Actions

Work Header

A Howl in the Night

Work Text:

Drawn into the frost on the glass was a map pointing to my secret hiding place
It lead you to the tree with the split in its trunk on the way into your family's yard
In that tree you saw I brought the dog back to life

I watch you from the branches while you stared from the ground with a look I couldn't understand
So I said "leave me alone, if your only words are ugly ones"
And you just smiled and said "come and show me how it's done"

 

 

FEDERAL DETENTION CENTER – SHERIDAN, OREGON, is written in large white letters above the entrance, just below a ludicrous pointy magenta roof. The only touch of color amidst the gray of… everything else. Gray walls, gray doors, gray fencing, gray barbwire. Even the trees in the barren courtyard are gray.

In the shadow, Sean’s skin looks gray, too.

So. This is his new home.

Sean knows he should feel something now that he’s standing before the gate. Anything, really: is he angry for all the bullshit he went through? Is he afraid of yet another shitty reality he’ll have to adjust to? Is he relieved that Daniel is safe (oh, fuck, Daniel – a year ago he would have jumped for joy at the idea of not having to live with him anymore, and now… fuck fuck fuck)? Is he… what?

What is he?

He is nothing. He feels nothing.

The thought should be terrifying, he knows. But, really, what’s the point? He cared so much in the last year, and he is all dried up. There’s nothing left.

Daniel is safe, and that’s all that matters. He’s with Claire and Stephen (have they already given him all those presents they had bought for Christmas?), he has Chris next door, Mom a road trip away. Noah in their Minecraft fortress. Lyla if he ever wants to talk about… stuff. He has the chance he always deserved to still live a normal life, before Sean threw him out of his room and fucked everything up. Daniel has learned to control his powers and is now smart enough to know how to hide them. That whole year of hell was worth it just for this – for telling him “By the right of the Council, by the will of the Force, rise, Jedi Knight!”, and seeing his smug smile illuminate the courtroom.

(Before the hearing. Before pleading guilty to all those serious frowns who knew fuck all about him and what he’d gone through. Before a public defender looked at him in resignation, silently asking why didn’t you let me do my job? as the gavel announced the end of Sean-the-runaway.)

For a moment, there is something filling his heart. He feels proud of Daniel. Sean is happy, almost, and grateful. To Agent Flores, of all people, when she had told him that she had done what she could to make sure Daniel would come out of the entire ordeal limpio como una patena – that had been the first good piece of news he’d heard in a long while. Sean had requested an expedited sentencing immediately after that, and nobody had thought of interviewing Daniel before Sean could say guilty, Your Honor.

That happiness lasts only for a moment. The siren blares to announce his arrival, like in the movies, and perhaps he really should have watched Orange is the New Black when Ellery was bugging him. When he still had time. When he bitched nonstop about his life (stupid, stupid, fucking stupid clueless childish spoiled dumb idiot). The siren blares, the first door opens, and he is back in his nothingness. No expectations, no fears, no hopes, no responsibilities, nothing. Zero. Nada.

This is it. No more living in a limbo where there might still be a chance. No more humming Run Boy Run as he waits for Judgment Day. No more lies.

He steps into his new life as he takes a deep breath. Seventeen years, three-hundred sixty-four days to go. Fifteen years, if he keeps his head down and plays his cards right.

There’s nothing left to hold him back.

It feels good to just… let go.

It feels good to be free.

*

Sean goes through processing with seven other inmates. He isn’t truly there as the Correctional Officer makes him bend forward to check for forbidden items. Then there’s the medical check-up (another Sean, a few weeks ago, went through the same motions as he first landed in jail. Another Sean, a lifetime ago, went through the same motions too – Track Team captain and all that, in a different universe). Then an orange jumpsuit. Then he’s sitting in front of yet another officer. Sean Eduardo Diaz, the officer reads from his file – Sean’s entire life neatly summed up in a few paragraphs. Sixteen years old, eighteen year sentence for second-degree murder, theft, resisting arrest, escaping custody, destruction of public property and arson. Nice resume, kid.

This is him, now. They’ve cast this cocoon and he feels like a larva, pupating inside, changing as they decide the kind of person he was, writing it down in black letters on a white sheet. It’s not like jail, where for a while he deluded himself into thinking he could still prove who Sean Diaz truly was. Sean-the-brother, not Sean-the-murderer.

(But right now Daniel is safe, fighting Mantroid along with Captain Spirit, and that’s all he tells himself he cares about. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost, Ellery used to quote to him. Sean obtained Daniel’s freedom.)

Sean answers questions. He knows they are prodding him to discover what kind of insect is going to emerge from the cocoon, but he just can’t bring himself to care. He’s not fighting anymore. What’s the use?

He tries to care only once: Do you have any reason you can’t be placed in General Population, he’s asked. Any reason anyone would want to shiv you? You in a gang? You a queer?

He has an answer, because this is something that felt super important to a Sean Diaz that once was, before this cocoon. The one who had found a piece of himself while sketching Finn – the one who had realized what he was truly looking at only when Cassidy had told him.

(“Don’t you think that’s weird?,” he had asked. “Why would it be?”, she had replied with an easy smile, handing him another piece of Sean Diaz, showing him – tenderly, lovingly – how it fit with the rest of himself. Back then it had meant the world for him)

I… like both. Boys and girls, he says now, because it was important back then, and he wants it to matter even now. It’s like showing a relic from another era, a part of his body that still hasn’t changed in his cocoon. The officer smiles but his eyes don’t. Trust me, things will be easier if you stick with girls.

Sean’s heart drops. He smiles along anyway. He feels like he’s letting something of himself get lost on his way to the cells, something precious, but in the end he decides that he doesn’t really care.

*

Prison is so fucking loud.

If he closes his eyes he can almost imagine being back in high school – a brief pang of nostalgia that he chokes before it can take a true shape. The guard shoves him along before stopping in front of cell 245. More pointless chatter, and then he’s thrown in. The door closes behind him with a heavy clang, but Sean actually relishes the sound. Among the cacophony of voices in the building, it promises stability. This is his new life, real and solid in front of him, no longer a vague shadow made of fear and hearsay.

(He can see himself telling Lyla that this was totally a Deshi Basara moment. But he doesn’t feel much like Bruce Wayne, and movie references belong to a Sean that died long ago. He wonders if he can erase all those things from his mind, like all of Mom’s stuff disappeared inside cardboard boxes that nobody ever touched again, where it couldn’t hurt anyone anymore.)

His roommate is looking at him from the top bunk much like a bird of prey about to dive in for the kill. Yay, prison: like high school, but with knives and murderers. Fuck, he’s just… so tired of having to deal with more shit after everything he already endured. Can’t the world just… stop?

(He’s a murderer, like them. That’s what Sean brought out of his cocoon. He should remember that.)

I’m Sean, he grunts. Roommate looks a few years older – twenty-something, at the very least. Long, muscled, inked limbs. Cold eyes, and a tear tattooed just below the corner of his right eye. Great.

Sean is fourteen again, dealing with the fear of starting his year in a new school. Another memory that doesn’t belong to this Sean. A Sean before this one marched through the hell of Nevada to get to his brother, and didn’t stop even when death stared him down from the barrel of a gun. The Sean that he is now is too tired to march anywhere. The Sean that he is now is so done with everything.

He’s so done with being afraid, too, and Roommate takes notice.

Well, maybe Roommate is not noticing that, but he flies down from his perch and takes a good look at Sean. Lingers on the eyepatch and the scars. Gives a noncommittal grunt. The cell is barely large enough to let them keep a safe distance from each other.

He’s Sean, and he killed a cop. He doesn’t say it out loud, but it’s good to remind himself of who Sean Diaz is supposed to be now. Sean-the-inmate.

Sean-the-murderer is a lie, but the law has decided that it’s the truth – Sean-who-surrendered swore that it was the truth, after all – and it’s now the very core of what came out from that cocoon of lies and suffering and loss. He has to be this lie, because he’s not yet seventeen and no matter what he told Daniel before leaving him, he already knew that the Sean who cried goodbye at the border wouldn’t have survived eighteen years alone in prison. He doesn’t know shit about prisons, but he knows about high school, and he knows that Roommate is about to decide if they can hang out together or if Sean is going to be waterboarded in the toilet after P.E. class.

It’s just another verdict he has to wait for. He doesn’t care anymore.

*

Ricardo (that’s Roommate's name) gives him a crash course in Prison 101 before dinner. Sean thinks that Ricardo might not be a total pendejo, but for now they are circling each other cautiously, sniffing each other’s scent, trying to understand how much they can trust to turn their back to the other. Pretty much like in high school, really.

Ricardo seems pleased that Sean is clean and tidy. Well, as clean and tidy as a prison allows, but he still seems pleased, and it means that Sean is able to fall asleep without the nagging terror of waking up with his head in the toilet, after all.

As soon as he closes his eyes, Sean is falling down. Down, down, down; then Claire and Stephen catch him in a cupboard and try to convince him to turn himself in to the police. No, we are going to Puerto Lobos, but he can’t find Mushroom and then the puma is scolding him because a pot plantation is no place for children. Thief and brother of the year. Estrellita, ¿dónde estás? How does the story of the wolf brothers end?

His hands are holding locks of fur, and a giant wolf is curling around his body, hiding him in a soft hug as Claire and Stephen and Mushroom and the puma are hidden from his sight. No one is singing any longer. He feels only the comforting presence of the wolf as everything else disappears into warm nothingness.

He feels nothing.

He’s free again.

*

Sean takes his first beating a few days later.

He’s still trying to adjust to all the rules that Ricardo is instructing him about (where to sit, who to talk with, when to talk and when to say thank you and when to keep his mouth fucking shut) and apparently he forgot something, because now he’s coughing out his insides in a corner of the bathroom, away from the guards and their bored gazes.

Maybe the guards wouldn’t care enough to notice a cop killer getting what he deserves, anyway.

It’s nothing new. Get punched down, stand back up, over and over again – he already went through the motions. It really is like high school and you can’t afford to show weakness, Ricardo told him, but you also can’t look like you’re asking for a worse beating. There’s a middle ground he has to find even if he can’t, not with them punching the air out of his lungs again and again, so he turns back to what he knows.

He endures, like a past Sean endured in that church. Sean-that-marched-though-the-desert is dead, but he passed down his lessons. Get down and stand up with a new bruise every time, even if he doesn’t really know why he’s doing it. Daniel is safe. But he knows how this works – they will have their sick fun and move on.

It takes a while.

Later he stumbles back in his own cell without too much fuss, but it must look bad because Ricardo furrows his brow the moment he sees him, and then a CO hears them arguing about what he should do. Sean is saved the trouble of making a decision as he’s dragged straight to the infirmary. No amount of I’ve been worse, believe me manages to convince his self-appointed guardian angel to let him go.

(It’s a prison. They’re not letting him go.)

Sean says he’s fallen from his bunk. Repeatedly?, the nurse asks, but he has the defeated look of someone who has already engaged in dozens of chats like this one in the past, and they all ended in the same way. Yeah. I suck at sleeping.

It takes two weeks in the segregation unit before they allow Sean to get back to his cell, because that’s what happens when you don’t tell the COs who made a human punching bag out of you. You can choose between temporary isolation or being branded a snitch. And having heard from Ricardo how snitches are treated, Sean doesn’t think it’s much of a choice at all.

He didn’t expect having no choice to feel this freeing.

*

There’s a running track in the yard. It’s not as popular with the inmates as the weights, and Sean is fine with that. No one he has to bribe for permission to use it.

When he runs he is no longer a version of Sean Diaz: not the one-eyed murderer, not Daniel’s brother, not even Sean-who-liked-drawing-and-listening-to-music. He’s just flesh and blood and sinews, a pumping heart and a breathing mass hurled forward as the path disappears beneath his feet. He’s running nowhere, always ending his laps exactly where he began, but as long as he keeps running there’s nothing to think about beside the act of running itself. He can exist in the pain of his body, in the shortness of his breath, in the burning muscles and in the thunderous rush of blood beneath his skin, and be free.

The wolf runs alongside him, howling to the sky.

*

Prison, Sean learns soon, is routine.

Ricardo explained his own routine as a not-so-subtle hint to get the fuck out of their cell at certain times. Sean can understand the need to be alone, and Ricardo behaves like an asshole but is fair in his own way, so Sean is willing to go with it. He learns that, if he plays along, there are also times when he can expect to have the whole cell to himself.

They are still sniffing around each other, two lone wolves without a pack, but they have accepted the fact that they are sharing the same den and that the other isn’t someone worth the trouble of butting heads with. It would remind him of Humboldt and of Hannah, but those memories belong to another Sean. The wolf growls them away, and Humboldt gets left behind the next time Sean makes his laps on the yard track.

They start talking with each other. Less like two rabid beasts trying to scare the other away from their territory, and more like two lone wolves coming to terms with the idea that they’re no longer completely on their own, for better or for worse. It all starts from Sean’s tattoo (That wolf looks like it comes from Chernobyl, güey, Ricardo says), and Sean at first is afraid that talking is going to undo his shell – that once he begins to share his memories they will be back to tear him apart at those (fragile, fragile) seams holding together Sean-the-inmate.

The wolf helps. It grabs the memories in its mouth and brings them to him, cautiously. They are just facts, things that happened to someone who isn’t him anymore. He feels only the soft fur under his fingers as he chooses the smoothest fragments to show Ricardo, before tucking them away, hidden once more. His name is Sean. He has a little brother. He likes running and drawing and not thinking about his life.

None of that can hurt him. The rest he can forget.             

*

It takes them more than a month, but at last Claire and Stephen manage to secure their visiting permit. Sean is pretty sure that Claire cold-stared some unfortunate government official into conjuring Daniel’s birth certificate out of thin air.

The wolf is restless. It knows it’s a bad idea. Sean signs the papers anyway.

It’s the 15th of August when he hears the happiest “SEAN!” of his entire life. Five seconds later Daniel crashes into him, arms around his chest, hands desperately searching, grasping, holding on his prison-issued jumpsuit.

“Hey, enano,” he whispers. It is supposed to be a big-brotherly, confident welcome, but he already feels the cracks in his voice.

He forgets all about the wolf, about the yard track and about being free. Daniel is holding on as if he’s the only worthy thing in the entire world, and suddenly Sean matters again. There have been dozens of different Sean Diazes, but this is the center of the multiverse, the eye of the storm. This is where they all converge in the same being, where Sean can begin to feel whole again.

Daniel has broken his shell, torn down all the barriers Sean raised to keep what was left of himself safe, and Sean feels like he’s taken the first deep breath after finishing a run – painful and yet so, so sweet. The freedom he thought he had found in Sean-the-inmate is nothing but a perverted reflection of this. What he has right now is worth whatever pain he might have to endure later.

The wolf is nowhere to be seen as he kisses Daniel’s head and hugs him back. He barely sees Claire and Stephen through the tears in his eye, nor does he see the CO that is softly reprimanding them for Daniel’s enthusiasm. No running. No shouting. No physical contact.

“Happy Birthday! I missed you so much! And Chris misses you too! He said to tell you hi for him, and that Team Spirit will always be there for you, and do you know that we are building a base? In the tree house! Grandpa is helping, and Charles too! And we painted a Silver Runner crest on the outside, so it’s also your secret base!”

Sean laughs under the barrage of information, his first true laughter in forever. Daniel refuses to let him go and so he kisses Claire’s cheek like this, with a Daniel-koala glued to him.

Claire looks different, too. When he last saw her she had an air of resignation about her, of a woman that knew she had played the hand that life had dealt her and was alone with her regrets. Now there’s a new energy in her limbs, a new steel in her eyes. Sean can feel the immutable strength of the mountains in the line of her shoulders. This woman has been offered a rope when she had been ready to drown in a storm of bitterness, and she has grasped it with both hands. This time she has a chance to make things right.

(Sean wishes that he could still have a chance to be like her, but he already spent his. His story is over.)

“Happy Birthday, Sean,” Stephen says, all warm smile and warm voice. He looks tired (it’s, what, a three-hour drive from Beaver Creek to Sheridan? Four?), but also genuinely happy. Sean isn’t sure that he knows how to deal with all this... feeling, and the wolf is nowhere to help him.

“Did they make you cake this morning?”, Daniel asks, emerging from his hug with puffy eyes, furiously rubbing them with his right hand because dude, I wasn’t crying, I’m ten!

(Daniel had never been ashamed of crying in front of him, before.)

“Sure. A giant cheesecake! No candles, though.”

(He swore never to lie to him again in that motel room. He does anyway.)

“Awesome! I wanted to make you one, too, but Grandma said they wouldn’t have let us bring it in, which is bull- um... boring.”

“Yeah, but at least her kitchen survived another day.”

“Oh, shut up! She’s going to teach me, and then I’ll make much better stuff than whatever you made. You’ll see!”

Yeah, Daniel is probably going to beat his canned ravioli and cold mac’n’cheese in no time.

“I’m sure your brother will appreciate the new Chef Diaz,” Stephen intervenes, still smiling. “But for now, what do you say we bring him something from the vending machines to celebrate with us?”

They take off, Daniel bouncing with all the energy of an excited kid and Stephen doing his best to keep his pace and failing miserably. Daniel keeps turning his head to look at Sean, as if he’s afraid he might disappear in a puff of smoke.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t come earlier, honey,” Claire says, an undeniable fondness in her eyes as she watches Daniel and Stephen walking away. “We had some trouble with Daniel’s papers, and they… it doesn’t matter now. How are you?”

He could ask for some comfort. He could beg for their compassion, fill the hollowness inside him with all the good memories they can offer. He could take the leftovers of their lives and use them to feed the Sean-that-surrendered, keep him nourished and hopeful and alive.

“I’m fine, Claire,” he says instead.

He sees the doubt in her eyes. The conflict between the desire to swallow his lie and the genuine concern for him. She fidgets. She wants to take his hand, but she is afraid to move too fast. Afraid that the wolf will bite her, but the wolf ran away the moment Sean stepped into this room.

“Oh, my dear boy,” she says in the end, grabbing his hand anyway, and it’s an unexpectedly strong grip. “I am so proud of you. We all are. Doing what you did for your brother...”

Her other hand caresses the cheekbone around his eyepatch. She trembles, shakes her head. “My dear, dear boy. Look at you. All grown-up. So brave. Such a big heart.”

Sean realizes that Claire doesn’t quite know what to do. She wants to reassure him, but she’s terrified and powerless. Her rambling is more to her benefit than his. She’s trying to put on a brave face, but the mountains are this close to crumbling into dust. And Sean is suddenly aware that Claire shouldn’t be here at all.

There should be Karen in her place.

“Sean, I know we didn’t always see eye to... um... sorry.”

“It’s fine, Claire,” he smiles, because it is a bit funny. He squeezes her hand back, forgetting about absentee mothers and childish delusions. One of the guards walks a little closer to them. There are rules for touching people during visits, and he’s already violating them. He lets go.

“We are going to take good care of Daniel, I swear,” she says. The mountains have found their roots again. “We won’t waste what you did. We won’t make the same mistakes we did with... with Karen.” She says her name as if she has to force it out of her throat inch by inch, but the steel in her eyes doesn’t waver for a single second. She is doing this, she is changing things, and Sean wishes again he had an ounce of her determination left in him. “And I want you to know that I’m sure Esteban is very proud of the son he raised and of the man you became.”

There’s no wolf to keep him safe, his shell is in tatters and Daniel turned him back into all the Sean Diazes that ever were – including the one he was when he refused to hug Dad because ugh, not cool.

A sigh first, then a tiny gulp, and another, and another, then his vision goes cloudy and he sobs and he’s in tears again. There are so many things right now that he doesn’t know how to deal with, so many forgotten things stuck in his throat that he needs to throw out to breathe again but he doesn’t know how, so he cries like when he was a little child and –

He’s seven again, shouting until his throat is raw because Dad is putting all of Mom’s stuff away into cardboard boxes, to be forgotten in the storage room. He still remembers the rage and the betrayal, the darkness squeezing his chest, filling his stomach and his lungs and his heart and his head, and the certainty that if he throws enough of a fit Dad will make everything right again, like he always does. They will buy pizza and go to the movies and play all together, like they are supposed to do. Like a normal family, and not the ugly broken thing that Karen left behind.

They didn’t, obviously. That didn’t stop him from trying, and doesn’t stop him now.

Daniel is back to his side in a flash. “Sean? What’s wrong?”

This is like camping on the Trout Spring Trail. Putting on a brave face for him, and drawing comfort from Daniel’s smiles and enthusiasm, even if Sean wanted nothing more than to scream and scream and scream.

“Nothing, enano,” he forces himself to smile. “I’m just happy to see you all.”

He looks at the bounty they brought back from the vending machines. He knows that for them it isn’t much, but compared to what he gets in prison it’s a small feast. He lets Claire divert the conversation to happier topics. Chris. Daniel’s new room. Charles’ recovery.

The more Sean talks with Claire and Stephen and Daniel, the more he fills back the hole inside him with all the things he tried to tear away, and the more he is aware that their time together is running out. The time when they will have to leave looms closer and closer, and he knows he will have to empty his heart again to survive his return to Sean-the-inmate. He wishes he could be strong enough to keep his distance, instead of gorging on their love like a starving wolf.

He knows that tomorrow he will be back to yard track and will try to run away from all these things he took from them. Yet he knows that no matter how long he will keep running, his laps will always end on the same line where they began.

*

He spends the night screaming into his pillow.

Nobody notices.

*

The return to his routine is traumatic. Sean-who-is-whole clings to his skin the way the smell of weed did after a joint, and he can’t find his way back to Sean-the-inmate. He goes through the same motions of the last days, but they feel too tight and he is choking. He has tasted a better kind of freedom, now he wants more.

The wolf hasn’t returned yet.

He is restless for a while and then, finally, makes up his mind to call Lyla the next time he’s allowed to use the telephone room. Like he always did when he felt bummed and needed someone to just be there and listen as he tried to make sense of the mess inside his dumb teenage head.

He shouldn’t. He really shouldn’t. But his shell is broken and all those cracks are hurting him, and he really needs someone to sit down on a porch with as he tries to recover all those tiny pieces of whatever Sean Diaz he is now. As he tries to make them fit again.

He already added her to his authorized contact list. She was the first to set up a pre-paid account to let him reach her on her mobile, even before the Reynolds did.

(Karen still hasn’t set up hers. Sean tells himself he doesn’t really expect her to.)

He shouldn’t call her out of the blue. He should… arrange it, check if she’s got anything going on. Maybe she’s working, or she’s out skating, or she’s on a date, or – does he really expect her to drop everything she’s doing with her life right now, just to spend a few minutes with him?

He dials her number anyway. He barely hears a ring before his call goes through. And then...

He hears nothing but a shaky breath, and he can’t. He can’t drag her into his mess. Oh, he’s going to miss her, and it’s going to hurt even more than it already does, but he’s been missing her for almost a year. He’s used to it. He can go on, alone and free.

He could end the call.

“Sean?”, the voice is almost a tiny whisper and Sean hates it, because what he needs to hear right now is badass-Lyla, not normal-Lyla-with-her-human-feelings. But he hasn’t heard her voice since December, and his shell has a giant crack and it won’t keep him safe anymore.

“Hey, Lyla,” he says, but his throat is dry and so he coughs and swallows and has to say it again. She laughs, and there are so many emotions in her laugh. Relief, happiness, concern, fear, sadness, regret, love – love more than anything, and it’s something so very Lyla that Sean laughs with her, then coughs again, and then he’s sobbing.

“You dumbass,” she says, “You’re alive!”

She already knew it, of course, but she never had the chance to tell him before now.

“Ouch, chica, it almost sounds like you thought I wouldn’t make it!”, he manages to say despite his raw throat and it feels good. Real good.

“Without me being there to remind you where you put your stuff every five minutes? Fuck yeah I’m shocked.”

He was terrified that things between them could have changed after all the time they spent apart, but this, right here, the affection and the easy banter and being understood no matter what, the belonging, this is what Sean-and-Lyla has always been about. This is the safe harbor he left when he ran from Seattle, and if could keep this banter on for a bit he would turn in Sean-the-teenager again, he’s sure.

He wishes he could bottle up this conversation and live it again when prison will inevitably drag him down. He’s wishing for a lot of things he can’t really afford, lately.

They talk. About stupid, inane stuff, but it makes Sean feel good, and he can tell that Lyla gets better too as the minutes go by. Sean says he’s become her own Pablo Escobar, makes a joke about Mexican bad boys corrupting sweet innocent Korean girls. She tells him you wish, loser. Brings him up to speed on the cool songs that came out in the last months, playing a couple of them really loud on her stereo, so he can hear the lyrics. He hears her mom battering at her door, demanding that she turns down the volume, and Lyla’s curt retort. Mom turns into the Momster when Lyla tells her who she’s talking with, and Sean is painfully aware of how the seconds are rushing forward toward the end of his allotted time. Again.

You have one minute left. Thank you for using Trufone.

“I love you”, she says. “I know”, he quips back, and he starts singing I Have a Friend in You. She laughs. “You asshole. Stay strong, ok? Best Freakin’ Fighters. I’m going to – ”

He doesn’t get to know what she’s going to do. The call ends and it’s no longer a lazy afternoon on her porch. He’s back to Sheridan and its moldy concrete walls, back to a Sean-that-is-whole that is trying to remember how to be Sean-the-inmate and stop the pain, only now he’s had a glimpse of what his life could have been. He’s seen Sean-the-college-student, the one who would have gotten drunk at the party and tried to kiss Jenn and probably made an embarrassment of himself despite all his planning. Jenn would have thought that he was such a loser, would have said something, but then would have kissed him anyway because Lyla had said she was into losers. And he would have gotten home drunk and high and ecstatic, and Dad would have laughed his ass off and probably fake-grounded him because Sean would have tried and failed to ninja his way into his room, and the next day Daniel would have been pissed that his big brother had no time for him before Halloween and tried to got his attention in all those little annoying ways he knew. And he would have had such a happy, fulfilling, normal and boring life, and he would have bitched about it. He wouldn’t have known how fucking lucky he was because he wouldn’t have lost everything.

And he really, really wishes he could forget the person he could have been.

Sean-that-is-whole is losing pieces of himself left and right, and calling Lyla was a mistake.

*

The wolf comes back to him after a few days, dragging in his mouth all the shards of his shell that Daniel and Lyla broke apart.

He doesn’t know how to fix it. He’s six, Claire’s prized vase lies shattered in the corridor, and he’s crying because he doesn’t know how to say out loud all those things that are filling up his chest and he doesn’t know how to get them out into words. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I’m scared. I wish I could go back. Please don’t be mad. Please don’t be mad at me.

The wolf smothers him in his warm embrace, licking the pain out of his heart.

The following week he runs the yard track as much as he can, even if it means that then he has to wade in prison drama every time he wants to take a shower. Respect is a currency, it seems, and he still has to master the subtle line between don’t draw attention and don’t be a pussy. It’s worth it in the end, because running the track means nearly an hour with an empty head, even if there’s no true escape because he always ends his laps where he started.

(Sean-the-inmate begins to fit him again.)

There are other things that help him keep his mind occupied. Claire gave him enough money to buy shitty paper and pencils from the Commissary. Ricardo shows him the study programs available to detainees. There’s also work available in prison: it takes sitting through a painfully boring interview with his Counselor before they are convinced that his disability won’t get him killed in the machine shop. Back in Seattle he never thought that one day he would actually ask to work among the same tools Dad used, but... well, life isn’t just strange.

Life sucks.

He’s terrified of all those things that Claire promised. Emails and phone calls and visits and crushing hugs (Daniel, holding him so close and so hard, almost as if he felt the emptiness inside Sean and wanted to give him his heart to fill it with). It will be like seeing Finn again in the hospital, a brief happy breath before being consumed by that burning anger.

(You’re just selfish, he had snarled. He was a wounded animal lashing out, and seeing Finn crumble before him had filled him with such glee that now it makes him sick just thinking about it. How fucked up is that?)

He’s even more terrified of talking with Lyla again. Having other glimpses of the life that could have been his, if only… if only Dad…

Yeah. Life sucks, hard.

And now he just... can’t. He can’t write to Daniel and Lyla and everybody and pretend that the 13,000 characters allowed in an e-mail will be enough to stay in touch with them. He can’t have a 15-minute phone call and hope that they can cram into it enough of their lives to make him feel that he still matters to them. He can’t receive photos and letters and whatever and believe that he’s keeping pace with them. What’s the point?

His story is over. Theirs has barely begun. Daniel is safe and free, and Sean deserves to rest.

There’s only Sean-the-inmate now, and he doesn’t want to feel broken again.

*

The next day he stops at the barber. His hair is starting to get too long again.

(It’s no McNam’hair-a salon. Maybe he won’t lose another eye, here.)

He asks to shave it all away. When it’s done, he looks in the mirror and Sean-the-inmate is finally looking back at him. It feels a little easier to breathe, now.

*

Ricardo sees his sketch of their cell. Sean has added a giant window to the wall, and a bored brontosaurus putting his neck through the opening to sniff around his closet. Ricardo asks if Sean can draw something to send to his daughter, offers to pay for it in cigarettes.

Sean says he’ll do it for free, which is probably stupid, because in prison you can’t just give something away without upsetting the unsteady balance of respect that regulates everything. Kindness is a commodity, too, but today he just doesn’t give a shit.

(Or maybe he’s just so stupid that he wants to have someone else care about him, someone inside, and it could start with a little gift.)

Sometimes he can still feel the ghost of Daniel’s arms around him and he needs to hide from them.

When he draws he can take that loving embrace and put it behind a glass wall. He can look at it, study it, understand it; it all makes sense in a safe way because it’s not Sean Diaz that’s being hugged, it’s something else, it’s the universal idea – the Brother that everyone could be. It’s no longer his pain, it’s everybody else’s. He draws it and everything caught on his page makes perfect sense.

He sketches Ricardo, smiling and happy, with his arms open as if ready for a hug. He takes his time, and Ricardo doesn’t complain too much. That’s a blessing, because the more he works on the portrait, the more the wolf moves closer to him. By the time he’s done, the wolf is comfortably wrapped around his shoulders, soft and warm and safe.

At least for now, his own memories don’t hurt anymore.

*

That night he actually manages to get some sleep.

*

Word that he’s good at drawing spreads around. Sean is shocked by how many people ask him to sketch something to send their own families. Ricardo rolls his eyes and explains, otra vez, that in prison anything is a commodity, and that – for people who have nothing – being able to gift something to a loved one can be worth the world. Sean is tempted to laugh the first time he is asked by an inmate to draw him like this fucking Deadpool guy my girl is crazy about, but he’s smart enough to keep his mouth shut. He likes his insides to stay where they are, inside him, thank you very much.

And after all, drawing others is something Sean likes to do. It also helps fill the days, so he’s happy to oblige.

What Sean doesn’t really like is the attention, just he didn’t in high school. If people start noticing him it won’t take much time before someone will want to be his “friend”. In prison this means choosing a side, and there are dozens of them – it’s not a line in the sand, with-me-or-against-me, it’s a whole fucked-up icosahedron of rivalries and petty hatreds that he can’t ignore once he finds himself stuck in the middle of it, because that would just mean being hated by everyone and nope, that’s not good at all.

Still, now he can afford to buy more things from the Commissary. Not much, but it’s enough to make a difference in the dreariness of prison life. That’s when he first notices Ricardo’s calculating look beneath his smiles.

Ricardo tries to convince Sean to pick up tattooing, which he flatly refuses (he’d get in a ton of trouble if the guards caught him, because, guess what, tattooing is illegal). It would be a lot of money, güey!, Ricardo insists, but Sean has already heard it all before.

(The way Finn had looked at him, the weight of his hand on Sean’s thigh... the wolf keeps all of that away.)

He’s learned that he really should stay away from ideas that involve “a lot of money” and from people who have them, so... I already said no, thank you. Ricardo’s eyes go cold.

Fuck.

He realizes his mistake only when he’s already fucked up, of course, because second-guessing his decisions is his very own superpower. You don’t say no to people you’re not ready to fight.

He tries to smooth things over by giving Ricardo a few post stamps anyway, to see if he can find someone able to give him a tattooing machine and ink, just in case, let me practice before I try something, but Sean can tell that Ricardo’s not buying it.

He’ll have to find a way to deal with this, because he knows that Ricardo won’t just stop at a no. People like him always try to get their way, and it ends in a missing brother and fucked-up eyesight even if you thought they might have really cared after all.

*

Of fucking course his peace doesn’t last, because it’s prison and everyone has to prove that they are People You Don’t Want To Mess With. He’s just finished a sketch when the guy he made it for decides that he doesn’t like it enough and demands that Sean leave without payment. Sean laughs, even if the guy is a good four inches taller than he is, before saying hell no.

(It’s prison. It doesn’t really matter how hard you bite, just how convincing your bark is.)

When they meet later for a “friendly chat” near the showers it doesn’t go well for Sean, obviously, because Big Guy has friends and Sean has stayed as far away from drama as he could. Exactly as he did in high school, but here he has no Lyla to bully him into talking to people, and he fucked up the one relationship that could lead to something. No one has his back.

He loses count of how many times he manages to get up only to be rewarded with another round of punches. It’s nothing he hasn’t already gone through before, but this time he wants to get back up, and not because of Daniel or because of some stupid unwritten rules. He wants to get back that piece of paper, because it’s something he made. Something he spent time on. A tiny piece of himself he poured on paper (softly, carefully, lovingly) to help him see the world around him, even if the point was always to give it away. To show someone else what the world looks like to Sean Diaz.

He gets up. Big Guy punches him back on the floor. He refuses to stay down.

Big Guy is laughing as Sean stumbles in one of the showers and accidentally opens the tap with the elbow. His laughter echoes with the dry chuckle of Hank Stamper, the cruel guffaw of Chad, the cold sneer of Nicholas and the merciless scorn of Madison, all coming together in an accusation – you should never have been born.

Something inside Sean… it doesn’t snap, it’s more as if it just gives way, and what comes out from deep down is hot and burning, a wave that is rumbling tearing crashing thundering screaming for release.

When Big Guy lunges forward again, Sean trips him. It’s ugly and ungraceful, but Big Guy clearly wasn’t expecting it, and the wet floor doesn’t help him. Big Guy grabs Sean’s leg and forces him down to the ground with him in a wet mess of slicky limbs, while Sean tears at him with all the fury of a caged wolf. He punches and scratches and tears and bites and screams, screams, screams, an inarticulate sound that he already let loose once.

It doesn’t change anything.

Big Guy gets still gets the upper hand in the end, because he’s heavier and has clearly way more experience in hurting people, but Sean has left his mark on his face. He smiles at Big Guy from the floor, despite the blood getting in his eye and his aching ribs and all the new bruises that keep hurting like hell.

He really shouldn’t have. Maybe then they wouldn’t have kicked him in the head before leaving.

His drawing lies forgotten on the floor, torn to pieces.

*

He tells the nurse he slipped in the shower, which technically isn’t a lie. They throw him into segregation anyway. Fuckers.

He’s in such bad shape that someone must have taken pity on him, because they still allow him to meet Daniel the next time he comes to visit, even if he doesn’t really want to let him see his big brother like this. He doesn’t say it out loud, of course.

He has to talk to him through a phone from behind a glass window.

It’s a bit funny because Claire and Stephen can’t really participate in the conversation, since there’s a single receiver, and for all their trying they don’t quite manage to follow. It becomes a giant game of telephone, where It’s not as bad as it seems prompts Stephen to ask I’m sorry, what about your spleen?

He just wishes that Daniel’s downcast expression wouldn’t hurt so much.

You should see the other guy, he jokes. Claire is horrified once Daniel relays his words, of course, and tries her very best to say things that she probably thinks might have helped the Sean Diaz that once knocked at her door on a winter’s night. They don’t help right now.

He realizes that he’s glad there is a wall of glass between them. He is here, they are there. This time he has no delusions that maybe (maybe) if he tries really hard he can still manage to be a tiny part of his brother’s life. The line is drawn, and perhaps it’s for the best.

Sean-that-surrendered is a ghost of the past. He should leave.

What happened to your hair, dude? It was getting in my way, I like it better now. They try to talk about... stuff, but it’s really forced and insincere. Sean smiles a lot. Really wishes they wouldn’t fret so much. It’s not easy to act like everything’s fine, even without hugs, and they aren’t making it easy.

Sean is the first to drop his hand from the partitioning glass. Daniel stubbornly holds his own for a long time afterwards, on the same spot where they pretended they were touching.

*

There’s nothing to do in segregation. Guards don’t let prisoners bring their possessions – no pens, no paper, no books, nothing. Not even a spare set of clothes. He could enjoy being away from Ricardo’s resentful stares, but the boredom is about to kill him.

Segregation means spending his days in a 12x12 feet cell. One hour to wash and exercise.

Twenty-three hours to do… nothing.

He has a lot of time to think, something that he would gladly avoid. He tries to exercise, to feel nothing more than his body screaming at him to stop as he makes one pushup after the other, squats and deadlifts and lunges and so many other things he doesn’t even know the name of, always straight up collapsing on the floor, sweaty as a pig and relishing the pain wracking through muscles he forgot he still has.

That’s when he sees Lyla turning up her nose and running away from him, shouting “UGH! Gross!”. He gets up and chases her through the park, laughing alongside her (“Sean, don’t you dare! I’m fucking serious, dude, don’t!”) while she tries to escape from his hug, fails, and trips him in revenge.

That’s when he sees Daniel jumping in excitement because big bro has finished his race, grabbing his hand, pulling him up for a picture and shouting “Daaaaad! Dad, I want a picture with Sean!”, drowning out Sean’s disappointment at his second place.

That’s when he sees Dad coming with a smile that makes him think he has just won the New York Marathon instead of having flunked another chance at being first at something in his life. I’m proud of you, mijo, he mouths, but Sean can’t bear to hear him right now and – why is he thinking about that day? Why can’t he stop? Sean-the-inmate has no place for these memories.

He gets back to screaming into his pillow.

The wolf nuzzles his neck; Sean manages to fall asleep.

*

Sean sleeps, a lot. The wolf curls protectively around him, places its head on the pillow and smothers the pain in his ribs. It smothers the ache in his heart, too, and lets him rest in peace.

When he’s awake, Sean remembers.

He remembers lying on his bed, earplugs in, humming his favorite songs. Wondering about the person he was supposed would be. Sean-that-once-was had enjoyed those moments, back then, not having to deal with Daniel’s bullshit and holding his fears at bay with nothing more than a few good songs. The songs knew him. They hugged him and told him that he wasn’t all alone. That other people had felt the same things he was feeling back then.

He lies on his bed, now. He sings On Melancholy Hill, but his voice sounds eerie and discordant in the muffled silence of his cell. Outside, the cacophony of prison never stops, and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t drown it out.

Well you can’t get what you want, but you can get me…

He remembers lying on the bed in Karen’s trailer, right after Haven Point, when everything ached. He remembers Daniel’s eyes, his hesitation as he snuggled under the sheet with him, his guilt. He remembers when they finally talked, when Daniel begged for forgiveness and Sean did the same, because if he hadn’t let Daniel go to sleep alone (You want me to walk back alone?) – if he hadn’t ignored his loneliness (You’re ALWAYS with them!) – if he hadn’t downplayed his anger (It’s my power, not yours!) – if he hadn’t told him to hide his gift (Because of you... I didn't do anything and... I could have...) – if he hadn’t opened that damn cabin door (Where’s Mushroom?) – if he hadn’t been such a coward (You knew Dad was dead! You knew it!) – if if if

if he had been better

if he had been more

then maybe he wouldn’t have made all those stupid mistakes. He could have been what Daniel needed – what Dad had told him that he needed. Instead…

He had been many Sean Diazes, but never Sean-who’s-got-this, and now that his dumbass mistakes have finally caught up with him, the only comfort he can find is that he’s the only one who has to endure the consequences, as it should have been since the very beginning.

The wolf joins in his singing, and the outside world fades away. He’s tired. Maybe he’ll sleep some more.

*

They finally let him out of solitary after another two weeks, and Sean is so glad to be back in his own cell that he smiles at Ricardo when he sees him. He doesn’t smile back. Whatever.

Sean finds out that people somehow already know of his run-in with Big Guy, and a couple of them got really pissed that the drawings they booked were delayed. Sean doesn’t know exactly what happened, but Big Guy is giving him a wide berth, and Sean has learned to avoid asking too many questions. He fakes a few more smiles, lowers his prices to celebrate his return to General Population, and tries to enjoy the brief moment of quiet.

Nobody tries to shiv him, and a couple guys even hint that they can look out for him, provided that he shares a fair cut of his profits. They say they can prevent people like Big Guy from getting ideas, or poke them with a blade if they should prove hard of hearing.

Something in their easy smiles makes Sean uneasy. At least Ricardo’s scowling is honest.

*

Even Ricardo decides to offer him a cigarette that evening. A burn, Sean learns. Because he’s taken the first step in becoming something other than a fish. Ricardo feels the need to tell Sean that it’s not like he really gives a fuck, güey, but he also tells Sean to stay out of the protection racket, that people will stop bothering him once they know that he can give even half as good as he gets. He says that Big Guy was a good beginning, and encourages him to stick to a regular workout routine.

(He is asking Sean to enter another cocoon. Sean doesn’t really care anymore.)

They smoke in silence, uncomfortably close in front of the tiny window of their room. Smoking isn’t allowed, Ricardo had explained, but sometimes the COs look the other way. This is one of those times.

There are a lot of memories tied to such a simple gesture. They crowd the back of Sean’s head, threaten to slip in front of his eye from the blind spot on his left side and bury him in his regrets.

They belong to a different Sean Diaz, and this time the wolf keeps them away.

*

Phone calls become much more difficult. Daniel and Claire and Lyla keep telling him new things about their lives. New people they meet, new things they try out, new life they experience.

Sean... Sean has nothing new to say. Prison is routine. Today’s I run track isn’t different from yesterday’s I run track. That funny thing Alexander said at lunch isn’t so funny to them. He’s beginning to have trouble understanding what he is supposed to laugh at in Lyla’s memes.

He’s getting left behind.

His story is over, after all. He always was just a rocket booster, propelling the spaceship to the stars. Now the space mission has left the atmosphere, and he exhausted his purpose. He can detach and burn in re-entry while the astronauts go on to live awesome adventures. This was only the beginning of their journey, but it was the entirety of his – a few months worth eighteen years of his life. When he comes out (if you come out, says his own voice from the darkest corner of his mind) they’ll have done so many things. They will have lived so much. While he...

He doesn’t want to be Sean-that-is-whole anymore, he decides. He doesn’t want to realize what he is going to miss. He doesn’t want to be left behind.

(He is four and Dad is singing him back to sleep, because he just had a nightmare but Mom had a hard day and she’s tired right now, Seanie-boy. Dad’s voice tries to fill the absence of Karen’s. Estrellita, ¿dónde estás?)

The wolf grabs him by the nape of his neck and drags him away from the bottomless pit of his memories, back to safety.

For a couple days he thinks of asking Claire to cancel their next planned visit, because he really has no idea of how to deal with all this. Well – maybe he does.

Yard track. Drawing. Studying. Working. He can keep doing these things. He doesn’t have to think, and the exhaustion he feels afterwards is warm and welcome. The wolf is always at his side.

*

It doesn’t really get better. Sean has found his routine in prison, but he can’t find a way to make the rest of the world fit in it without destroying everything.

He tries, hard, even if it seems impossible. The wolf lends him strength.

He must be strong. He must put their hearts at ease, so the astronauts can live their awesome adventures instead of feeling sad for the old rocket booster that won’t be with them. He must believe that his sacrifice mattered, because he can’t bear to consider the alternative.

His phone calls are always so forcedly upbeat that Sean doesn’t know why nobody actually calls him out. Visits are even worse, because there’s no escaping everyone’s concerned gaze, and he has to act happy, too. As for them, life outside the prison is apparently idyllic, and there’s never anything wrong at the Reynolds’. Daniel is happy, Claire is happy, Stephen is happy. Everyone is happy.

(Their happiness measures the lead they have on him, how far ahead they already are, how much further they keep going. Is it truly worth it? To keep running? Maybe if he says that he doesn’t care about the race anymore, falling behind will stop hurting.)

They’re playing all together a game that Daniel made up with Chris (with no dice or anything, so we can play it with you, too!) when Sean realizes he’s too tired to keep pretending. He kept telling himself that he could find his own happiness in Daniel’s happiness, but... it’s a lie.

It’s a lie.

He always knew, somehow, but he never truly accepted it. He refused to accept it. He went on, like the hero of that cheesy fantasy series he’ll never get to finish. He never stopped. He fought and bled and lost and got up and persisted, and he had a goal that kept driving him forward. Daniel.

Daniel is safe and happy and loved, now, and Sean has no goal.

(Now he thinks that if only he had waited for the police back in Seattle none of this would have happened. Maybe they would still be together and Sean would still be alive.)

Sean decides he’s had enough of it all. He begins to think that maybe (maybe) it would be better if they didn’t have to put up with him. Couldn’t they just... forget him? Surely Daniel doesn’t need to see his brother like a caged wolf once a month.

Sean... Sean can go on alone. Or even just stop. The race doesn’t matter anymore.

He stops listening when Daniel tries to tell him about what he’s up to. He ignores his excited descriptions of his new classmates, because it’s too painful. He can feel Daniel’s hurt, but he ignores it, too. He has to. A clean cut is better than keeping hearing echoes of what could have been. Daniel needs to let him go.

(He fears he’s going to be just like Karen, bailing out of Daniel’s life out of selfishness. But this is different. He’s nothing like her. He brought the space mission out of the atmosphere, he did his job to the end, didn’t he? He can fall without remorse.)

Hasn’t he earned his fucking rest? Must he pretend that everything is A-ok and look at them all to do the same? For what? Do they really think this is helping somehow?

Of course, he could just ask them. A question is all it would take to face the truth.

He’s too afraid to hear the answer.

*

Yard track. Drawing. Studying. Working.

He screams in his pillow at night, again. The wolf cradles him to sleep.

*

Everything is a lie.

He lied when he abandoned Daniel, that day at the border (Everything is going to be alright. Yeah, sure). He lied when he signed his confession. He lied to his counselor when he told him he had plenty of experience in a machine shop. He keeps lying to his family and his friends, day after day after day.

The wolf is a lie, a figment of his imagination born to fight his own memories.

Hell, prison itself is a lie. He’s not going to, quote-unquote, learn from his mistakes, because if he had to choose again he’s sure he’d make each and every one of his dumbass choices. He’s not going to come out as a reformed and productive member of society.

He’s not sure he’s going to come out at all. The hole in his chest just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and he can’t see the point in trying to fill it with the scraps of someone else’s happiness anymore.

*

That night he dreams.

He’s standing in a city street, next to a parked car. His city street. His parked car. The one he was driving during the road trip with Dad. The one he never got to fix for his graduation.

The wolf is curled around his feet, resting. Sean rubs its head before stepping away. The wolf doesn’t follow.

“Ah, I was wondering how long it’d take you to get back here. Were you planning on letting your papito do all the unpacking? And don’t forget that it’s your turn to do the laundry, too, Seanie-boy...”

Sean throws himself into Dad’s welcoming arms without even thinking, shedding the thick skin of Sean-the-inmate to slip back into Sean-the-teenager like it’s the most natural thing in the world. He knows that pain awaits, but he doesn’t care. Dad holds him close, just like Daniel held him during his first visit, and Sean is not letting go this time.

“Oho! What is this? Is it still you, Mr. Cool?”, Dad laughs. Sean laughs with him, too, and then breaks into tears, because apparently he’s a complete wreck even in his dreams. Or perhaps, for fucking once, he just wants to hear someone tell him that everything is going to be all right, and he wants to believe it to be true.

“I’m so fucking tired, Dad,” he sobs. “I can’t go on anymore.”

“I know, mijo,” Dad whispers. There’s a deep sadness in his voice, and Sean is sure that he gets him. He always did, even back then, when Sean loved to complain to Lyla about him. God, he was such an ungrateful idiot. “You’re home, now. You can rest, if you want.”

Their road trip is over. The silent house looms before them. Daniel’s obnoxiously loud chatter is missing. Lyla must have already left. The wolf is still lying on the pavement. It keeps them under its watchful eye, but it looks content to stay there.

Sean could just... stop.

You’re a Diaz. You were born to roam. And find your way home.

He’s home, right?

“Where’s Daniel, Dad?”

“Don’t worry about him, Sean. He’s safe. Let it go.”

He has a flash of Daniel shouting along with Elsa on the TV. He finds in himself the strength to make a little smile, and realizes that no matter how down he feels, he can’t stop either. He can’t do that to his little brother.

“I can’t right now, Dad. I... I just don’t know what to do. Everything sucks.”

Dad sighs, breaks their hug, takes a step back. His good mood evaporates. Somewhere behind Sean the wolf starts growling.

“Why don’t you ever listen, Sean? Seriously. I mean, I know it’s hard at your age, but is it so hard? Waah, I don’t know what to do! You know what to do. You just hope that someone will come and fix everything for you. Well, I can’t anymore. You killed me, mijo, remember? You are on your own now.”

Sean opens his mouth, but he can’t find the words. Any word at all. Because it’s everything he has been thinking about ever since the day he grabbed his brother and began to run, and in all the time that passed since that day he still hasn’t come up with a way to defend himself.

“I’m sorry. I... I tried my best,” he breathes. Lamest excuse ever.

Dad chuckles. “I think your exact words were yeah, you failed. Big time. I’m sorry, Sean, I tried to help you, but you ruined everything” he says as he looks away. Ashamed of him. “You are just like your mother. She always needed more, until she didn’t need us any longer. So she took everything she wanted and left us with what little she couldn’t take away. I hope you’ll find your happiness, like her.”

Dad walks away, leaving him behind. No matter how hard Sean tries to run after him, no matter how much he screams (I know, don’t leave me again, I’m sorry, I’ll be better, please don’t leave me again, please please please), Dad keeps moving farther and farther. Sean can only watch as Dad disappears from his sight. All he is left with is a wolf curled protectively around his legs, smothering his panic into numbness.

*

Yard track. Drawing. Studying. Working.

The wolf keeps him strong when he wants to fall apart.

(He isn’t like Karen. He is not.)

*

He has only pencils, no inks. He uses up almost an entire one as he tries to vomit on paper the blackness he feels inside. The monsters that emerge from the background are ten times more alien than the ones who kept popping up in the sketchbook of Sean-the-runaway. They are his silent scream in a world that he can no longer recognize.

They are a lone howl in the night. He keeps listening, but nobody else is joining in.

The monsters are tearing into the flesh of a lone, one eyed wolf. The wolf keeps his head down. Blood streaks through his fur. His ribs are exposed. Sinews dangle from a broken leg.

But something still makes it drag itself forward. Alone.

*

“You know, Claire,” Sean forces himself to say during his next phone call, “you don’t have to come visit every month if it’s too much trouble. I can get by.”

“Oh, honey, why would you say that?” Claire actually manages to sound warm and caring even through the awful receiver of the prison’s phone booth, and Sean wishes he could smash it into her face, break that kindness and composure into something that is as ugly and dark as the stuff inside his head. “Of course we’re always happy to see you. Why would you say that?”

He sighs. Pinches the bridge of his nose. Counts to ten. Nope, he’s still pissed.                

“Listen, Claire, I’m not fucking stupid, ok?” He knows that swearing will get on her nerves. He wishes a part of himself wouldn’t feel so happy in hearing her shocked Sean! “You don’t have to play it cool just because I’m locked up. You don’t have to put on a show for me every time you visit.”

I know you hate it. Just fucking say it out loud.

There’s an uneasy pause on the other end of the line. Sean decides he’s had enough of everything.

“Or maybe you’re happy with this charade. Faking that everything is great while people die inside. Mom learned a lot from you.”

He slams the receiver back onto its cradle, ending the call before she has a chance to speak again.

He should probably call back later to talk to Daniel. He doesn’t. Sean has nothing left to say to him.

*

Sean has nothing left to say.

That’s another lie. Sean has a lot of things to say. They growl inside his chest, tearing at his insides, begging – no, demanding – to be let out.

(Better out than in, Cassidy had told him once. She was talking about barfing, but still.)

He lets them out in his sketches. The one he makes for Grigorj, a guy with enough tattoos to be a walking museum, doesn’t quite turn out the way he thought when he began. It’s dark and stifling, Grigorj’s face contorted in a grimace of pain and anguish. Shadows are dancing around him, ghosts waiting to jump on him and tear him apart.

This isn’t Grigorj, however. Sean forces himself to take a step back, to really look at him. To see what is and not what he wants to see.

In the drawing, the shadows keep their distance. Sean adds a flicker of hope in his eyes, in the creases around his mouth, in the furrows of his brow. Grigorj is in pain, but he looks like he knows it’s not over yet. He still has something to fight for, even if Sean doesn’t know what it is.

He really wishes he could know.

When the real Grigorj sees the final work, he stares at it for a long time. Then he nods, slow and solemnly, says “thank you” and pats Sean on the shoulder.

(Once, a “pat” like that would have thrown him to the ground like a sack of potatoes.)

Sean is tempted to ask what for as Grigorj gives him his payment, but he keeps his mouth shut. Then Grigorj hesitates, as if he wants to add something. “You’re a good kid,” he says in the end, before walking away.

Grigorj’s whistling Keep holding on, and Sean can’t stop his lips from turning into an amused smile.

*

A few days later, Lyla sends him an email that somehow manages to sound both furious and concerned at the same time. She writes about high school life, complains about the Momster (way less than she used to), and gushes about the new Misty Mice single that just came out. She promises that the next time he calls her she’ll let him listen to The Rat King from her stereo, because you just have to, dude, look! She attaches the lyrics, and it’s about people getting tangled up together in impossible situations with no escape, losing hope, but finding the strength to go on from the unexpected companionship. She then goes into detail about this TV series she found on Cartoon Network about two brothers lost in the woods and how Daniel binged it all in a single night on Stephen’s laptop, cried himself to sleep after the last episode, and now can’t shut up about it.

(Sean doesn’t remember Daniel mentioning it at all.)

She talks about it all as if it’s the most important stuff in the world, and makes him feel a bit of an asshole because she’s so earnest in sharing everything with him even if he has nothing to share back. And then...

Best freakin’ fighters even now, dude, so don’t you dare cut us all off. I know what it’s like, and you know that I know, so please, Sean. Call me, write to me, draw something for me, anything. Tell me what you feel for real. I want to hear from you, the real you. I’m still making plans to visit in the next school break. You better be there, or else I’m gonna murder you, I swear.

“You better be there,” he snorts. As if he’s going anywhere else.

Yes, he knows what Lyla really means.

The wolf is looking at him. It wants to know what to do, because having news from Lyla somehow always manages to bring the sun out for a few minutes, even if then he has to rebuild Sean-the-inmate from the ground up once more. He can’t pick a fight with her like he did with Claire, because she knows him way too well, even after all the things that happened during a year on the run. She takes all those different Sean Diazes that he ever was and sees right through them, like they all are the same person, and she refuses to fade away in the wolf’s fur. She’s awesome, and Sean doesn’t deserve her.

He probably really shouldn’t, but he starts composing a reply almost immediately. Only in his head, of course, because using one of those sorry excuses for computers costs five cents every minute. His drawings are giving him a bit of extra money, true, but it’s still not enough to buy extra food and take hours to write the perfect reply.

Good thing he has no Internet access, or he’d burn through his money faster than he did a joint.

Hey sis, he could begin. Don’t worry, I’m good, just a bit tired.

Or maybe not. Lyla can see through his bullshit better than a federal court.

Don’t worry, I’m good, just a bit tired. You got me, I’m not good. Lately I’ve been way too

Way too what? Irritable? Annoyed? Frustrated?

too sick of everything. I’m tired. I’m angry. I don’t know what to do.

He sees Dad again, turning his back on him.

I tried my best and I just made a mess after another.

The wolf bounces its head on his thigh. Sean grasps its fur, craving only the numbness. No, he can’t think about Lyla right now. He can’t make her worry. She has her life to live, and he’s stuck here. He can bear a little pain in silence for both of them.

It’s probably the same thing that Claire was thinking when she visited. We have our lives, we can bear a little pain in silence for you, but that... that isn’t the same thing at all. They have plenty of other people in their lives to help them, people they can get in touch with at any moment. They have things to do. Stories to write, freedom to enjoy, life to live.

He only has four concrete walls around him, and whatever echoes he can hear from the outside world, reminding him of how far he’s falling behind everybody else. Of how much he’s already lost.

Of how he is never going to catch up again.

*

Sketching Brandon is hard.

Sean thought that Big Guy was intimidating. Brandon is, like, the mutant child of The Rock and Jason Momoa, with a smile as warm as Wednesday Addams’. He looks like he could break Sean’s spine just by sneezing.

(Sean shouldn’t think like this. This is Lyla’s fault. Sean-the-inmate had decided to stay away from movie references that don’t belong in his life anymore.)

He didn’t think Brandon would be the kind of person to ask for a portrait, but he did, and he even paid in advance to ensure Sean would fit him into his busy schedule, so Sean does as Ricardo taught him before they stopped talking and doesn’t stick his nose where it doesn’t belong.

Here they are, sitting around a table in a corner of the common area, Brandon looking at him as if he were just a piece of furniture and Sean sweating because he can’t manage to get him right. It’s just... so damn hard to understand what to put in there, beside broad shoulders and big arms and a shaved head. Brandon looks like someone who’s been feared for so long that the fear is the only thing one can see, but Sean knows there’s more.

He knows a shell when he sees one.

Sean wishes he could wrench it open and take a look at what lies beneath – not because of some nosy curiosity, but because he needs to know how other people make it work. How can they hide their true self so it doesn’t hurt anymore, without losing it?

No matter how long he looks at Brandon, no matter how much he tries to make him open up just an inkling, that shell stays up there, as solid and as impenetrable as ever.

Sean gives up on trying to get underneath and just puts that feeling of something more in the sketch. He goes all Mona Lisa on Brandon, giving him a barely curled lip, the vaguest hint of a ghost of a smile. He looks powerful and intimidating, but his lips seem to ask am I just what you can see?

There’s no way to see through him if he doesn’t let others to.

When the portrait is done, Brandon studies it with the same focus Sean once saw him give to the Commissary price update sheet. Then Brandon lowers his head at him for a heartbeat, and walks away in silence.

His steps seem a little more spry than usual.

*

Sean doesn’t call the Reynolds after his one-sided fight with Claire. He sends Lyla a lame email to cancel his next call (at least he doesn’t lie to her, just says that he doesn’t feel like talking right now and hopes she can understand). She will be furious, of course, but right now he... can’t.

Sean knows there’s something wrong with him.

He knows he shouldn’t feel the things he’s feeling. This anger in his chest, feeding off the memories that the wolf keeps away from his attention, is not something he should throw away in a cardboard box in the basement of his soul and forget about.

(He’s eight and he’s got into a fight with Brett Foster, because he said things about her that hurt, and he remembers the wild rage burning his heart. He remembers Dad grasping his shoulders, looking at him in the eyes, and murmuring soft soothing words that made the burning disappear. He could use something like that right now, but he has nobody who could really understand. He killed Dad.)

He’s a bit surprised when the CO bangs on his door to tell him he has a visit scheduled for that afternoon.

His first reaction would be to say fuck it, but he can see Stephen driving for three hours straight if Daniel asks him pretty please, and he can’t bring himself to be that callous. At 11:00 AM he goes through the endless pre-visit processing, and then he waits some more, and when finally they let the visitors in, he watches in shock as Karen makes her way to his table.

She keeps her head down, arms crossed tight before her chest. She doesn’t want to be here, but she still sits in the chair in front of Sean and makes a little smile.

“Hi, Sean.”

There are lots of things Sean would like to say. His mouth stays open as he goes through them in his head. He settles for the easiest one: “You never wrote.”

You left me. Again.

She makes a grimace and shakes her head. “I didn’t.”

“Why are you even here?”

“Stephen called me. Said you were in a... bad place. That you needed someone to talk with.”

Sean laughs. It’s a hollow, joyless sound. “And he thought of you?”

“He said that Daniel was... that Daniel couldn’t come.”

He doesn’t want to see you.

Sean grabs the wolf’s fur as it rests beneath their table. He’s hurt his brother, again, even if all he wanted was to keep him safe. He must be the worst brother in the history of the world.

“You know, Sean… when you stayed with me, I thought I was starting to figure you out,” Mom says. Her gaze runs everywhere – on the table, on the cameras, on the patrolling COs, on the other inmates – never on his face. “I thought I had found a way to make it up to you for what I took from your childhood. To give you closure. And then you went and...” She makes a resigned gesture with her hands. “I have to know. Why did you surrender at the border?”

The wolf starts to growl. She’s here because Stephen asked her to check on him. She knows that Daniel doesn’t want to talk with him. But her first choice to begin a conversation is to ask about something she cares about.

“It’s still about you, isn’t it?” Sean snarls. “Poor Karen, she was about to fix everything and her ungrateful son wasted all that goodwill and soul-searching on a whim.”

If she’s hurt by his words, she hides it well. It makes him furious.

She looks at him, now. There’s a deep sadness in her eyes, and Sean can recognize her whole posture – how many times did the guy he saw in the mirror look like that? When he was sure he had got something in his life, and then it turned out he had understood fuck-all.

Perhaps that’s why he feels so angry. She’s his mother. She should know how the world works. She should have been there long enough to teach him how to deal with it.

“Do you remember what you wrote me? Please don’t give up on your freedom, ok? It’s the best thing you’ve taught us. We’ll reach you once we find our own freedom,” she sighs. “Then why, Sean? Why did you give up right on the finish line? Please, I just need to understand.”

She’s doing it again. That thing where she is so calm and level-headed, so open, admitting all her faults without trying to make excuses, just saying what she is feeling and why she is feeling it – that thing that sucks the rage out of Sean and forces him to really ponder at what she’s saying. She just takes all those pieces of herself and lays them out in the open, showing him how they fit with each other and why they work the way they do, while Sean can only watch in envy because beneath his hastily repaired shell there’s only a mess so complete that he’s sure that removing a piece would make everything crumble, and then he would have no idea how to put it all back together.

“Why didn’t you write me?”, he asks again, because he has to know what he did to deserve being abandoned twice.

A pause. Then, “I was ashamed.”

Sean scoffs and looks away. You are just like your mother.

(Him writing an half-assed excuse to Lyla because he can’t bear the thought of showing her how low Sean-the-teenager has fallen, now that he is Sean-the-inmate.)

“Not of you, Sean. Of myself.”

“Of course. It’s all about you.” He chews on the words before spitting them out, but their bitterness tastes hollow.

“I thought I was giving you everything you wanted. And then you surrendered, and I was left with a letter about freedom I didn’t want to make sense of.” She reaches for the cigarette pack in her pocket. Remembers she wasn’t allowed to bring it in, drops her hand halfway through the motion. “You told me I taught you about freedom, and then you gave yours away. You were selfless enough to make the choice I couldn’t all those years ago and I... I couldn’t stand it, because in doing so you took away my one chance of fixing things for you. Sean... I understand that you don’t want to talk about what you feel. But do you need to talk?”

It’s like that day at the motel, when her logic made his rabid anger disappear and left him just... exhausted.

“David tried to talk me into surrendering,” he begins, because fuck it, yes, he needs to vent to someone and for all her selfishness she’s good at listening and right now he doesn’t care if she gets hurt. “I thought he was out of his mind, but then... then Daniel asked all these questions that made way too much sense about our plan, and then he got shot, and then we met people running away from Mexico and I... I thought... I thought that Daniel didn’t deserve to live like this. Always looking over his shoulder, always afraid. And when we got to the border there were so many cops there, I couldn’t ask Daniel to... to do it. All I could think about was Dad, and how I had tried to leave Daniel some bits of the childhood he deserved, and how I had no right to ask him to become a monster to save me.”

It’s the first time he’s said these things out loud. He’s surprised at how light he feels, now.

“He would have done it in a heartbeat if you had asked him. For you. You know, right?”

“Yeah, I know. I do. But I… I couldn’t ask him to. So I thought that... that perhaps I could take the fall for him and... and if he could be happy, if he could have a real life – not one always on the run – I could find my happiness in that. Like Dad found his in us when things were tough. But I...”

He squeezes his eye shut. It’s burning, and watery, and why the fuck can’t he have a fucking conversation without breaking down?

Karen doesn’t say anything. Leaves him the time to take deep breaths, rub his face, sniffle.

“I’m not happy. I keep fucking everything up and I’m tired of everything, but then I think of Daniel, and Lyla, and everyone, and I keep going for a little bit, because they deserve it. But then I’m tired again, and I just want to be left alone, and I think of all the things I’m losing because I was an asshole and I couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to Daniel for thirty fucking seconds in my life, and I’m just... so done with it all.”

He starts sobbing again. Mom makes a move towards him, but one of the patrolling COs is close enough to see her and remind that no touching or you’re out, lady. She sets her jaw as Sean wraps his arms around himself.

“Sean, listen.”

He doesn’t, because now he’s furious at himself for breaking like this in front of someone he thought he was angry with.

“Sean.”

Where’s the wolf? It was right there a moment ago. He needs the numbness, the calm. If he could just...

“Sean.”

She won’t stop, so he forces himself to look at her even if all he can see is a blurry smudge of color.

“Stop acting as if everything that happened was your fault and you must pay a penance for it.”

“It was,” he mumbles as he fishes in his pockets for a tissue.

“I know you’re in pain. But this thing you’re doing, this... self-hate, this fucked-up martyrdom thing, isn’t going to make things right. Happiness isn’t a prize you gain by sacrificing yourself at the altar of selflessness. This world is cruel, and if you want your happiness you have to reach for it and take it. It won’t magically fall into your lap once you feel bad enough for your mistakes.”

“Yeah, right. It worked so well for us when you went after your happiness.”

She sighs. She looks exhausted, too, but she keeps going.

“It worked for me, and you... you deserve to be selfish, Sean. We are so much more than the sum of our mistakes. I am more than a mother who abandoned her sons. You are more than an inmate, and you are more than Daniel’s big brother. You must allow yourself to be selfish, just a little bit, and stop carrying everyone’s pain on your shoulders. You deserve it.”

“I can’t. I made so many wrong choices... I fucked up so much...”

“Sean... you have to stop trying to prove to yourself that you’re not me.”

IT’S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT YOU!”, he shouts, slamming his hands on the table, because this is a beast that has been growing inside his heart for a very long time and it feels good to finally let it free. Everyone turns to look at them, and before he can breathe again three different COs are now hovering around his table, batons in hand. Fan-fucking-tastic. He pinches the bridge of his nose so hard he can feel nothing but pain for a few seconds.

It’s nothing, officer, just a touchy subject. I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.

Good, this is a prison, not the fish market.

It takes time to convince the guards that he wasn’t about to go on a murdering spree. When they finally leave them alone again – as in, one of the guards takes a step back and keeps staring at Sean as if he could suddenly start spitting fire and kill everyone in the room – it’s way too late to recover something from the conversation. Sean cuts the visit short, and Karen leaves without complaining.

Sometime during the visit the wolf padded away, and now it’s looking at him from outside the visitor center, waiting.

Traitor.

*

He’s not like her. He’s not like her. He’s not like her.

(He sees Karen giving up her cherished freedom for their sake, in an attempt to make up for her mistakes. He sees himself giving up his freedom for his little brother, in an attempt to redeem himself for a long series of fuckups he inflicted on Daniel.)

He’s not like her.

*

Karen sends him an email the following day, while he’s still fuming at the idea that she could really show up after months of absence just to put herself at the center of the stage once more. He was sure she would try it, and he swore he would delete her latest fake apology without even opening it. That’s precisely the reason why he’s reading it right now.

Sean,

There’s something I didn’t get to say yesterday: it’s ok to hurt, and it’s ok to say you are hurting.

We humans are pitiful creatures. We picture ourselves as the heroes of our own stories, and we believe that we have to carry our burdens alone. We think that asking for help is a weakness, that the consequences of our actions are something we must deal with alone.

It isn’t, and we don’t.

Sean, you are not on your own in this fight. You have plenty of people around you who care for you and who will stand by your side, and you are allowed to ask for their help. Nobody expects you to deal with everything on your own.

I understand if you don’t trust me. I haven’t been a good mother, and a few weeks spent together can’t bridge a chasm of nine years, no matter how hard I try. But you know that I care for you, in my own deeply flawed way.

If I could bear this punishment you have chosen for yourself, I would. You don’t deserve it.

I understand a little better why you did what you did, however, even if I can’t agree with you. It seems that me and you will always be stuck in this little dance. I hope it will allow us to build something new, someday. But I beg you, Sean: be a little selfish right now. You can afford it.

You can afford to tell people what you want. I know you’re thinking “I want Daniel to be happy,” but that’s not true. Daniel can’t be happy if you let this pain claim you.

Be honest, with yourself and with others. Learn how to say what you want, starting from little things. “I want to hear your voice.” “I want five minutes alone.” “I want a hug.” “I want you to be honest with me.” Don’t expect others to guess your wishes and your needs. No matter how much someone loves you, sometimes they miss things that to you are obvious. Speak up. You’re a wolf. Howl, and your pack will be there for you, even when you think that you have nothing left to fight for – especially when you think that you have nothing left to fight for.

It’s easy to pretend that things don’t matter. I kept telling myself that it didn’t matter if you were in prison, so long as you were alive – so long as you had been able to make your own choice for yourself. I kept telling myself that you didn’t need to hear from me, that it would be too painful for you. The truth is that I was scared, and as you said, I am still a very selfish person.

And again, you have to stop trying to prove to yourself that you’re not me. You are a better person than I could ever dream of being.

You don’t have to answer this email. I know some things take time. Just promise me you’ll think about what I said.

I love you, son. I’m sorry I keep hurting you.

Mom

“Yeah, I’m sorry as well,” he snarls as he shuts down his Trulinc session and marches straight to work, even if he’s early for his shift. He must look really pissed off, because it’s the first time he’s ever seen people actually stepping out of his way.

You have to stop trying to prove to yourself that you’re not me.

There’s nothing he’s trying to prove, because he knows he’s better than her. He knows it.

He knows how to make things better. Yard track. Drawing. Studying. Working. But today he can’t focus on anything and he keeps making stupid mistakes. He couldn’t pace himself and had to stop before finishing his laps. He messed with Randy’s sketch so many times that he ruined it and had to throw it away (and Commissary paper is way too expensive to waste it like this). He tried his best to beat some sense into Sinusoidal Functions, but he came out of it with a headache and not much else to show for it. And now he’s trying his best to calculate where he’s supposed to cut into this damn plank, but all he can think about is how he’s definitely not trying to prove anything to anyone. Surely not to Karen, because he’s not like her.

Unlike her, he always put someone else first. Everything he did, the good and the bad shit, had all been for his brother. He gave up eighteen years of his life to see him free and safe. Daniel always was his first priority.

Like that time when he let him go to bed alone because he was pissed and he wanted to have a bit of fun at the campfire?

(Once.)

Like that time he tried to drag him out of Lisbeth’s church with barely an hello, like an unruly child, because Sean knew what was better for him and surely Daniel didn’t expect to be able make a decision on his own?

(...twice.)

Like that time he questioned him in front of Brett, because his little brother had always been an obnoxious little shit and he needed to make sure that it wasn’t really his fault before stepping in and playing Good Big Brother?

(Oh God please stop stop stop)

He tried. That has to count for something, right? Despite all of his mistakes, he always tried his best. And even if in the end he chose to leave Daniel, he… he did it for him.

Unlike her.

(He’s seven, he just woke up and he’s excited because Saturday is a movie day and he was promised they’d all go to the cinema together and watch Ratatouille, even if Mom was tired again. But when he runs to the kitchen he finds Dad slumped on the counter, staring into space. Maybe, if he had been just a little less insistent the day before…)

The wolf stays just out of reach as Sean feels all the sadness, the betrayal and the rage tied to a memory he thought he had buried in the deepest corner of his mind. Those things hurt, and he could call the wolf at his side, caress its soft fur and let it carry this pain in his stead, too. He could...

He could take all these feelings and stick them in a cardboard box to be forgotten in the basement of his heart. Pile it up over the others, the ones named Mom, Dad, Finn – the failures he doesn’t talk about – lock the door behind him and go on.

The wolf would help him. It would take the pain in its jaws and bring it away. It looks at him even now, patiently, and Sean knows why. The choice is his to make.

*

Once his shift is over, and once his supervisor has acknowledged how spectacularly he failed to meet his quota (Shit, Diaz, keep this up and you’ll be the poster boy for Trump 2020!), Sean decides he can skip his usual afternoon study session. He goes back to his cell, instead. Ricardo is out for his shift in the Commissary, so Sean has some time to himself.

He decides that it’s time to clean up the dusty room at the bottom of Sean-the-inmate.

He moves the small table right under the window, to get the most from the last bit of sunlight before sunset. He takes out his paper sheet and his drawing supplies, and takes a deep breath.

Time to take the pen, dude.

*

The first box is labeled Mom.

It has already been opened in the past, that’s why it lies on top of them all. It’s an ugly box, old and moldy, with the corners caved in because the first time he threw it on the ground and refused to touch it again for a very long time. There’s some dried blood near the flaps, where a younger Sean got hurt trying to poke inside.

Its contents have already been scrutinized. They smell of cigarette smoke and festered wounds, of anger and loss and despair. There’s a tiny question at the bottom, small and innocent like the boy who made it.

Dad? What did I do wrong?

“It’s not your fault, mijo,” Dad had said. Sean knows it’s true. Some things are just bigger than a seven-year-old and his belief that he is the center of the world. So he says it again to a seventeen-year-old who still hasn’t learned this lesson.

“It’s not your fault.”

He says it four times, with four different sketches of Mom.

She is sixteen, composed and collected – the perfect daughter Claire tried to mold her into, but her eyes are burning with a fiery desire to see new places. She is twenty, and she laughs as she runs hand in hand with Esteban, filling her soul with the freedom she had longed so much for, but still hungry for more. She is twenty-five, and Esteban is kneeling before a baby Sean moving his first steps, and Karen’s lips are frozen in a little smile as her eyes look forward again, still hungry, still burning. She is thirty-one as Esteban, Sean and tiny Daniel fade away behind her as she runs again, her hand offered to the wind. Still she hungers. The burning in her eyes is a flame that will never be quenched.

Abandonment. And yet, “It’s not your fault”.

*

The second box is labeled Dad. It’s sturdy and old, like a rock you could build a house on.

This one has already been opened, too, time and time again. It’s filled with regrets and unsaid things, too many I love yous that Sean-the-teenager was too dumb to realize he should have said when he had the chance. This one is easier to handle.

It smells like garage oil and the things inside rattle on the rhythm of a Santana song. God, he’s always hated Santana.

He knows what’s at the bottom of this box.

“Wish I had told you more.”

“You didn’t have to tell me. You showed me.”

Sean draws two people inside a house. The father is doing his taxes on the table, his teenage son is listening to music sprawled on the sofa. They don’t interact at all, two lives going on their own separate courses.

Then he adds dozens of small details.

Two pairs of running shoes near the door, next to each other. Framed photographs, where they smile at the camera, together with a little brother. Three Playbox controllers piled near the TV. Skis, ready to be stashed in the car for a family holiday. Three chairs around the kitchen counter. A bunch of DVDs on the shelf, all mixed together. Hot Dawg Man (Season 4). Wrenches and Bullets II. The Lady of the Shadowlands.

The son has his father’s lighter in his pocket. The father has the portrait his son drew him hanging in the room.

This drawing is luminous and happy. It’s so different from the stuff he’s done lately, and looking at it once it’s finished actually warms his heart. This is what he felt. This is how he should remember it. This is how he wants to remember it.

Silence. And yet, “You showed me.”

*

The third box is labeled Cassidy.

It’s a shiny box covered in purple crepe paper. There are dozens of small drawings on it, and together they tell a story of freedom and laughs in the wind. They also tell of sadness, of never truly belonging anywhere, of feeling stuck in a loop. It’s a bittersweet beauty.

The things inside (they smell of weed, of sweat on naked skin, of love) are just as bittersweet. Some of them are filled with senseless laughter, eternal joy and no regrets, but if you hold them just right you see the darkness beneath. He never wanted to stop long enough to truly see it. Now he does, he stops and takes a long look at what these memories really are. They are happiness, but fleeting, always changing. If they stopped moving they would wither and die.

The thing at the bottom is well hidden. Sean feels his cheek flush as he takes it out of its hiding place. It’s sweet and new and tender, but it’s filled with unease. It’s reaching for the stars, being handed the moon, and saying “sorry it sucked” once he falls back to the ground.

Now he remembers why all these happy things are hidden away.

She is a burning phoenix and she blinds the wolf with her radiance. Come with me, the wolf says, but the phoenix changes her course and leaves him behind. The wolf could run after her. Could howl. Could speak in the wind and let it carry his words. But the wolf doesn’t say anything, because he is afraid of not being enough. And if he is not enough, then the phoenix will leave him anyway and fly away, like his Mama Wolf did. So they look at each other as they part ways, and the wolf knows he’ll never see her again, because his fear will keep him trapped here forever.

“Sorry it sucked,” the wolf says. Sorry I’m a coward, he doesn’t say.

Worthlessness. And yet the wind brought back her words: “I’ll always be singing your song.”

*

The fourth box is labeled Finn. It lays overturned and half-smashed, because Sean kicked it in there and refused to touch it again.

It was a weathered box to begin with, held together by duct tape and strings. It was a box where, for a while, Sean Diaz kept more than just a bit of himself.

He didn’t really understand what it meant at the time.

It is filled with many tiny little gestures that are worth as much as treasures. They all hurt, but Sean keeps rummaging even if his fingers are scratched and he’s bleeding. They spoke so well to Sean-the-city-boy, and they echo in Sean even now.

They are all drenched in regrets, in could-have-beens that didn’t. He remembers the sharp pain that ended everything, the realization that when he had said no for his brother’s sake nobody had bothered to listen.

His pain takes shape before him. Shadows and darkness fill the white space as he relives it all, feeling like he had someone to hold on to and then having the ground disappear from beneath his feet. He tries to pour that into shapes, lines, chiaroscuro. He tries to convey all of that.

(Finn was supposed to be the one to know how the world worked. Finn was supposed to explain it to Sean, not the other way around.)

He draws Finn as he sees him now. A hunched shadow. Greed glistening in his eyes, a razor-sharp silver tongue, crooked fingers grasping Sean’s missing eye. But as much as he tries, as much as he wants this portrait to be his truth, there’s something off about it.

It’s another lie.

It’s taking a few tiles and forcing them to form a familiar shape that isn’t their own, just to spare him the trouble of looking deeper. It’s unfair, because no matter what he did, Finn was more than a missing eye and a missing brother. Was more than a stupid choice made out of… of…

We are so much more than the sum of our mistakes.

Finn was understanding, too. Finn was laughter. Finn was watching the sunrise together in silence. Finn was food, a place to stay, something to be part of, all offered without asking for anything in exchange.

Finn was a hand held out in welcome when the world had just punched Sean Diaz in the face one more time.

Sean adds another Finn in his drawing, mirroring his first one. He draws his warm smile, his keen eyes, his warm hands holding Sean’s beating heart.

“You’re just… selfish.”

He remembers saying those words and watching Finn crumble before him. He remembers not saying I would have given you everything of me if I could have. Take the eye, take the heart, take anything you want – but not my brother.

He remembers the sick joy of seeing Finn hurt as much as him.

Betrayal. And yet, “I am sorry... about everything.” Maybe, once the rage settles... maybe it will be something from where he can try to start again. Maybe Sean Diaz will be the one to hold out his hand in welcome, this time.

*

The fifth box is labeled Chris. Red and shiny, with stars and flashes drawn all over it in the unmistakable enthusiasm of a child.

This box he handled with care. There’s sound inside, the sickly sound of a car hitting a body. The sound of Sean’s guilt and the seed of Daniel’s rage. “Because of you... I didn’t do anything.”

It’s filled with dozens of copies of the same I’m sorry he never got to say.

He won’t get to say this one, either. A wolf trudges across his sheet, his shadow ominously long behind him. It’s not just his shadow, though. It’s alive, it moves and contorts and screams all the anguish of a thousand mistakes he won’t ever make right.

It’s thinking he’s doing the right thing, until it isn’t anymore, and others get hurt for his mistakes. The shadow grows and grows as he adds all his regrets, until the entire drawing is a black blot.

(Dad. Daniel. Lyla. Claire and Stephen. Chris. Cassidy. Even Mom.)

Failure. And yet there’s also an “I will be waiting for you!” scribbled in a letter, and the wolf trudges on.

*

The sixth box is labeled Mushroom.

It’s a tiny box, shiny and clean. It echoes with the happy bark of pure, unfiltered joy. It’s filled with uplifted spirits. But below all that there’s the usual darkness, another token of guilt.

It’s happiness being beaten out of you because you were too naive to truly understand the world around you.

(He shouldn’t have opened that door.)

This one is hard. He doesn’t quite know how to bring this out. How could...

(He sees himself in all the mirrors he crossed during last year, but he’s not ready to draw that.)

He begins to sketch Daniel.

First as he was in the motel. Clean, happy, still a child (“It’s a TV show” said before the noise coming from that motel door, because he deserved to be a child a little while longer). Then in Beaver Creek, with that stupid wolf mask painted on his face and the pained eyes of someone who has seen his best friend murdered before him. Then as he was in Humboldt, scary and angry – in so much pain, and Sean had been so fucking blind that he hadn’t seen it until it was too late. Then the Daniel that hugged him in their motel bed in Nevada, after that whole hell, crying and begging for a forgiveness Sean had already granted him the moment he had stepped out of the hospital. And, finally... Daniel that lies on the road next to him, freedom within reach and yet choosing to trust his big brother one last time (“You promise? For real, this time?”).

Innocence lost. It’s all in the eyes of five versions of his brother that look at him from the pages scattered on the table. And yet there’s also a game that needs no dice, so that they can still play it together when Daniel comes to visit.

*

The last box he didn’t expect to find.

It’s the oldest of them all, dusty and almost invisible in the darkness, hidden beneath all the others. It’s a well-made box, sturdy and locked. Its tag is faded and scratched, but it still reads Sean.

This one… he doesn’t know if he can open this one. He drags his finger on the lock. It comes away dusty. Where’s the key?

You don’t want to know, the wolf speaks with Sean’s voice. Haven’t you hurt enough? Live on. You don’t need the things inside. They will only tear out your heart and snuff your mind and spill your blood.

Sean looks at the other six boxes laying open around him. The darkness is not so dark anymore.

Can you deal with this on your own? Alone?

Can he?

He grabs the lock, and it shatters beneath his fingers.

The contents of the box are very still. There are dozens of puzzle tiles, all gray, all hazy. Sean picks a few up, and suddenly he remembers.

Guilt. On this tile there are lingering stares at Ellery’s bare chest after track practice. What would it feel like under his hand?

Envy. On this tile there’s Lyla hugging her mom at the park when she was nine. He hates it, and hated her. Why can’t he hug his own?

Anxiety. On this tile he’s looking at a selfie (uuugh) he’s spent two hours photoshopping for a new Facebook profile picture. What will people see?

There are dozens of tiles like these. Tiny little things he decided weren’t worth his time. Weren’t worth getting angry about. Tiny doubts nagging at the back of his mind that he grabbed and tossed away to be forgotten, to leave Sean Diaz a measure of peace in the very fragile self he was building for himself.

They are all pieces of a puzzle he forced to make fit even if it wasn’t supposed to, pieces he hid away to forget that they even existed in the first place, because accepting them would have meant to question the entire puzzle again. To undo everything and start again.

It takes a long time to sift through all the tiles. He doesn’t know yet how to use them, but maybe it’s enough to remember that they existed and they didn’t disappear.

Those pieces tell the story of a Sean Diaz that feels alone. Alone in thinking what a boy’s chest might feel like under a tender caress. Alone in being abandoned by his mother. Alone in seeing himself a certain way.

He draws himself.

His sixteen-years-old self, on the night he took Lyla to the Misty Mice concert – the night when he felt like he could be anything. Poor idiot.

Sean cries. He cries for that kid that will never get to experience all those things he talked about with his best friend – college, work, love – the same kid he killed so that Daniel wouldn’t have to kill his own. The kid who is alone on the paper, alone in thinking he still has bright days ahead of him. He wishes he could hug him and tell him... what, exactly? What can he tell that kid, so clueless of what the world is about to take from him?

“You won’t be alone,” he murmurs, drying his tears with the back of his hand.

Dad and Daniel take shape next to Sean. Then Lyla. Brody. That kind guy at the homeless shelter. Claire. Stephen. Chris. Cassidy. Finn. Penny and Hannah and Jacob and Anders and Ingrid. Joey. Anton. Karen. Sarah Lee. Joan and Stanley and Arthur and David. Diego and Carla. Heck, Agent Flores, too (I did what I could, Sean. I’m sorry it wasn’t enough. You’re a good man, don’t let them make you forget that).

Loneliness. And yet his drawing is full, if only he wants it to be.

*

He takes all the boxes upstairs. There are no more dark corners for monsters to grow from. No matter how hard he tried to forget, these things are all part of Sean Diaz – not the teenager, not the one who surrendered, not the inmate and not the one that felt whole but wasn’t.

He won’t hide them from himself any longer.

He forces himself up from the chair. The pain in his eye he expected, but he is surprised by the ache in his limbs – how long has he just kept on drawing? Enough for Ricardo to return to the cell, evidently. Sean didn’t even notice him coming in.

Ricardo seems to know there’s something going on with him, because while Sean picks up the aftermath of his sketching rampage he gives him as much as a wide berth as their cell allows. Which is not much, admittedly, but Sean is still able to appreciate the gesture. Even more, he appreciates the fact that Ricardo thinks enough of him that the idea of giving him space has crossed his mind at all.

Sean feels the need to say something to Ricardo to make him know that he is grateful. Something that isn’t dictated by the suffocating, unwritten rules that state how every interaction between inmates should play out. Just the sincere offer of an open hand, because he kinda misses how things were before their falling out.

He doesn’t want his relationship with Ricardo to end up in a new box. So…

“I’m sorry,” Sean says.

Ricardo, now lying on his top bunk, looks at him from above his issue of Collector’s Crosswords with an unspoken I beg your pardon? Or, well, Ricardo is way more likely to go with what the fuck, man? Still, that’s the idea. Dumbstruck surprise.

“For refusing your idea of starting a tattoo gig without explaining why,” Sean clarifies. He must begin somewhere, right? Ricardo doesn’t change his expression.

“Seriously, Sean? That was like, what, two months ago? It’s chill, güey. I was stupid to ask, it’s not my talent and it’s none of my business.”

He gets back to his magazine. Sean fidgets, because whatever he hoped to start with his apology wasn’t... well, this.

Ricardo drops his crosswords again.

“Sean? Are you alright?”

“When you asked me if I could start tattooing,” Sean begins, slow and careful. What he wants to say seems so logical in his head now that he has brought everything into the sunlight, but ugh, words are hard.

He must say this. He must explain the things he used to hide in the boxes. Someone else hid all her pain in boxes and forgot about it, and Sean is… is way too much like her to allow himself to do the same.

“I thought you had been blinded by the idea of easy money. I had a... friend, once, who thought he could make easy money with the help of my little brother. A kid of nine. I said no, he went behind my back and... well, my brother got shot and I got a charge for robbery. Plus, this.” He gestures at his eyepatch. “So yeah, man, not a big fan of easy money ideas.”

This isn’t like showing Ricardo the smooth pieces of himself that the wolf carefully brings to him. This is like tearing his shell apart and breaking his nails because it’s all hard and sharp and it hurts like hell when he tries to grasp what lies below. This is showing Ricardo a bloodied fragment that was a part of Sean Diaz once, somehow, in the desperate hope that he might help him explain how it all fit together, because Sean still has no fucking clue.

He brought out all the things he hid into boxes, but he still doesn’t know where to put them. All he knows is just that if he keeps his shell on, if he tries to slide back into Sean-the-inmate, he’s going to lose them all, again.

Ricardo throws his crosswords on his locker in the corner of the cell. “Mierda, güey, I... I’m sorry to hear about your brother. Is he...?” he makes a vague gesture with his fingers that Sean supposes means dead.

“Nah, he’s fine. He survived. Fast forward to the feds getting us, I pled guilty and kept him out of trouble. He’s the kid that comes visit every month.”

Ricardo jumps down from the bed and holds the other chair of the room between his hands, silently asking for permission to sit down. Sean nods and joins him. He forgot how good it feels to share your troubles with someone else.

“You’re right,” Ricardo says once he’s made himself comfortable on the chair. “When I saw your drawings I just thought ‘easy money’. I was furious you had the means to make this shitty life a little bit better, but refused to make anything out of it. I thought I could persuade you if I really tried... force you, if I had to. Then I realized that it was precisely this way of thinking that got me in here, and... I had to let go. So, thank you, Sean Diaz. You reminded me of the person I’m trying to be.”

Sean shrugs, not knowing what he is supposed to say in return to that. “Uh... you’re welcome, I guess? It’s not like I did much.”

Oh God, he’s so lame.

“Perhaps, but at least I didn’t blow my good behavior creds for nothing. Again.”

They begin sharing more with each other. Sean learns that Ricardo’s little girl is named Guadalupe, and his wife Mariana is having trouble looking after her in El Paso. He’s in for a bungled robbery (“As I said, easy money. ¡Mierda!”). He tries to be in their lives as much as he can, and fuck, Sean can understand his pain. They are two wolves that sometimes stumble in the same direction, trying to understand if sleeping and eating and hunting together is enough to be called a pack.

They talk all afternoon and all evening. They keep whispering even after the curfew. For the first time in forever, Sean feels a little bit at home, for real.

The wolf is nowhere to be seen.

*

In the end, Sean tells Ricardo all about his year on the run. Well, he doesn’t mention having a telekinetic brother, but it still is the most comprehensive summary of his trip he ever gave of his own accord.

Güey, from all this shit you could make... I don’t know, like, the best D&D campaign ever!”

That isn’t the reaction Sean expected. Still, he laughs – it comes deep from his stomach, shakes his chest, and it feels good and honest. “Nah, I don’t think it would make for a very interesting game. People would say that its characters made the dumbest decisions and that the plot went nowhere.”

Cállate, güey, you don’t know shit about running a campaign, so your opinion is worth exactly that: shit. Hey, on that note... some of the guys and I have a game going on twice a week. Wanna join? Just... try it, see if you like it. It’s fun, and a great way to vent.”

Sean hears the true offer. Ricardo wants to share more than just a den. He is offering to share the journey ahead.

He’s offering to be another face on his sketch, if Sean wants.

“I... think I’d like that. If your friends are cool with it, I mean. I never tried roleplaying before.”

Ricardo smiles at him, mouth and eyes and soul, perhaps for the first time. Then he furrows his brow.

“Sean... oye... do you mind if I share a piece of my mind with you?”

Suddenly they aren’t not-quite-a-pack anymore. Ricardo reverts back to the wary animal Sean first met in the cell.

“Of course. Fire away,” he says, trying to not look nervous. It’s not like their little not-quite-a-pack could splinter in a heartbeat and he could find himself alone again. It’s not like he’s ready to throw everything into a box if this should go somewhere he doesn’t like.

He feels the wolf step back into the cell as Ricardo takes a deep breath.

“Alright. Listen, first of all, I know that what I’m about to say is none of my business, ¿bueno? If at any point you want me to shut the fuck up, just say so and I’ll forget I even tried to start this conversation. No ill feelings on my part, I swear. I’m about to cross a line here, and you have to be fine with it.”

“Aaaaalright. That was the longest caveat I’ve ever heard since Dad gave me the talk.”

He freezes. He can’t believe he mentioned him like that, as if he’s good only as a backdrop for a joke. He should be way, way more respectful. It’s just that… talking with Ricardo feels like being… normal again. Sitting on the porch with Lyla, telling her everything about anything, making stupid jokes and... just having a good time, really. It tastes like freedom. Different from yard track, or studying, or working his ass off, or drawing, but just as sweet.

He wants to feel like that again, without heavy boxes to drag him down.

Sean forces himself to focus his attention on Ricardo. He has this look on his face, worry and determination and caution mashed together. He reminds Sean of Claire: someone who turned a switch inside him and is now a man on a mission.

“Sean. Uh. Güey, you have to… you really need to pull your shit together.”

Sean blinks. What?

“I mean, seriously. I’ve watched you these past few months. You’ve become a husk. You’re not in here anymore. Before yesterday, I didn’t think you were able to put more than four words together.” Ricardo looks like he’d rather be anywhere else, doing anything else, but he keeps going anyway. “You have to accept that this is your life, now. You can’t have the same thing you had before with your little brother. It hurts, I know, and I feel you, because sometimes I feel like I’m wasting in here and missing all the years of being a dad for Lupe, but the truth is... you have to keep going on. And you can’t just try to cut yourself off from everything, because it won’t work. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

Sean doesn’t know what to say. He’d like to say shut up and you don’t know shit and this is none of your business, or even do you expect people to get their shit together after you tell them “get your shit together?”. He doesn’t want to listen to Ricardo. He wants to tear down their little den to pieces and escape, because Ricardo is hitting too close to home and now Sean is sixteen and Dad has just been shot and he doesn’t know how to deal with everything and he never really knew how to deal with anything in his life, honestly. He could run away (again), ignore the stupid point for a while until it’s too late (again), but Ricardo is looking at him in this way that says I understand and the worst part is that he probably really does.

Ricardo looks like he sees a long line of Sean Diazes – some he met, some he got to know from Sean’s tale – and can point out the pieces that make up every one of them. The pieces they all have in common, because they’re all parts of the same person. He can help Sean understand where the things that were in the boxes are supposed to go, because he already took care of his own.

 “When I look at you,” Ricardo continues, “I see myself. The person I was when I first got here. I promised my daughter I wouldn’t make the same mistakes again.”

Sean doesn’t know how to do this. He only knows that it hurts now, that it will hurt later, and that he has no idea how all this hurting can have meaning. He’s taken the boxes up from the basement and all he wishes to do is drop everything and run away.

He thought he was done running. Turns out he’s been running for so long he’s forgotten how to stop.

“Alright, that’s it.” Ricardo jumps up from his chair and takes a few nervous steps around. Like, one-two-stop, because if he takes another one he’s going to bump into the wall. Or into Sean. “Longest fucking heart-to-heart of my entire life. I’m done. And you didn’t punch me, so I’d say it went well. Just... think about what I said?”

Ricardo’s shoulders are contracted in a tight line. Sean still doesn’t say anything, because he’s sure that the moment he opens his mouth he’s going to have to make a choice. This is the way he always processed things, after all, isn’t it? Ignore them, then cry about them, then do whatever shitty half-assed thing people suggest, just so they can get off his back. Learn nothing, stuff everything inside a box and throw it away as fast as possible, before the memories can take root and force him to change. Get back to the starting line, begin a new lap. Rinse and repeat.

You are a better person than I could ever dream of being.

Is he, though? The wolf is looking at him from outside the cell door. He could call it. Forget the pain. Get back to the starting line.

He grabs his sketches, instead, and offers them to Ricardo. “I think... I think I need help.”

And Ricardo takes them.

*

Ricardo stays silent for a long time. He checks Sean’s drawings one by one, leafing through them with uncharacteristically delicate hands. It’s like that time in Humboldt, when Cassidy stole a look at the true heart of Sean Diaz on a sketchbook page. This time, however, it’s Sean that has offered his true heart to be looked at, and somehow it makes all the difference in the world.

It doesn’t make it any easier to breathe, however. Every change in Ricardo’s expression is a judgement of Sean – of what he is, of what he feels, of how he exists. There are no shells to hide behind, now, no more things hidden in forgotten cardboard boxes, and Sean feels naked.

He put his heart on display, and now he’s terrified by what might happen. He really needs Ricardo to say that he likes what he sees. He really needs someone to say that he’s going the right way.

“I don’t know shit about art,” Ricardo says after a few minutes of careful study. “I can’t really tell you anything useful, sorry. I like them. But… this one, güey...”

He shows Sean the drawing he made of his own anguish over Chris’ accident. The lone wolf trudging through the snow, haunted by his shadow that has the shape of a thousand regrets.

Ricardo’s eyes have gone soft and unfocused, as if he’s busy taking out stuff from his own box.

“I look at it and I think este lobo soy yo. This is me. This is how I felt when I first landed in prison, and you... you just filled a sheet with it.”

Ricardo’s fingertips are now black with the graphite dust left behind by the crappy pencils Sean had to use. He gives the drawings back to Sean, careful not to ruin them with an unwanted fingerprint, and there’s this look of absolute wonder in his eyes that makes Sean feel like he finally did something right for the first time in a very long while.

Oye, güey... There’s this guy I know, the one who runs our D&D sessions... he’s in touch with this other guy from the University of Oregon who’s really into prisoner-made art. Organizes exhibitions and all that shit. You might wanna think about preparing something to show him. Who knows, maybe he will like them too.”

And then, of course, Ricardo has to ruin everything.

“No,” Sean growls, closing his fist.

“What?,” Ricardo looks genuinely puzzled. “Why not?”

Sean takes a deep breath and tries to focus on putting his drawings into words. Yesterday he would have put this anger into his own box, but now he can’t go back to that. Words. He needs words.

“This,” Sean says, slow and careful despite the fire burning in his head, “is me. It’s my pain. My fears. My sorrows. I’m not going to ask for permission to place them in a gallery where people can look at them and feel proud of how deep and understanding they are. Look, dear, I think this one means he regrets what he did. I’m not a curiosity they can fucking dissect whenever they feel bored.”

He’s the one to choose who gets to look at his sketchbook.

“Hey, güey, I didn’t mean it like...”

“Of course you didn’t,” and Sean is shocked by how much he wants to punch Ricardo in the face. To feel the nose shatter beneath his fist and the blood splatter on his knuckles and hear his shout of...

Sean shakes his head. What has gotten into him?

“Sean? I’m sorry. Seriously. I understand why you’re mad.”

And Ricardo has this eagerness about him, this sincerity in the way he acts – in how his right foot can’t stay still, in the way his hands twitch as if they want to reach out for Sean, in how eyes never seem to leave his face – that Sean can’t help but believe him.

“It’s your art, güey. You choose what to do with it.”

“I overreacted. It’s fine,” Sean says, but it’s another lie. He really felt all that rage at the thought of being nothing more than entertainment for people who know nothing about him, and he really wanted to take it out on Ricardo.

“Sean.”

Ricardo knows it’s a lie. It’s written in all the little gestures he’s making – how he looks away, how he inhales, how he starts drumming his fingers on the table. Sean takes a deep breath and tries to focus once again on putting his drawings into words.

“This is me. This is all I’ve left of me. I... care about these drawings. I don’t want to share them with just anyone.”

I don’t want to share them with people who will only look once and leave.

“Aw, Diaz, this is how you tell me I’m special to you?”

Sean half-heartedly swings that punch he wanted to throw before, in a gesture he already practiced dozens of times with Daniel. Ricardo ducks, laughing, but Sean sees what he’s really done: he’s given him an exit, if he wishes to take it. He could pretend it was all a joke, laugh and forget the reason for his anger and leave, throwing everything in a new box, but... this is not the road he wants to follow. So he stays, instead, and tries to make some order in the mess inside his thoughts.

“I know you didn’t mean to be rude,” he says. “Maybe I’m just not ready to share with everyone, yet.”

“But you want to be heard, don’t you?”

Sean makes a noncommittal shrug. He’s wanted to be heard ever since he first took a crayon in his hands. It’s one of the reasons why he misses Dad so much – Dad always made time to stop and look for what Sean truly wanted to say.

Dad was always there for him – If he asked.

“Seriously, güey, whatever you want to do... don’t keep everything bottled up inside. You’re going to burst, and it’s not going to be pretty. I can survive an angry punch. Your abuelita, on the other hand...”

“You don’t know her. My abuelita would totally kick both of our asses.”

But Ricardo is right. Sean-the-inmate cannot hold all the things he brought back from the basement. They belong to Sean Diaz, and Sean Diaz isn’t ready yet to find a new place for them on his own.

That doesn’t mean he can’t keep looking.

“Hey, man, thanks. For putting up with me and my mood swings.”

“We share a cell. If I strangled you in your sleep I wouldn’t know where to hide your corpse, so I might as well try to bear with you. Occasionally.”

There’s always something to laugh about when he talks with Ricardo, and right now he really can’t imagine where he would be without him.

(To be honest, he knows: locked in the basement, together with his cardboard boxes.)

He sighs again.

“You know... before all this, I kept promising my brother that one day I’d draw an entire comic for him. His adventures. These things I made are too personal, but... I might finally start working on that.”

Ricardo gives him another warm smile. “Don’t do it only for him, Sean. Do it for yourself, too.”

Sean doesn’t quite know what to say, so he says nothing. Ricardo punches his shoulder, light and slow, a smile on his lips.

The wolf is waiting outside their cell, napping peacefully on the floor.

*

Dialing the Reynolds’ phone number feels like putting in the codes to launch a nuclear missile. This is probably the part where President Diaz would look straight at the camera and whisper May God have mercy upon our souls, gentlemen.

He shakes his head. Focus. It took Ricardo a while to convince him to do this, and now...

Each ring is a new knot tying up his insides. His palm is damp, and his armpits are damp – ew, gross – and it feels way too hot and...

They pick up.

“Hi, bro!” Daniel’s nasal voice comes out of the handset flat and slurry, but obviously happy.

“Um, hey, Daniel. You don’t sound too good. Everything alright?”

“Yeah. Well, not really. Chris gave me the flu. I’ve been knocked out for an entire week! Being sick sucks.”

Of course. This is why he didn’t come visit. Not because he hated his brother who was too busy being an ass.

“You mean you had to skip school for an entire week? Oh, no, it must have been terrible!”

Daniel scoffs.

“Yeah, Grandma says that if I’m too sick to go to school then I’m too sick to play with the Playbox, too. And she actually met with Ms. Stroud to get my homework! Who even does that?”

“Someone worried that her wolf-nephew is going to start talking in growls instead of using English, I suppose.”

“Shut up!”

Sean smiles. This feels good, too, in a devastatingly heart-wrenching kind of way. It feels like they are right next to each other, sitting on a bench above the Nisqually, or lying together in Mom’s trailer in Away. Not divided by a hundred and fifty miles, eighteen years and a federal sentence.

“Sean? Can I ask you something?”

“Nu-uh. I’m not doing your homework for you, lazy wolf.”

“Pfft, as if you ever did.”

“Because I’m the very model of a good big brother, and I take my little brother’s education very seriously,” he laughs. Not because he could never bother to spare half an hour to help him. Is it normal that he regrets having missed those chances to spend some more time with him? He’s quite sure that any teenager would have behaved like he did, but to think about it now, after everything that happened... even the tedium of homework duty feels like something he should have enjoyed while he had the chance.

“Yeah, right. Sean... seriously... are you... alright? You’ve been acting weird, lately.”

Sean hesitates. Takes a breath, fails once more to find the right answer. He wants to lie, to keep him safe, but he also wants to lean on him and ask him for some strength, because right now he needs all the help he can get.

“Sean? You promised, remember?,” Daniel warns. “You promised you’d never lie to me ever again.”

Don’t keep everything bottled up inside.  

“I... I don’t know.”

He hears Daniel’s sharp inhale and he immediately regrets it. He isn’t... he shouldn’t burden him. He...

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I...,” he goes for the same truth he always told himself. “I wanted to protect you.”

“You asshole! Why are you always like this? You tell me what I should do and then you do the opposite, and it’s always I did it to protect you, Daniel. I’m sick of you being hurt for me!”

“Hey, enano...”

“Don’t enano me! You promised me, Sean. I’m not a little wolf anymore, remember? I can be strong, too, because you showed me how, time after time. You showed me that strength is fighting for the people you love even when they’ve been a dick to you. And you’ve been a massive dick lately.”

“I’m sorry, Daniel.”

“Yeah, you better be.”

Sean closes his eye and drops his head against the wall. He can feel the concrete scrape against his skin.

“So,” Daniel says after a short pause, “are you gonna tell me what’s wrong or what?”

“I’ve... been thinking,” Sean murmurs. This is going to be hard, even if witnessing Daniel act so mature makes him feel... strange.

“Uh-oh. Yeah, I can definitely see why that would be hard.”

Sean snorts before he can stop himself. “Listen now, you little...”

“Sorry, sorry. Keep going, please.”

Sean sighs. He feels like he just emptied his soul, too, along with his lungs.

“I... miss you so much, Daniel. I miss what we had, even when times were hard. So I thought... I thought that if I could just... forget about everything...”

“Dude!”

“I thought that if I could forget, I could stop the memories from hurting so much.”

“Sean...”

“But it’s getting better. A little bit, at least. I talked with Mom, a couple days ago, and it helped. And... I think I might have made a friend. He’s helping, too. I just don’t want you to worry about me, ok?”

“Of course I worry about you! I wish... I wish I could protect you like you did with me for all this time. You don’t deserve this. You shouldn’t have done this for me. I shouldn’t have let you do it for me.”

“Hey. This is the one choice I’ll never regret, you hear me? Never ever.”

“It’s all my fault if this happened. I’m... I’m sorry. If only I were... normal...”

“Dude, don’t even try to pull that shit.”

He can feel Daniel deflate on the other end of the line. He’s probably sinking on the couch, eyes closed, about to curl up on himself. His little brother is in pain, and this time he can’t run after him. He can’t sit down with him and laugh away whatever he’s dealing with right now. He can’t take a beating to keep him safe. This is the worst part of prison: he’ll always be somewhere else when he’s needed.

This is what Ricardo meant, isn’it? You can’t have the same thing you had before.

“What if I waste it, Sean?,” Daniel asks with the tiniest voice Sean’s ever heard. “What if you did all of this only for me to turn into a failure? What if you will have sacrificed eighteen years for nothing?”

Sean blinks. He never really thought of what impossible weight his decision had placed on his brother’s shoulders. He remembers the constant anxiety of never being good enough when he was the only person his brother could depend on. He did what he did so Daniel would never have to live with it. And now, just when he thought he had fixed his brother’s future...

"I don't care if you waste it all away, enano. I didn't do this because you were meant for great things. I did it because I think you still deserve a choice. No matter what you do... Be the person you want to be. Be yourself, Daniel. I am already proud of you, and nothing will ever change that. Ever. And if sometimes you just need someone to vent with, I will always be here for you... if you want me. I mean, it’s not like I can run away, right?”

Sean doesn’t tell him that he doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to do that. He doesn’t tell him that he’s terrified that he will begin lagging behind his life, lap after lap, and that by the time Daniel reaches the finishing line, Sean will be nothing more than a blurry spot in the distance.

He doesn’t tell him that he was only his rocket booster.

Daniel sniffs and takes a shaky breath. “Sean, that was so corny.”

“Yeah, probably. Who cares? I meant it.”

“I know. I’m... I’m glad you’re still with me despite everything.”

Daniel is patting him on the shoulder, because for now they are running side by side despite the distance. Sean doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be able to keep pace, but he is determined to make the best of every moment he still can. He can leave the rest to the wolf. That’s why he smirks and says, “Simba, I will always be with you.”

“Aaaaand you had to ruin everything, as usual. It’s not even an actual quote, you dumbass!”

“Alright, Swearwolf. Language! What would Captain Spirit say?”

“He would… oh! Hey, Grandma, Grandma! It’s Sean! Do… oh. Ok, I’ll ask and – yes, I’m fiiiine! No, not good enough for school... Hey bro, she wants to know if it’s ok for you two to have a chat.”

This is why he called, right?

“Yeah, definitely. But we’re not done yet, you hear me?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Sean takes a deep breath as Daniel passes the receiver to Claire.

“Sean?”

She sounds wary. It’s not like Sean could blame her.

“Hi, Claire. Um. I’m sorry for... yeah. Last time.”

He hears her sigh. He wants to believe she sounds relieved.

“How are you, honey?,” she asks, and her voice is arms held open for an awkward embrace.

“I’m... um. Not worse? I think.”

“You hold on, you hear? We’re coming to see you next Saturday – Daniel should be better by then. We’ve asked Charles to let Chris come with Daniel, too. You should see them together, Sean, they will warm your heart.”

Suddenly all that stuff he brought out of the boxes feels way too heavy for him to deal with. He wants to see Daniel and Chris playing together, but it would be just another reminder of how he’s no longer there to see it every day. Daniel was running next to him a moment ago, but now he is already a blurry spot on the horizon. He expected to be able to keep up for a little while, at least.

He isn’t.

“I...”

The wolf is still looking at him from the edge of the room. He’s there for him too, if he wishes. If he wanted to stop thinking. To stop worrying. To kick all that stuff back downstairs and lock the door behind him. To stop feeling.

“...I’m sorry, Claire. I can’t.”

He wishes he could understand his fucking emotions for five minutes straight. He wishes he could stop changing his mind every thirty seconds. He wishes he could make a decision instead of overthinking and then just going with what feels right in a panicked rush, afraid of running out of time.

He wishes he could be more like a rock and less like a feather. He wishes he could be more like Dad and less like Mom.

He keeps wishing for a lot of things that will never happen.

Deep down, Sean Diaz is still a scared kid trying his best to not fuck everything up, and usually failing spectacularly at that. Sean Diaz is a scared kid who runs and runs and runs, always ahead, never stopping to truly decide where he’s going, bouncing wherever the wind takes him despite his longing for a place to put down roots, and this time the wind is blowing right in his face, pushing him farther and farther away from everyone else.

Sean Diaz is a scared kid who wanted to capture perfect moments in his sketchbook and make them last forever, because all good things come to an end and he hated to see people walk away from his life and leave him on his own because he wasn’t good enough.

Sean Diaz is a scared kid who used to throw things he couldn’t understand into a box and bury it in the farthest reaches of his mind, where they couldn’t hurt him anymore.

But Sean Diaz is also someone who has decided that he’s gonna try being different. Being better. Not for his brother, but for himself.

Because Sean Diaz is someone who keeps telling himself he’s alone when he really isn’t.

“Sean, what’s the matter?” Claire is asking. Her arms are still open.

“I keep wishing for things to be different, even if I know it’s useless. I can’t move on. I’m stuck running the same laps over and over again.”

Claire takes her time before saying something. Sean can picture her, furrowed brow and lips set in a thin line, the same expression she made when she picked a difficult word to draw during their game nights.

“Sometimes you just need someone to force you to stare down the demons in your past. Someone who... who opens a door you kept shut for way too long.”

“Yeah, but after that? How do you move on knowing how much you fu- um... you messed things up?”

“You did the best you could.”

“It wasn’t enough.”

A dry chuckle comes from the receiver.

“Oh, honey, when you’ll be as old and gray as I am, you’ll understand that your best will never seem enough. Tell me, what would you do differently if you could turn back?”

That is easy. “I wouldn’t throw Daniel out of my bedroom. I would play with his stupid zombie blood, and he would be happy, and Dad would be alive, and I would have gone to that party and...”

“...and Chris would have fallen from his tree house and broken his back,” Claire adds, and it’s like a slap on his face. “And we would never have met Daniel or seen you again. You would never have reconnected with your mother, or met all the wonderful people Daniel told us about. I would never have tried to give my daughter a second chance, and Stephen would have broken his legs under the cupboard and never got to walk again. You would have never grown so close to your brother.”

It’s true. It’s all true. It’s hard to think all of it was worth the price, however.

“Sean, I’m not saying that losing your father was worth all of these things, but... don’t focus only on the bad things that happened, even if right now you feel that all you did was for nothing. Think of all the good you’ve done, too.”

He shakes his head. “Maybe. It’s not like it matters right now.”

“Of course it does.”

Another long pause. Sean sighs. “I’m sorry, Claire. I should have just waited for the police in Seattle. Or in Beaver Creek, so Chris would be alive and Daniel would still have a friend.”

“And who would have taught Daniel how to make the most of his gift, mh? Stephen and me? Chris?”

“I... I don’t see how...”

“You know we have our differences. But when I look at Daniel, and see how much he changed in these few months... you tried your best, and it was worth something, and it did some good. You made mistakes, and you’re paying for them way more harshly than anyone should expect you to, but you’re more than the mistakes you’ve made.”

Sean remembers Mom saying the same thing, and he would laugh right now if could remember how to do it. Instead, he decides to finally let Claire’s arms close around him and hold him tight.

“Hold on, Sean. We’re here for you, and we’re always going to be there for you. Happily. You’re not a burden. We’ll see you on Saturday, ok? And I’ll wait for your call, tomorrow.”

“Yeah. Thanks. For the pep talk, and for... everything you’re doing for us.”

“Anytime, Sean. Wait, don’t hang up yet – Daniel still has something to say.”

There’s a slight disturbance on the line, and Sean knows that phone is flying out of Claire’s hand into Daniel’s. Claire says something, but Sean can’t hear it over the static.

“You’re back with the cooler Diaz bro,” Daniel’s voice welcomes him again, and Sean is once again lying on a rock, looking over a setting sun.

“Yeah, you wish, dude. I’m the one who’s going to get a prison tattoo.”

WHAT? No fair! I want one too! Um... can we... can we get matching ones?”

Sean smiles. Maybe he can ask Ricardo to look for a tattooing machine for real, this time.

“You should ask Claire, Daniel. I’m sure she’d be thrilled.”

Daniel huffs in the receiver. “I know how to get Grandma to say ‘yes’, you know.”

“Yeah, like you did for your Playbox?”

“Oh, shut up! I did a few days ago! See, I was with Chris and I was floating a-”

“Daniel!”, Sean hisses, panic and anger distorting his voice in an ugly snarl. Reality crashes into their small dream, and he’s back in the phone room of FCI Sheridan, where every conversation is recorded and he really doesn’t want a bored guard to overhear Daniel boasting about his telekinesis.

“I – I was floating away! On a boat! Because... we went fishing! With Charles! And we... fell... in the river, and that is how we got cold and we… got the flu?”

Reality brings back the feeling of four concrete walls looming too close to let him breathe, and the knowledge that this easy banter with Daniel is just an illusion.

(He will never truly get his brother back, and Daniel will never get back the Sean he remembers.)

“Sean?”, Daniel asks, snapping him out of his reverie. He must get away from this feeling that he’s already made the wrong start in the race. That he has already begun to lag behind.

“Sorry, enano. I just... I’m tired. I’m sorry. It’s getting late. I should just go, ok? I’ll call you back tomorrow.”

There’s a long pause on the other end of the line.

“Maybe the big brother should remember that nothing could ever separate the wolf brothers from each other,” Daniel says, his voice firm and sure. “Nothing. Not even a cage.”

Sean shakes his head.

“I wish, enano… but their tale is over.”

“Is it?”

“It ended at the border, where the little wolf saw his brother breathe free for the last time. And where he grew into a true wolf, no longer a pup. He will go on to new adventures, but his brother… heh. He let the hunters take him, because he knew that it was the only way to save who they are.”

“No. His brother is in a cage, and has forgotten that he still has a whole pack waiting for him, with wolves and raccoons and dogs and cats and all kinds of animals. The big brother has forgotten that he can still howl, and that there are others who will always stop what they are doing to hear him. And when he finally comes out of his cage, the pack will welcome him, and they will all run together again.”

Daniel’s words are raw and angry. He bites in them, chews them, smashes them between his teeth before spitting them right out in Sean’s face. They furiously paint a dream that Sean can’t really afford.

“The young wolf doesn’t know that he and the pack will run far away in their adventures, and that when the big brother leaves the cage he will have to walk a long road before he can reach them again... if they will even remember to stop and wait for him.”

Go, little brother. Be happy. Perhaps he will manage to find his own way, too.

“The big brother doesn’t know that howls can travel very far. And he doesn’t understand that the bond with his brother will never break. And maybe he should listen to the young wolf for once, because the young wolf is very wise and the big brother has been way too fucking dumb lately.”

Sean opens his mouth to chastise Daniel, but he finds that he’s holding on his words with every ounce of strength he could muster. He really shouldn’t, but he needs to believe Daniel’s words.

So, maybe this is how their story truly ends. With a ten-year-old finally kicking some sense into him.

*

“...I surrendered to the Border Guard to make sure that my little brother could live the life of a free man, even if it meant that I’ll never see him again for eighteen years,” Sean says.

Except, it’s not really Sean that’s saying it. It’s Seanwise, the half-elf hunter who fled from the pogrom in Acabor carrying his little brother on his shoulders halfway across the world. He helped him as best as he could as his magic awakened, tried to teach him despite having no magical talent of his own, and then was forced to let himself be captured so that his brother could get away.

On the other side of the tavern table, Barbara the Barbarian gives a curt nod in understanding.

Sean has trouble picturing Brandon’s character as someone much different from him. The image in his head is one of Brandon with a braid and revealing leather skin-armor. Sexy barbarian princess, indeed.

Despite that, he can feel the lively tavern around him. He can hear the lewd songs from the bard in the corner, he can feel the heat of so many bodies pressed together, he can smell the smoke and the food and the spices. There’s so much life taking place inside his head, and all it takes for him to join in is to listen to the way Grigorj weaves their tale in the common room.

“I put my hand on Seanwise’s shoulder and squeeze,” Brandon says, doing the same in the real world. Sean tries to not wince as a hand the size of a dustbin lid lands on said shoulder.

“Ooof. Do I have to roll a save on constitution to see if my shoulder is still in one piece?”

“No, but Seanwise’s wolf growls at you, Barbara,” Grigorj says from behind the wall of scribbled notes and half-stricken records that makes up his DM throne. “It doesn’t appreciate you manhandling – womanhandling? barbarianhandling? – its owner.”

“I’m not his owner,” Sean interjects, because this is something that matters a lot to Seanwise. “He’s a free spirit.”

Vamos, güey, sabes lo que entiende,” Ricardo huffs, only to receive an angry look from Jackson, sitting next to him. “Again? I thought we said no elfic when you’re not in character!”

“Seriously, dude, get a fucking dictionary. By now even your teeny tiny brain should have absorbed enough Spanish to make sense of what he says” – this comes from Alexander, on the other side of the table.

Jackson doesn’t back down. “Uh... immersion, please? It’s elfic!”

“Yeah, yeah... just fucking learn it and stop being a sore ass,” Alex grunts.

“Fuck off, Alex.”

Despite the angry words, they are all relaxed in their seats. What Sean gets from the whole exchange is a feeling of warm routine, as if he’s watching something that has already been played time and time again, and this time he’s being offered the chance to partake in it.

He thought he was a lone wolf, but then he found an unexpected companion in Ricardo, and now Ricardo has led him to an entire pack of not-so-lost souls, all walking in the same direction.

And he is really enjoying this. It’s the same feeling he had in that motel in Oregon, at his grandparents’ house in Beaver’s Creek, at the camp in Humboldt, in Away. It’s a warmth in his heart, a lightness in his mind.

It’s the hope that tomorrow will be better.

“The tavern’s door bursts open. THUD!” Grigorj goes on, and everyone immediately drops the argument as the story resumes. “A massive figure hurries inside, and the patrons turn their heads to look at the newcomer as the cold winter air cuts through the room. Yet nobody complains, because as soon as his fur cloak comes off, everybody recognizes Vargas Orcsbane, Captain of the Black Banner Company.

The Captain is a hard-looking man. He looks fifty winters old, with short cropped hair and a beard perfectly trimmed in this season’s Radonian fashion, despite the spartan reality of a military camp in the ass-end of nowhere. Two large scars adorn his face, one going from his right temple to the right corner of his mouth, and the other tracing a line across his left cheek. He steps in the room with the quiet confidence of a man who never has to shout to make himself heard. The crowd parts to let him pass, and his steps bring him to your table.”

“’sup, boss,” Barbara welcomes him, lifting her tankard.

The Captain raises a single eyebrow. Barbara doesn’t seem to notice as she gulps down her beer.

“I am told you wish to join my outfit,” he says in his crisp Radonian cadence – which sounds suspiciously like British English, Sean notices.

“My wolf snorts and raises his head.”

The Captain sighs. “I am told you two want to join my outfit,” he corrects himself. You don’t miss his frown. This is not a man who takes kindly to being told he’s wrong.

“I was told that the pay is good. I liked the sound of that.”

Seanwise has learned that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and has way fewer scruples than Sean ever did. Seanwise can take care of himself.

Perhaps Seanwise would have made it to Mexico.

“An elf after my own heart. I hope you can earn your denarii, young blood. This whole campaign is falling apart, and I have no patience for deadweights in my own ranks,” the Captain booms, his gaze hard and unflinching.

“Relax, boss, he’s good. Met him as he jumped three highwaymen that were busy trying to sneak up on him on the road from Ulan. Poor bastards never saw him coming.”

That had happened right after Ricardo had walked him through d20s and sneak attacks and critical damage before their session. Sean had felt so stupidly proud in going through his initial encounter on his own, before the party could even get in position to help him.

Playing with Daniel had forced him to get really good at throwing dice, after all.

“Hmm. What is your opinion of them, then, Your Highness?”

Barbara shrugs.

“I like him, but I see much pain in them, cap’n. In the pup and in his wild pet both.”

“Mmm. A word of advice, then, kid. If you sign up, you must surrender your past.”

Seanwise bristles at being called “kid”, but he has learned when to fight and when to let things slide over. “I’m not surrendering my brother. He’s not a discarded sock to be left behind and forgotten.”

(Like his hoodie. Mended and patched and stitched together even as it falls apart, because he can’t leave it behind like everything else. In the end they took it away from him, too.)

“He’s safe, isn’t he?”, the Captain asks. You see a flash of compassion in his eyes, but it vanishes so fast that you’re not sure if you’ve just imagined it.

“We lived side by side for ten years, and now he’s gone. He might be safe, but it’s not the same fucking thing at all,” Seanwise growls, because here he doesn’t have to keep everything bottled up, and it feels good.

“I know the pain of leaving someone behind for their own good,” Barbara comments, quiet and unusually somber. Even the Captain drops his head in sympathy. “It’s something that eats at your insides day after day.”

“You wonder if you could have done something, anything, differently,” Jackson adds, even if Maakim the rogue isn’t even supposed to be in the tavern. Nobody calls him out on this.

“You wonder if it all came down to a single choice,” Ricardo whispers. “If that was all that took to change your life forever.”

Seanwise nods, speechless. Sean has shown them a little bit of his drawing, and now they are all pointing out the pieces of themselves they see on the page. They are offering to help him understand it a little better, a little more easily. They are offering to help him see the Sean Diaz that takes shape from the lines on the paper.

Barbara downs the last contents in her tankard. “What I’ve come to learn is... some of us must bear the burden of graver choices than most. Some of us are born to trudge in the mud, so that others may safely walk on our shoulders.”

Sean’s head jerks forward as he gives Brandon a totally unsubtle double-take. Did he just hear a six-feet-nine convict quote Ariana Simard’s Siege at Moorkorn?

Grigorj doesn’t leave him the time to be surprised. The Captain sighs. “The Black Banner Company has a special place for the lost, the wayward and the broken. However... you must let go of what cannot be anymore, young elf, or it will destroy you. Treasure it for what it was, but don’t let it drag you down.” And then, “You are not your brother, and your brother is not you. You both have your own path to follow. One day, they will cross again, but today… today is yours alone.”

They are just stupid words, said around a stupid game. They shouldn’t go through Seanwise so effortlessly and hit Sean Diaz right where he’s been hurting for so long. They have no right to ring so true.

Sean looks away, because he doesn’t want his not-quite-packmates to notice how deeply those words have touched him. “Maybe,” he says.

You can’t have the same thing you had before, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have anything at all. Daniel is safe, now. Sean must trust him, and trust Claire, and Stephen, and Chris, and everybody else. They will be there for Daniel when Sean won’t be able to.

As for himself… maybe (maybe) there really are others willing to run with him. People who, despite all, will slow down to let him catch up, no matter how long it will take. People who will still want him in their lives even if he has nothing new to say. Not because they pity him, but because they know him as well as he knows himself, and they get him, silences and all. They value Sean Diaz, and are happy to just spend some time in silence with him, keeping him company while he draws. Or while they all play a game of D&D.

Sean can’t wait to hear back from Lyla once he emails her with this latest development in his exciting inmate life. She will say something along the lines of “OMG I always knew you were that kind of neeeerd” and he will need to have a cool enough comeback ready.

The wolf in the corner of the room keeps slumbering on the floor, calm and peaceful. Sean knows that it won’t stay there much longer. Any day, now, it’s going to leave. There are no more memories he wants to keep away. It hurts, sometimes, but he no longer needs its help. The pain is part of what they mean, reminding him that the finishing line isn’t the same where he started.

“You have the vote of a respected member of this Company. You are free to join, if such is your wish. So I ask you, Seanwise of Acabor: what do you truly seek with us?”

Sean ponders. What do he and Seanwise seek, if they can’t have their brothers back? Release? Peace? Serenity?

No.

“I seek my own story,” Sean finally says. “I seek to know who I am.”

“That,” Grigorj smiles, warm and joyful – a smile echoed across the room – “we can all help you with.”

For now it’s enough.

There’s nothing left to hold him back, and Sean Diaz is finally ready to howl. This time, others will echo him.

It feels good to be free.

It feels good to be.

 

You dug up your old bird, and you held her to your chest as I breathed life back into her lungs
And she blinked and flapped her wings, she sang a familiar song
Before she took to the air and cut a path into the woods

And then I cried, because all my life I have known something was off
But you just shrugged and said: "it ain't just you"

Slipping on the pavement where we ran from the ghosts that you saw behind the cellar door
That's the way that you showed me that I wasn't quite alone
That you'd also touched the dead before

(Radical Face – Secrets)

 

. * . * . * .

 

When a dear friend of mine recommended this comic, I thought that he did it out of our love of cheesy, over-the-top, so-bad-it’s-good action flicks. On the cover of Superwolf’s first issue a wolf prevents an out-of-control schoolbus from running off road thanks to its... telekinetic powers? It seemed like such an absurd premise that I decided to dive into it during my boring flight back home for Christmas, expecting maybe half an hour of mindless fun at the expense of logic and good taste.

Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Superwolf’s main character is a young shapeshifter who, yes, finds out he has telekinetic powers. I expected it to be the start of a multi-issue rampage where bad guys are thrown out of windows and our hero finds fame and fortune, but it wasn’t. Superwolf is one of the most touching coming of age stories that I’ve ever read.

It deals with self-acceptance, pain, family. Racism and bigotry and love. Power and hopelessness. With the beauty and the horror that we harbor inside our hearts. But most of all, it is a story about losing people who are dear to us, living with the loss, and realizing that they never truly leave us. It is a story about human resilience.

I was already halfway through the third issue before I consciously realized that, as I followed the everyday adventures of an endearingly geeky shapeshifter, I was stopping every few pages to think about my life. My choices. My story. As our young hero-to-be was trying to find his way between the chaos of human relationships and the freedom promised to his feral self by the call of the wilds, I was brought back to an autumn day of many years ago, when I was faced with a similarly impossible choice. The consequences of that choice haunt me to this very day.

For the first time in my life, I felt like I was having a conversation with someone who understood what I went through.

One of the most common questions I’m asked is an age-old one: what makes art art? My answer is: sharing. Art means that a story penned by a Latinx inmate in an Oregon federal prison resonates so much with a pretentious New York photographer that it leaves her sobbing uncontrollably among the passengers of her Boeing, because that story is as much about herself – her self-acceptance, her pain, her family, her loss, her endurance – as it is about a fictional shapeshifter that saves schoolbuses from crashing.

Art is a comic issue holding my hand and telling me “you’re not as alone as you thought”.

I like to think of myself as a young woman who learned to appreciate the world thanks to the lens of a Polaroid. I have no qualifications to tell you why the story is good. I can talk to you about the composition of the panels, how many of them are so good they look like photos I would take, and I’m going to do that later, because I feel the need to tell the entire world “please, read this story”. Give it a chance to surprise you as it did me. Because deep down in my heart there’s still a lonely little girl that takes pictures at a world she doesn’t really understand, in the hope of figuring it out – in the hope that someone will stop, look at the picture with her, and be kind enough to explain how everything fits together in this weird thing that is life. Today I found someone else doing the same through the drawings on a page, and I can’t really express what it means for that lonely little girl.

Warren, you’re an asshole for not telling me what I was going up against. As someone I never got to know again would have said, this story is hella cool.

Sean Diaz... thank you, from the bottom of my soul. You helped me find a bit of peace about a decision I never truly came to terms with. I thought I was alone with my grief, that I had nobody to turn to, and then I found your comic. I heard your howl in the night, and from today I’m howling with you.

Maxine Caulfield (b. 1995) is an emerging photographer based in New York City. Winner of the 2013 Everyday Hero Prize, Max (as she prefers to be called) is known for her candid shots of common people…