna need to do some recon.
Making another executive decision as The Adult tonight, you switch positions on the couch, shuffling yourself and Dave around until you’re flat on your back and Dave is laid down on his belly on top of your chest. Again, he limply allows this to happen, showing no fear nor reluctance. It’s fascinating, what he’ll let you do to him.
But, you digress. “What do you know about Karkat, li’l dude. You’ve got a few weeks before the big five. Maybe you should get to know him before you spring an invite on him.”
Dave nods eagerly, toying with the rib-knit of your shirt. “He’s like me because he lives with his older brother too, and he’s new because he moved here after Winter Break last year, and his eyes are red but not as red as mine.”
That gets you inordinately interested. “You’re right, Dave,” you tell him with an excess of surety that you may later regret, “it sounds like you have a lot in common. I think you should try to be his friend. After you’ve apologized for calling him names.” You pat at his bottom, once, a shadow of an actual reprimand, because if you ever truly raised your hand to him, you might as well sever your skull the rest of the way from your shitty body and finish Dad’s hack job.
Your li’l bro agrees, then turns his head to the side to finish his show.
“STOP!!!” Screams a childish voice that is so, so much louder than you ever thought a kid could possibly be.
“Karkat!” Calls his older brother, Kankri, primly sitting at the wooden park table with an enormous book on religious theory in his hands, his eyes never straying from the words. “Play nice, don’t scream!”
Karkat, who is literally five and a half years old, turns around in the sandbox he’s currently plopped in with Dave, and flips his older brother off.
You have no idea what the fuck you’re supposed to be doing here.
It’s December third, Dave’s fifth birthday. Technically, it’s your twentieth as well, but you’ve never celebrated it, and you aren’t about to start. Hal will most likely be expecting a thoughtful present, the keys to your car, a pony, and also several more percentages of your soul than he already has, so you made sure to mail your entirely purposefully inadequate letter a week beforehand.
You convinced Dave to not bring any more people to your house than will ever be necessary, instead having his birthday at a local park. It’s cold as hell. You properly prepared your kid for winter, but neglected to prepare yourself – you, born and raised Texan, never experienced anything colder than perhaps the upper fifties.
Kankri is only in a sweater, albeit a very thick one, and seems utterly unaffected.
“Where did you say you lived before here again,” you question, trying not to let your teeth chatter. This is so uncool, it’s wrapped back around on itself and become ice cold.
He doesn’t look up, flipping a page. “Ontario.”
A family of two Filipino Canadians. Wonder how they ended up in Oregon. Wonder if it’s anything like your reasons for ending up in Oregon. “And anywhere before that.”
Kankri gives you this slow, almost an eye-roll of a look. “Ontario.”
“Right.” You glance over at Karkat and Dave again, who seem to be engaging in a staring contest. God you hope this isn’t some screenshot of a ‘five seconds before disaster’ video. “I’m from Texas.”
For that, you earn a tight smile, and a further fifteen minutes of being ignored by the only other twenty-something out here. Tubular.
You wish you’d brought your phone, despite knowing your very real paranoia of being tracked when using the device somewhere other than the safety of your location fuzzed house. Then again, you do not yet fathom how Kankri could possibly put something up in front of his face, and not want his kid within sight at all times.
The first stop of the birthday trip was the bakery Dave enjoys so much. They have a few indoor seats, should one desire to purchase a single-serve slice of something and eat it right then and there. The kids both picked what they’d wanted, and then awkwardly attempted to talk about things that only small children would find interest in.
It went… okay. You don’t know how to readily gauge the Okayness Levels of children’s birthday parties, but Karkat’s older brother Kankri never raised any sort of alarm bells to you other than the small oft-used one called the ‘BORING LOSER ALERT’, so unless the kids started trying to hurt each other, you mostly stayed out of it. You trusted Dave’s cues to guide you in your level of control here.
Now, however, the kids actually wanted to go to the park. In this weather. Are children immune to hot and cold weather? Surely not. If anything, shouldn’t they be more susceptible, with their tiny, ungrown bodies? You do not have enough information to truly decide this.
“LALONDE!!!!!!!” Karkat screams one more time, apparently displeased with something Dave has done. You’d find it hilarious that Karkat is allergic to calling Dave by his first name, but instead you’re simply worried. How in the world could two kids get along so inefficiently? What could they possibly strife about? Sharing? Toys? More mud?? “I’M TELLING!!!!”
Your first instinct is to get up and power-walk away, which you fight against with all of your being. You don’t think you like kids. You like your own kid, yes, but not other people’s kids. Or perhaps you’re thinking too small – other people in general.
Karkat stumble-runs his way from the sandbox over to the picnic table, thankfully going straight for his brother instead of at you, who has belatedly realized that you’ve lucked out on how naturally quiet and well-behaved Dave is for you.
Speaking of – Dave slowly trails after Karkat, his shaded face not giving away any details as to why his (friend?) guest is so ruffled.
“Kankri, Kankriiii!” Karkat whines as he tugs at his brother’s clothes. “Lalonde just did something -”
“What did I tell you about tattling, Karkat,” is all Kankri responds with, shutting his book with a sigh. “I think that’s enough for today. Thank you for inviting him, Dirk.”
You’re admittedly startled. “It was no problem,” you respond on auto-pilot, barely feeling Dave come to lean against your leg, where you place one hand onto his head. Good god, he’s like a little furnace. He is definitely sitting in your lap on the drive home, laws be damned. You’re a great part-time seat belt. “Thank you for coming. Bye, Karkat.”
Karkat gives you an utterly unamused face, making you realize that, up close, he has something of an under bite, teeth over-large in his jaw and spilling out to poke at light brown skin. He’s like a tiny attack dog. You wonder what, exactly, Dave sees in him, besides another kid who is new and lonely at school.
If Dave never invites him to anything ever again, you wouldn’t be surprised, nor torn up. His older brother leaves much to be wanted in terms of information-gathering. Normally, you’d enjoy a guy who knows when to shut up. Except when you want answers to satisfy your underwhelmed curiosity. Kankri could even be described as ‘pretty,’ but unfortunately you don’t prefer your men pretty.
When you look down to assess your charge, you immediately become aware of the tiny cut on his chin. “What happened there,” you ask. “He do somethin’ to you, did he.”
“No,” Dave instantaneously denies, “I did it on accident. It’s just a little cut,” and then he goes to wipe at it with his sand-covered hand, which you put a stop to by deflecting him at the wrist. He doesn’t even look offended, the trooper.
“Come on, I’ve got bandaids in the truck. You want a ride or do you wanna walk,” you offer, and he puts his hands in the air in a non-verbal cue. You pick him up and put him against your hip, which would be a lot more comfortable if you actually had any, but he’s so small and light you make do.
While you’re making sure you have everything, and Dave does as well, Kankri and Karkat walk away. You notice in those last seconds before they disappear over a hill that Karkat is tugging at his brother’s pant leg, looking back over his shoulder in a pronounced glare, possibly at the way you hold Dave aloft.
“I need to finish this assignment...” You can hear the tail-end of Kankri’s reprimand of Karkat, who tried to walk in front of his legs. Perhaps for attention. It makes you wonder if Karkat has any small scrapes or cuts.
Both you and Dave are quiet as you stand there to watch them go.
Maybe you are starting to understand your little brother. If only a small amount.
Chapter 4: Shield Your Eyes, I'll Make It Lighter For You
*Awkward and tense scenes, kids bullying kids, kids assaulting kids, mentions of past drug use (weed), smoking, past child abuse, sex-shaming insults, implied sex work, manipulation and abuse, discussions of child abandonment, discussions of parent death, discussions of abusive relationships, internalized ableism, mild child endangerment.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
In the orange sunset of late September, you pick Dave up from school while crammed into a long, frenetic vehicle line of other parents, older siblings in highschool with driver’s licenses, and nannies.
Contrary to belief taught to you by the ultimate knowledge-based source of Modern Media, no fussy Ma or Pa comes ‘round trying to shove their PTA Posturing’s onto you like you’re fresh young meat at a Vampire Ball, which is a shaky plus in your book. ‘Shaky’ because no one here goes out of their way to tell the new guy the unspoken rules of where to park, when to idle, how to pick up said kid without inadvertently sending the school into lockdown for being a tall and unsmiling black man confusedly wandering towards the front office, et cetera.
Loathe are you to normally Keep Off The Grass when told, so to say, but if anything you do gets Dave in trouble or looked down upon in school, you won’t be able to forgive yourself.
When you were still enrolled, kids made rumors about how your dad was a drug dealer that pushed at your school regularly. Which you always found to be astoundingly false – Dad would never give away or sell his weed, and he was too smart to do anything harder. The one time he caught you smoking, too, he didn’t get mad because you were, but because you hadn’t come to him first to ask permission to see his vetted dealer. He set you up with his guy, and for the longest time, it was one of the only truces the either of you could peacefully keep.
Obviously, y’all don’t go to the same guy anymore.
So here you are, nervously bumbling around this school’s parking lot hive like a worker bee just born, being not-so-gently prodded along by the drones. You’re not the only shitty-looking truck out here, but also the last truck you passed had a raccoon calmly sitting in the bed like it was no big deal, so you like to think yourself at least one step above whoever that was.
Bored, yet not willing to become so distracted as to get out your phone, you wonder what car Kankri drives. If he drives one at all. Wonder if this town has a bus. You saw a bus stop sign somewhere, you’re sure, but you didn’t quite take note of whether or not it was a town bus or a school bus route. Wonder if you’ll spot Karkat’s fluffy little head bobbing amongst the sea of Elementary Schooler’s that are about to be released like a basket full of minnows.
You tap your fingers on the open sill of your window. Someone a few cars down is smoking out theirs. You don’t wrinkle your nose or shy away, but instead take a deeper breath, lacking the free will you held moments ago.
Dad used to smoke. Does smoke. Whatever.
Maybe you should roll up your window.
Just as you begin to lose all control of yourself and stage a self-made war over the options of To roll up the window? Or to not roll up the window? That is the question, Dave comes up to the passenger side and slaps his meaty little hand onto the metal the same way a fat bug hitting a windshield on the expressway would sound.
You don’t startle. You unlock his door and get him situated before peeling out of there just in case someone suddenly cares about how Dave shouldn’t be in the front, much less anywhere in this truck without a booster seat; he is most definitely not over four feet tall nor is he over eight years old.
Before you can painstakingly open your mouth and begin the awkward process of asking your kid how school was, Dave opens his and goes, “There’s this girl in class named Terezi and she has an older sister named Meulin who taught her how to draw cats so I said ‘hey can you draw me my fursona he’s orange and a cat’ and she did it.”
He wrestles with his bag in order to get this supposed fursona-bearing piece of paper out, and your mind is still playing catch-up somewhere back when the raccoon hitching a ride looked you in the eyes and gave Cal’s fear crawl a run for its money.
Dave hands you the paper insistently as you’re driving, and you take it for a lack of better things to say or do, despite a better thing to say probably being ‘Dave I’m driving I can’t look at this just yet, we could get hurt’ or a better thing to do probably being holding the picture in your lap until you get your precious cargo home safely.
Instead you feel the need to look at this fursona immediately, and also not question how First Grader’s even know a word like that. Time’s, they are-a changin’.
The, “This is amazing,” is out of you before you’ve even fully realized the majesty of what you’re viewing, which is a normal quadrupedal orange tabby cat with Dave’s round sunglasses taking up an uneven portion of the top right of the page. You can spot the juvenile attempts at proper anatomy – a child mimicking the lessons of an older sibling’s art style.
Dave looks pleased as punch, his pale face blushing like a fever and his mouth quirking up into the smallest of smiles. Score. “Karkat says- said that it was dumb tho’ so Terezi picked up the chalkboard eraser from the arts n’ crafts corner and smacked him upside th’ head with it and he couldn’t get all of the white dust out of his hair so he had to walk around like that all day and get on the bus like that. Terezi got in trouble but I told the teach what Karkat said so she only got into a little bit of trouble.”
You set the paper down all gentle and reverent into your lap. Dave didn’t draw it, so it’s not as important as the other art pieces hung up around his room and on the fridge, but he seems to really appreciate whoever this Terezi is, so you’ll treat it with respect for his sake. “Sounds like a really important day happened. Will I be seeing this Terezi around anytime soon or are y’all still hashing out the details of friendship.”
Dave wrings his hands, then begins tapping them rapidly on his knees. “I ‘unno. Maybe. Karkat said that if I go to her birthday party then I’m never allowed to talk to him again.” The tapping stops. “He got invited too though.”
You snort, unbidden. “I’ll talk to Kankri. You’ll both go.” A pause as you pull into the long driveway. “If you want to go. I won’t say anything if you don’t. It’s up to you.”
The air in the car gets awkward and Dave goes quiet. It makes you feel like you’ve done something bad, being so obsessive over how often you tell him that he has a choice, here, even though it feels so much like a lie. You wonder how you’ve yet to choke yourself with your own lead tongue, the one that always says the wrong thing instead of the right.
Dave allows you to help him find the perfect spot to hang up his new friend-art, but then after that it’s obvious that he wants you to leave. You retrieve his homework and place it on his wobbly, imperfect desk you made out of the wobbly, imperfect side table you accidentally knocked the leg clean off of one day last week when you were aggressively vacuuming in the wake of the single spider you’d spotted running across Dave’s bed the night before your Vacuum Reckoning.
Caliborn had laughed himself silly – told you about how Dave had gone off like a shot out the front door as soon as he heard the thump and your loud, instinctive “SHIT!” You felt like a monster. You gave Dave ice cream that night and apologized for screaming a bad word and for breaking his table, but you were unsure about what, pinpoint specifically, you had done to scare him like that. He had eaten the ice cream quietly and watched you play Pokemon on your 3DS.
Like a creep, you stand outside of Dave’s closed bedroom door until you can see his light turn on underneath the crack, to which you then sigh and pad your way into your own room, shutting yourself in.
Bracketed in at nearly all sides by tall pines and facing East, your bedroom with its window gets the darkest the fastest. However, you need no such simple thing as a lamp, for your personal nightmare lights your way with his green existence.
“OUR WARD FEELS MELANCHOLY.” The poltergeist is close enough to uncomfortably warm your entire left side as you boot up your computer. “BETTER GO GET THE TREATS. THE TOOTH-ROTTING SUGAR. THE CANDY, DIRK. WE CANNOT HAVE HIM AS ANYTHING. EXCEPT HAPPY. AND CONTENT. AND SPOILED.”
You’re contrite – being called out by a being of malice for not properly taking the time to personally, lovingly sift through your kids every need and nuance is not a pleasant activity. Sometimes a dude just wants to give his sad kid some sugar and not think too deeply about it. You make a non-verbal sound and flap your hands at your monitor like a harried receptionist saying ‘I need to take this call.’
Sometimes Caliborn gets pissy if you don’t talk back to him, but other times he seems to simply enjoy the sound of his own voice and requires no input from you beyond being most unfortunately conscious enough to hear him.
Tonight, Cal only makes a considering, human-adjacent noise at you and circles your head like a deep sea fish beckoning prey with its built-in headlight. You pay him less heed than truly smart as you hit gorgeous flow on a project you had previously been stuck in a rut with.
What feels like simultaneously several minutes and yet also several hours later, a tiny knock sounds at your door.
You unstick your eyes from your monitor and slowly begin to realize how stiff your body is, creaking and cracking. Before you can pitifully attempt to stand up, however, the door swings open on its own. Although that’s not entirely true - Caliborn shadows the space above the door, with this house’s slanted rooftop giving your room an unnaturally high ceiling.
To his credit, Dave only holds the sheets of stapled paper in his hands up, seeming to ignore Cal’s obvious, glowing presence above his head. “It’s vocabulary,” he tells you, and then, quieter, “please.”
You clear your throat and stumble back into the land of the functional, verbal guardians with the same grace of a man who has not put a single drop of water into his shitty, dry body for at least five hours now. “Sure. But I need a minute to detach from this project. Tie it up, save it. Stuff like that.” You give him a single nod. “Go on. I’ll be there soon.”
Dave obediently skedaddles back to his room, packet of work in tow, leaving your door open.
Unfortunately, a few minutes turns into nearly half-an-hour of poking and prodding at your project, still enraptured in that heady flow that is so hard to grasp, before you realize the time.
You trip on your way to Dave’s room, nervous roilings in your stomach and poison in your mind. You’ll have to apologize. You cannot believe you ignored him like that – you made no such promises, but you gave him your word. Only a few minutes, you said. You’d lied.
Without realizing it, you run the few short steps to Dave’s room, skidding to a stop in front of his open door.
As you do, a roving green light snuffs itself out from right behind Dave, who sits at his desk. He puts down his pencil and turns to you, seeming for all in the world unconcerned, once more, over a ghost’s presence near his fragile little body.
“I’m sorry,” you tell him, unwilling to cross the threshold of his room. “I… got caught up. Was unaware of the time.”
Dave shrugs. “It’s okay. I know you’re busy. Caliborn helped me.”
“Cal knows a lot of words,” is all Dave tells you next, before going about silently putting his surprisingly finished homework into his tiny pink pony bag.
You force yourself back into action, into the decisiveness Dave is supposed to count upon, and try not to let the pinpricks of anxiety overtake your rational mind. “I’ll make fish tonight. Okay?”
Dave says “okay” but he’s turned away from you, dragging out his Horseland play set you’d found at a thrift store, so it can’t be at more than a mumble. Good thing you pride yourself on your sensitive hearing.
You duitifully extract yourself from his line of sight, walking to the half-way point of the stairs before shakily sitting down upon one. A bad spot to be, the primal, beaten part of your brain whispers its old tune, but you ignore it in favor of breathing and thinking.
The pity session you’ve planned to selfishly partake in is almost immediately interrupted by a searingly hot hand brushing over your left cheek, causing you to flinch and hiss.
Caliborn’s eyes, existing in a state of emotion you have never and most likely will never be able to accurately identify, float directly above the crown of your head, forcing you to crane your neck back in order to keep him in your peripherals.
“GO DO YOUR WORK.” How untypically gentle of him to say, for something so typically violent. “HE’S LOST HIS PENCIL CASE.”
“Lost it,” you question, about ready to go back upstairs to Dave’s room, anxiety be damned, “are we sure somebody didn’t take it from him.” You’re not going to say it out loud, but you already predict an ‘easily bullied’ trajectory for Dave.
The spook snorts neon. “YES. HE DROPPED IT. AT RECESS. IT WAS SHAPED LIKE A FUZZY. LITTLE. PONY, DIRK. OF COURSE HE WAS GOING TO PLAY WITH IT.” And then, “HE WOULD NOT LIE TO ME.” As if Dave is fully capable of lying to you, but not to him. How odd.
You quail slightly. Mulishly, “Yea, well, he liked it, din’ he?” You heave yourself to your feet and carefully traverse the stairs to the first floor, knowing deeply that a push from behind could come at any moment. You swipe your thumbs under your eyes, massaging them.
“WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” Demands Caliborn, who dogs your steps in the way he sends small, licking tongues of invisible flame at your bare heels. You dance away from each one for him. “YOU DO NOT MAKE MONEY. FROM THE KITCHEN. BOY-WHORE.”
“’Boy-whore’, that’s a new one,” you snort, getting out a pan for frying with. “And Dave doesn’t need the pencil case right this second, does he. He has maybe three pencils, max. I got it for him because he liked it, not because he necessarily needed it.” You slap the fish onto the heated and oiled pan.
As you consider the merits of how uncharacteristically and freely talkative Dave was with you on the drive home – is he becoming more comfortable around you? Or was he simply too nervous to tell you that he’d lost something you’d bought for him and thus ran his mouth? – Cal makes a disturbing, growling noise from directly next to your shoulder, and stretches a half-formed arm of green forward like the arching neck of an attacking dog.
His clawed visage of a hand presses down onto the fish, which erupts into deafening sizzling and popping noises as if it had been thrown into lava. You instinctively shield your face from the droplets of heated oil that erupt.
When the ghost pulls away, a seared fish with a light char on the outside sits in the pan the same way a dead thing is prone to do. Underneath, the gas stove’s open flame has been snuffed out, as if it could not withstand its tempered self in the supernatural wrath of Caliborn’s.
You make a disparaging noise in the back of your throat, hurriedly setting the fish aside. “Cool. Great. Awesome. Thanks.” You get out another fish and coax the stove’s flame back to spark.
“WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE ONE I MADE?” Caliborn demands, sounding like a grumpy child. “IT IS FAST FOOD. WHICH YOU LOVE SO MUCH. I WAS VERY FAST.”
Jesus wept. “I can’t feed something to Dave when I don’t know if it’s fully cooked through all of the way or not. He could get sick.” You don’t tell him that you’re genuinely afraid his unexplained ghost particles could potentially affect Dave as well, because you don’t want to give him any ideas.
“THEN LET ME TRY AGAIN.” A green appendage, less like an arm and more like a smattering of hot, colored smog, appears once more. “I THOUGHT YOU WERE MORE INTELLIGENT. THAN TO WASTE FOOD.”
If you were anything like Jane, this is when you’d take your utensil and start rapping greedy grabbing knuckles, but you know that if you did that here, your spatula would melt. “I’m not wasting it – I’ll eat the one you made, but I need to make the one for Dave myself. If that’s al-fuckin’-right with you, Your Majesty.”
After a few moments of pure stillness, the green existence of the poltergeist fades from view. The general temperature of the room ticks down a few notches, leading you to the safe assurance that Caliborn has gone elsewhere, wherever ‘elsewhere’ even is for him.
As you fry the fish at a normal rate this time, you whip up some cheesy broccoli as well. Grabbing a bottle of AJ from the fridge, slopping it all onto a plate with sloped sides so as to act as a sort of dam against spillage, you hop your way back up the stairs to Dave’s room.
Unexpectedly, Caliborn’s voice sounds again from somewhere near, yet not so close that you can feel him. “I ENJOY THE PROPER REVERENCE. CALL ME MAJESTY. INDEFINITELY.”
You shoot back, “You know the rules, big guy: only if you’ve got dough, though,” without skipping a beat. As Caliborn fumes behind you, you knock on Dave’s door.
“This is for you,” says Dave as he hands you a piece of paper with a delicately red penned phone number on it.
You blink a few times before taking it. “From who,” you ask, setting down your hammer. Belatedly, you tack on a, “thanks.”
Dave takes a few steps back, bare feet in the grass, and looks out into the woods behind the house instead of at you. “’s from Karkat, from Kankri. Said to call him or smth’.” With that, he scampers off, green stains on his knees and dirt under his fingernails.
You take in the massive amounts of implications the torn piece of folded, lined paper could hold. It makes your hands seem bigger than you expected. That or maybe you’re just growing up, and didn’t realize it, considering most of your attention to ‘growing’ has been pointed at your own kid.
At that thought, you look up from your position standing in the open door of the mostly cleaned-out shed in the backyard, trying to find out where said kid has gone.
Unfortunately, at that same moment, Dave looks up, too, from where he’s rolling his favorite Bug Log over to take a peek.
The both of you awkwardly turn your heads away.
You stoop down and pick up your abandoned hammer, shoving the paper into your sweatpants pocket for later, although it has no such courtesy as to leave your mind alone.
Kankri and you have not met very often in between Dave’s somewhat disastrous fifth birthday and now, but when you do, it’s unremarkable.
You’ll ask him how he is. He’ll say he’s fine. He’ll ask you how you are. You’ll say that you’re fine. You’ll ask him how Karkat is doing. He’ll say fine. He’ll ask you how Dave is doing. You’ll say fine, and then add in the kitchen sink free of charge.
Sometimes you tell Kankri a few too many details that he is apparently ‘fine’ not knowing, but for some reason it’s a largely uncontrollable catharsis you get from talking to someone who isn’t a child, a ghost, or a brother via obfuscating snailmail. Your friends can’t know, for all you mail them sparingly these days anyway. It’s isolating. You’ve never so starkly come face-to-face with the reality of how much about your personality is a performance until you are no longer on a stage. Unfortunately for you, your whole life up until this point was spent on under impersonal lights and thick makeup.
Now you don’t know who you are, besides whatever Dave needs you to be.
Kankri rarely reciprocates. Occasionally, he gives advice, having raised Karkat from birth. As often as that advice is helpful, it equally as often is not, since Dave and Karkat are cut from such different cloth. One time he told you that Karkat had made special Valentines for Dave and Terezi and one other kid whose name you can’t remember, but then threw them away at the last minute. You didn’t know how to respond to that, so you said nothing, which most likely did not portray encouragement for Kankri adding to the conversation about kids in the future.
You are currently mid-construction on a warm Autumn Saturday. You thought Dave had been inside, playing old hacked Jumpstart games on your computer that Hal had sent over a few weeks ago, but apparently he’d gotten loose at some point. You blame Caliborn.
In the shed you previously ignored was indeed a lot of bugs that gave you the secret heebie-jeebies until you dragged the hose over and screwed on the high-powered nozzle you bought for this occasion especially. There was also a shelf made of splintery wood at an awkward height. You’d feared immediately that Dave would whack his head on it should he ever get in here, so you took a hammer to it and tore it down.
Now, the shed is relatively clean. Turns out y’all have a lawn mower. However, whoever had this house last had done some truly astounding landscaping, because the yard is blanketed with short clovers and a species of grass that naturally doesn’t grow very long, so you’ve never exactly felt the need to mow for Dave’s safety or anything. Snakes and the like can be easily spotted without any extra steps taken.
You plan on selling the lawn mower, but keeping the weed-eater just in case.
There’s several piles of junk littering the inside of the already small shed, and most of it, to your eye, is perfectly usable. Sans the goddamn spiders inevitably crawling all over them, of course.
You glance back at where you spied Dave last, for all he spied you as well. He is currently gathering as many colorful leaves as he can from the shallow beginning of the treeline and hauling them back towards the front of the house, collecting them in piles. As you watch further, he sits down next to his pile and begins to organize them by color and size.
Huh, you think mildly. You plop down onto the grass to sift through the pile of wood and miscellaneous shed things. Your mind traces schematics and possibilities, discarding and cutting and editing until you hold the perfect idea a mere five minutes later.
Huh, you think once more, encumbered with feelings of hope and excitement. I can do that.
For Dave’s sixth birthday, you will build him a wagon.
Despite absolutely aborning phone calls, the curiosity spurns you to contact Kankri on Sunday morning, so early that even Dave isn’t awake yet.
You realize your thoughtless mistake when Kankri answers the call with a bleary, “Hello?”
“I’m sorry. I woke you up – I’ll call back later.”
“No, no,” he assures you, taking a deep breath and shuffling some things around, “I’ve pulled an all-nighter, anyways. I can stay up for a few more minutes. Dirk, isn’t it?”
You totally forgot to introduce yourself, too. He just answered what appeared to be a random number and you… Ugh. Fire. Hellfire. “...Yes. Dave gave me your number and said Karkat gave it to him...” You trail off uncertainly. You thump your head gently onto your window sill, of where you perch to get some fresh air. A crow observes you silently from a thick tree branch in the shadows. You raise an eyebrow at it, and guess to as if it has red eyes.
Kankri clears his throat. “Since we appear to be seeing so much of each other, I thought it would be proper to give you a way to contact me. And also to extend my services as a babysitter, should you be in need of one.”
“A babysitter,” you echo dumbly. “I don’t know. My job doesn’t exactly require me to leave the house.” You tactfully do not mention what work you engage in. You’ve seen the beautiful cross necklace he wears.
“Oh,” intones Kankri. He sounds slightly downtrodden, but you can’t figure out why before he’s speaking again. “I had wondered where you got the time to drop Dave off and pick him up every day.” He clears his throat again, and you ponder if he’s got allergies. “Well, that was all. I hope you have a good Sunday, Dirk.”
After a few seconds of awkward silence as neither of you rush to hang up the line, you go, “Wait. Let me… talk to Dave. About it. He might be okay with it. Seeing Karkat every Saturday, maybe -”
“I have an hourly rate,” Kankri hastily interrupts you with. More sounds of paper shuffling from his end. “Just so you know. But I’d love to- Karkat, would love to. Should you need the time to yourself, and such. Or to keep Dave busy – I have many activities over here that they can both engage in together. The street we live on is relatively safe to walk. We have a darling corner store with dairy-free sorbets and National Geographic magazines and the public library is but a fifteen minute walk away.”
You read his desperation and you try not to sigh audibly. You, too, are somewhat stripped for cash. But you’re not also going to college, nor do you pay rent, so you can imagine that you may be more financially sound than Kankri is right now, for all your ‘paycheques’ are uneven and spread far apart. “I understand. I’ll talk to Dave after he wakes up, then call you later. If that’s okay.”
“Yes that is very okay,” he says in a rush. “Yes, that’s… Have a good Sunday, Dirk.” He hangs up quickly after that.
For breakfast, you make pancakes with cinnamon and apple slices. Dave hoovers it down, but keeps shooting you looks from behind his shades, like he knows you’ve sat him with you at the kitchen table for a reason.
“Dave,” you start with, if only to get his attention away from his beloved apple slices, “I called Karkat’s older brother. We talked about…” Stop. Re-formulate for clarity. “How would you like to go over to Karkat’s apartment on the weekends.”
His chewing slows. For such a small face that is normally blank, his expression now is more complicated than you know what to do with. “Why.”
“Because...” And then you stop again. You cannot tells this nearly six-year-old kid ‘because Kankri needs the money.’ Who knows who else he’d repeat that to. For all you trust him, he is still a kid with the social graces of a newborn lamb, stumbling around and bleating mocking jay's news. “Although I’m home basically all day, nearly every day, my work doesn’t allow me to have as much time for you as I think you need from me. Kankri has offered to babysit you so that I have one full day alone every week to work, majorly freeing up the rest of my week. For you.”
Dave pushes bits of syrup-soggy pancake around on his plate, saying nothing. His feet no longer kick jovially underneath the table. You feel the sting of remorse for doing this to him, making him feel anything other than happy and content, and you get a sense of deja-vu for it.
“The pros of this would be that you’d get to see Karkat without the constricting rules of school,” you gently argue, “and that you’d be able to get out of this house more often. Kankri lives in a neighborhood that’s easy to walk to and from places. The cons...” Would be that you’d be away from me, is what you don’t say. You are not entirely convinced yet that this is a con for anyone but yourself. “The con is that you wouldn’t be able to be alone, since you’d be at someone else’s house and it would be worrying if you hid.”
Once again, Dave says nothing. He stands up, ferrying his plate from the table to the sink, where he clumsily drops it in without bothering to get his stool first. He walks past you, towards the stairs, where he stops and turns around. “What makes you think I don’t wanna be here?”
You, vaguely stunned, can only follow him obediently up when he makes a little beckoning motion at you, helpless as you are to this boy's wants.
“It’s… Lonely here. Isn’t it,” you stiltedly say, watching Dave as he stalls at the second-floor landing for you to sluggishly, confusedly catch up.
“But you’re here, and Cal’s here.” Dave hops up onto his bed, yet unmade, and pats the space next to himself. You sit carefully, as if you could set off mines with your weight in guilt alone. “I know you’re busy. That doesn’t bother me.”
“Oh.” Stupidly, you let him push you down so that you’re on your back with your legs sticking off the side of the bed, as if he has enough strength in his tiny hands to do such a thing should you not allow it.
Still in his pajamas, he climbs on top of your chest and plops himself down, head turned slightly to the side so that he can stare out of his window. You upset yourself with the idea that perhaps he’s listening to your heart like this, and get unduly embarrassed with how it must be beating off-kilter right now.
You limply lie back and think of the future.
Dave is quiet for all of five minutes, unwittingly trapping you in a heaven-like hell where everything is okay even though a storm batters the hatches of your mind, before he mercifully breaks the silence with a heavily muffled, “yeah okay.”
“Okay?” Trying to lift you head off the bed in order to fully look at him gives you a truly uncomfortable double-chin sensation, so you drop it back down and submit yourself to only being able to view some of him.
“I’ll go. Check out this whole ‘babysitting’ biz,” he tells you with a beleaguered sigh. You wonder if he got that from you. In a put-upon motion, Dave reaches down into his pajama pants pocket and pulls out a damp paper towel. In it are several apple slices, which he begins to crunch on without first moving his head at all. You have no idea when he snuck past you to put those in there, and you are incredibly impressed.
You hesitantly reach down, and begin petting his head. “Okay. I’ll call Kankri today, and we’ll set everything up.” You pause. “Thank you.”
“Lord knows Karkat gets- goes into fits when nobody wants to play with him after school,” says Dave, expressing some kind of sentiment you were not aware he was capable of making yet.
You try not to laugh at him, and fail. He looks offended that his previously still bed would jumble him around all over the place like that.
You downloaded every season of Sesame Street onto a USB, plugged it into the back of the living room TV, then let Dave watch whatever episode he wanted while you were secretly outside fixing up the wheels on Dave’s wagon.
When you come back in, Dave is still watching. You can’t say you’re surprised – Sesame Street is the shit. Even you got to watch it as a kid. For all Dad was a terrible guardian, he genuinely enjoyed puppet work. Probably would’ve married Jim Henson if he ever got the chance.
Paying little attention to what is on the screen, you change your shirt then wash the oil from your arms in the kitchen sink. Even with vigorous scrubbing and dish soap, some of your skin still stains a darker black in splotches from your fingers to your elbows, but you shrug it off. Not the first time it’s happened. It’ll fade.
However, when you go to relax on the couch next to Dave, he rears back with avid disgust on his face. “Bro that’s nasty, what is that.”
Unwillingly, you feel cowed. “It’s just a stain,” you defend in the vicious wake of a child’s disapproval, “not dirty.” You demonstrate by rubbing your hands thoroughly onto your clean white tanktop, showing Dave that nothing comes off.
Dave, in response, makes an even bigger stinker face.
“Alright...” You retrieve your beloved citrusy hand cream from the completely normal and not hideous coffee table’s drawer, which essentially functions as your bedside table. “Would I do this if I wasn’t clean,” you ask Dave as you spread lotion onto your hands. “Would I really waste my good moisturizer like that. I promise I’m clean, li’l bro.”
Dave begrudgingly allows you the honor of sitting next to him on the couch, but he still seems dubious about it.
You resolve to watch whatever’s left of the episode that’s on before you’ll get up to go occupy yourself with something else. Probably laundry.
A little girl puppet with yellow skin and orange hair flaps her hands butterfly-soft and mumbles repetitive words on screen.
You don’t outwardly react, but inwardly, you begin making hack-dash plans to escape. Maybe you shouldn’t’ve included the episodes about Autism onto the USB, but then again, who are you to force your discomforts onto Dave? It shouldn’t matter that this episode makes you uncomfortable. It might help Dave learn something important. Maybe it will be important to him, if not today, then someday later on.
Dave pulls his hand up into the air and points at the screen with one finger, where on it, a human cast member tries and fails to get Julia’s attention while she’s busy drawing a picture. “It’s you.”
You swallow the intrinsic shame. “Yea, it’s me,” you respond quietly, hoping that your displeasure does not transfer into Dave’s subconscious child mind like an imprinting leech. So recognizable are you as a series of commonly identified autistic traits shown in a felt fucking girl.
For all you don’t want Dave to grow up so self-ashamed that he paints himself in black-and-white falsehoods, stifling who he truly is, you know that the world was not so kind to you so as to let you escape such a fate yourself.
You can’t imagine what he sees in you – when you can’t help but stim, it isn’t gentle, it’s harsh, like you’re trying to throw the bones in your hand out of your skin. You rock back and forth only when you’re unaware. Allowing yourself to be pulled out of flow while working is a force against yourself to be reckoned with. You don’t want him to see you, because you know that the you who is real is not worth anything. Not worth a whole episode on children’s programming. Not worth the gentle kindness or the understanding.
You sit through the entire episode until the next one comes on. You stand up and go hide in your room like a coward seeking absolution of responsibility from the waiting ghost, who acts not so much as a comfort as he is a distraction made of golden teeth and openly barbed words.
Both Dave and Karkat do go to Terezi’s birthday party in late October, thanks to efforts made mostly by Kankri during his weekly babysitting session. However, the party is cut short due to Terezi’s mom, Rosa, getting a serious migraine.
Kankri seems utterly distraught over Rosa being in pain, but is shunted out of the house politely just like all other party-goers. It’s none of your business as to why he reacts like that.
You give the two a ride home. Kankri offers in return a few hours for the kids to play, considering their full-swing party experience was hacked in half. From the backseat, Karkat practically screams, “YES!!” over top of Dave’s quiet “sure.”
Their apartment building has a decent green space. It also has a pool, but it’s been closed until next summer. Apparently nobody locks the gate to it, though, because Kankri is comfortable with popping it open and dragging out two pool chairs for the adults to sit on. He then ducks inside for a minute to retrieve some juice boxes.
Before he hands one to you, he expertly pokes the straw into the top without pausing.
He meets your gaze with rounded eyes. “Sorry. Force of habit. Would you rather have a different one?”
“No, it’s okay.” You take the juice box. It looks comically tiny in your hands, and you don’t know how to feel about that. “The chance of you drugging me in a public space is at an incredibly low percentage rate.”
He doesn’t seem to know how to respond to that. He props a large textbook onto his lap and opens to a page bookmarked with several sheets of loose paper and a mechanical pencil.
What you do next can only be described, in your opinion, as ‘keeping guard.’ It’s a populated area with a sidewalk and everything, so people are constantly coming and going in this mild fall weather. You don’t always hold back your staring when they appear to get too close to your kid(s?) for your personal comfort. Kankri, on the other hand, seems both utterly entrenched in his assignment and completely trusting that Karkat can handle himself, or will at the very least speak up loudly if he cannot handle himself.
Mostly, you are resigned to kid-watching. Dave, as you slowly begin to note, is acting strange. Moody. He trails after Karkat unenthusiastically. You know this is uncharacteristic of him like you know how he tried to eat sand during his last birthday, and that was why Karkat yelled and tattled. Dave usually comes up with a good 50/50 ratio of ideas to play, despite being such a contrast in personality to his closest friend. This afternoon, however, he seems sullen and unreachable.
Before you can truly grasp the presence of mind to perhaps do something like nudge Kankri for a second opinion, Dave walks right up to Karkat and pronounces, “Beep Beep Meow.”
Karkat, a nuclear warhead condensed down into a couple handfuls of child, reacts by reaching over and smacking Dave on the top of the head, face clear in its anger.
Almost instantaneously, like a mouse trap springing to life, Dave launches himself at Karkat and executes a sloppy elbow-jab to his friend’s delicate and unguarded throat. They both go down, Karkat gagging for air, Dave already beginning to rapidly punch him in the stomach with perfectly formed fists.
You do not hesitate to launch yourself up from your lounging chair and pry Dave away from Karkat. Kankri, looking wild-eye’d and spilling his papers everywhere in his haste, follows to where Karkat is sobbing into the grass, running his shaking hands over any injuries before embracing the boy.
In your arms, held up like a football, hangs Dave, who continues to be near-limp and completely quiet. He acts as if he hadn’t just done that, just assaulted someone who could easily be considered his best friend, all over a retaliatory and childish slap that could be argued he instigated in the first place.
You place him down onto his feet, making sure to turn him away from the slightly horrifying visage of Kankri blotting at Karkat’s increasingly wet face, and ask him, “Why did you do that, Dave.”
He only shrugs. You notice a fine tremor working its way through his body, and feel entirely out of your depth.
Lost in your stilted musings of indecisiveness, you are not aware of Kankri’s hand coming towards you until its already made contact with your shoulder. You flinch. He pulls away.
“Bring them inside,” he tells you instead of acknowledging anything else. He’s an even smaller man than you are, and he seems to have trouble hiking Karkat up into his arms to haul him upstairs. Dave walks on his own.
It’s your first time in Kankri’s apartment, which is an oversight on your part considering you’ve let Dave run pell-mell over here every week for nearly a month now. You have no time to pay attention to the décor, as Kankri authoritatively points you and Dave towards the couch, then disappears into what you can only assume is the bathroom with a still sniffling Karkat.
You stare at the floor and give yourself time to recuperate your sense of self, and what you are capable of doing for Dave, to Dave as his future self is being actively built before you, entirely uncaring of giving something so simple as a ‘break.’ Time does not stop for you.
Bracing yourself with the ambient noises of Kankri comforting a hurt child not but a room away, you slowly reach over and unhook Dave’s sunglasses, setting them upon his head. He looks at you with an uncannily smooth slide of his eyes, then entire head. There’s something glassy and foregone about his gaze that worries you so intensely, so deeply, that it’s not unlike drowning on dry land.
“I know stuff must be real complicated.” You shift so that you’re pressing your right thigh up against his entire left leg. “And this might sound funny coming from me but… What you just did was wrong. We don’t hit. We don’t fight… not anymore. Okay?”
Dave blinks once. You are unsure if you’re getting through to him, but once you start, you don’t think it wise to stop.
“I can’t say I know everything about what Dad tried to tell you, but whatever it was, it’s wrong here.” You pause and consider the weights of the words you are about to impart, and try not to feel more important than you are in reality. “We’re not in his world anymore, baby. We’re in whatever world we decide to build. And they one you just laid a brick into the foundation of is a bad world where you lose all your friends.”
Finally, Dave shows some signs of life. He rocks side-to-side restlessly, his pale eyebrows canting upwards into his hairline.
“I’m sorry you gotta hear it cold from me like that, but it’s the truth. You with me? You’re a sweet person, Dave – you’re strong enough not to kill bugs even though they’re icky and weird and you don’t understand them. I can’t imagine you wanting to fight somebody like that. So don’t. Be who you are, not who somebody else tried to make you.”
Dave makes a weak noise that cuts you off at the knees, then pile-drives you in the side with all of his weight. You instinctively hug him, if only to further persuade his body from descending towards the floor. “I’m not gonna claim to understand why you just did that without you even tellin’ me, and you might think I’m bein’ mean, but I’m gonna push you from here on out. Not physically – but to be better than what you were taught. A’ight?” You tap him on his nose, the one that looks nearly as softly flattened as yours, and he looks up at you with those same glassy, tearless eyes. “You gotta be better than him.” You gotta be better than me.
Dave mumbles a little, “yeah”, and you think about how that’s probably all you’ll get from him unless he actively decides to give you more.
Kankri cautiously steps out from the bathroom, making you realize that he likely heard most or all of your self-emboldened speech of catharsis. His expression is what you can only describe as one a pastor would make when receiving confessions – contradictorily open yet loftily judging. Then again, it could be the religious imagery surrounding him constantly; you can spot three crosses mounted on the walls from the couch alone.
Your unwitting host clears his throat and looks down on you two. “It was Karkat’s fault. He confessed to hitting first. You’re not in any trouble, Dave.”
Well, that’s a huge fucking lie if you’ve ever heard one. He’s probably nervous that his recently acquired income will walk out his door if not shown special treatment.
“No,” you say decisively, “we all heard Dave call Karkat a name I’ve told him not to say anymore. I wish Karkat hadn’t hit in response, but, well…” You think you accomplish the vague hand-wave communicating ‘kids do the darnest things’ well without actually stooping so low as to say it. You are not a middle-aged white soccer mom ‘apologizing’ for her kid’s taught bigotry. You’re only human, after all.
Kankri nods shortly a few times too many, his face scrunching up in an expression you don’t know how to read. Either he’s relieved or pissed or… something in between. “Right. I… Dave, would you like to go see Karkat? He’s not badly hurt.” With a flick of his expressive dark brown eyes to your face, he also adds, “Perhaps you’d like to apologize…?”
You nudge Dave slightly to encourage him to make less like a barnacle. “You should tell him you’re sorry. And that you won’t ever do it again.”
Slowly, yet obligingly, Dave slinks past Kankri towards the bathroom. When he’s inside, you don’t think you imagine how you and Kankri hold your collective breath in order to stop and listen for any further violence. None comes. You both breathe out.
In an almost fussy-like manner, Kankri quickly retrieves a glass of water for you, but not for himself. You feel too awkward to take more than a sip, though, as he sits down next to you on the couch.
“Our father...” He stiltedly begins with, almost as if in a prayer, but you honestly wouldn’t know what to do if he started praying because you don’t recall any prayers. “He died when I was eighteen, and when Karkat was born. Our mother… Had her hands full. She still doesn’t know that we exist. So I took him.”
You lean forward onto your knees and thumb at your lip in thought. “Rosa. Terezi’s mom.” Well there goes the ‘it’s none of my business’ clause you had earlier today.
He nods with the slightest of self-deprecating smiles. “What’s a first-generation immigrant from Mexico supposed to do with two pinoy children from a past failed relationship? She adopts children – she doesn’t make them. Or so she’s told me when I first introduced myself.”
You put two-and-two together, and come to the conclusion that Rosa must be a woman who is transgender, and that their father was trans, too.
“That’s rough,” you say, like one entire tool, and then try to save it by adding, “thanks for sharing,” which you’re positive has all the effectiveness of tossing a glass of water onto a housefire.
“I shared because I wanted to tell you that I don’t have any knowledge on what you and Dave went through with your abusive relationship to your father,” he tells you all in one go, and you uncontrollably become sweaty and somewhat dizzy with the bluntness of it all. “But I want you to know that you have my sympathy in your ongoing struggles to live beyond your toxic childhood, and to teach Dave to live beyond his own abuse.”
While you’re too busy flapping your mouth uselessly open, Kankri reaches over and pats your knee absurdly gently. “Now please, take your little brother and get out of my house until Saturday.”
You suppose that’s a very effective way of both asserting his authority over his own little brother and also inviting you back to help pay his bills.
You retrieve Dave from the bathroom. You find him and Karkat both in opposite corners, facing the wall and not speaking.
“What are you two doing?” Asks Kankri from behind you, not quite tall enough to see over your shoulder, poking his head in between your elbow and ribcage without touching you. “Are you alright?”
“We put ourselves in time-out,” replies Karkat in a very serious voice.
You nearly snort but barely manage to hold it in. Kankri is much more regal about it all, managing to effectively herd both you and the kids back to the living room with only a few persuasive tuts and arm waves.
Kankri generously wishes you both a goodbye and even sends Dave on the road with the same single piece of Swedish Fish that Karkat is allowed, giving the message that the adults aren’t mad at him. Whether or not it’s actually convincing, you shall see.
Driving home in a deathly silent truck, you feel a slice of loss still lingering, despite being reassured that you and your charge would be welcomed back soon. True anxiety of losing a backbone you hadn’t fully realized you were leaning upon.
Even with the little heart-to-heart about unfortunate childhoods, you and Kankri may not be friends, but instead are partners in an uphill battle. Or, at least, you consider it to be so. Plus, Dave likes Karkat… supposedly. And you will do anything to give Dave what he wants, even if you run the risk of having to watch him destroy it.
In the cool blue of the woods awash with the shadows cast by a setting sun on a horizon firmly hidden by a deep treeline, Dave plants himself on the roughly hewn bench you’d slap-dashed together with extra wood and refuses to go inside.
You’re unwilling to push him anymore for today. You intimately understand the siren’s call of violence to solve problems that cannot be easily explained, and you aren’t ready to confront it quite yet yourself. Sword of repent dissolved into specter particles, you still carry yet a kernel of guilt. You allow him to sit outside, but ask him to come in before it truly gets dark.
As soon as you cross the threshold, you brace yourself for the inevitable smothering from one resident poltergeist, who makes himself a nuisance when the house has been empty for longer than an hour or so.
“OUR WARD IS MELANCHOLY.” Caliborn echoes the conversation you had thrust upon you not that long ago, and you bury your head into your hands as you sink down onto the couch. “WHY IS HE NOT BEING SHOWERED. WITH SWEET PLATITUDES? HAVE YOU LOST YOUR NERVE, DIRK. SHALL I OVERSEE THIS TASK. IN YOUR STEAD? I CAN SHOW HIM MANY SUGARY THINGS.”
He makes one rotation of the room, voice a ghost in and of itself in the way it threads through solid material like water, his presence making all porous and giving. “POOR LITTLE BOY.” You feel his breath which does not exist on the side of your neck. “IN OVER HIS LITTLE HEAD. ASK ME FOR ASSISTANCE. ASK. ASK.”
“He already had a Swedish Fish,” you reply with a froggy voice.
“A WHAT?” Caliborn moves away from you, and if he had a face, it would be offended, or perhaps dumbfounded. “THAT’S DISGUSTING.”
“You don’t know what Swedish Fish are,” you state rather than ask. You make a mental note to look up when Swedish Fish were invented.
“SHUT UP!” Something you don’t turn around to look at from the kitchen breaks. In the sizzling might of a temper tantrum by a powerful poltergeist of unknown creation, you simultaneously fold in on yourself and yet also prepare to take up arms.
“If you must know – Dave attacked another kid.” You omit any specific names, not only because you suspect Caliborn can infer on his own from how often he may eavesdrop without his living housemate’s knowledge, but also because you think he might not care. “He essentially punished himself in remorse, but he cannot evade his own self-repentance. It is inescapable.”
Caliborn slides behind you. “HOW CAPABLE OF HIM.”
He seems to have not much more to say on the matter, which is just great, because Dave chooses that moment to come back inside.
You can instantly tell that he’s crying, finally. Finally, you think, and wonder what that means, exactly. Maybe that you were afraid he wouldn’t show true remorse. Afraid that he would be more like Dad or like Hal than like you.
Without saying anything, you get up and embrace him. He blubbers messily into your sweatshirt, reminiscent of his first day here. He willingly detaches himself in order to wetly mumble upwards to you, “I don’t wanna hafta fight...”
“Then don’t.” Dave cries still. You decide to ask him one more time why he attacked Karkat like that.
“I don’t know...” He snuffles into his sleeve before you pull him back to your already ruined shirt instead. “I wanted him to look at me, I guess. I don’t know...”
You hold the back of his neck supportively. “Next time, you should simply ask Karkat to spend time with you. You can learn how to take turns in doing what each other wants – compromise. You don’t have to force him to get his attention, because he wants to give you attention already. He’s your friend.”
Dave seems to take a long time to understand that relationships don’t necessarily require periodic struggles of power and violence and subtle manipulation in order to make up for the lack of communication. You ache for him, being so young and already having to confront such adult topics like abuse, even amongst his friends. You ache for yourself, given the duty of raising him right yet constantly feeling as if you fall short, and will continue to fall short for evermore.
As soon as you get him into his room and at least somewhat ready for bed, he faceplants into his pillow and appears to fall asleep near instantaneously. You’re jealous.
You bonelessly slump your way to the bathroom, barely remembering to turn the light on. You leave the door open as if you can still hear Dave’s breathing from your position a wall away, and stare at yourself in the mirror.
It’s cracked. It’s been cracked for a while now – since you moved in, actually. Dave cannot physically get to the mirror, not being tall enough yet, and so you haven’t been hasty to replace it. Now, however, its hairline fractures have multiplied like white lies tend to. The kinds made to oneself, never spoken aloud.
If you stand at the right angle, there are several Dirks looking back at you. It’s unnerving. It’s familiar.
“YOU THINK SUCH DISSATISFIED. AND SELF-ENCUMBERED THOUGHTS.” Announces Caliborn from the location of ‘too close, too sudden.’ To your credit, you have no energy to be surprised. “THAT WOULD MEAN NOTHING TO ME. OR TO HIM. I CAN FEEL HIM. OUR WARD. CRAWLING ABOUT IN MY TERRORTORY LIKE A PITIFUL BUG.”
In one of the mirror shards forms the reflection of a cloud of green with nebulous eyes of red hatred vaguely centered in the miasma. “AND UP HERE, YOU COWER. SELF-OBSESSED.” A not-finger traces the forehead of one of your reflections. “I KNEW YOU WERE SELFISH. THIS IS NOT NEW TO ME.”
“Not news to myself, either.” You observe your own smooth brown skin stretched over your hereditary facial structure of a man you despised and unwittingly think of Rosa’s expressive hospitality. She and Kankri share the same warm eyes, you inconveniently realize at this moment.
You shared eyes with your dad.
“I WILL TELL YOU THIS, DIRK.” Caliborn’s face, for all it is but a skull with a fraction of humanity to it, appears almost entirely recognizable as a person’s. It’s haunting, the way his jaw moves. “IF YOU WERE WITH ME. IN MY TIME OF LIVING. I WOULD MAKE YOU AN EVEN BETTER HITMAN.”
This time, you break the mirror yourself.
On Dave’s sixth birthday, you present to him the tiny red wagon you worked on all Autumn. You’ve briefly stolen Sprite and put it in the wagon itself, as if to showcase its usefulness in carting things around.
He goes a little wild with it, and is much more talkative and enthusiastic than you think he’s ever been with you. Starts putting everything and anything in the wagon, walking it a few steps, then going back for more or to rearrange what he already has. Sprite continues to be his main passenger. That alone reminds you to hurry up and reply to Hal’s previous letter.
Dave starts hinting about how great it would be if y’all could create a picnic and wheel it into the woods. Already forfeiting your control, you say, “Sure,” almost immediately, despite knowing that you’ll have to do most of the work considering how bumpy the woods will be for such a tiny wagon.
You go on a ‘hike’ together once it hits the warmest the day will get. All you really do is follow a mostly directed deer trail until you find a spot reasonably flat enough to lay down the old quilt you brought. You set the feast, which consists of whatever Dave could get his hot little pizza hands on and fit into the wagon.
It’s simple fun. For once, nothing in your life currently has any hidden meanings, or second faces, or ignored memories of worse times. You’re just out in the woods on your kid brother’s birthday having a picnic.
“Hey,” you say once you’re both back inside and you have a lot of extra pilfered food to put away and some dishes to wash. “Hal’s present, li’l dude. You forgot about Hal’s present.”
Newly excited, Dave practically launches himself at the wrapped gift that arrived perfectly on time the day before. Inside is a gaming laptop with a few games along with it, one of them being Skyrim.
He begs you to set it up as soon as possible without actually begging with words. It’s more like psychic waves you can feel constantly hammering the back of your head – that or it was Caliborn pelting you with the box of multi-colored eraser heads he somehow got into without melting the entire batch.
By the time the day is nearly over, Dave is playing a heavily modded version of Skyrim with no blood, weapons replaced with foam pirate ones or various comically enlarged food items, and rainbow sparkles for magic. All of the yelling and hitting noises have been turned into cartoonish splats and honks.
You are the best parent. It is you.
Chapter 5: An Experiment With Existence Is Showing Up Anomalies
*Mentions of alcohol and alcohol abuse, minor injuries, abusive relationships, jokingly mentioned kink (praise), implied survival sex, implied underage prostitution, self-harm (purposefully provoking an abuser so that they hit, contorting one's body into unnaturally painful positions), food insecurity, implied past starvation, awkward sexual flirting, religious imagery, discussions of sexual relationships, internalized aphobia, detailed POV anxiety attack, internalized ableism, kids bullying neurodivergent adults, non-consensual photographing, kids cussing, racist microaggressions, implied physical attraction, mentioned sexually transmitted diseases (herpes), mild & temporary non-consensual possession, implied witchcraftery, mild child endangerment, implied/joking BDSM, past Kankri/Cronus, minor Sollux/Aradia.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Legally, you can drink now.
You’re not going to, though. Of course not – Dave’s health and safety matter more than any fermented crunk liquid. Unless someone slaps a bottle of something down in front of you out of the goodness of their hearts, you aren’t going out of your way to acquire it. You sincerely doubt Kankri drinks. You understand that Hal has always been on too many medications to risk it.
You’ve never drank alcohol before. You like to think it’s because you’re smart, but you know it’s because that field of self-destruction simply never appealed to you, and still doesn’t. Jake once promised to take you ‘properly drinking’ once you hit twenty-one, but obviously that’s never happened, because he’s not here. It was a vice you watched from afar as a teen-aged Rox let it take hold of them, but no more.
However, you think as you crouch down inside of Dave’s closet and reach one hand into the secret hole he’s dug through the drywall, you can certainly imagine your youngest brother one day turning to alcohol in order to further ignore and forget his traumas.
You pull out a granola bar. A bottle of water. You can feel more stashed inside.
Dave is at school; you were vacuuming his room. He keeps the floor of his closet mostly clean, so you vacuum that area as well in order to foil any bugs thinking they can hide there.
You were only cleaning, you justify to yourself. It’s not your fault the shoebox full of collected fall leaves he was apparently using to block his self-made hidey hole fell over.
You pull out another granola bar.
You were wondering how he ate those so fast.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
Startling badly like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar, you whip around with fists full of semi-crushed granola liable to start ripping through their wrappers should you grip any harder. You relax somewhat to prevent this.
“Accidentally snooping,” you admit easily, safe in your assumption that Caliborn may do worse to you if you blatantly lie than if you tell the unpleasant truth. “Dave’s been keeping food in his room. Hiding it. Went so far, he put a hole in the wall.”
Caliborn is silent for one whole moment, which is surprising enough that you’re able to take a calm gander at him. He’s like an oil painting, if one escaped its canvas confines and decided to freely roam wherever there was atmosphere. Green abstract, with an insidious splash of red.
“THIS DOES NOT BODE WELL.”
You weren’t expecting that. Not from him. You pretend to examine the food in your hands, now misshapen, as if you hadn’t bought the box of them just this week. “Oh?”
The force is so gentle, you hardly notice it at first. The bar tugs itself from your hand the same way a half-asleep kitten would, floating in the air the same way a half-asleep kitten would not. It heads directly back towards the closet, where it deposits itself into the hole in the wall once more.
“YOU DO NOT TAKE. HIS FOOD. FROM HIM.” Caliborn abruptly appears right in front of you as if he hadn’t just been across the room, close to the ceiling. You begin to sweat. For all you uncontrollably leak salt water from places other than your eyes these days, it feels different than when you used to sweat back in Texas. “FOOD. AND YOUR ACCESS TO IT. IS NOT A RIGHT. HE UNDERSTANDS THIS MORESO THAN YOU, IT IS CLEAR TO ME NOW.”
“Wasn’t goin’ t’ take it.” You casually sit back onto your hands, narrowly dodging the abandoned vacuum, which would’ve tripped you up and made this a lot less casual and a lot more humiliating. “And I beg to differ on the right to have food – it’s actually a legal, human right, believe it or not.”
Caliborn moves oddly in a way that brings him no closer nor farther away. You slowly realize that it’s a gesture, but one you can’t make out because he’s the equivalent of a cartoon dust cloud. Maybe he’s shaking his head?
He’s about to spin a yarn right here right now ain’t he.
“YOU RAN FROM YOUR HELL. TO MY SANCTUARY.” You try not to look like an impatient kid being lectured, because Cal takes offense to stuff like that. “AND YET IT APPEARS YOU NOT ONCE. WENT WITHOUT CERTAIN ‘HUMAN RIGHTS’ OF YOURS.”
The poltergeist moves above you. You obligingly crane your head back, not out of respect but out of that deep-seated instinct you still harbor that implores you to keep enemies in your line of sight.
“IN MY TIME. OR YOURS. I WONDER HOW YOU WOULD FARE ON THE STREETS.” His formed, clawed hand reaches down to graze at your cheek, like the thin spider’s thread of Buddha’s moralistic teachings unspooling in front of you, enticing you to grasp the purpose of this conversation quickly before he snaps and dooms you once more. “PRETTY. LITTLE. BOY.”
“Mm,” you hum noncommittally, thinking about the ice you’re going to go chew after this. “I understand perfectly, sir. Oh, but I have something to report, Your Majesty.”
“YES?” Caliborn practically barks in your face, and you honestly can’t tell if you’ve, like, pushed some kind of button that he claims he doesn’t have or what.
“I’ve to report that...” You bat your eyelashes like an idiot, “your praise kink is out of fuckin’ control and it’s gonna cost you extra if you want this scene to keep chuggin’.”
He nicks you on the cheek with his claw in one swipe, growling a thunder roll that vibrates your rib cage unpleasantly. You can practically hear the sizzle of your skin, feel the wet, hot cascade of superficial blood that pours down immediately afterwards. Once again, you’re not good enough to be cauterized.
You blink back up at him guilelessly. “Thanks.”
“DISGUSTING.” He sends himself to his supernatural room of which you don’t know the placement. If Hades himself had known his ‘Help Wanted’ sign would be answered by a fucking child, you’re sure he never would’ve put it up in the first place. And yet here Caliborn is.
You scoot the vacuum aside and lay back even further on your arms, not quite letting your back touch the floor. Coupled with the burn of your split cheek, the painful stretch it provides when holding yourself up in this uncomfortable position, theoretically, helps you think. Your body shakes.
So. Food insecurity.
You should’ve seen this coming, honestly. Prepared for symptoms you yourself never show. This only proves your horrific theory: Dave was raised different from you and Hal. You don’t know how differently, but it’s enough that your gap in trustworthy knowledge scares you.
Thousands- no, millions of different options to pursue rattle around in your skull, making it impossible for you to grasp any specific one. You simply don’t know enough to decide – should you offer more food? Should you discuss his habits with him? Should you attempt to teach him that food belongs in the kitchen and nowhere else via discipline? You like that last one the least. It does not guarantee trust, only obedience.
Unwittingly, you think back to how Hal offered to tell you what he found in Dad’s other apartment when he went to get Dave. His open arms inviting you in, the arms you yourself built for him, the look in his eyes that told you he knew something you didn’t. When doesn’t he.
You can’t hold your position anymore and end up flat on your back, knees bent upwards, hands laid down next to your head with open palms. You submit to no-one; perfect like this, a butterfly waiting for the pins to come down, for someone to catch you in your elaborate denial-tinged lie.
When doesn’t Hal know.
You think about getting up and then don’t.
Dad doesn’t matter anymore, you convince yourself as the minutes to when Dave needs to be picked up tick down.
He’s gonna know you messed with his stash. You damn near crushed one of his granola bars, and you didn’t bother to replace everything exactly as it was. Dave’s smart – he’ll notice. He’d have to be incredibly sneaky in order to get anything past Dad. A perfectly organized room in which its inhabitant would notice if anything was a single hair out of place is a witty tactic to adopt, you admit. The damn hole in the wall, a little less so.
It’s not like you’re mad at him – oh no, you’re mostly worried, an emotion tinged with being impressed. But you shouldn’t be impressed because Dave should never have to develop these kinds of survival skills in the first place. You shouldn’t have, either, but you consider yourself a lost cause. Dave isn’t. Dave will live beyond you.
You stand up, belatedly checking the floor for any blood. Nothing.
It’s time to go pick Dave up. You’ll decide how to mention it to him while you’re on your way there, because you know you’ll need to talk about it. He’ll see that his stuff was messed with, and if you say nothing, he’ll no doubt be on edge, waiting for you to retaliate. Just like Dad used to. You harshly slap a bandaid onto your face at that thought, then leap downstairs.
You pause at the front door as you’re putting your shoes on. You weigh the costs and benefits of calling for Cal, of asking him for advice before you do this. He was toting some kind of higher knowledge than you earlier, so perhaps he’d be amendable to sharing.
In the end, you don’t call for him.
In the end, you unlock your passenger-side door at the school and let Dave hop into a deathly silent truck, because you’re no closer to the answer of your conundrum than you were when you left the house, which is no surprise.
In the end, you get Dave home and you sit a no doubt nervous child down in the kitchen with hidden sight burning into the both of you. You look at him and wonder where his signs of stress are, what they used to be. Wonder where they leaked out to be perceived by eyes that you intimately know looked exactly like yours.
His eyes had the chance to be warm, backed by their shared amber color. He had a million and one chances. But they never were. And now they never will have the chance to fail at being warm again.
“I found food in your room.” You can spot the line of Dave’s shoulders tense before going utterly slack, like he’s already given up. This feels too much like an interrogation – you feel too much like a monster. “You’re not in trouble. It’s okay that you have food in your room. The hole in the wall...” His nostrils flare on a nose that looks exactly like your own, and you uncomfortably scratch the back of your head, “is also fine. Those things can be fixed. Whatever you need matters more, you get me?”
Slowly, hesitantly, Dave nods.
“I just wanted to let you know that I accidentally disturbed your stash and that I’m not mad,” you say, “and that if you… Ever wanted to tell me why you feel like you need to hide food in your room, that I’d listen.”
Dave doesn’t nod this time. “Um…” He plays with his ring necklace. “Okay...”
You take an educated guess as to what he won’t tell you – Dad, after all, threatened to have you ‘sucking dicks for a living’ if you didn’t do this that or the other for him all the time, and as a young child you’d often believe him. It was scary. Funny, though, how he never realized you fucking for money wasn’t a problem to you once you hit a certain age and was convinced you could make your own choices freely with no consequences.
“But you don’t have to.” You slump back in your seat and realize that you’ll need to sand these down better – you can feel a splinter against the bare parts of your shoulder. That or it’s Caliborn poking you with one of your sewing needles. Either way, you don’t react. “You can keep a food stash in your room for as long as you want to - ‘til you’re eighteen or when you move out or forever. Don’t matter to me.” Except it does matter.
Dave shifts in his seat, a little more loose now. “When I move out? When does that happen?”
Oh. Uh. Fuck.
“Well, technically you can move out when you’re eighteen, which is when you’re legally an adult,” you carefully explain, “but you don’t have to. You can stay for longer, or even forever.”
He gives you that semi-blank look that makes you realize that you’re talking about numbers and concepts that a six-year-old most likely cannot grasp.
“But that’s over a decade away.” You stand from your chair and look at the time on your phone despite being avidly aware of every painful second of the conversation that just transpired. “Now, I’m gonna turn the living room into a laundry room ‘cuz it’s rainin’ outside and I need to dry these clothes before they get all moldy. You in?”
Dave is definitely in, although his part in the process is mostly delegated to jumping around on the couch excitedly jabbering on about the make-believe adventure he made his Horseland dolls go on the other day as you string up the room and start pinning damp, wrinkled clothes.
Cal helpfully lights the fireplace to have the drying process go faster, but it ends up making the house unbearably hot, so you and Dave escape outside. He avidly shows both you and a barely-present Cal his dead bug collection he’s storing away in a stump.
You try not to scream when one of them isn’t as dead as he thought and flies directly at your face.
Summertime means Dave’s home more often, sans the Saturdays where he essentially gets banished to Kankri’s apartment. Which, as you’ve been assured and reassured, is no such hardship for the either of them.
Dave takes baths often. This isn’t necessarily odd, it’s simply an observation – you, as a child, apparently had to be chased down in order to bathe, to which Dad would usually go ‘fuck it’ to, and not bathe you at all. This led to hygiene problems. People made fun of you at school for many a thing, and the state of your physical form was only one of them.
You have no such problem with Dave. If anything, he may take too many baths for a child who doesn’t always seem to need them. He’s not overly dirty, or sweaty. He’s overly clean, if anything.
You wonder why.
When you go to sit with him while he takes a bath on one of the first days of summer break, however, he stares at you. Stares you down, actually. You stop mid-sitting motion onto the closed toilet lid and stare back, caught in place by the sheer magnitude of disapproval being aimed at you.
“...Do you want me to leave?” You ask, first and foremost. You’ve been expecting this day, after all. Been expecting it since you first started, when Dave was practically still a toddler and didn’t know any better than you did.
Dave shuffles around, hands still clenched onto the fabric of his underwear. They’re lilac. You’re pretty sure he got them from the Girls’ section, but you either didn’t notice when he picked them out or you did and resolved not to say anything disparaging.
“’kinda have to get naked so… Yea.”
Well then. Looks like you’re being kicked out. You easily vacate the bathroom and then promptly have trouble taking anymore than a few steps away from the closed door.
There endeth the ‘sitting in the bathroom’ phase, here begineth the ‘occasionally checking in’ phase.
If only you were any good at the ‘occasionally’ part.
You check in perhaps one too many times, even going so far as to crack the door open whenever you do, because surely he doesn’t expect you to just knock and then be done with it. You need to visually confirm with your eyeballs that he’s okay.
No, you’re not over that one time when you thought he was drowning. You probably never will be.
You make half-cocked plans to teach him how to swim. They’re half-cocked because you don’t know how to swim.
After the fifth check, Dave gets incredibly red in the face, and you force yourself to go back downstairs for the remainder of his bath, which is all of maybe five minutes. You assume you’ve ruined his bath – that or you took up far more of his bath time than you’d initially assumed.
Well it seemed like a good idea, you justify to yourself as a somewhat skittish Dave sidles past you on the couch in order to escape outside.
From somewhere you’re not going to bother checking, a bone-shaking laugh sounds. Asshole.
“My tooth is wobbly,” Dave tells you one day while he’s munching on apple slices, sitting on the couch watching the same episode of Adventure Time for the second time today. He pokes at his bottom front tooth.
“Oh? Lemme see.” He obligingly opens his mouth to you, and you ignore how there’s half-chewed food in there. Sure enough, one of his teeth is wiggly to the touch. “It’s gonna fall out soon.”
You belatedly realize your mistake when Dave stares at you, horrified.
You damn near laugh, but then don’t at the last second. “No, it’s fine – this is normal. Your twenty baby teeth fall out, and then your thirty-two adult teeth grow in. It won’t hurt.” At least, you don’t remember it hurting.
Maybe you should’ve prepared for this better. It’s not your fault you forgot how freaky humans are, replacing their tiny teeth with bigger teeth that were apparently shoved up into their skull for later. You should get some kind of gum-numbing oral gel anyways. It does you well to be prepared.
Do kids need teething toys? No, wait, that’s for dogs. Goddammit, you thought you’d stopped comparing Dave to an animal a while ago. Or maybe it’s for infants, and you are in fact innocent. Mostly. Not at all.
“Ask Karkat if he’s lost any of his teeth yet,” you prompt him at a spark of genius. Karkat is, after all, a good half-year older than Dave. “He’ll tell you.”
Later, once his tooth really does fall out (happens in the middle of breakfast one morning, making him freak out and be late for the bus, causing you to derail your plans to fix the clogged bathroom sink in order to drive him) you don’t bother lying to him about a Tooth Fairy or anything, you just tell him that you’ll take his tooth.
Unfortunately, the previous plan you regarded as ‘genius’ backfires, and Dave already knows about the Tooth Fairy from Karkat. Namely, the money she supposedly gives. You compromise and tell him you’ll pay him two quarters, but if you figure he’s been knocking his teeth out on purpose, then you won’t give him any money at all. And also you’ll make him go to the dentist every day (this one is a lie. You can’t afford that.)
He loses two teeth in quick succession anyways. At the second tooth, you poke your head into his room after he’s done brushing his now gap-toothed smile and say, “Khajit has coin if you has teeth.”
It turns out a lot less funny than you thought it would, as Dave’s scared of the actual Khajit models in Skyrim. He’s reluctant to give you his tooth. You solve this by forking over a whole dollar in quarters to try and make him less freaked out. It works because he’s an easily distracted little shit who enjoys rewards.
You also sneakily mod his Skyrim so that all the Khajit are replaced with chibi-like cats instead, which totally makes them look like DeviantArt furries, but nobody has to know except you and him. And you’re under good authority that he’s friends with a Second Grade furry or two, going by the amount of fursona art he brings home.
Everybody wins in this scenario except your wallet for the next five or six years.
“Alcohol?” Kankri scoffs, “Hardly – when would I ever drink?” He hastily folds another t-shirt. You’d reach out to help him, but he’s literally smacked your hands away several times at this point and claimed he ‘has a system,’ so now you sit back and feel useless.
The boys are napping in Karkat’s room; you’d arrived just in time to be horribly waylaid and invited inside for a cup of hot cocoa. It’s an entirely mediocre cup. Kankri makes his hot cocoa with sugar-free packets and hot water instead of milk. You try not to repeatedly glance at the clock. It’s right next to an elaborate cross. You feel slightly violated whenever you look at the cross for too long.
You think he might be lonely. You think that you might understand the feeling.
“My ex-boyfriend, on the other hand,” says the dude who’s daintily dropped a gay-bomb and appears entirely unconcerned about it, a pair of tiny blue boxers in his hands, “he would drink just about every day, and I told him he was going to get into trouble like that, but did he listen to me? Noooo, no reason to listen to Kankri.”
You also think that you’re not so lonely that you’d willingly sit down with someone to chat about inane things that drag at your unfortunately conscious mind. You feel as if you’re half-asleep, floating on the edge of what lucid dreaming used to be like.
“Who was your ex?” You ask, if only to appear politely engaged. You’re not.
“His name was Cronus,” Kankri says, slapping down some kind of undershirt that is confusingly stained red and blue. Tie-dye? “We’d known each other since High School – well, earlier, technically, but we weren’t friends therefore I don’t consider it to be ‘knowing’ someone.” He turns to give you a little smile that holds a lot of significance and you kind of feel your throat close up. You do nothing in return. “He made grand gestures of how he was going to stick around forever, but then as soon as I took my celibacy vows, he was out the door before Karkat could even walk.”
You don’t know, exactly, what to say to that, at least not something that isn’t some variation of ‘what the fuck is a celibacy vow and why would you do that?’ “He sounds like an asshole.”
“Oh no, he was very sweet. To me, at least.” Kankri places a pile of clothes into his green hamper with the chunk missing out of its left handle, then turns back to you with his hands folded in his lap. “He was also an alcoholic with an abusive family. He often turned towards sex in order to find comfort and relief, and I understood that, but unfortunately when I couldn’t give him that anymore he left to go find someone who could.”
“...Still sounds like an asshole,” you say dubiously, not quite warmed up to the idea of a relationship where sex is refused. “You date anybody else since then?”
“No. Although my celibacy vows don’t extend to romantic or platonic relationships,” here, again, he gives you his little smile, and you wish not for the first time today that Dave would wake the hell up already, “but it’s hard to pay attention to any of that when I’ve got to take care of Karkat, you know?”
“I know.” You scrub a hand over your mouth, then abruptly cease. Reminds you too much of Dad. “I’ve dated one guy,” you allow, laconic. “We lasted six months. Never saw him again.” At Kankri’s blatantly concerned look, you add, “We keep in contact. We were childhood friends in a group of four – hard not to.”
He makes a face that conveys the sentiment of ‘yeah, that’ll do it’ very well. “Well, it’s not like we’re too old to try again. I’m only twenty-five since this September, and you’re…?”
“Twenty-one since last December,” you reluctantly admit.
“Good God.” Kankri seems to re-compose himself as if he hadn’t just said that. “You uh, you don’t look it. You look...”
You cant your shadows down the flat bridge of your nose and peer over them at him. “Older, huh. I get that a lot.” You replace your shades and suck on your teeth a bit. “Look a lot like my dad. He was a big dude.”
“I’m sorry for your loss…?” Kankri seems confused over your wording, and you let him be. Turn your head away and let him think what he wants to think. He clears his throat, clearly uncomfortable. “Like I said – it’s not too late. I’m sure some people- men, even, will like the way you look.”
“And I’m sure there’s plenty of dudes out there that’ll go for a tiny, nerdy pinoy-latino who looks like he’ll one day end up in a huge lecture hall telling a hundred students a day what’s what.”
Kankri laughs at that, and it’s gratifying enough that the side of your mouth quirks upwards without your express permission.
“You look like you read a lot of books,” he says, almost out of nowhere, and you’re surprised enough that you simply blink over at him while you get read as fuck, “Know some good movies when the occasion arises. Perhaps you sew, or knit? Create things with your hands as a hobby?”
You think about the anime you studiously keep up with, and all of the subsequent fan-content you devour afterwards. Think about how the last book you picked up was what could only constitute as one – that massive stack of papers it took to get Dave enrolled in school.
Teen-aged you would be so appalled. Then again, teen-aged you wasn’t yet the equivalent of a young, single parent.
“I do sew. Do some woodworking,” you concede amidst intrusive thoughts about Jake’s love of big blockbuster movies mixed in with his more private interests in obscure, unloved media from other countries. Thoughts about all of Jake’s temporary places of staying that you had the audacity to infect yourself with, his thick books scattered about amongst the mess of more interesting things to poke at. Reportedly, he reads The Great Gatsby from cover to cover at least once a year, alongside several other classics you only considered when forced to during your stint in online college.
Belatedly, you get affronted on your own behalf. “You think I ‘look like I read.’”
Kankri adjusts himself in his seat with a complicated, half-surprised expression on, like he can’t decide if he’s also affronted by your affrontation. “Well, yes – more like a writer, perhaps, though I can’t imagine a great writer wouldn’t also be a great reader. Or an artist.”
“It might be in the way you dress,” Kankri continues.
“The way I dress?” You parrot back once more, stupid and too heavy on the inflection like some kind of amateur. “I wear the same thing every single day.”
He nods. “Yes.”
You presently speed-run an existential crisis over your rows and rows of identical tanktops and sweatpants. The only variance is, perhaps, the brand and color, although even that tends to skew dark and soft. Black. Charcoal. Navy. A daring maroon on days you can’t help but feel a little saucy. An even blacker black. One white tank you think Jane might’ve sent you once upon a time, after you’d selfishly rejected her other attempts at clothing you until she’d given up and just gotten you what you’d fuckin’ wanted in the first place.
“I dunno where this came from.” You gesture down to the red plaid flannel jacket you’re wearing. It was jammed into a cut into the wall upstairs near the bathroom that you swore you’d cleaned and patched up before. For a lack of better options, and also a literal lack of jackets in your clothing arsenal, you took it and wore it. “If that shatters my mysterious, brooding artist-cum-writer vibes, tell me now or forever hold your peace.”
You think you may have earned an actual, genuine smile from him for that.
Wherever the conversation was veering towards next is interrupted by two rowdy and definitely no longer napping kids tearing down the hall to bodily toss themselves onto the mess of pillows in front of the TV.
“Good morning you two,” Kankri chirps at them despite it being somewhere around six in the evening. “Karkat, say goodbye to Dave. His brother is here to pick him up.”
Karkat yells a long “Nooooooooo!” that is interrupted by his uneven gait as he bounces over to Kankri, flopping onto his knee. Dave follows along a little slower. “Can we watch a movie please just one movie!!!”
Dave doesn’t throw himself at you and beg for just one more hour with his friend, but he does stand in front of you and quietly fold his hands behind his back, looking down at the floor.
You barely even have to see Kankri glance over at you significantly from the corner of your eye before you’re going, “Alright,” and Karkat’s resounding screech drowns out any sort of constraints Kankri lays down right after about ‘just one movie, and then he has to go home.’
While Karkat practically sprints over to the small cabinet apparently full of movies to peruse, Dave stays behind in order to grace you with his little smile as he rocks back and forth on his toes, his shadeless eyes full of something. Something made out of the stuff of nightmares, you reckon.
Jesus fucking wept. You attempt to keep your composure and fail miserably, reaching over to run your fingers through his thin hair just to feel him lean into you. Christ. You hope he feels safe with you. You hope he knows you love him more than anybody on this entire planet.
“Go pick out a movie,” you tell him softly, and he’s still smiling when he walks away with a pip in his step.
You fold back into the couch and sigh out something cumbersome. Your moment of overwhelmed emotion is broken right down the middle when you realize Kankri saw all of that, and is giving you a very raised eyebrow with a complicated expression that you couldn’t possibly parse even if you had a hundred years to do so.
Thankfully, he doesn’t have the time to dissect you with his observations placed neatly into words that would surely sound like concepts entirely too large for one man’s small body, as Karkat runs back with an honest to god VCR tape with the box art and everything.
It’s Muppet Treasure Island. Holy shit.
Kankri brandishes it and dutifully inserts it into his actual vintage VCR player underneath the TV, which sits next to a DVD player of equally vintage quality.
It feels unreal, how much genuine fun you have for the rest of the night until the movie ends. Karkat occasionally talks over the movie. Dave, surprisingly, talks back.
Some kid near the back of the bus screams like a shot fox and lobs whatever across the seats. You reach up one hand and catch it. It’s a hacky-sack. You turn around and simply stare at them. Whoever it is sits down quietly, looking even paler than their already white face allows, eyes big.
You don’t know why you agreed to do this – chaperoning an Elementary School’s field trip to a pumpkin farm isn’t exactly your style.
Dave and Karkat are beside you, near the window. Their heads are bent together and they share one set of earphones, taking turns playing Pokemon Moon on your 3DS. You’ve since given up on preserving your save file. It might as well be Dave’s 3DS now.
Nevermind, you know why you did this; Kankri begged you to after telling you about how their field trip would be canceled if not enough parents volunteered to chaperon. He must think of you as some kind of shut-in with nothing to do besides your mysterious online job you still refuse to tell him about, because he worded it like the only thing stopping you from volunteering was your inability to work with other people or something.
You think maybe the school was banking on not enough people volunteering because they apparently dropped the ball and didn’t have enough buses on hand, nor did they properly schedule their visit to the pumpkin farm. Unfortunately for their frugal plans, the owners of the farm agreed to a last-minute field-trip, and have even offered to use their grill to make hotdogs and burgers for all of the kids. You quietly assume that whoever needs vegetarian or halal options have been forced to bring their own food.
It’d all be fascinating if you weren’t a twenty-one year old. Some of these kids must equate you with their highschool-aged siblings because they seem to think you’re going to sit there and take their shit. They’ll figure it out soon enough.
You’re nice to the quiet ones, though. You may not like any kid except your own (and Karkat, you guess, but you’re still waiting for the day Dave and him don’t hang out anymore) but you’re not an unnecessary asshole. You’re just… awkward, you guess.
One of the kids asked the bus driver to help them open their window because they wanted some air, and they got ignored. So you got up and opened it for them. You swear their eyes nearly popped out of their head, but when you turned to go back to your seat, they said ‘thank you.’
It doesn’t help that a lot of these kids are white. They poke at you like you’re a circus or a video to capture and get hits off of online instead of a person. You honestly can’t tell if your reactions are funny because you’re so obviously autistic or because you’re a black man and these kids haven’t met somebody like you before – the lines intersect disorientingly, and now you’re out of your depth with no friends of your own to help explain it or to shield you.
Twice you open a message to somebody (anybody) on your phone, only to eventually turn it off and put it away. Paranoia eats at your insides. You’re hyper-aware of every movement behind you, of just one more kid throwing something at you or taking pictures of you or… but you can’t turn around because then you’re afraid the kids will start to copy you, think they can break the rules too, and then the bus driver will tell the teachers, and then the teachers will treat Dave badly, and then –
A little hand worms its way into your sweaty, clenched fist, and you nearly jerk in surprise. You weren’t aware of how harshly your breath is passing through your lungs to your nose until you’re brought back down, and so now you force it to slow.
Dave hands the 3DS over to Karkat, who is only absofuckinglutely ecstatic to take a turn, while his hand grasps yours. He doesn’t look away from the screen, but he also doesn’t let go, even when you think about lying, telling him that you’re alright, or think about how gross your wet hand must feel. How unpleasant a task this must be for him.
It’s humiliating. You, not what Dave is doing – what Dave is doing procures an emotional maturity that you’re proud of him for displaying, yet ashamed at yourself for needing. He’s only six. He shouldn’t have to do this for you.
You’re grateful. You hold his hand for the rest of the ride to the farm, a tortuously long thirty minutes. The next time a kid tries to toss an eraser at you, Karkat turns around and starts shouting bad words in phrases only he could be creative enough to come up with.
The pumpkin farm was okay, you guess. You do like orange.
The owners – a married couple getting on in the years – gave everybody a tour, then let the kids essentially run loose for a good hour or more. Fun for them, but stressful for you and the five other parents roped into this trip. One of them tried to talk to you. You’d braced yourself for weird questions, and you were right to, as they opened it with, “You look like you’re from the urban parts of Oregon! When’d you move?”
Needless to say, you ended that conversation as fast as possible.
There was a pumpkin patch where each kid picked out one to take home. Dave carried around a huge gourd until he realized how unrealistic it was before going back for a much smaller one, which you thought was adorable and took at least three videos of him doing.
Near the barn was a small corn field maze that Dave needed rescuing from, causing you to bull-head your way through and accidentally break some stalks in your haste. You apologized to the farmers, but they seemed happy that you’d cared enough to go get him instead of letting him cry. They told you horror stories about how other parents they’d had there would leave their kids lost inside, like it was a ‘learning experience.’
Hours later, finally back on the bus, you continue to be plagued by that disturbing factoid the farmers dropped upon your already stretched mind. You can and yet cannot fathom people who would simply stand by and let their kids cry, lost in a corn field. A very small, rudimentary maze it may be, but if you were Dave’s age and you were lost and crying for help, you’d want the help. You wouldn’t want someone who is supposed to love and protect you to simply yell from places unseen, “You can do it!” Or say nothing at all.
Dad would’ve done it, you realize. Dad would’ve let Dave cry. Dad probably did let Dave cry, just as he let you and Hal cry until you learned not to cry about anything anymore.
Unexpectedly, when you get on last to take your seat, the bus driver stops you with a hand to your stomach. You skittishly suck in your gut and slink backwards, nearly falling down the steps. His hand was startlingly warm, and you weren’t prepared.
“Change o’ plans,” the man of a name you don’t know grumbles at you, “they told me to tell you that you pick a place for the kids to go eat before they get taken back to school. Anywhere.”
“What.” You scoot past his still-raised hand like it’s a riled viper and perch onto the first seat to the right of him. Dave and Karkat are already absorbed in their game, and none of the other kids pay any attention. “Why.”
The bus driver chews bright pink bubble gum. He’s got a well-groomed mustache, that’s for sure. “Somethin’ about the school having an issue and they need a bit to fix it.” At your blank look, he holds his big, calloused hands up and shakes his head. “Don’t ask me, I’m just the driver, I don’t know what’s going on. You jus’ gotta pick a place is all, kid.”
“Right.” You preemptively consider arguing that you’re not a kid a forgone endeavor, and instead move quickly to the other problem that presents itself. “I’m actually not all that familiar with this town. I’ve only been here a few years. I live on the outskirts. I hardly ever explore it.”
The bus driver reaches over and slaps a hand down onto your shoulder. A resounding shiver works its way through you body that serves to remind you that, oh, yes, that’s right: you’re attracted to men. Large men, typically with some amount of facial hair and worker’s hands and loud voices. Shit.
He doesn’t immediately let go.
Shit shit shitshitshitshitshit-
“Don’t worry,” he says, for all it sounds like it’s coming through a thick layer of jello to you, “I know someplace kids’ll like. It’s an ice cream shop.” He finally lets go and picks up his radio. “Don’t worry about the expenses – I’ll tell them where we’re going and they’ll call ahead and have everything paid for. ‘S the least they can do.”
“Yes. The least they can do,” you echo somewhat robotically. You feel as if something inside of you has been knocked out of place, and you’re scrambling to chase it down as it rolls haphazardly around on the floor. “...Thanks.”
The bus driver waves you off good-naturedly, finishes his radio transmission, then pops his hearing aid out with a cheeky grin your way.
You sink fully back into your seat gingerly as the bus gets rolling. You take it upon yourself to check on Dave and Karkat, only when you turn your head, you’re startled to find that they’re both already looking at you. Significantly looking at you.
Dave openly glares at the unaware bus driver, his mouth pinching upwards into a pout.
Oh, my god. No.
“What,” you say too defensively. Karkat raises a thick eyebrow at you, perfectly modeling his older brother’s much more effectively judging gaze. “Quit it. Nothing happened...You kids know too much.”
And then they laugh at you.
This is basically the worst day ever.
You reluctantly use the public bathroom at the icecream shop because you sincerely cannot hold it any longer, and it looks like this trip is going to extend beyond the hours the school said it would because of this mysterious ‘problem’ preventing the kids from going back to the school, and then home.
This place is basically a Baskin Robbins except with a kitschy, small town name instead. A lot of the kids rattle off their orders like they’ve been here before. Dave gets a single scoop of strawberry while Karkat gets some kind of triple mint-chocolate monstrosity you doubt he’ll physically be able to finish despite hearing him boast to Dave about how he’ll definitely eat it all.
The bus driver disappears. Wherever he is, he isn’t on his bus, and neither is he lurking around the shop. You’re simultaneously disappointed yet relieved – what did you think was going to happen? He’s old enough to be your dad, and he didn’t exactly show interest besides. You’re overreacting to some of the only human touch you’ve had in a while from a man you found vaguely attractive, that’s all.
It doesn’t help that your unofficial kids both peer at you suspiciously whenever you stand up to wander around the park-like area near the shop, abandoning the little picnic table to its sole two occupants. It gets so bad that you eventually plop yourself down and decide not to get back up until it’s time to leave. You cross your arms and narrow your eyes at them, making them look away as if they hadn’t just been stalking you with their judging child eyes.
Little fuckers are already tryin’ cockblock you, and you didn’t even do nothin’. You predict choppy waters ahead in your future.
You sneakily begin to record them on your phone in retaliation, though it’s mostly because Kankri demanded cute evidence of the trip he has to miss. He works at a Youth Center that he’s basically sold his soul to because it pays for half of his college, as you belatedly found out.
“My dad had a golden tooth,” Karkat says loudly with a ring of foamy mint-colored milk around his mouth.
Dave stops eating his icecream (using a spoon, because you ain’t raising no heathen) with a contemplative look on his face. He turns slightly and says, factually yet paradoxically unknowingly, “My dad had herpes.”
You spit out the orange soda you were sipping on and end the video as fast as humanly possible so that you don’t record the strangled laughter you uncontrollably let out.
Dave and Karkat give you nearly identical weird little expressions of bare-faced confusion, which really doesn’t help your situation at all.
This catches the attention of some of the other kids, who flock over to sit at your table. Karkat takes to the new additions like a kid who knows his way around his entire classroom and has spoken to everybody at least once. Dave, on the other hand, seems quiet. Quieter, at least. His other little friend, Terezi, was put into a different group, so he’s got nobody else to fall back on, and Karkat is like one whole train chugging along with or without his shier half.
Well, he’s shit out of luck when it comes to how you can help him. You’ve barely said anything all day, and you sure as hell don’t know how to supply conversations topics to a six-year-old who’s socially anxious.
Good thing you don’t have to, you think in pre-horror as Dave opens his mouth, interrupting the kid avidly telling Karkat about his Hot Wheels collection in order to say, over-loud, “My brother has a boyfriend who’s a ghost!”
Only a few of the kids immediately identify you as the ‘brother’ and look at you, the others peering over at Dave with resounding ‘Huh?’s and ‘What?’s and ‘Nuh-uh!’s. He shrinks down in his seat behind Karkat, which is as effective as a very fat person hiding behind a very skinny pole, because now even Karkat is looking at him with an expression that does not mirror his peers’.
Several people begin to laugh, like in a nightmare. Then they all start talking at once. The only person who doesn’t laugh or shout disbelief is Karkat, who abandons his icecream in order to climb on top of the wooden picnic table with some effort.
You’re pretty sure he’s not allowed to do that. You’re pretty sure you’re supposed to do something about it. You don’t. All you can seem to do is gaze at your little brother, and all he can seem to do is curl in on himself and avoid you.
“SHUT UP!!!!” Karkat screeches, waving his arms around in order to have all eyes on him. “Shut up!! My friend Sollux has a ghost girlfriend! It’s not that weird!”
“Your imaginary friend from Miiiiidle school?” A kid says mockingly.
A little girl with an illogical amount of flowers inexpertly woven into her braids tugs on Karkat’s sleeve to ask, “Is his girlfriend a nice ghost?”
“Yes. She’s dead and she’s creepy about it,” Karkat responds with the reasoning only a child can possess.
“I want proof!” Demands the same one who mocked him. “And it can’t be a pic or a vid because those are never real.” Wow. That’s almost smart.
“He doesn’t owe you anything,” Dave says, finally stepping forward in defense of himself and his friend. “I believe him. And I really do list- live with a ghost because he, he tucked me in just the other night. He can make things float. And told me about bed bugs.”
What the fuck? You didn’t know Caliborn did… that. Dave must realize he’s said too much that he shouldn’t have today, because he avoids your eyes.
“What are bed bugs?” The flower girl asks, right as some totally random kid says, “My sister has bed bugs at her place. I’m not allowed to go over there anymore.”
“They live in your bed and eat you,” Dave says.
“Oh,” she says. “Rattlesnake once tried to eat me. I went to the hos-pi-tal.”
Everything is chaos. Somebody sneezes and snot dribbles from their nose and they try to get your attention by calling you ‘sir’ and ask if you have any tissues. You don’t. You slowly hand them a napkin, as if they’ll contaminate you.
“My mom gets the kinds with lotion in them so that it doesn’t hurt,” they tell you, and you nod your head like you understand, desperately hoping they’ll take their snot and their expectations away from you.
“ONLY DAVE AND HIS BROTHER GET TO MEET HER!!!” Karkat yells overtop of every single voice and sound in the near vicinity. Some kid at another table starts to lightly cry at the noise. “EVERYBODY ELSE FUCK OFF!!”
I'm only one man, you plead with no one.
When the bus driver magically reappears at a convenient moment, he helps you hustle all of the kids back onto the bus (with plenty of napkins). You practically beg him to take them back to the school so that you can just take your one, singular, perfectly well-behaved and not difficult kid and go home. He laughs in your face, but finally fucking obliges.
There’s no elegant way to ask an Elementary schooler to set up a meeting with you and his supposed Middle School friend who is dating a ghost girl. But you do it anyways.
It’s surprisingly easy to convince Kankri to let you take Karkat along with you and Dave into the woods for a ‘hike’, because Kankri is under the strange, remarkable impression that you’re a rational adult who hides very few things. This is a mistake he will learn not to make in the future, you suppose.
Then again, you think as you drag Dave’s little wagon all full of goodies being bumped around by the uneven terrain, you’re not exactly an evil being of the night here. You really are taking them on a hike that will surely end in a harmless picnic well before the sun ever thinks about going down. This hike just also happens to include some supernatural subterfuge.
The boys are scampering in front of you, chattering away about whatever it is they talk about. Neither of them seem overly concerned of the reason for this adventure. The only hiccup was when Karkat got massively upset because your ‘ghost boyfriend’ couldn’t come along. You tried to explain that Caliborn was bound to the house, one you couldn’t safely allow Karkat to come over to, but Karkat had a small crying fit anyways. He calmed down when Dave gave him some candy from his pockets – candy you certainly didn’t give Dave. You blame Caliborn.
Through the woods is a shortcut to the ‘basically also the woods’ park you’re intended to meet this Sollux at.
Sure enough, perched on top of a decrepit children’s slide of a faded yellow color is a young boy, older than your boys but younger than you. He’s wearing hideously chromatic eyeglasses that cannot possibly be easy to see through, but you’ll refrain from commenting considering the odd shape of your own. You get closer and infer that he may or may not be Chinese from the Ox pendant he twirls in between his fingers. It disappears into the pocket of his jeans. He’s still wearing the uniform polo-shirt from his Middle School.
“Hey KK, hey random people,” he greets you all with, jumping down from the slide and only stumbling a little. You bet he feels cool. “Th’o, I heard you have a ghoth’t boyfriend.”
Oh my god. Don’t mention the lisp, you beg yourself, don’t do it. “We’re not dating. He came with the house I bought, ‘n now I’m stuck with him.” You cant your head up at him in a nod. “I’m Dirk. This is my li’l bro, Dave.”
“Th’up.” You’ve never heard a real lisp before. You try not to be weird about it. “My girlfriend’th name i’th Aradia. But th’e’s only vith’ible to me, and alth’o at the plath’e th’e wa’th buried. But obviouth’ly I can’t take two little kid'th and th’ome random dude to a graveyard at night, th’o thi’th i’th what we’ve got to work with.”
“Th’e died lath’t year,” he continues unprompted, standing there in a blasé manner with his hands shoved into his thin jacket pockets. “Alth’o, th’e can do thi’th.”
You brace yourself for whatever ‘this’ may be. For a long minute, nothing happens except Karkat giggling quietly to himself, like he knows what’ll happen and isn’t telling.
When you try to open your mouth to ask, “What is it,” all that comes out, completely beyond your mental control, is the word, “Ribbit.”
Karkat bursts into laughter, Dave soon following suit. Sollux smirks at you, and you quietly freak out, but not too much.
“Okay, th’top it, AA.” He walks over to Karkat and hands him a piece of candy. That kid’s rolling in sweets today. “Th’e can’t do much like thi’th, but th’e can make people th’ay ‘Ribbit’ if th’e trie'th. We think it ha’th th’omthing to do with how th’e uth’ed to be able to hear the voith’e’th of the dead when th’e wa’th alive.”
“This is a lot of interesting information. I’m unsure how to reciprocate. I don’t know all that much about Caliborn, only that he’s a poltergeist who is bound to the house he inhabits.” You park the wagon next to a nearby wooden table. You don’t miss how Sollux shoots it a hungry look, the kind only a perpetually peckish teenager can have. “You wanna stick around. I’ve brought enough for more than the both of them.”
“I can th’tay?” Sollux says this with a tone of voice that is said by a kid used to thoughtless rejections. He almost reminds you of how Hal used to be. “Thank’th. That th’ound'th… nith’e.”
Sollux eats a sandwich and a bag of vinegar chips you’d packed. He refuses a juice box and instead takes out a large water bottle from his beaten-looking backpack, swigging down several pills. “Migraine’th,” he claims.
Yea. Definitely a lot like Hal.
Sollux gamely agrees to play tag when Karkat and Dave wheedle him to, but then after that he gets a text and says that he has to go home because his older brother needs help taking a bath. You don’t ask, and you can’t tell if he’s grateful or if he wishes you would.
You take Karkat straight home after that, ignoring any whining you hear about how the sun isn’t even down yet, as if that’s a valid unit of measurement to anybody over the age of twelve.
That was fun, you guess, if only slightly informative. Dave and Karkat seemed like they also had fun, but you get the sense that they were overwhelmed with what you and Sollux were trying to discuss, going off of how quiet that had been. Usually, they tend to dominate any interaction they have with other people, your presence notwithstanding, but today they watched you and a literally haunted teenager talk back and forth like they were silently observing a game of tennis that they did not yet know the rules to.
You don’t mention meeting up with Sollux again to Karkat, content to let things settle on that front for a bit. At least until your source of information is no longer getting his first pimples. You are more than willing to meet this ‘Aradia’ in a graveyard at night if it means she has answers of the spectral persuasion, but not so willing that you’d endanger kids.
Once you and Dave are alone in the truck, you debate on whether or not you should ask Dave why he thought you and Caliborn were dating. But you figure that you’ve already answered that question yourself – what would any kid living with two adult figures think after having been exposed to media with romance and at least the semi-Nuclear Family model think?
You pull down your long gravel drive, Dave asleep in the passenger seat, and think Oh well. At least he now knows that that isn’t true.
For the first year since Dave arrived here, you will be taking him Trick-Or-Treating.
It’s not your choice – apparently, Kankri offhandedly invited Dave during one babysitting afternoon, and Karkat latched onto the idea like a limpet. Practically demanded that Dave be brought along on Halloween or else he’d never go ToTing again, not realizing how that would probably be more like a relief for his older brother than a punishment.
Dave is excited because he likes candy. That’s the extent of it, you’re pretty sure. It’s not about Karkat or about the experience, it’s about the candy. He’s going as a red M&M because it was the only costume you could think to sew on short notice, and like hell were you braving an actual store this close to Halloween night.
He’s fucking adorable. You put a little red hat on him and red blush and everything. Holy mother of god – you’re gonna make like it’s 2004 and get the pictures developed at the local drug store and put a miniature version in your wallet or something because you feel like you’re going crazy.
You’re currently sitting in the living room at three PM on a Sunday with a lap full of over-eager child who got dressed several hours ago despite knowing that y’all wouldn’t be leaving for Kankri’s house until four or later.
“You look picky,” Dave tells you semi-confidently as he hands you a small object. It’s an orange Airhead, something from a random bag of candy you’d grabbed at the store back when you were under the impression that this Halloween would be just like last year’s wherein nobody went anywhere. You take it and think that perhaps he meant to say ‘peaky’ or ‘peckish.’
“Thanks.” You toss the whole abomination of sugar and artificial flavoring into your mouth because you are, actually, pretty hungry. You simply haven’t found the time amidst the chaos to feed yourself. With astonishingly little forethought towards your dignity, you chew the tacky candy like a cow’s cud and make vaguely horse-related noises. The snorting and neighing and the like.
Dave giggles at you, and somewhere far off an angel’s choir tentatively sings a few notes at his smile. Now he’s hiding his face behind his hands. His inevitably sticky child hands.
You should think about bringing wet wipes, you muse, continuing to exaggeratedly chew your candy. You can’t imagine Dave not keeping his hot li’l hands off of any candy he’s been given for longer than a few moments.
To Dave’s pure excitement, it’s eventually four o’clock. He leaps off of your lap and races you to the truck.
As you’re walking out the door, however, you receive a super-heated and ungentle ‘pat’ on the back. You grunt at the sudden assault and don’t bother turning around, announcing to the air that, “We’ll be back, you big baby.”
“DON’T LET HIM EAT. WITHOUT CHECKING FIRST.”
You blink a few times and you don’t roll your eyes. “Will do.”
On the drive into town, Dave is near vibrating. He’s somehow already smudged the red circle of blush on his left cheek, but you don’t know how to fix it. Maybe he’ll smudge the other side and it’ll be the perfect accident.
“D’you think they’ll have candy apples?” Dave asks you, practically straining against his seatbelt to stick his head out the window like he can bloodhound-smell the candy already.
“Hopefully,” you say, omitting about how you have no fucking clue what people will and will not hand out. “If they don’t, we can make our own.”
That only gets him even more riled up. “I like that plan, let’s do that, let’s make our own, we can put sprinkles on it instead of peanuts.”
“You don’t like peanuts?”
Dave makes a stinker face.
“A’ight,” you say to mask the laugh you want to make instead, “If we get some with peanuts, I’ll pick ‘em all off for you. How’s about that?”
“Okay.” Dave looks around for a few more moments of quiet. “What do you hope they’ll have?”
Your mouth opens before you’ve fully thought of an answer. All you know is that you can’t say ‘I’ve never been and I don’t plan to start because now I’ve missed out on my chance.’ “Dunno. Whatever you get, you can keep.” You think of Cal’s parting words. “Unless I find something wrong with it. If you wanna eat something before we get home, give it to me first so that I can look at it and make sure it isn’t… rotten. Deal?”
Your arrival at Kankri’s apartment building is met with much fanfare – Karkat and Kankri are both already waiting outside. Dave hops out of the car and is the loudest you’ve ever heard him willingly be as he screams, “Oh my godddd!” And sprints towards Karkat, who embraces him with open arms as they are both now screaming.
You realize why when you slowly roll yourself out of the car: Karkat is also dressed up as a red M&M.
Kankri walks up with a stuffed backpack on one shoulder, giving you a wink. “You mentioned what you were going to make for Dave to wear last week, and I couldn’t help myself.” He nudges you in the ribs with his elbow. “Yours looks better. I just bought mine from an online warehouse with expedited shipping.”
Dave and Karkat jump up and down, their plastic pumpkins clacking together in their grips. Pieces of candy flop out of Dave’s pumpkin, and Karkat dives for them instinctively like a shark. Dave screams again, but lets it happen because those candies were for Karkat in the first place.
Kankri pats you on the shoulder, making you begin to feel a little too touched tonight. He’s acting overly friendly. Maybe it’s just the atmosphere that’s getting to him.
“Good luck,” he tells you, hefting his backpack onto his other shoulder. “My class only lasts an hour and forty-five minutes tonight, so I should be back by the time you’re done. If I’m not, then I’ll call Karkat first to let him know, and then I’ll text you if I need to.”
After bidding him a safe journey, he walks off to the bus stop. A few days ago, when the Halloween plan was revealed to you, you’d offered to make the kids wait a bit while you drove him to the college, but Kankri assured you that he’d be fine, and that he’d rather have the kids done with ToTing as soon as possible so that they can get back indoors early.
You can see his reasoning. Doesn’t mean it negates the feeling of inadequacy you’re plagued by as you watch him walk several blocks away to ride the bus, take a very long class, and then come home to an apartment with rowdy kid(s) waiting, all after a full day of working.
But it’s whatever. You take the kids ToTing, even though it feels more like the kids take you ToTing with how they pull you in everywhich direction. Sometimes Dave seems to get overwhelmed with the choices he has to make, the people he has to briefly talk to, and the streets he has to walk down, but Karkat must be very emotionally empathetic, because he steps up every single time to help Dave decide.
He’s a neat kid, you concede. Once again, you think you understand your brother a little bit more.
It all goes without any remarkable bumps. That is, aside from that one house with the old lady who was handing out toothbrushes and apples. She’d looked at you, up and down, narrowed her eyes, then gave you a third apple and toothbrush. The toothbrush was orange.
You didn’t know what to do in response. You felt X-rayed as, like, a person, or a soul, and it was unsettling. You said, “Thank you,” and then shoved them into your pockets.
Dave got Karkat into the habit of letting you check his candy, too, before he eats it, so suddenly you were getting stopped every few minutes to stare at a piece of wrapped candy while a slavering child waited at your feet for you to give up on finding any evidence of tampering and inevitably drop it into their sugar-addicted mouths.
Kids are scary, you think as you watch them shovel away various kinds of candies like they aren’t overloaded at all. Still, you can’t imagine someone actually trying to poison them, either. Can’t fathom it, this boogeyman that purportedly puts razor blades and rat poison in Halloween candy.
When you’ve nearly managed to herd them all of the way back to Karkat’s home without anymore delays, Karkat gets a call on his cell phone – a tiny thing that mimics a smart phone but doesn’t actually connect to the internet nor does it have the capability of texting or calling any numbers other than the ones programmed into it – and stops in the middle of the sidewalk in order to answer.
After he hangs up, he glances at you. His expression is one you’ve never seen before on his face, and thus don’t know how to parse. He leans over and whispers something into Dave’s ear, then steps away and looks at you again. Like you’re something scary, almost.
It’s not a nice feeling.
Dave comes up to you and sniffs snot from the chill. “Bro, Karkat says we can’t go back to his house when we’re done.”
He so rarely calls you that - ‘Bro’ - that you don’t know what to say other than, “I am instantly worried as to why.”
Karkat, for all he seems to be reluctant to speak to you, pipes up to say, “Kankri won’t be home. He says somebody egged Terezi’s house and he’s gonna go over and help them clean up.”
“Oh.” Well, hell. “That’s responsible of him.”
“Sure,” says Karkat.
“So...” says Dave, tugging at your pant leg. He’s trying to convey something wordlessly, and unfortunately, you think you know what.
You get out your phone. You indeed have a text from Kankri detailing basically the same situation, only yours says something about how he feels an intense sense of duty to help his mother as a son who blah blah blah blah.
You turn to Karkat. “Tit for tat; you wanna come meet our ghost.”
Karkat instantly agrees.
You clear your throat. You gesture back at the miasma of green that makes up your resident poltergeist. “Karkat, this is Caliborn.” You gesture forwards at the little boy standing gog-eyed in your living room. “Caliborn, this is Karkat, who has an older brother that loves him very much and would definitely have this house demolished if his beloved little brother went missing in it.”
Caliborn, in response, does what you can only describe as ‘taking a large gulp of air’, even though he has no lungs or mouth to do so with. “YOU ARE A DEEP BASIN OF ENERGY. KARKAT.”
You give him a falsely beatific expression. “Thanks for only being ninety percent creepy instead of one-hundred percent.”
“I ACCEPT YOUR GRATITUDE. AND SHALL EXPECT MORE OF IT. ALONG WITH FREQUENT VISITS FROM. DAVE’S GUEST.”
“Cool. Right. Kids, let’s go make mountains out of candyhills so that I can check everything and pick out my favorite bits to steal.”
And so Karkat meets Caliborn, thus opening a whole new complication of: Dave can now invite one entire friend over. And you can hardly ever muster up the chops to tell him ‘no.’
A few days before his birthday, apropos of nothing, Dave turns to you and says, “When I turn seven, the rest of my muscles will grow in, and then I’m gonna be able to lift you.”
Before you have the chance to say anything to that, Dave exemplifies this by walking over to you and wrapping his arms around your legs. As far as you can feel, his fingers don’t touch. With a grunt, he begins to exert meager force upwards.
You’re ultimately surprised when you are, actually, lifted into the air – not from the front, where Dave struggles with his eyes shut tight, but from the back, where a weightless presence folds against your lower spine all the way up to your shoulders. It feels nothing like hands. You hover uncontrollably a few inches off of the ground, marionette limp.
Dave opens his eyes and gasps loudly, letting go of you as if burned. You drop back down to the floor a mere moment after Dave let’s go, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
“No!” Exclaims the six-year-old in true belief, “It’s too soon! I’m too powerful!”
He escapes to his room in a hurry, thumping up the steps.
Frankly, you’re a little shell-shocked, but not so much that you’re afraid Dave is now hurt or scarred forever. As far as you can tell, it has the same weight as a prank.
You turn around and spot a few signs of Caliborn being present, but not as many as usual. Maybe he’s tired himself out by lifting you without setting you on fire. It would make sense, considering he still can’t get those damn knives out of the wall.
You can’t help it – you chuckle. “He’s adorable.” You place a hand over your shoulder, reaching farther to your back. Nothing. No holes burned through. “I’m impressed. You’ve shown restraint in not frying me and in not exposing your hand to Dave. What gives, hombre. Feeling sentimental, are we.”
Caliborn’s returning chuckle is not so much a laugh as it is a feeling of off-vibration, like a horde of wasps waiting out of view. “SMART LITTLE BOY. FOR ONCE. YOU RECALL THAT YOU ARE MINE. MY PERISHABLE. LIKE A LOLLIPOP. I WILL DO WITH YOU AS I. SEE. FIT.”
Something nuzzles close to your ear drum not unlike a tornado that can rip air from lungs, sound from interpretation. It’s not scalding, but is also not devoid of heat.
“TELL ME, DIRK. HOW MANY LICKS DOES IT TAKE?”
Oh, too easy.
“Depends; buckle or no buckle.” You smirk preemptively.
It takes him a few more seconds than it normally would, when you’d make sure to elaborate on your heinously sexual humor, really grind your heel into it, but he sighs full-heartedly all the same and fades from both sense and temperature.
“Serves y’ right for suggesting you’d lick me ‘til I was done,” you complain under your breath, self-satisfied in the way you slam-dunk Dave’s empty AJ bottle into the recycling bin.
For December 3rd of 2021, Dave’s seventh birthday and your twenty-second, you fashion a small army of wooden frames and buy glass panels so that Dave can officially hang up whatever art he wants to in his room.
Also on that day, you receive a bottle of sparkling water from Hal with an attached note that says, “Happy Belated Birthday’ and still lists 2020 as the year. Carbonated water is gross. You pour it down the sink.
Fucking prick. You mail him a single packet of mint gum. He hates mint gum.