phantastus: (in the forests of the night)
phantastus ([personal profile] phantastus) wrote2012-09-16 10:57 pm

WRITING: Gravity (Chapter 3)



Title: GRAVITY
Chapter: 3 (Growing Pains and Runaways)
Author: [personal profile] phantastus
Fandom: Silent Hill
Rating: PG
Genre: Horror/Drama
Main characters: James Sunderland, Laura
Summary: Well, that sucked. Waking up after the vicious fight, James finds himself dealing with another contender: a curious onlooker who is very interested in finding out why he helped her back in the bar.
Notes: Chapter 2 of my ongoing, obscenely long SH2 fanfic. Set directly after the Leave Ending, but contains heavy implications of In Water. The fic is mirrored over here along with eight subsequent chapters, but I will be posting the most up-to-date edits here for the time being.
This story was initially written (and is still in progress) for NaNoWriMo 2009.
Disclaimer/Warnings: In keeping with the source material, this fanfic depicts events and situations that may be considered violent or cruel. This chapter includes concepts such as:

-written descriptions of physical wounds
-creepy dream violence
-strong language
-discussion of murder
-casual, childish use of the word 'retard'.
-gross metaphors involving dead things and bodily fluids
-more butt jokes


Please read at your own risk.


If you do decide to read it anyway: Please enjoy some appropriate auditory stimulation.



Chapter 3: Growing Pains and Runaways





To say that he was dreaming would be inaccurate.

Being knocked out wasn't like being asleep, even if it resulted in more or less the same comatose state.

The dark and restless thoughts that ran through his head like little mice skittering up and over and in and out of the gaps in a rock wall were not dreams so much as memories. Or memories of memories. Or maybe they weren't memories at all, and his brain just thought they were. The images flickered across the inside of his eyelids so quickly that he could hardly make sense of them before they were gone, like a videotape on fast-forward. All of it was accompanied by a strange, twisting sensation like his whole body was twined around a fast clock, inching round and round in tiny little circles.

If he'd been awake, the feeling would have made him nauseous.

But he wasn't awake, so all it did was add further confusion to the mess of images and muffled sounds that were streaming through his brain like coding running across a computer screen during reboot.

And then suddenly it was a dream.

There was water around his ankles and an endless, ever-present drip-drip-dripping echoing in his ears. He was down in the old prison— a cold, wet underground maze of stone tunnels and empty cells that had once housed Civil War criminals but now served as the basement of the popular Silent Hill Historical Society. He had gone there with Mary once, during their sightseeing. Of course, it hadn't looked like this then.

The Red Pyramid Thing was nearby. James hadn't seen him, but in dreams, you just knew these things.

He couldn't afford to stay here long.

James climbed up a metal ladder that had conveniently manifested next to him when he wasn't looking, gliding up it with far less effort than he'd expended scurrying laboriously up and down them in real life. When he reached the top, it was into daylight.

Well, Otherworld daylight, which was to say that it was just kind of light
er.

It was odd for one mere ladder's-length to have taken him to the surface, since the Labyrinth was so far underground, but dream-James didn't question it. He also didn't question why he had somehow wound up in Rosewater Park, which was all the way across town from the Historical Society. Perhaps the tunnels stretched further than he'd thought.

There was a woman standing next to a long-abandoned hot dog cart and gazing out over the lake. She had bleach-blond hair with raspberry-red tips and wore a glossy pink skirt decorated with leopard-print and a string of gold coins that clinked and jingled every time she moved.

He was too far away to hear the noise they made— he just knew that was what they sounded like.

Not noticing that he'd completely skipped the process of climbing up out of the hole in the ground, he walked swiftly towards her, eventually breaking into a jog.

James knew it was Maria, but his dream self happily exclaimed
"Mary!" anyway.

But as she turned to face him, he was alarmed to discover that it wasn't Maria
or Mary at all!

"Oh, it's
you," came the dreary reply from the young black-haired woman in a cream-colored turtleneck and red-orange trousers. That was very odd. How could he possibly have mistaken those for Maria's skirt? They didn't look anything alike.

"Oh— sorry, Angela, I thought you were Mary," dream-James explained apologetically.

Angela rolled her shoulders in one of those moody shrugs, not meeting his eyes. Hers had shadows under them that were purple and had veins like spider-legs. James shifted in place awkwardly. He did not dislike Angela, but she did make him uncomfortable He had never before thought he'd ever meet someone who was even worse at making conversation than
he was.

"... So... hey, how did you get out of that fire?" asked dream-James, remembering the one-room inferno in the remains of Lakeview Hotel. Angela did not answer. Instead, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the knife. Dream-James watched her curiously and inquired, "What are you doing?" even though he already knew.

She continued not to answer, and instead lashed out to dig the blade deep into his face, right between his eyes. She pulled it out, then thrust it straight back in, this time into his cheek. There was no blood, even though he could feel it digging into his skin and twisting around, rearranging flesh and bone. This was very strange. Angela was a little odd, but she hadn't done
that before. James recoiled, but Angela followed.

"Ow! Angela,
stop it. That really hurts!" he said reproachfully, but for some reason he could not lift his arms to fend the knife off. This resulted in him standing there rather stupidly, unable to think of any other real way to make her stop stabbing him in the face, since she obviously wasn't listening to his honest, straightforward, and (in his opinion, but then again, he was crazy, so maybe he was wrong) perfectly reasonable request.

She was now wearing a very out-of-character grin, one that would look far more at home on a much younger and more mischievous girl than it would on her eerily-aged face. James didn't understand why, so he glared at her as she continued to dig the knife into the sensitive areas of flesh under his eyes, as though scraping at soil in search of some rare treasure.

He could feel ribbons of flesh hanging away from his face like slippery strips of bacon.

"Angela,
stop. I don't like this. You're hurting me!" he protested, starting to worry that if she kept on stabbing him so close to his eyeballs, she might hit his brain and then he'd die.

... But wait. She had given that knife to him not long after he had entered the town, and he'd
kept it. Kept it until the very end, when he had thrown it off the observation deck. How did she have it now?

Dreams have a tendency to abruptly end once the dreamer realizes how little sense any of it makes.

The mismatched dream of patchwork, out-of-order memories dissolved and James Sunderland was suddenly, jarringly awake and aware of several things all at once: that he was lying on top of something crinkly and oily-feeling, that his nostrils were so plugged that he'd have had more of a chance of inhaling through his ears than through his nose, that every inch of him ached profoundly, and that he was very, very cold, to name a few.

But more than anything else, he was aware that something hard and slightly sharp was digging into the pouchy, tender flesh under his left eye and wiggling around. It hurt.

"... Hnnnnnnhg. Sh- ... shtp. Sto-ohp. Shtop. Nnn!"

Making his lips form words was distinctly harder in real life than it had been in his dream. There was a whole process to it. First he had to make them form the letter-shapes, and then he had to somehow summon the energy to make his vocal cords work, and all in the scant amount of time he had before his lips forgot what they were doing and went back to being useless and rubbery again.

The mumbled pleas went unnoticed.

His head had mysteriously gotten heavier since the last time he'd paid any attention to it and it now weighed approximately as much as a large bowling ball. One of those big custom ones that were probably made mainly for men who were trying to compensate for something. Like maybe the fact that they liked bowling.

It wouldn't move, no matter what he did to it. He tried lifting it, but in addition to being a bowling ball now, it was also apparently magnetically attached to whatever he was lying on. He tried again to move it by arching and rolling his shoulders, but all that did was send a lightning bolt of agony up and down his spine and he crumpled back down again with a whimper.

"Shtoppit..."

Finally, he lifted an arm (which had that clunky, disembodied feeling of a limb not yet woken) and groped blindly around in front of his face until his hand encountered something.

After everything he'd been through, he was expecting the sticky, decaying flesh of a monstrous arm, or maybe the giant, rusted expanse of the other blade he had taken from its rightful owner once.

Instead, his tingling fingers bumped loosely into something narrow and wrapped in soft fabric. It jerked away from his hand as though burned.

James blinked. He wasn't sure how he'd managed to do that without first opening his eyes, but it was definitely a blink.

Huh?

When he finally did manage to crack his eyelids open, he was expecting blinding light. When none came, he let out a slight sigh of relief and started to wipe away the hair and unraveled bandages that had slipped partially down over his eyes.

The relief disappeared as soon as he saw what was in front of him. James let out a mildly-startled gurgle and jerked backwards, his previously-uncooperative body suddenly gaining mobility.

"Oh," said Laura, sounding a little disappointed and withdrawing her arm, which was holding a stick, delicately stripped of its leaves after having clearly been picked up from the forest's edge. "I thought you were dead."

It took a few seconds for James's mouth to catch up and sync with his brain. When it finally did, it was still a little too wobbly to talk right.

"... Luh-laura..." It came out sounding more like 'Law-rah', which immediately got a wrinkled nose from the girl.

"It's Lore-ruh. Duh. You got it right before, what, did ya forget it already? Huh?" she said challengingly, putting her hands on her hips. James winced. That was right. Everything was a fight with Laura.

Not answering right away, he grimaced as he finally unlocked his elbows and tried to push himself into a sitting position. Most of his head wished that he hadn't. There was a painful throbbing in his temples and in those spots at the inner corners of his eyes, on either side of the bridge of his nose. Sinuses? Was that what those were called? James didn't know. It hurt like hell and that was about all he could drag himself into caring about for the moment.

He groaned and leaned back until his back encountered something solid to lean against. Then, pressing a hand to his head, he eased against the wall behind him and looked around.

It was dark out now. Not quite the pitch-black of nighttime, but the still-clouded sky was in the process of deepening from a stormy-gray to a dark indigo. Behind Laura was a smallish building made of gray brick, with a padlocked door marked 'Employees Only'. Probably some sort of storage room. Behind that, the back parking lot, bare except for a dirty white Jeep sitting in a parking spot also marked for employees, stretched out until it met forest in a jumble of unkempt curb and weeds.

The crinkly, slippery stuff he'd been lying on proved to be a small bed of plastic trash bags, half full of something that smelled— so strongly that even through his plugged nostrils, he could taste it— like dead things and expired mayonnaise. Underneath that was a set of wooden crate lids, apparently placed there to make it as uncomfortable as possible for him. This makeshift bed was nestled between a trio of trash cans and a small dumpster, all overflowing with garbage from the bar.

At least James figured that was what the building whose wall he was currently leaning on was. It wouldn't make much sense for him to have woken up outside of somewhere else. Like... if he had randomly woken up in the back parking lot of a carwash instead. That would have been pretty weird.

Or maybe if he'd woken up back in Silent Hill, lying in that alley outside of Heaven's Night, with that tiny little gap that Laura had squeezed through to escape his (or Maria's? Had she even been able to see Maria?) pursuit, and that door that Maria was reaching down into her boots for the keys to, rolling her eyes at him as he shuffled around impatiently behind her, taking a lot longer than she wanted to notice the way the taut pink fabric outlined her b—

"Hey!"

Laura's indignant voice cut into his thoughts and he snorted awake, not even having realized that he'd slumped and dozed off again for a few seconds. Straightening up again and refocusing his eyes on the girl with some difficulty, he took a few snuffly breaths.

Then, carefully making himself go slowly to ensure he pronounced it right, he said, "Laura."

She didn't look entirely satisfied, but she sniffed haughtily and stuck the stick she'd been poking him with under one arm.

"Hmph. Took you long enough!"

"Sorry..." was the only real response that James's banged-up, overtaxed brain could come up with. He rested his shoulders against the wall and his arms on his knees, regarding Laura with some wariness through his hair and the useless bandages that were starting to slide down over his eyes again.

Somehow, he'd expected her to be a lot ... meaner. Not that she was being nice right now, but this was Laura's default level of mean. Which, coming from her, was practically the same as smiling and holding the door for somebody. He had heard her talking to others like this, others who hadn't done anything to her at all. So where were the words he deserved? She knew what he'd done. Why wasn't she telling him how much she hated him? How much she wanted him to give Mary back?

Seemingly not bothered by his reluctance to speak, or aware of how confused he was by her behavior, Laura went on.

"Anyway. Yeah, so I thought you were dead 'cause you weren't moving a whole lot and also you kinda look like roadkill."

"I feel like roadkill," James mumbled thickly, lifting his hands to his face and starting to peel the bandages from his brow. They weren't doing anything now except getting in the way of his vision and hurting where they stuck to the wound they had previously been binding. What had happened? Had he seriously gotten so drunk that he'd passed out and been dumped outside? His stomach sank as Mary's face floated once again in front of his mind's eye.

Here he was, not more than a day fresh of confronting the truth and trying to atone, and he'd already screwed up.

"I saw a lotta roadkill on my way here. I had to walk for miles and miles and there was tons of it. Like possums and skunks." She leaned to one side and regarded him with a critical eye from this new vantage point, her hair dangling downwards at a perfect right angle from her head. "But you look more like panda roadkill."

James swallowed hard and shut his eyes, not entirely sure that 'roadkill' was the word he wanted to be hearing over and over when he was feeling this close to being sick. Not to mention, 'panda roadkill' was a combination of words that made so little sense to him right now that it was almost like one of those standardized test questions about word association that had always left him stumped.

You know, the sort that went like "shark is to ecosystem as astronaut is to _________" or "hatchet is to snowball as Oompa Loompa is to __________" or something.

"Hnnn... why panda roa— ah! Ah!"

His question died and turned into a yelp halfway through the sentence as he unwittingly tried to rub his eyes and in doing so rediscovered his shiners in the worst way possible.

Oh. That kind of panda.

Poking at the tender flesh only made it hurt even more, so his only choice was to lower his hands again and pray for the smarting to pass quickly.

"Yeah. Roadkill panda," said Laura matter-of-factly, looking a little too pleased with herself for coming up with that description. "... Hey, I just thought of a joke. Wanna hear it?"

... No?

"Sure," said James weakly, not daring to speak his mind. He had enough aches and pains already without Laura deciding to stop her bewildering 'nice' streak and going back to doing things like kicking or stomping on him.

"What's black and white and red all over?"

James had never been big on jokes, but even he knew that lame pun.

"A newspaper?" he offered croakily, dragging one knee to his chest at a snail's pace. Any quicker sent pangs of pain through his whole body.

Judging by the look she was giving him, that was not only the incorrect answer, it was quite possibly THE most incorrect answer in the entire universe. Laura's face was good at expressing such extremes.

"No, stupid. Gosh. Guess again."

"I give up. What is it?" James sighed, wishing that every word he spoke would stop sending painful little vibrations through his skull. She'd better not say roadkill panda.

"You!"

"... Aha, ha," James said, making a weak attempt at sounding amused. It... really was not funny at all, at least to him, but at least she hadn't—

"And roadkill panda," she quickly amended, as though reading his thoughts. James winced as something in the general region of his stomach lurched unpleasantly. Never mind.

"Ha ha hnn."

He didn't have the energy to pull of feigning amusement for more than a few seconds at a time, so he fell silent again, trying to rake some of his hair out of his eyes, still puzzling over just what had happened to make him feel this way.

... Wait. Red all over?

Hadn't he spent a good twenty minutes or so cleaning himself up in that dreary rest-stop before going to the bar?

Suddenly he remembered the unusually non-functioning state of his nostrils. Sure enough, after a pause and an experimental attempt at inhaling, he encountered only a dull pain and that uncomfortable sensation you got when you reached the bottom of a milk carton and your straw attached itself to it mid-suck.

Oh, no...

Experimentally poking his tongue out to explore his upper lip, James let out an unhappy hiss when the first thing it found was an all-too-familiar coppery taste. Further prodding with his fingers only confirmed it: most of his lower face was encrusted thickly with dried blood. He didn't need to see his reflection now to know that Laura's description was disturbingly apt.

She had fallen silent, just watching him slowly work his way towards realizing that he'd been missing some important details the whole time. Putting her stick aside, she sat down on the wet asphalt (it wouldn't have surprised James if it had started to drizzle at some point while he was out here, it would explain why he felt so chilled), evidently not caring if her burr-covered dress got damp. And then, as though reading his mind again, smugly stated, "I told you."

He was a little too preoccupied making sure he wasn't missing any limbs to feel indignance at the remark. Now that he was sitting up and aware of his surroundings, he could tell that there were a few profound differences between the way he felt now and the way he'd felt entering the pub. And he'd felt pretty lousy then, so this was kind of a big deal.

A whole side of his face felt a lot more tender than it should have and his gut ached like it had been the landing pad for a parachuteless skydiver. Both throbbed painfully every time he breathed in, so he winced, folding an arm over his middle gingerly and touching his fingers to his cheek, as though the touch would somehow help.

For some reason the worst of it all, he thought to himself in a sort of detached, irritated way, was that he could have saved himself a lot of time if he'd skipped all that effort spent in front of the rest-stop mirror and just showed up at the bar looking like he'd just been put through a meat-grinder. Mopping himself up and then getting immediately smeared all over the floor again was just adding insult to injury.

"I — ugh, what..."

Halfway through the mumbled start of his question, some loose wire or other connected in his head and the details started to trickle back in. It was a slow process, like trying to drizzle cold maple syrup out of a bottle. But at least it was coming back.

He remembered the dark bar, shadowy figures with stark outlines of yellow and neon pink, and seeing— well, hearing more than seeing, she'd made a rather dramatic entrance— Laura come in and get scolded by the tender...

He groaned and lifted both hands to his temples, trying to warm up that syrup so that it would flow a little faster.

Laura had planted her chin in the palms of her hands and was watching with curiosity.

"What're you doing? You look constipated."

"Shh," James hissed irritably, before he could stop himself. He didn't want to be distracted. He was sick of not remembering important things.

She'd gone to the payphones... maybe to call for a ride. And he'd gotten up and given her the money. ... NO. No, that wasn't right. He'd hardly even made it out of his seat. Someone big and dark. Not good... but who...?

And then, like some hideous, water-bloated corpse floating up to the surface of a dark pond, that awful gravelly voice ran through his head and made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

"You don't wanna be a bad little girl, do ya, Missy?"

Suddenly feeling sicker at the memory of those words than he ever had at 'roadkill panda', James let out a quiet moan and let his hands slide back down to his knees again. Now he could remember. It was fuzzy and jumbled, and once it got to the part where he'd actually taken action and gone running into that burning building of a situation, it degenerated into little more than a reddish haze of pain and yelling, but he could remember.

The last few maple-syrup-droplet details hadn't trickled in yet— they were suspended at the lip of the bottle and taking their sweet time about falling. Although it was a little weird now, thinking of these memories as syrup. Syrup was a nice word, golden and sweet. Remembering Mary was like maple syrup.

Remembering this was like remembering that foul drink he'd been given in there, which had gotten gritty on the bottom like hot chocolate left to sit long enough to grow film on the top. ... Except instead of chocolate, it was blood.

Yes, that was it. The memories weren't dripping like maple syrup, they were dripping like the blood-soaked goop that was clogging his nose and dangling unpleasantly in slimy, foul-tasting ropes down the back of his throat no matter how hard he tried to clear it.

But before he had a chance to congratulate himself on having officially come up with an analogy that was even grosser than 'roadkill panda', Laura's voice cut in again. It was appropriately snotty.

"You look sick. Are you gonna throw up? 'Cause if you are, you'd better not do it on me."

James wearily lifted his head again to meet Laura's bright blue gaze, which bored into his own dull, bloodshot one angrily. He was pretty sure that the power of Laura's glare had the strength to kill insects and very small mammals if she ever did it hard enough. Letting out a rattly cough that somehow made him feel even sicker, he spoke up again.

"Laura, I—"

Something about those eyes jogged one of those memories loose and he remembered seeing her pale, shocked face staring at him through the forest of legs and waving arms as he and her attacker had fallen, and he remembered hearing her scream at the top of her lungs as Todd reached for her with those monstrous, gorilla-like arms...

Eyes widening, he sat up straight.

"L-Laura!"

She did not look impressed. "Geez, okay, I get it. You know how to pronounce my name. You don't hafta say it a billion times. Gosh."

James ignored the jabs. One way or another, he'd gotten knocked out during the fight, and that meant there was a whole span of time—possibly a very long one— during which anything could have happened, and he wouldn't have been able to lift a hand in his own defense, much less hers. The thought sent chills through his whole body.

"That man in there— he didn't... hurt you, did he?"

She had already been opening her mouth, prepared to give some sort of smart-alecky remark to whatever question he had been about to ask. Knowing her, she'd probably already anticipated what she judged to be a few likely ones and had come up with appropriately-bratty responses to each of them.

But apparently the one he ended up asking was not one she expected to hear, because her brows popped up in surprise and she stared at him, mouth slightly agape. It only lasted a second before her face slipped back into the angry, challenging expression it always wore.

"No!" she snapped, raising her voice indignantly. But as she did so, something in James's tired brain (that was still alert, despite the rest of him feeling like it could easily curl back up on this foul-smelling, uncomfortable bed and fall asleep right there) noted that she'd quickly withdrawn her hand behind her back. The same one that had jerked away reflexively when he'd bumped it earlier. But everything in Laura's stance, even sitting down, positively dared any possible opponent to challenge her words, so he didn't say anything. It wasn't an argument he'd be able to win. She glared evenly at him and added, "And I wasn't scared, either!"

"I didn't say you were," James mumbled, now remembering that at one point, Todd's enormous fingers had closed briefly around the little girl's wrist. That must have been it...

"No, but you were gonna," Laura said accusingly, though she relaxed somewhat when she saw that he didn't plan on arguing back. Still, just to make sure, she added, "I'm not scared of anything," with such confidence that he almost believed her.

And he might have, if he hadn't seen her terrified tears, or wasn't still hearing echoes of that blood-curdling scream coming from a dying Mary's mouth reverberate through his mind, unbidden.

But overall, she seemed all right. She was giving him roughly the same amount of lip he'd come to expect from her, and aside from a sore wrist, she looked all right. So he didn't probe further and instead sat there for an awkward moment, licking distractedly at the blood on his lip while he thought about something.

"... Laura?" he asked tentatively after a time, inadvertently repeating her name again.

"Hmm?" came the nonchalant response. She had been feigning indifference, evidently still offended by his concern.

"Could you tell me what... happened back there?"

"Huh?" Laura squinted, tilting her head again. "You don't remember? You musta got hit pretty hard, huh?"

"N-no, I remember, it's just—" He ran his fingers up over the back of his neck and through his hair, wincing when they encountered a nasty lump that was probably a consolation prize from whatever had knocked him out. "... fuzzy..."

"... Ya know," Laura said brightly after a moment's thought. "I heard that sometimes when you get hit real hard on the head, you can get brain damage."

She sounded far more excited about this possibility than any nice, normal little girl should have, at least in James's opinion. Part of him had to wonder just what Mary had seen in her.

"Brain damage?" he echoed weakly, not really wanting to think about that possibility. Especially since he'd taken more than a few blows to the head in Silent Hill, before Todd had ever gotten his meaty paws on him.

"Yeah!"

She climbed to her feet again and leaned in towards him, turning her head this way and that. Feeling uncomfortably like he was a slab of meat— or maybe trapped in customs at the airport while security guards ran their metal-detecting wands all over him— James just held still and hoped that she wasn't selecting another target to jab with her stick.

"Hmmm," she hummed thoughtfully to herself, leaning to the side so that she could stare intently at his left ear. "... I can't really tell." There was a brief pause before she puffed up again, determined, and commanded officiously, "Say 'Peter Pepper picked a peck of pickled peppers'."

Utterly nonplussed, James actually started to say it without even thinking. "Peter Pi— ... wait, what? Why?"

She smoothed out her dress and sat down again, putting her hands on her hips and letting out an exaggerated sigh of exasperation.

"So we can see if you have brain damage, duh!"

James rolled the blood-spotted bandages that had been lying unattractively in his lap into a ball and stared at Laura to see if she was serious.

She was.

He sighed.

"Hhnnn... Okay. Peter Piper pi— ... picked a pack—"

"Peck," Laura corrected.

"Whatever..." Oh god, his head hurt so damn much... "A peck of... peppered— ... what was it again?"

"Well, if you can't even remember it, you've GOTTA have brain damage," Laura scoffed derisively.

James frowned.

Then, trying to ignore the stabbing pains behind his eyeballs long enough to muster up a deep breath, he tried again.

"Peter Piper picked a peck of pip— p- ... po-..."

Okay, never mind. Fine. Just. Fine. He felt like he'd been run over by a tractor and his stomach hurt and his head felt like it was about to burst and also the reek of whatever was in the bags had almost certainly rubbed off on him by now. Fine. The list of things already wrong with him could only be improved by the scribbled addition of brain damage on top of it.

Laura snickered openly at the tight-lipped, frustrated frown that had appeared on his face, but also nodded and hummed to herself again. She stroked her chin. "Well... I guess with someone else, that'd mean they were brain-damaged... but that kinda just sounded like the way you talk all the time. So I guess you're probably all right."

"... Um." James wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or insulted. He decided on 'relieved', because he didn't actually have the energy to feel insulted right now. "Thanks..."

... What had he even been asking her to begin with? ... Oh. Right.

"Laura, could you just... tell me what happened?"

Her amusement fading instantly, she met his gaze again with lidded eyes. And then proceeded to not say anything.

James stared back helplessly for a moment or two before a few slightly older memories began to trickle in, late to the party. They weren't a whole lot more pleasant than the ones he'd just dredged up of the fight in the bar. Like most of their meetings, his encounter with Laura at Brookhaven Hospital had ended in disaster. One thing that James had never claimed to be good with was children, and he'd blown it, big-time.

He had tried, honestly tried, to be the responsible adult in the situation. But he hadn't had to deal with any eight-year-old girls since he'd been eight himself, back when they were little more than strange, slightly-fascinating creatures that nonetheless had cooties and were therefore things to run away from and maybe shoot spitwads at.

It had just figured that the first place he'd wind up stuck interacting with one again would be in a ghostly town full of monsters.

Of course, at that point, he hadn't known that she was the one person among them who had only seen a quiet, but otherwise perfectly-normal little town, hence why she'd only stared u at him like he'd just told her that the sky was (contrary to popular belief) green when he had spread his hands and tried to sound stern and authoritative.

"This is no place for a kid!" he had said. "There're all sorts of strange things around here... I can't believe you haven't even gotten a
scratch on you!"

"Why
should I?" she'd asked in her usual snotty tone as he'd tried to gently usher her towards the door. And knowing what he knew now, he supposed he couldn't blame her. He must have sounded pretty crazy, barging into what had been (to her eyes) a nice, sterile hospital room (one that she probably hadn't been supposed to be hiding in, but that was another story entirely) and exclaiming his surprise that she hadn't been hurt.

And right after he'd snapped at her just seconds before, too... Now that he thought of it, that little outburst had probably been the reason she'd done what followed in the first place...

As they had walked down the dark hallway, she had trailed behind him slightly, only to suddenly cry out "Wait, wait!" and grab onto his arm.

James, who had been on the alert even more now that he had a little girl in tow, a little girl who would surely need to be protected if there were any creatures lurking ahead in the shadows behind the rusty doors and wet tarps that covered the walls of his vision of the hospital, had startled and looked over his shoulder.
Now what?

"There's something I gotta get!" she had insisted, tugging on his sleeve.

Brows furrowing, he had tried to turn back in the direction they had been moving.

"Later, okay?" he'd said, impatiently. Maria was waiting and he didn't want to stay in this place any longer than he had to. They had come in here searching for Laura to begin with, and now that he'd found her, all he really wanted to do was take them both and leave to continue the search for the person he'd REALLY come to this town to find.

But her grip didn't loosen and she gave his arm such a yank that he actually stumbled backwards a little, not having expected such a twiggy little girl to have that kind of strength.

"But it's
really important!"

Heaving a sigh, he had relented and turned back to face her. "All right, what is it?"

He'd quickly been growing irritated, and had been having a hard time not letting it show. But he'd seen the way she'd gone still and cautious after he'd yelled at her earlier and he didn't want that to happen again. He'd gone through too much just to
find her without having to immediately watch her devilishly slip away again through some gap he couldn't fit through.

However, the answer she gave changed his tune in an instant, and it wasn't until much later that he'd realized she had probably known it would, and had picked it for just that reason.

"A letter from Mary."

James's heart had leaped in his throat. He leaned down slightly, thinking for a moment that he must not have heard her correctly.

"Huh?!"

"I wanna go get it. Is that okay?" As usual, the question wasn't so much genuinely asking permission as it was making a grudging, exasperated attempt at being polite. Or maybe it had just been sarcastic.

"Yes! Yes!" he'd said urgently, his heart pounding. Could it be true?

Of course not.

It was never that easy, as he'd soon found out.

She had taken off at a brisk jog, and for a second he'd been a little worried that she was about to run away again. But instead of booking it down the hallway with a wave and one of her signature mocking laughs (and if she'd been any older, James was sure she'd have added flipping the bird to her arsenal of insulting victory gestures), she had halted at a set of double-doors, which she unlocked and tugged open.

"Come on, hurry up!"

"Is it in there?" he had asked, hardly daring to breathe as he drew up to the door and peered inside briefly before looking to her for clarification.

She nodded and pointed into the darkness.

"Yeah, in the back."

The room was pitch black inside. There were no windows or lamps— nothing to provide light of any kind, natural or artificial. Not that there was a whole lot of light outside anyway. Only the meager light from the hall and his own flashlight, which were hardly enough to pierce the darkness. None of the electricity in this place seemed to work— he'd wasted far too much time earlier groping around uselessly for nonexistent light switches to bother doing it now.

Instead, he leaned into the doorway and peered around tentatively before unhooking the flashlight from his pocket and holding it out in front of him as he stepped inside. It made little difference aside from casting long shadows that could easily have belonged to any number of unfriendly things that lived in this decrepit old hospital, but he continued anyway, pointing the beam of light around at the various desks and skeletal shelves that lined the sides of the room. The lure of seeing Mary's letter was too great.

He did not stop to question why it would be in a locked back-room of some hospital neither he nor Mary had ever been to before, one that he was only in
now because Laura had run into it to escape him earlier.

An odd shuffling noise behind him made him pause and peer over his shoulder.

"... What are you doing, Laura?" he had asked, starting to get the first worrisome inklings that there was something wrong. Her silhouette, dark against relative light of the hall, paused, her hand on the door-handle. Then she had bent her knees and begun to swing lightly back and forth, hanging off of the handle childishly.

"It's— further back, in the desk!"

He had frowned, but had ignored his brief unease. He should have questioned that uncharacteristic pause in her voice. If he had thought to, maybe the entire episode could have been avoided. But no. He had turned around once more to approach the desk squatting in the back of the room, moving cautiously in case any spidery hands came darting out from underneath it in search of ankles to grab.

As it turned out, hypothetical spider-claws were now the least of his worries.

An explosive, rattling SLAM from behind him made him nearly jump out of his skin and, suddenly, the pitiful beam of his flashlight was the only thing granting visibility. Whipping around to face the door, James's heart plummeted into his stomach when he found it to be absolutely, undeniably
closed.

"Laura!"

Stumbling over loose tiles and other debris, he had run back to the door and grabbed for the handle, which refused to turn. Locked. It was locked. She had
locked him in.

"What are you
doing?!"

Slightly muffled by the barrier between them, he heard her voice ring out from the other side.

"Ha, ha! I tricked you!"

She had. And he, like a gullible idiot, had fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.

Forcing his voice to sound commanding so that he could mask the creeping sense of dread that was starting to overtake him, James pressed against the door and growled, "
Open the door, Laura..."

"Why should I?" she said smugly, all the fake acquiescence that she had forced (probably with extreme reluctance) into her voice before gone now that she had the upper hand in what she undoubtedly perceived as some kind of power struggle. "I'm a
liar, right?"

There it was, the word he had hollered accusingly at her in a brief flare of temper. She had backed away when he'd risen his voce and he had felt terrible for it instantly, but the damage had clearly been done. In that pause, she had probably come up with her entire plan. She'd never intended to come with him at all.

Gritting his teeth, he had raised his fist in preparation to pound on the door, but a sound from behind him made his voice die in his throat. He turned around to look over his shoulder into the darkness fearfully. It was not the sound of a door closing or the mocking laugh of a precocious little girl.

No, it was a sort of muffled humming noise. A combination of the monotonous growl of a hungry stomach and that weird, muted quality that sounds had when you were listening to them from underwater.

Still keeping himself pressed to the door, he scanned the room with his flashlight, heart hammering in his throat. But apart from the furniture and scattered rubble, there was nothing. Nothing that should be making that sort of noise...

All the while, Laura was talking from the other side of the door, tauntingly, barely able to restrain her glee at having once more been able to get the better of a grown man.

"Want me to open it? Huh? Huh?
Do ya?"

He was hardly listening. That sound hadn't stopped, and it was only growing louder, sending all the hairs along the back of his neck ... but where was it
coming from?! Hardly daring to breathe, he raised the flashlight's beam up across the far wall and towards the ceiling—

James's trapped-bird heart skipped a beat. And then it came back full-force as his whole frame stiffened, drawing itself upwards in alarm. Keeping the flashlight pointed up and not daring to take his eyes away from what it revealed, he reached behind him to tap frantically on the door.

Oblivious to the danger she had placed him in with what was, from her perspective, a harmless prank, Laura continued to needle him from the other side.

"What's the magic word?"

A dangling pair of bony, withered feet that were the color and consistency of something that had decayed in swamp water twitched spastically in the light of the beam, causing the rickety structure they hung from to rattle. Little flakes of rust and dust and what looked like old scabs drifted downwards from the joints, lighting up like neon in the beam of the flashlight.

Pulling in a panicked gasp of breath, James intensified his tapping.

There was a vaporous wheeze and a clank of metal as what seemed like an upright bed-frame came swinging down from where it had been clinging to the ceiling, the feet kicking out jerkily from where they were suspended. They stuck out at grotesque, off-kilter angles from what looked like a fleshy, moldering body-bag.

"Laur-
rah!" he grated out urgently, his voice lowering out of nothing but a pathetic, futile wish that maybe if he didn't make a whole lot of noise, the thing wouldn't notice him. But it was useless. He could tell that it already had.

"... Okay," she said in a sing-song voice. "I guess I won't open it. I think I'll just
leave you like this."

There was a guttural gnashing of fleshy lips from somewhere directly over his head as another one came crawling vertically from a hole to the next floor up, inching its way straight downwards on the strength of nothing but its long, eerily flexible toes.

Finally succumbing to the panic, James pounded sharply on the door, his voice rising to an angry holler. It was hard to be diplomatic when you were close to pissing yourself from sheer, unadulterated terror.

"You snotty little BRAT!
OPEN UP!"

No sooner had the words left his mouth than he could tell by the brief, shocked silence from the other side of the door that he had just said the wrong thing.

When Laura finally found her voice, it was choked with outrage.

"Why— you- ... YOU!"

The rusty frames clanked as they swung from their hanging points, turning ever so slightly to face him, even though the bundled bodies hanging on them had no eyes to see him with.

The things here in Silent Hill didn't
need eyes.

"Laura!" he had gasped out, shrinking pathetically against the door like a dog trying to escape a beating. But he knew it wouldn't do any good now.

The last word from Laura he heard was an angry squeal of "You fartface!" before her feet pitter-pattered away from the door and down the hall, leaving him very much alone.

No sooner than her footsteps had faded, a pair of cold, clammy feet had clamped themselves with astonishing force and dexterity around his neck, drawing him upwards until his own feet could no longer touch the floor, no matter how hard he kicked. The flashlight fell from his thrashing hand and went out when it hit the floor, plunging everything into darkness...


It took a considerable amount of time spent staring pitifully at the girl, who only stared back, apparently determined not to make a peep on the subject of what happened (if only to spite him), before a few of her specific words from that unpleasant encounter came floating back to him.

The magic word...

He coughed and drew himself up slightly, brows peaked and hands clasped under her accusing gaze, which he met straight on, forcing himself not to look away. Then he tried again, a note of genuine pleading in his voice.

"Laura... please?"

She still didn't say anything right away. Scrunching up her nose, she gave him a good, long stare, as if trying to figure out whether he meant it or not. Then she huffed and straightened out her dress again, officiously.

"Well, I guess I can tell you what happened. If you really don't remember."

"Please!" he said again, relieved.

After fussing a bit with her hair and the general messy state of her clothing, Laura finally launched into her tale. And James listened. Because to be entirely honest, he had a feeling that if he'd listened to her all along in the first place... well. Maybe certain things wouldn't have happened. Bad things.

"Well first of all, I had to walk foreeeeever to get to this nasty ol' place. I have a million blisters on my feet." She paused there, looking him over dubiously. Then she started to reach down for her shoes. "Wanna see 'em?"

"Er—um," James said awkwardly. He wasn't really sure what was sadder: the fact that he'd been beaten up and dumped in a pub parking lot where he was now listening to a little girl talk about her blisters, or the fact that she'd actually had to take a moment to decide whether or not he was worthy of seeing them. "Maybe later."

She stopped halfway through pulling off one of the shoes, looking a little disappointed.

"... All right, fine. Anyway. I needed a phone. So I went inside, and then Genie was all like—"

"Genie? Who's Genie?" James couldn't help but interrupt, baffled.

"Huh? Oh, that bald guy. I dunno his name."

"... So... then why'd you call him...?"

She put her hands on her hips impatiently, snapping, "Because he was bald and had earrings, so he looked like a genie! Duh. Do ya want me to tell you what happened or not?"

Suitably chastised, James folded his hands and leaned back against the wall again. "Sorry..."

"Hmph. Anyway, so Genie was all like—" She tugged on her face to simulate... either jowls or old-people wrinkles— James wasn't actually sure, as the bartender hadn't had much of either— and tried to make her voice deeper. "Uh-duuuuuuhhh, like, no kids allowed!' So I told him I needed a phone."

"Yeah, I remember tha—"

"Shut up, I'm telling you the story! So I went to the phones, but I didn't have any money. And then..."

She trailed off for a moment. At first James thought she was just collecting her thoughts, but when the silence stretched onwards, he started to have doubts. She was biting her lip. Despite the way she treated him, he couldn't help but feel a pang of sympathy, because he understood her hesitation. The sicklights had chilled him to the bone, and he was a grown man.

As usual with her, the pause didn't last too long before she continued the story in the same pace and tone, though he did not use a funny voice for Todd. It was as though inhabiting the mindset of the hulking trucker for any space of time, even if it was just an eight-year-old's comprehension of whatever might have been going through his head, was too much even for her.

"And there as this gross old man with a dead-dog beard, and he told me HE'D give me money, but he didn't wanna just give it like a normal person, he wanted me to KISS him. Every month at the home, the Sisters make us watch a dumb ol' video tape about how if anyone ever wants tells you to do stuff like that you hafta run and get a grownup right away, but he WAS a grownup and I really needed a quarter, so I just told him that was gross and I wouldn't do that, because he was a butt-kisser and didn't wanna put my face on a butt-beard. And... and then he started makin' fun of me."

There was a dark scowl on her face that, for once, actually made James feel somewhat relieved. If she was angry about it, she couldn't be too traumatized, right? ... But then he remembered that he often got angry when he was afraid, and didn't feel so relieved anymore. The doubts were only confirmed when she turned her gaze down to her lap and spoke in a defiant, but unusually small voice.

"... It wasn't fair."

Swallowing, James decided to interject quickly.

"I remember that part. You can— uh, you can skip over it if you want."

Straightening up again, she shrugged but also nodded, confirming his theory. If she'd felt perfectly comfortable talking about words that man had uttered to her in that dimly-lit corner, she'd have gone on through the entire story no matter what James remembered.

"Yeah, well..." Her brows furrowed. "Then you showed up."

Her voice alone was proof that she had not expected him. Hell, she probably hadn't even seen him hunched there at the counter when she'd walked into the bar. Much less ever thought that he, the one who had taken her best friend from her, would even entertain the possibility of sticking his neck out on her behalf.

But the topic of the fight, apparently, was enough to end her brief vulnerable moment, because she stood up, enthusiasm returning to her voice.

"And he was all like— BLUUARARRRAAAAAAGH, and you were like..." She stopped talking and just made a face of extreme concentration, jaw set grimly. It might have been a weird sort of compliment if she hadn't also been giving herself buck-teeth and crossing her eyes. "And then you both fell on the floor and he socked you in the face, and you flew like... twenty feet away!"

The theatrical retelling continued, with the occasional unflattering sound effect and more than enough absurd-looking interpretive impressions of what he had looked like while he was spinning the table leg around. He wasn't sure he recalled any part of the fight during which he had pirouetted like a ballerina, but he didn't say anything because in demonstrating that part, Laura proved beyond doubt that she could kick very high and he didn't want to provoke her.

"—and there was blood spraying eeeeverywhere. I thought your brain was falling out of your nose."

... And there were also more than enough gross-out details that made his insides squirm. In hindsight, maybe putting alcohol (especially the mystery-meat stuff that he'd been given) into an empty stomach really hadn't been such a good idea.

But exaggerated or not, it was working. As she spoke, the details were coming back more clearly. That didn't stop some of them from being new information, though.

"And then Genie came up behind you and smashed a big green bottle on your head. Right there." Apparently unwilling to get too close to him now that he was awake, she indicated a spot on the back of her own skull. The demonstration was not necessary. He could feel where he'd been hit, both from the unpleasant lump that had swollen up back there and the throbbing radiating from the spot. He had to force himself not to touch it— it would need ice eventually. Hopefully only ice.

Now that he thought of it, he could vaguely recall staring upwards and seeing the bartender's face swimming hazily somewhere above him.

The bartender, who had refused to help Laura.

And, apparently, finally stepped in to stop the fight by hitting HIM and not the pervert.

"... That bastard," he growled under his breath, forgetting temporarily whose company he was in, only to remember an instant later and look guiltily over at Laura. "Er— I mean— sorry. Don't repeat that."

She paused in her tale, looking at him with lidded eyes.

"Don't repeat what?"

Unprepared for that question, the easy way out of just blowing it off and saying 'never mind' didn't even occur to him. He just stammered, "I— ... er, I just said a bad word. Which I... shouldn't have said in front of you. And um... well. Yeah."

Trying to pull together a coherent sentence with words that actually had substance to them was a lot harder than it normally was. If he wasn't already sure that he was crazy anyway, he might seriously have given some thought to the 'brain damage' theory.

"Oh, is that all?" she scoffed, turning her chin up. "I already know what that means."

James blinked.

"... You do?" he asked, unable to prevent a bit of skepticism from creeping into his voice. He didn't remember the exact age at which he'd started learning all the forbidden words— it had been fairly early, on account of many of his neighbors having no concept of a brain-to-mouth filter. But Laura still said things like 'fartface', which he was pretty sure would have fallen out of favor long ago if she had an arsenal of more potent language at her disposal.

"Well, yeah," she said, as though it should have been obvious. "It's like 'retard', but worse. So if someone was really, really retarded, like more than normal retarded, they're bastarded. It's obvious. ANYONE would know what it means.

James stared.

Part of him wanted to laugh hysterically. Another part of him almost opened his mouth to helpfully explain the real meaning, and was fortunately stopped by the last part of him, which was that sad, sorry, trembling little fragment of lucid thought left in there after everything he'd been through. Because the last thing he needed on his list of foul deeds now was teaching a little girl how to cuss correctly. And also because laughing hysterically felt like it would probably rupture several important internal organs at this point and he really didn't want to take that chance.

Besides ... he was still the adult here. There were responsibilities.

"... Well, it's... um, it's not a nice word, so don't say it."

"I'll say whatever I want to," huffed Laura, folding her arms and scowling deeply at him. Now there was an expression he was used to seeing. "You're not the boss of me." She paused for a moment, before adding, pointedly, "You're just a bastard."

Feeling a little more hurt at being called that than he really should have, James opened his mouth to protest. ... And then shut it. Fair enough...

This would be a good point at which to mention that James Sunderland was not good at adult responsibilities.

He turned his eyes down to a bloody hole in the knee of his jeans and busied himself staring at that, so that he wouldn't have to meet her glower anymore while he waited for her to continue. Assuming that he hadn't made her made enough to lapse back into the silent treatment again.

"... Anyway."

Oh, good.

"You fell down and they all stood over you and talked for awhile, and then they pulled stuff out of your pockets and they were all like, GOSH WHY DOES HE HAVE SO MUCH STUPID STUFF IN HIS POCKETS, and for a second that nasty butt-kisser you fought was gonna step on your face, but Genie stopped him and said something about medicine and police or something. So the gross guy left and they all carried you outside. There was a not of smug satisfaction in her voice when she added, "It took, like, five people to pick you up off the floor."

James groaned and rubbed his head again.

"So they put me outside... ughnn, I feel like I've been out for hours..."

"You were out for hours. Like, three. I got real bored waiting," she huffed, as though it was somehow his fault that his crumpled, unconscious body hadn't done anything interesting in the duration of that time. "Anyway, I guess it's not like you could go anywhere."

"What about you?"

Laura quirked a brow at him. "What about me?"

Her question made him reconsider his question, which he had asked without even thinking, and he paused, biting his lip. He'd been going to ask her why she'd stayed behind until he woke. She could easily have left him there. But the way she was looking at him now made him lose his nerve and the question died in his throat. He didn't have any more liquid courage to boost his confidence, so there wasn't a whole lot he could do besides look down and stammer out, "I mean— how did you— what did you do? After the fight? Did they see you hanging around?"

She shook her head. "Nuh uh. I snuck out the back while they were distracted carrying you and hid 'till they all went back inside."

James nodded as though he understood, but that still hadn't answered his original question. He didn't know what he thought the answer would be, really. But for some reason, that just made him more afraid to hear whatever it was.

So he fell silent, still piddling around with the loose threads on the busted knee of his jeans, until Laura broke the silence with an unexpected question of her own.

"So why'd ya do it?"

Caught by surprise, James looked up again, only to find that Laura was giving him a strange, calculating stare. Not unlike the look that the bartender had given him when he'd walked in. And unlike so many of her questions to him, which tended to either be rhetorical wonderings about his IQ level or questions that he could never hope to answer ('Why?' she had asked, tears pouring down her face as she backed away from the armchair, blocking his view of the static-filled television screen. 'She was always waiting for you... Why? Why??'), she was actually waiting for an answer to it. Waiting, expectantly, to hear what he had to say.

Maybe that was why she'd stayed.

"Do what?" he asked, baffled.

"Tell him not to hurt me," she said plainly, still watching him like a hawk. "Fought with him. You know what I mean. Why'd ya do it?"

James gaped for a moment or so, uncomprehending. Why wouldn't he have done it? There had been no other option. No matter how hard it had been or how much he'd felt like he couldn't, nobody else had been doing anything. If he'd stayed frozen, Laura could have been...

"I— I had to," he said haltingly. "He was gonna hurt you. I couldn't just let... I didn't want anything to happen to you."

"But you don't even like me," Laura probed further, sounding skeptical. Almost a little angry.

"T-that's not true," James protested, without really even knowing why. Or if it even WAS true or not.

He had no reason to like her. Right from the very beginning, she'd done nothing but make things harder for him, and she'd done it all with deliberate, malicious glee. And to top it all off, she had seen more of Mary— the Mary he had fallen in love with— over the past year than he ever had. By the time he'd gotten there every day (or, as time wore on, every week... or every other week...), she'd always been run clean out of patience, left with nothing but harsh words and accusations for him whenever he showed his sorry face.

A few days ago, he'd have been jealous of Laura. Maybe even hated her.

But now... now he didn't know what to think about it.

Except that he did not hate her.

"Besides... it's not about whether I like you or not..."

"Well, I don't like you," Laura said harshly, giving him a confrontational glare, as though that proved his argument invalid. That he was somehow not telling the truth about why he'd helped her.

Unable to think of anything that could lend credibility to his words, James could do nothing but shrug apologetically at her.

"I ... I don't know what to say, Laura. I told you, it's not about liking, it's ... it's about what's... right."

"What would YOU know about what's right?" Laura spat, suddenly sounding a lot older and more resentful than any eight-year-old should be.

James opened his mouth, came up with nothing, and hung his head.

Another awkward silence passed between them, during which the only sounds were the muted engine-growls and swishes as the occasional car sped down the puddle-strewn road on the other side of the building.

Eventually, Laura spoke again, in that same nonchalant tone she'd used while trying to disguise how frightened Todd had really made her. "If I were you, I'd of just let me get hurt."

It took a few seconds for that to register, but when it did, James looked back up at her in total shock.

"Laura! That's— ... that's horrible! Why?"

She met his horrified gaze with a lidded, level one and said, simply, "'Cuz I know what you did."

His mouth should have gone dry at those words. His heart should have skipped a beat and he should have felt that prickling of fear on his skin. He should have felt compelled to threaten, wheedle, or beg like the murderers on TV did when they were caught. But there was nothing. Perhaps a sad, wounded tug of guilt in his chest, but not one of fear.

So she knew what he'd done.

... So what?

He stared at her dully, brows peaked, not moving from his spot.

When he didn't react— didn't yell like he had when he'd called her a liar and a snotty little brat back in Brookhaven, she frowned and puffed up determinedly, trying once more to get a rise out of him. "I could tell the police. You'd get thrown in jail for what you did to Mary."

"... You could," said James after a time. His voice sounded even more tired on the outside than it had in his own head. He didn't want to go to jail... it wasn't that he didn't feel guilty anymore— no, he couldn't POSSIBLY be further from not feeling guilty. But jail? Plain old jail? After everything that had happened?

There was nothing that jail could do to him that could possibly match what he had been through in Silent Hill. Hell, by comparison, it would practically be a vacation.

He hadn't gone through hell and accepted the truth, accepted his punishment, just to spend the rest of the life Mary had told him to go on with sitting in a cell, warm, clean, and fed. If there was to be more punishment ahead for what he'd done, so be it. He'd take it, and he'd take it willingly. But jail? Jail wasn't enough.

All the same... he had a feeling that if Laura did go and tell the cops, he wouldn't try to stop her.

Somehow his reply did nothing but make the girl before him even angrier. A tinge of red started to creep into her face when he failed to react the way she'd anticipated. She stood up, fists clenched, and glared at him solidly for a few seconds, trying to cook up the right words. A million insults, accusations, and hateful questions flitted visibly across her face, but nothing came until finally, face red as a tomato with rage, she blurted out "... You knew. You knew I could go to the police. ... But you did it anyway. You still saved me."

The way she said it, with that grimly-set jaw and frustrated flush, sounded more like an accusation than anything else. Like she was pointing a finger at him and shouting out, again, that he had murdered Mary.

But she was right. He had known, or at least some part of him had. And yet... it just didn't matter. Even if the police had been kicking down the door to that bar with a warrant for his arrest, he'd still have done it.

So he just shrugged apologetically again and nodded, somehow feeling ashamed even though he knew that out of everything he had done over the course of the past few days, this was possibly the only thing he shouldn't feel ashamed of.

Still wearing that deep frown, she squared her feet and stood there a moment longer, quivering with every ounce of rage and resentment that she could hold in her skinny little body. When James continued to do nothing, she finally let out an aggravated huff. "Well, you're stupid."

Eyes drifting down to where the little 'alley', littered with garbage and fluttering plastic bags, met the corner around which he'd have to go to get back to his car (assuming it hadn't been towed...), James pondered this for a moment before quietly agreeing, "Yeah..."

Somewhere out on the road, tires screeched and a car horn blared, followed by a few angry words being exchanged before both cars involved sorted out their differences and sped onwards.

"... I'm not gonna tell the police," Laura informed him loudly after a time, scraping the tip of her stick across the wet pavement.

Turning his head back to face her, James raised a brow.

"Why not?"

"'Cuz I don't like the police," she said evasively, straightening her dress rather than making eye-contact, and he could tell she was lying. Or at least not telling the whole truth. "It's got nothing to do with you so don't think I'm being all nice or anything. I still hate you. But I just thought I should tell you. So you don't, you know, freak out."

"... Uh... well, thanks," James said, not entirely sure what the proper response to that would be. If there even was one.

He started to get up, letting out a semi-strangled groan as what felt like every inch of his body sang out in agony. Planting a hand against the dumpster for support, he stepped gingerly off of the miniature platform of crates and winced as he hobbled a few steps on unsteady legs and tenderly moved the other hand to rest over his stomach, which was still throbbing horribly. Part of it was probably from what he'd been putting into it earlier, but the rest, he was pretty sure, was from Todd's fist.

He could remember feeling the breath leave his lungs in a great rush, leaving him feeling like his chest was sucking in on itself and his middle feeling like it had just been borderline short of skewered. Perhaps it had just been lucky that the trucker hadn't had a knife.

As he stood there, waiting for the pain to fade enough to walk and letting a few more of those blood-sheened memories drip in, something occurred to him.

"... Laura," he started, a little uncertainly.

"What?" she asked from where she was standing behind him. She hadn't moved from her spot, evidently waiting to see what he'd do. Now, looking at her over his shoulder, he had his doubts. She hated him. She'd said so herself.

... But that voice, clear as day... shouting to him. Not AT him, but to him.

'James! Look out!'

He was already starting to lose his nerve, but it was too late not to ask. So he cleared his throat with some difficulty and asked, tentatively, "Why... why did you help me back there?"

Laura, who had been kicking at a pale, drowned worm lying by some cracks in the pavement, froze. And for just a moment, she had the same guilty expression that he'd seen a flash of on her face back in Brookhaven, when he'd unwittingly caught her in the act of shutting him in. Like she'd just been caught red-handed at something.

Naturally, it was gone in an instant and then her arms were folded, her eyes were being rolled, and she was drawling "What're you talking about?"

"Back there... you called my name and told me to look out. Right before Ge— before the bartender knocked me ou—"

"Huh? I don't remember that," Laura interjected rudely, shaking her head back and forth like she was speaking to a particularly slow person that she was rapidly losing patience with. "I think getting a bottle smashed on your head musta scrambled your brains." She twirled a finger in circles next to one ear in the universal gesture for 'You're cuckoo for cocoa puffs'. "'Sides, why would I wanna help you?"

Feeling his heart sink slightly, James ran his tongue over bloodied lips. "I thought— ... never mind. Sorry..."

Perhaps the shout had been a product of his crazed imagination, some strange instinctive precognition that had just happened to take the form of Laura's voice. Wishful thinking, maybe? He didn't know.

And yet... he could still hear it more clearly in his head than anything else that had been uttered during the fight. And that guilty look on Laura's face... But he was crazy. What did he know? So he let out a long sigh and started to limp towards the corner, keeping both arms planted against the wall to support himself. His ankle felt like someone had driven corkscrews into it and left them there.

Behind him, he could hear the pitter-patter of Laura's shoes on the pavement as she followed him.

"Ya know," she said, her tone returning to the one with which she'd been speaking of roadkill and brain damage and blisters before. "You weren't doing so bad. You know. When you were fighting Butt-Sniffer. I was kinda surprised that you weren't getting totally clobbered. I mean, normally you're so-o clumsy."

Fighting the urge to roll his eyes (mainly because it would just make his head hurt worse), James continued to shuffle along. "Oh yeah? And how would you know if I was clumsy?"

He looked over his shoulder again and instantly regretted his inquiry, because a positively sinister little smirk had spread over her face.

"'Cuz there's a puddle shaped like your BUTT in the graveyard."

Oh.

Great.

"You saw that," said James dully, too resigned by now to even feel surprise anymore. Of course she saw it.

"Yep," said Laura, pleased as punch as she walked along behind him, kicking up her feet in a stiff-legged march. "I was waiting in the woods for you to leave, 'cuz I didn't wanna talk to you. You took forever to get to your car, by the way. And you fell down a lot. That was funny. I bet that puddle's still there."

James groaned loudly, fully aware that in addition to everywhere else, his cheeks were burning now, too. Not bothering to reply, he notched up the speed of his shuffling a little bit.

Laura trotted along after him, gleefully adding, "I bet little kids have already drowned in it."

"Mm-hmm..." said James wearily.

Finally rounding the corner, he paused with his hands on the edge, looking around. The trucks were gone by now— he supposed the migrant truckers had pulled out and carried on with their journeys to wherever their destinations were. A few lonely cars remained, and among them (his knees sagged gratefully at the sight) was his. Thank god.

He didn't smile this time— his mouth hurt too much. But the feeling was there.

Fumbling with swollen fingers for his keys (and eventually locating them, oddly enough, in the opposite pants-pocket than the one they'd been in before...) and hobbled across the parking lot with renewed energy. He had reached the door and already started unlocking it when he remembered his tagalong and looked back.

Laura had lingered by the corner, digging the toe of one shoe into a crack in the pavement and watching him with an uncharacteristic uncertainty in the growing gloom.

He looked back at her for a time and, when it was clear she was not going to ask by herself, piped up tentatively, "... D'you need a ride?"

Biting her lip, she hesitated...then nodded.

He could hardly believe it. Pain or no pain, he offered whatever pathetic excuse for a smile his battered, bloody face could manage and leaned into the driver's seat with some difficulty, reaching across to open the passenger-side door. Which Laura, with a brief clattering of black-buckled shoes on wet concrete, had broken away from the wall, galloped over to the car, and was scrambling into no sooner than the opening had been wide enough for her to fit through.

"Seatbelt?" he asked as he painstakingly climbed in, himself. He never bothered with seatbelts, but given that she was eight and the last thing he needed was another death on his hands, he figured he should at least ask.

"Seatbelts are dumb. Can we listen to music?"

"... Sure."

Laura reached out and turned on the radio. Instead of static, there were strains of guitar and a voice— one that wasn't garbled and choked with auditory snow.

"... Huh," said James.

The steadily-darkening parking lot in front of them lit up as he flicked the headlights on, and, engine rumbling to life, the little blue car pulled slowly out of the lot and back onto the road again. James found himself humming along with the music. For some reason, it made things feel better. Just for a little while.

Put the pedal to the metal
As the sun goes down,
Leave everybody sleepin' in this sleepy town tonight...
At the break of day...


I'll be a runaway.