phantastus: (lights)
phantastus ([personal profile] phantastus) wrote2013-05-03 10:22 pm

WRITING: Gravity (Chapter 6)



Title: GRAVITY
Chapter: 6 (Tilt Awhile)
Author: [personal profile] phantastus
Fandom: Silent Hill
Rating: G-PG
Genre: Drama/Angst
Main characters: James Sunderland, Laura
Summary: After tying up his loose ends, James is confronted with one last snag: what is he supposed to do with Laura, who he comes to realize that he knows very little about?
Notes: Chapter 6 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 several 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. If anything in the Silent Hill series triggers you, this story may not be for you. This chapter deals with potentially-upsetting concepts including but not limited to:

-general horror concepts
-mentions of murder and gruesome imagery
-references to terminal illness
-vague references to cult-related/ritualistic child abuse
-sympathetic criers beware: this chapter is a doozy.
-flagrant connections to previously-nonrelated games in the series


Please read at your own risk.


Recommended Listening:
-Capsize
-Friends
-Send Me On My Way



Chapter 6: Tilt Awhile





Once they were on the road, silence reigned once again.

James wasn't bothered by the quiet. In the less-than-a-week that he'd even known of Laura's existence, they'd never exactly had a conversational relationship. Not for a lack of trying— by God, he'd tried. But then, he hadn't known back then that Laura already had her opinions of him set in stone.

It was all right now, though.

The quiet was calming.

In fact, for the first hour or so he drove almost aimlessly, the sky continuing to lighten overhead as the car made its leisurely way down tree-lined roads, windshield wipers occasionally brushing away wet maple seedlings until they fell to the side and stuck in clumped green piles that he'd have to remove later.

That warmth in his chest that had taken hold upon leaving had left him in a kind of daze. It filled him up from the inside-out like a cup of coffee drunk too fast, radiating outwards and relaxing his too-tense-for-too-long body.

The sensation was dreamy and surreal, in fact downright alien. Almost like a drug— but not quite.

Drugs numbed, and he was not numb.

The town had filled him full of aches and pains that weren't going to go away any time soon, physically or mentally. Each bruise felt as though he would be able to summon the sensations back with a mere thought, even long after they inevitably faded with time. Cuts and bruises healed, but there would be no forgetting them.

The squares on his shoulder were new and bright, like the freshest of wounds. If he let his imagination run, the dull throbbing of the bandaged graze directly underneath them could very well be coming from them. He sort of liked thinking that. It felt right, in the same way that the criss-crossed stitching had felt right. It hurt to remember, but he had to.

It felt good to.

So numbness, it was not.

This was the warmth, full of pins and needles, that crept back in when the cold receded.

It wouldn't last forever. But he could enjoy it while it did.

It wasn't until they reached the first intersection containing a traffic light that he even remembered he was supposed to be going somewhere.

"Right," he mumbled, more to himself than to Laura. The prospect of taking her wherever it was she had needed to go had just been too much for his brain to handle the previous night. Even thinking about it had seemed beyond his capabilities, like confronting some sort of incomprehensible math problem. But although he was certainly still tired, that mental fog had lifted. The task didn't seem so daunting anymore. "Where's the place you gotta go, Laura?"

Laura turned to look at him, her neutral expression becoming guarded instantly, like it did every time he spoke.

Now that it was daylight (and he wasn't collapsing in on himself under the burdens of both exhaustion and duty), he was able to look at her clearly for the first time since... well, since they'd talked in the alleyway behind Vick's.

His heart sank like a stone.

Her clothes were still filthy, her cheeks still bearing dark smudges of dirt. The knees of her tights had holes lined in greasy grass-stains. Dried mud crusted her sneakers.

The first thing he'd done upon returning home had been to lick his wounds clean and scrub the filth from his skin, dress himself in clothes that were dry and warm.

And here Laura was in the same sorry state he'd found her in almost two days earlier.

Guilt, which had been holding off in fear of being incinerated by the mad energy that had burned through him throughout the night, rubbed its hands together gleefully and scampered back back in to stroke the tender underbelly of his conscience with sharp fingers.

With anyone else, it might not have bothered him too much.

But Laura...

James shook himself resolutely. He'd just have to make up for it now.

Once he was sure he had her attention, he took advantage of the red light to spread his hands earnestly.

"I'll take you wherever you need. I don't have anything else I have to do, so... anywhere. Just say the word."

Laura watched him for a second before suddenly breaking the gaze, eyes widening as though she'd suddenly realized she'd been staring without meaning to. Turning her attention quickly back to the road ahead of them, she lapsed into thought, chin jutted out and brows furrowed.

James waited, leaning slightly against the window. He wasn't sure what the hesitation was for. Could she be scared to tell him where she lived? No, that couldn't be it. She had willingly gotten in the car with him and come to HIS home, after all. But it had to be something.

Laura didn't pause like that for nothing.

But regardless of the reason, James owed her nothing but patience, so he tried not to let himself look irritated. It was surprisingly easy. Dogged by fear and exhaustion and desperation during his time in Silent Hill, so much of the time all that had been separating him from an outburst of rage or a total meltdown had been a single brittle thread, like the ones that were unraveling off of his coat. But rest and closure had worked its magic on him.

He wasn't sane— couldn't be, not after all that— but the difference between the man sitting there behind the wheel now and the lost, shattered creature that had traveled to that town searching for answers was astounding. If, at the moment, he had both feet mentally on the ground, then two nights ago he had been balancing on a slack tightrope with both arms glued to his sides.

Deep down, he took a second to mentally thank the universe that he had managed to even get home alive without suffering some sort of psychotic break and driving straight off a cliff.

"... Just keep going," Laura finally said, decisively.

"Really, I mean it! Anywhere, you just name it!" James blurted, mistaking her curtness for a lack of faith. He was promptly corrected when she pointed forward, raising her voice.

"The light turned GREEN, stupid! Keep going!"

"OH!"

The tires let out a small squeal of protest as James stepped on the gas and sent them hastily through the intersection, some color rapidly reappearing in his pale cheeks. Oops.

By that point, morning had progressed to the point of starting to see other drivers out and about. Although the sky above had not yet broken free of the monotonous gray cloud that had covered it from edge to edge like a velvety blanket since before James had even set foot in Silent Hill, the onset of day presented proof that the rest of the world still existed. Proof in the form of engines humming, turn signals blinking, and even a solitary red-faced driver leaning out his window to scream profanities at whoever had just cut him off.

They were sights for sore eyes— even the foul-mouthed motorist, whose words were thankfully whipped away in the wind as they drove past.

It wasn't as though the world had ever paid James much heed, but even watching other human beings go about their daily commute, not caring about him or his junky little blue Oldsmobile, was a thousand times more welcome than the barren streets and abandoned dwellings that had greeted him in Silent Hill where there should have been a bustling community just like this one.

That crushing isolation still hadn't lifted, not entirely— its grip was too tight, even now. But it was better than before. Looser. He was still frightfully alone, but being alone in a sea of people was different from being alone in all the world. Some might even say that it was worse, but right now James could only disagree.

Even the jolt that he got from a horn going off directly behind them at one point only further reinforced the comfort that knowing he was now far away from that empty Otherworld brought him.

Every so often as they drove, James continued to turn to Laura, prompting her quietly but insistently each time to tell him where to go.

And each time, the reply was the same. "Keep going!"

As reproachful, expectant looks from him became increasingly more frequent, she would sometimes amend her answer with something along the lines of "This is the right way!" or "Just keep going straight."

Around the sixth or seventh time this happened, he had turned onto the highway in a completely random direction and was starting to get a creeping suspicion that she was paying precisely zero attention to where they were actually going when she gave him these answers.

It had also occurred to him that she literally had no way on earth of even knowing whether any of these directions were 'right', considering she had never been to his and Mary's home before yesterday.

Letting his eyes slide surreptitiously back over to Laura while both his hands were on the steering wheel, he took in the odd way she was sitting. Shoulders rounded, staring at her hands rather than out the window. One of those hands was plucking nervously at the hem of her dress. He had seen her scared, and he had seen her gloomy, but he had never seen her anxious like this.

He sucked his lips inward and turned his attention back onto the road, weighing up his options.

James had never been the quickest on the uptake. The only quality he'd ever received regular praise from teachers and employers for had been his hard-working mentality. Sharp wits were definitely not incuded in that.

But after a few hours of this, it was becoming very obvious what Laura was trying to do, even to a dolt like him.

What was far less obvious was why she was doing it. And that bothered him.

It had been surprising but understandable when she'd accepted a ride from him. She'd been alone in a strange, scary place and it had been nearing nightfall. And she had just received indisputable proof, despite her prior and blessed blindness to the true horrors of Silent Hill, that here there indeed be monsters. James himself might have been one of them in her eyes, but he had already saved her from harm once, making him the lesser of many evils. How else had she been supposed to get out of there?

But despite all that, she still hated him for utterly justified reasons. And here he was, ready and willing to take her home and part ways with her forever, never darkening her doorstep with his presence again. He could be that awful shadow in her past, the one that had taken Mary away from her, just like the disease that had taken Mary away from him.

So why was she prolonging this?

"So, uh..." he started in a would-be casual tone, leaning back to shoulder-check the road before he turned off of it. "Did you have anything t'eat besides that peanut butter, Laura?"

"Huh?"

The girl turned away from her window and squinted at him as though suspecting some kind of ulterior motive behind the question. She was right, of course, but he had to assume that it wasn't showing on his face because she didn't immediately leap to accuse him of such.

After a moment or two, she shook her head slowly.

"Nuh uh. I'm real hungry."

Her voice had begun to take on an accusing tone once more, like it had earlier when he'd broached the exact same subject to her in the entrance hall of the house. He could tell she was getting ready to lay into him again, so he spoke up hastily.

"Wanna stop and get something to eat?"

Laura's brows flew up in surprise and James allowed himself a momentary flare of pride. That's right! Even James Sunderland could learn from his mistakes.

Never one to let herself be stunned speechless for long, Laura lifted her head haughtily, as though such a suggestion was just what she would have expected from anybody.

"About time."

"What d'you wanna eat?"

They were crossing through a downtown area. James recognized it, but not intimately. He'd been through here more than once on his bar-hunting excursions but had rarely stopped anywhere that didn't look like it might house liquor. But he knew that there were places to eat peppered between the various gas stations and strip malls, and those were guaranteed to have better fare than whatever Laura had managed to dig out of his refrigerator.

Not to mention, now that his body had rested enough to regain something resembling normal functionality, it was starting to growl for more than just the stale crusts he'd wolfed down a good twelve hours earlier. Outside of his trek through Silent Hill, he couldn't remember the last time he'd gone for this long on so little, and it was honestly surprising him that he wasn't feeling it hit him harder.

"Ummm..." Laura got up on her knees (she still wasn't wearing a seatbelt... go figure) and looked out the window at the flat-roofed buildings drifting past. Then, excitedly, she smacked a hand against the glass and pointed. "There's a pizza place! We're going there."

"Oh," said James, a little taken-aback by the finality of her decision. "A-all right."

Flicking on his turn signal, he made an uncomfortably rapid deceleration in order to make the turn in time. He flinched as he was rewarded for his efforts by a horn blaring behind him once more, and he sheepishly turned into the parking lot while the angry car in question whizzed past.

Adding insult to injury, Laura was making indignant sounds beside him, having been jostled forward by the sudden turn.

"HEY! You coulda warned me you were gonna do that!" she said, shrilly.

"Sorry," James mumbled, maneuvering the car into a parking space and sheepishly turning off the ignition, shoulders hunched. He didn't dare comment that it wouldn't have happened if she'd been wearing her seatbelt.

Swallowing hard with a throat that had run dry without him noticing, he turned in his seat to look at the building with peaked brows and a growing sense of unease in his gut.

He could see people in there, milling around behind the glass. Not many; it was too early for the general public's taste for pizza to be kicking in, but they were still there. For all his relief to be back in the normal world with other souls all around, the thought of going in there and suddenly being surrounded by them was giving him a creeping sensation of dread.

The bar in which he'd fought with Todd had been so dark and dehumanizing that it hardly counted, so this... this was really the first time since he'd left that town that he'd be interacting with people.

His pint-sized passenger had already popped the lock on the car door and hopped out of it impatiently. She'd taken several jogging steps towards the building when she noticed that James wasn't behind her, so she turned around and glared back at the car, spreading her arms impatiently.

"Come on!"

James shut his eyes briefly and sucked in a deep breath before opening the door with a clunk and stepping out. Pocketing the keys, he began to walk after Laura, who was giving the car an odd look.

"... Aren't ya gonna shut the door?"

James stopped.

Had he...?

He looked over his shoulder.

... Yes. Yes he had.

"Uhm. Yeah." Bowing his head, he turned back and shut the door carefully, supressing a shudder before turning to follow Laura for real this time. Wherever he'd picked up that little tic, he hoped he'd find a way to stop it soon. It wouldn't be a very good thing to retain where he was going. ... Wherever he was going.

The door to the little pizza parlour opened without a bell's jingle and the inside was brightly lit. The floors smelled like disinfectant and the people behind the counter all looked tired and somewhat miserable, but respectable. There was a couple with a baby in one of the booths— a distracted-looking man with a briefcase and a newspaper slouched dejectedly in another.

It couldn't have been more different from the pub he'd walked into after leaving Silent Hill. So he supposed he should be a little concerned that he felt far more nervous and out of place here than he ever had in that dark den of sleaze. He swallowed.

"Find a seat, okay? I'll go... um, order." He started towards the counter, only to pause and look back at her. "Uh— ... what toppings do you want?"

"Cheese," said Laura, with such firmness that it could have been a commandment.

"... Just cheese? Nothing else?"

"Yeah. I don't like anything else. The other stuff is gross."

James heaved a sigh.

Of course. Of course she'd be that kid who only liked cheese pizza. Why had he expected anything different? She probably ate the cream centers out of Oreos and left the cookies, too.

"All right..."

Leaving her at the table, James approached the counter with leaden feet. The place wasn't fancy with its bright yellow 'Wet Floor' signs, pimply college-kid cashiers and colorful backlit picture-menu above the counter, but each step filled him with more and more apprehension.

He was about to talk to somebody.

He was about to talk to somebody for real. No space-cadet gawking at people upon emerging from the Otherworld or growling over shiny countertops from behind a surly mask or screaming and spraying blood everywhere while he clobbered the living daylights out of some gorilla in a trucker's cap.

He was about to go up to that tired-looking boy wearing a pizza logo and order food from him.

For some reason, this was terrifying.

Drawing up to the counter, he started to clear his throat. About halfway through the gesture, it hit a sensitive spot and turned into a very real cough. That cough turned into several coughs and James hastily lifted an arm so that he could hack into his elbow rather than all over the cash register.

At least it got the employee's attention. Much like every other individual James had encountered since leaving that town, his brows went up in mild alarm. Which was understandable. Between the bandages and the wheezing, James might as well have been an extremely well-preserved escapee from ancient Egypt, which could explain why the cashier looked like he thought James might be about to spray locusts all over the lobby.

His name-tag read "Philip".

Well, good morning, Philip. You're in for a trip.

"Uh... you okay, sir?"

"I— uh, yeah, m'fine. Uh." Eyes watering, James rasped hoarsely into his sleeve once more and then straightened up self-consciously. He knew exactly what that look of concerned wariness was from, but it still set off little ticks of paranoia off in the back of his skull, like the blinking 'open door' light on the dashboard when it comes on in the middle of the highway and you have no way of telling which door it's referring to.

The worst part of guilt was feeling like everyone could tell what you'd done just by looking at you.

But that was stupid.

He just had to act normal.

Normal wasn't hard.

Normal should come naturally.

Here goes.

"Do you have cheese pizza?"

The young man opened his mouth. Then paused, brows furrowing ever so slightly.

James realized, once again, that he had screwed up what probably should have been a very simple procedure.

"Uh... yes, sir. We do serve... cheese... pizza," the boy replied slowly, making a valiant effort not to sound condescending and mostly succeeding.

James slowly lifted a hand and pressed it to his bandaged forehead in shame.

"I— uh. Right. Of course you do. Aahah— um. Rough morning. Sorry about that..."

"It's okay, sir. Happens all the time."

No, it didn't.

"Right." James ran his fingers through his hair, taking a deep breath. Ordering pizza should not feel this complicated. Ordering pizza should not be complicated, period.

He paused, looking over his shoulder to where Laura was sitting in a booth by the window, amusing herself by peeling the label off of the salt shaker.

"... Two slices of cheese then, please."

Then his stomach made its opinion known by twisting itself into a pretzel, making James sink just slightly lower as his knees wobbled. He planted one arm on the counter to support himself.

"Uh— on second thought, make that four," he said weakly.

"Right away, sir," Philip said, giving James one last dubious look before moving away to open those heated glass cabinets and drag the requested slices onto paper plates. James let out a low sigh of relief as the employee's gaze left him. It was downright depressing that something so menial, so everyday should send his heart pounding like this.

As he slogged through the mire of the last leg of his journey in the Otherworld, all the heart-stopping terror had fled long before, leaving him to cut down the creatures in his path grimly and mechanically in his exhaustion. The fear had been traded for a dead, wooden feeling in his chest, because by then he had known the truth. Fear was at its most powerful when there was a tiny spark of hope in need of constant and anxious sheltering, lest it be snuffed out.

Once it was gone, fear'd had no hold and it had dissipated into the stale, musty air of the Lakeview Hotel ruins like breath exhaled.

Maybe this had been a trade.

The monsters that had once sent his heart racing had faded into shadows that could barely arouse a burst of adrenaline, but now it was the normal things that terrified him.

Perhaps in Silent Hill itself that had been a blessing, but now that he was out of the frying pan, he wished it could go back to the way it was.

When he looked over his shoulder to check on her, he found that Laura was now replacing the labels on the salt and pepper shakers with almost surgical precision.

James swallowed hard and returned his attention to the menu overheard, pretending not to notice. When the boy behind the counter returned with two plates of steaming, cheese-slathered sustenance, James was peering into his wallet with a slight frown, thinking that it looked a fair bit emptier than it had when he'd last looked at it.

But he shook himself and fished out a couple of fives, handing them over with a tight, apologetic grin.

Taking the paper from his hands, the cashier turned to the register and started to punch keys... then stopped. He looked down at the money in his hands and tensed, brows furrowing and lips moving slightly as he read. First his eyes widened. ... Then he relaxed, but not before giving James a look that was even weirder than the first one. It was almost the look that the tourist on the overlook had given him, except unlike then, James was more or less clean and no longer looked like a wild forest man. Which meant there had to be something else wrong.

James wilted.

Oh boy. What had he screwed up now?

"Uh, sir..." The boy held up a slip of lined notebook paper. "You handed me this by accident."

James squinted at it briefly before taking it back. It must have been stuck between the bills he'd handed over, but he didn't recognize it at all. He shot a baffled glance at the pizza boy before coughing and looking back down to read the loopy black handwriting scrawled upon the paper.

Dear Mister Sunderland,
Thank you for your generous donation to the church of Vick.
Fondest regards,
Victor


There were a couple of very mocking hearts scribbled next to the signature, and adding insult to injury, a post-script had been added at the bottom of the scrap:

P.S. The beers we bought with your money tasted great.

James stared at the message in complete disbelief.

That bastard.

"Are you okay, sir."

The question was merely a kindness, because the boy behind the counter had gained that wide-eyed, tight-lipped expression that said whatever that letter was supposed to mean, he definitely didn't want to know about it.

James crumpled the paper soundly in one fist, feeling his face burn multiple colors.

"Uh— yeah, yes, of course! Sorry! Uh... keep the change."

Shoulders hunched and cheeks burning, James headed back to the booth Laura had picked, with the two plates in hand. She had been busying herself pouring salt into the little vase that sat at the end of every time closest to the window. James couldn't bring himself to care. At least there wasn't a real flower in there. This place was way too cheap for that.

"Here," he said a tad shortly, slapping the plates down on the table and shoving one towards Laura before sitting down, himself.

She straightened up abruptly, startled, and he swallowed, trying to get rid of the glower on his face. He had to remember not to do that so much around her. The last thing he needed was for her to lock him in a room somewhere again before he could take her home.

Reassured by his quick correction, she turned her attention to the pizza. She looked just as hungry as he felt— but even her hunger had to wait while she ensured that there was nothing wrong with it.

"They didn't put anything else on there, did they?" she demanded, scrutinizing one of the slices.

James shrugged tiredly.

"I just asked for plain."

Of course, knowing his luck, he'd have accidentally given her the slice that mysteriously had a single chunk of onion hidden somewhere on it or something.

His word apparently was not good enough for Laura, because she started picking the slices apart in search of ingredients that did not consist of cheese. James sighed. For now, he had bigger things to occupy his mind with than Laura's pickiness. Like the first hot meal he'd had in at least a week.

The melted cheese scalded the roof of his mouth so thoroughly that he was sure he'd be tasting salt and peeling skin there for days but he didn't care. His body screamed for nourishment and the prospect of a full stomach effectively quelled the humiliated anger that had started boiling up upon the discovery of the parting gift from that bartender.

He didn't think he'd ever appreciated warm food more in his entire life.

Evidently Laura hadn't found anything particularly wrong with her share either, because she was enjoying them too. Temporarily forgetting that she was sitting in a restaurant booth with the man she hated most in the world, she spoke up brightly with a partially-full mouth, forcing James to blink a couple of times before asking her timidly to repeat herself.

She swallowed pointedly and shot him a dark look before doing so.

"This is MUCH better than the pizza Eddie had!"

The name was like a sock to the gut. James swallowed far too soon and had to pause and shudder as a chunk of not-properly-cooled pizza burned its way down his throat. He cupped a fist to his mouth and coughed, eyes watering.

"O-oh? I— uh, I'm glad."

It didn't exactly surprise him. After everything, he had a hard time imagining anything good to eat coming out of Silent Hill. He'd found food here and there, but had never touched any of it— old pantries covered in dust and broken plaster, filled with withered fruit and botulism-bloated jars... as though no one had stepped into them in months. Or years.

In reality, the town was probably not all that different than it had been when he and Mary had gone there together so many years before. It was probably still full of quaint diners and quiet restaurants that did a slow but steady business, their sleepy atmosphere endearing them to tourists like James and Mary. They had been as in-love with the food there as they had with everything else, but he had not revisited those golden memories often after Mary had gotten sick. It had hurt too much.

Maybe that was why the Otherworld had been so decrepit and neglected.

"He shared it with me," Laura said, nodding for emphasis. "In the bowling alley. I was lookin' for Mary but found him instead. I was hungry and my feet hurt real bad so I decided to take a rest."

She put her elbows on the table and slumped forward, resting her chin on one palm.

"And we were havin' a real interesting talk before YOU came along, too," she added pointedly, giving him an accusing glare.

"Yeah, I know," James said, internalizing a sigh. "I uh... heard some of it."

"WHAT?!" Laura threw down the slice of pizza like it was covered in ants. Her voice had risen several indignant octaves. "You were spying on us!"

"Shh!" James hissed, a little too timidly for it to sound properly chastising. He had hunched his shoulders and was looking around worriedly to see if anyone's attention had been drawn to them by the outburst. Fortunately, no one seemed to have noticed. "I wasn't spying, I was just— I walked in, and I could hear you talking..."

Laura glared, and he could tell that he wasn't gaining any points with her on this topic. So he fell silent and went back to nibbling on the crust of his first slice to avoid needing to say anything more.

"Only sneaks eavesdrop. You're a sneak," Laura told him matter-of-factly, and still at a higher volume than he preferred. "A stupid, slimy sneak."

James lifted a hand to his face and rubbed it tenderly, mindful of the bruises that still peppered his skin. "Okay... okay... I'm sorry I was a sneak. I didn't mean to be..."

"Yeah right," muttered Laura resentfully, picking up the dropped slice and starting to bite into it agan, though she made a face as though it had somehow turned bitter in the interim.

Choosing not to reply to that, James just looked down at the greasy half-crust he now had in his hands.

Now that the memories were stirring in is head, the smell of the pizza was really taking him back. The oily cheese, the warm cotton-plug aroma of cooked dough, the tangy red scent of blood...

Frowning, James put his remaining slice of pizza down on the plate and wiped the grease from his fingers off on his jeans. He didn't feel so hungry anymore. In fact, he felt kind of sick.

Forget you.

He hadn't forgotten Eddie at all, but those words sat in his guilty conscience like a slow poison. Maybe he should have tried harder to get Eddie to come with him back there in that dingy little bowling alley where he'd stumbled across him chatting with Laura over a pizza. Maybe if he'd managed to convince Eddie to help him, he never would have had to—

"Hey, are you gonna eat that?" Laura asked brashly, leaning across the table and eying his pizza the same way a seagull would eye a sunbather's chip bag. Looking up, James shook his head. "Nuh uh. You can have it..."

Expression brightening, Laura reached out to tug the grease-stained paper plate towards her, only to stop and give him a mistrustful look.

"... You didn't slobber on it or anything, did ya?"

James shook his head again, leaning back against the plush booth seat. He didn't quite feel up to responding to Laura's snarky retorts, not even apologetically.

She didn't look entirely convinced, but her desire for the pizza evidently won out and she swiped the plate over to her side of the table, seeming pleased with her conquest.

James just watched wearily, hoping that this queasy feeling would go away.

He supposed he deserved it, though. Deserved it for what he'd done, even if it had been necessary.

Swallowing thickly, he latched his fingers across his stomach and watched Laura eat. She was busy gnawing the layer of cheese (which was no longer liquid-hot, it had settled into one of those waxy shells of a stiff, rubbery consistency that all cheap pizza wound up with as soon as it wasn't fresh anymore) off of the bread, exposing the bright red sauce underneath.

She had already chewed a somewhat circular hole right in the center of the slice and— not for the first time— he was reminded of a ravenous wolf tearing a hole in the fresh carcass of some unfortunate herbivore. He suppressed a shudder. Why did the human imagination have to conjure the most grotesque images when food was nearby?

He'd rather think about how it looked like a bright red flower, blooming outwards from where the bullet went in, its shiny wet petals unfolding like a piece of time-lapsed film—

Bile rose in James's throat as an imaginary chill— the chill of a freezer— skittered through him at the thought. He hunched his shoulders to burrow into his own coat until the mental coldsnap passed.

Don't think about it, don't think about it, don't think about it—

"... Are you okay?"

Laura had paused in her destruction of the pizza and was giving him that weird, nose-wrinkled look that seemed to suggest less in the way of concern and more in the way of 'You look sick and I don't wanna catch it. Are you contagious?'

James nodded. He hoped the motion didn't look as shaky as it felt.

"Yeah... m'fine. You don't need to worry about me."

"I wasn't," Laura assured him before returning to her meal.

Letting out an internal sigh, James took that as call to go silent once more. Those unpleasant flashbacks, while chilling, had at least served to nudge his mind back in the general direction of why he'd stopped here in the first place. Besides getting some much-needed sustenance, anyway.

He couldn't afford to keep on driving around aimlessly and wasting gasoline he was probably going to need.

There were things he had to find out, and he had to find them out now.

So he took a deep breath, and then took the plunge.

"So, um... you said you met Eddie a few times before he shared his pizza with you, right?"

"Just once," Laura replied off-handedly, picking a particularly crisp chunk of crust off the end of the slice and flicking it away. "It was right when I got to Silent Hill. I got off the bus and saw him sittin' by himself on the ground by his van."

Dimly, James thought he could remember a nondescript white van not too far away from where he'd parked his own car. It had been there when he'd arrived, but he'd been too intent on getting to his destination to pay it much heed. If he'd known what he was getting into at the time, he might have thought to check it for anything useful. But that was neither here nor there...

So she'd come by bus. That made sense, although eight seemed awfully young to be getting onto one of those on her own.

"You took the bus? All by yourself?" He sounded impressed, and it was genuine. At that age, he'd always been too scared to take extended rides on any form of public transit that wasn't a friendly, familiar yellow school bus. So he had walked almost everywhere. Which, in hindsight, had probably been the more dangerous option, given the neighborhood...

"Yeah," she said, puffing up boastfully, evidently pleased by his admiration. "All by myself. I do it all the time."

"You must be pretty brave," James remarked, letting himself slouch a little so that he could prop his chin on one palm.

"I know," said Laura, typically.

She looked pretty pleased with herself. James decided that he should press on while he still had her in a good mood.

"So you met Eddie outside of town? What was he doing there? ... Wasn't he... hiding from the police?"

"It was pretty early," Laura shrugged, although he could hear some of his own confusion reflected in her tone. "He was the only one around. I guess he'd just gotten there, too."

"That makes sense... so, you talked to him?"

"I had to ask somebody how to get to Silent Hill, didn't I?" she answered loftily, tossing her head.

That was right. All Laura'd had to go on when journeying to Silent Hill had been Mary's happy memories, which for all sakes and purposes were practically fairy tales at this point. Which made it all the more mysterious how Laura had gotten that far in the first place. What caregiver in their right mind would let an orphan travel alone to some town in Middle of Nowhere, Maine based solely on the stories of a dying woman?

"And he helped you get there?"

"Well at first he didn't say anything, he just sat there like a big fat slug."

James hated to admit it, but that description was pretty accurate. He could picture the scene vividly in his head... Eddie sitting sullenly on the pavement, with Laura standing next to him, hands on hips, hardly taller than him even while he was seated.

"... So I kicked him," Laura added with a hint of pride. "And then he got up and we walked into town together."

If the victim had been anyone else, James might have found the thought funny (in a wincing, sympathetic way, admittedly) but knowing what he knew now, he could find very little humor in it.

Yet in spite of her abusive treatment, Eddie had seemed to like Laura well enough— and she, him. The more James thought about that, the less he found himself able to wrap his mind around it. Then again, Laura was a conundrum all by herself that James wasn't sure he'd ever understand.

You're just a big gutless fatso!

That was what she had said to Eddie, back there in the bowling alley.

But not five minutes later, she had admitted things to him that he knew she'd never lower herself to saying in front of James.

How did that work?

Maybe it was because she was eight, an age that was fuzzy and faraway to James, or maybe she really was just a very strange little girl. Either way... he wasn't sure he would ever understand.

"He was nice to you," James said. Because he had been.

"Yeah. Like I said before, he treated me like I was a grownup." Laura kicked her feet under the table a little. "He didn't talk to me like I was dumb like everybody else does." She said that part with sort of a pointed tone and James shuffled in his seat shamefully. He'd been guilty of that. Of course, he had learned his lesson quickly when she proved to be smarter than he was.

Turning his gaze over to the window, James looked out at the gray scenery beyond. It was not raining, but beads of water sat like transparent growths on the other side of the glass, waiting to grow heavy enough that gravity would carry them trickling downwards.

"... I guess he knew what it was like to be talked to like he was dumb..." he murmured to himself after a few seconds, more to himself than to Laura, although she frowned and straightened up, squinting at him with a mixture of suspicion and genuine curiosity. For a second or two, he was sure she was going to ask a question, and maybe she'd been going to, but at the last minute, decided to hold her tongue. That wasn't like her.

Eddie, after all, had been the only other 'friend' of Laura's that he knew about. Even if it was questionable whether or not the two were truly friends.

And he'd taken him away, too.

Just like Mary.

Realizing that he'd been staring blankly at the tail-lights of a parked car, James shook himself and looked back to Laura.

"Sorry... anyway, I uh... I'm glad Eddie was able to help you..."

"Well, he helped a little," said Laura dismissively. But then her voice became almost defiant, like she expected him to take issue with it. "I liked him."

James's chest hurt.

"... Yeah. I liked him, too."

As much as that had been possible... to like someone you barely knew.

At that reply, Laura's brows furrowed. It was a calculating look, and James recognied it as the same one she'd been wearing the night before last when they had been broaching the same subject. Clenching her fingers slightly on the edge of the table, she licked her lips uncertainly.

"... But if you liked him, then why did you..."

For a horrible moment, James thought she was going to say the unthinkable in the middle of a room full of people. But apparently even Laura had her limits— or maybe she'd just thought better of it. Either way, she shut her mouth and trailed off there, glancing briefly to the other patrons (who were all carrying on their own murmured conversations, blessedly ignorant to the seriousness of the one taking place in James and Laura's booth) before turning her gaze back onto James, her brows peaking upwards.

James didn't answer.

It wasn't that he didn't want to.

It was that he couldn't.

There were a thousand reasons why he'd done it, but none of them seemed adequate to explain it... or even to justify it. So James just looked away.

It was for moments like these that he had, back during those horrible three years (and for a fair portion of his life before he'd met Mary), started crafting his sullen facade as a defense against any and all who might see him as an easy target. It wasn't as though he'd ever wanted to come off as mean— that had never been his intention.

Just cold enough that no one would bother to stick around and find out the truth, which was that he was about as impervious and unyielding as a scrap of tissue paper.

Weak.

Pathetic and weak.

That was what he was.

And for a long, long time, he had disguised it by pretending to be cold and unapproachable. He'd even gotten moderately good at it.

But something had broken inside of him in Silent Hill and now he couldn't even find the shards of that mask, much less put them back together again in a way that could shield him like before. He thought he'd succeeded back there in that bar, but now there was no chance.

So it was with the uncomfortable awareness that his face was probably looking exactly how he felt that he sat, staring out the window for lack of a better place to look, fingers gingerly probing at the dark marks around his neck that sat there like fat leeches.

Laura watched him.

And after what seemed like a very long time, she spoke up.

"... I lied."

It was in a very small voice, and James turned back to her with a surprised, questioning look.

She didn't meet his gaze at first. Instead, she was staring at the floor, both hands wringing the hem of her skirt fretfully.

"About the bus. I don't ride it all the time. That was the first time I ever went on by myself."

James was stunned. Not at what she had confessed— even if he'd believed her boast, the claim not being true wasn't something he had a hard time buying— but at the fact that she had confessed at all.

And judging by the expression on her face, she was entirely unsure what the results of his gambit would be, or if she'd even made the right decision in taking it.

Maybe this was what she looked like when she had admitted those things to Eddie in the bowling alley.

James swallowed, running his tongue over chapped lips.

If there was ever a time to ask... it was now.

"... Laura... does anyone know you went to Silent Hill?"

Her initial silence proved his suspicions correct.

"... I... I didn't tell anybody b'fore I left..." Her hands had moved their nervous ministrations to one of the brown paper napkins that had been lying on the table when they sat down.

"So... you ran away?" James ventured.

Laura sucked her lip inwards and for a second he thought she wasn't going to answer— or worse, go back to being angry and defensive like he was so used to by this point. But after a tenuous pause, she nodded.

"Yeah... first I rode the bus back to the hospital where me an' Mary stayed. I wanted to see her again."

"And... that's when you found the letter, right?" James interjected, remembering what the little girl had said back there in the dark lounge of the Lakeview Hotel about having filched the letter— both letters— from the locker of their nurse. If he'd interrupted her in the middle of saying something twenty minutes ago, she'd have bitten his head off, but now she just nodded.

"When I couldn't find Mary, I took 'em outta Rachel's locker." She trailed off here briefly. Her fidgeting had ceased. "... She said she'd gone to a quiet, beautiful place that was far away. ... She'd told me so many stories about Silent Hill, I thought... I thought maybe..."

The barest hint of a quiver had entered her voice and James shut his eyes, feeling them begin to sting sympathetically.

"You thought she went there."

To our special place.

"Well... well yeah!" A little of her normal defiance slipped back in and she sat up straight. "She always talked about wanting to go back there! An'... an' she wasn't at the hospital, so..."

Her face had reddened in thankfully-internalized frustration, and she glared at her grease-stained paper plate as though it had wronged her somehow.

"... She showed me her photos a lot... whenever I went to visit her in the white ward, she'd let me sit next to her on the bed an' she'd ask the nurse to bring peanut butter crackers and apple juice, and then she'd pull out the photo book n'tell stories about what was hapening in each one... sometimes they were boring, but I liked 'em anyway."

A few days ago it would have made James feel weird to think of Laura knowing so many intimate details (even if they were all innocent ones— Mary wouldn't have shared them, otherwise) about his life, but now it seemed like such a trivial worry. He had felt strange and sick at seeing her look at the albums last night, but that reaction seemed unfathomable now. Laura hadn't pried anything from the photos, Mary had shared them openly.

They were memories of her life, too. Not just his.

What right did he have to feel possessive of them?

Besides... there was something else.

A far more niggling concern had been nudging at the back of his brain insistently. It hadn't occurred to him much at all when he'd first learned that his wife had met Laura in the hospital— he'd had bigger things to worry about. But now that Silent Hill was far away and he'd learned what he'd gone there to learn, the question was beginning to gnaw at him.

"Laura... why, um... why were you in the hospital?"

St. Jerome's was not only for the terminally ill, of course. It supposedly had a renowned pre-natal care and pediatrics department, for example. Plenty of people went in and out of that place every day, for everything from checkups to extended therapy.

But Laura didn't seem sick, or anything that might have required a stay long enough for her to have any interaction with someone sequestered away in a lonely room at the end of a long hall of people who were quietly creeping closer to death with every passing day. Long enough to meet Mary and win her heart.

Laura dropped the napkin and promptly thrust her arm out.

"I broke my arm!"

As soon as the topic had shifted away from Mary, her tone had brightened. She seemed oddly proud of her injury.

James leaned back, looking at the proffered limb with a quizzical expression.

"... It's not still broken, is it?"

"Nuh uh. It healed while I was at the hospital." Her voice darkened again, along with her expression. "That's why I had to go home. They wouldn't let me stay if I was all better."

With each new answer, more questions sprang up. James's brows had furrowed so deep he wasn't sure he could remember how to do anything else with them. But possibilities were trickling in as well.

"How'd your arm get broken?"

"I fell outta a tree," Laura said, her nonchalant, boastful expression remaining. "I was tryin' to climb down it and the branch broke. Afterwards I heard 'em say I fell fifteen whole feet."

"Wow... so they took you to the hospital?"

"Yup. It was real bad."

"And that's why you had to stay? How long were you there?"

"Umm... till it was all healed. Like, three months. Or— no. Two anna half."

James bit his lip, not sure if he should express his thoughts on that one, because it seemed like an awfully long time to be kept in a hospital, even for a bad break. Bones healed on their own if they were set, right? You could get a cast stuck on and go right back home, as long as you took it easy. There seemed little point in asking, though. She probably hadn't questioned it. But he had to wonder...

"Did you get a neat cast for people to sign?" Worrisome thoughts aside, he was trying to sound positive. Asking her questions had been working so far. If nothing else, like most kids, she seemed to enjoy talking about herself.

"Yeah! It was blue. No one signed it but Mary, though."

"No one from your orphanage did?"

"Huh? Why would they? I didn't get to see them until I went back."

"Well, didn't... anyone wanna check in on you?" he asked hesitantly. "Didn't your friends wanna visit?"

"Why would they? They didn't want me anyway."

James's frown grew deeper. He knew next to nothing about how the adoption system worked these days, but the more she talked about it, the more it just seemed off.

"I'm sure that's not true..."

"Well, you're stupid," said Laura, as though that explained everything. It probably did. "Anyway, I don't need friends. The other kids are all whiny little crybabies anyway. I didn't mind. I liked being at the hospital. Mostly."

Well, chalk one up on the list James had never expected to hear anyone say, much less an eight-year-old. Who in their right mind liked being at a hospital? He sure hadn't...

Every little thing in that place had been a reminder of Mary's illness, from the sterility of each surface to the posters of organs and bodily systems that hung on the walls of the examination rooms. His visits had started to trickle off there eventually, when he could no longer summon the fortitude to endure the harsh words and cold silences that awaited him whenever he entered Mary's room.

Almost randomly, the thought hit him that Laura might even have seen him there sometimes, showing his sorry face once in a blue moon. He already knew she'd been aware of the rareness of his visits— she'd been intent on telling him as much right from the first time they'd met, after all. But what if she'd seen him, too? Watched him from afar during his increasingly sparse visits and then gone to ease Mary's lonely tears after he left? The thought made him feel ill with guilt.

But he had to get back on track.

"Well... you've gotta have some friends, right? Don't you play with the other kids there?"

"Well, yeah," Laura snapped. "But I told you, they're all little babies. They tattle on me all the time."

Something cynical inside James's head remarked Gee, I wonder why? but he silenced it immediately. It didn't surprise him at all, but there was no need to voice that.

Still, as though anticipating it, Laura added, "Mainly 'cuz they're all sore losers, too. An' sometimes they tattle even when I didn't do anything and everybody believes 'em anyway!"

"Well... everybody gets in trouble sometimes..." James hadn't as a kid, not much anyway, but Laura had ten times the sass he could ever hope to have. "They don't punish you real bad, do they?"

Laura shook her head, although the way she wrinkled her nose suggested she was conceding this grudgingly. "No... usually we just get sent to bed without dinner. ... But... if they decide you're real bad, sometimes you can't stay."

James, who had been to bed without dinner many times at her age (though usually for reasons that had nothing to do with his behavior...), had been nodding understandingly, only to stop, blinking.

"Wh— you mean, they don't let you stay at the orphanage?"

"Yeah." Laura nodded. "Sometimes the real bad kids get sent somewhere else, 'cuz the Sisters are all old and tired and say they can't handle them."

"I..." James rubbed the back of his neck, mulling it over. He knew that if HE was elderly, and a nun, he wouldn't ... really want to deal with kids like Laura either. "... I guess that makes sense..."

But Laura shook her head again, frowning darkly. Her voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper, her tone urgent. "Everyone knows that when somebody gets sent away, they go someplace bad."

"... Are you sure the ... Sisters aren't trying to scare you when they say that?"

"Nuh uh! They don't tell us that! They say that they're goin' somewhere nice. But we know better. Us kids."

She trailed off there, looking around the restaurant, before climbing up onto her knees and leaning around, arm on the back of the booth to check directly behind her. It was as though she expected people to be listening in. When she was satisfied that there were none, she turned back to James, jaw set and elbows planted firmly on the table's surface. On her face was an expression of seriousness that he had never seen on her before.

For the first time, she was looking straight at him with an intensity that almost made him want to cringe away.

"Nobody knows where it is. They never say. But once somebody goes there, we never, ever see them again."

Feeling like an ant under a magnifying glass (ironically held so often by children like Laura), James swallowed.

"Laura..."

"We're allowed to send letters, but we never get any back," Laura continued, her tone still hushed. She was speaking quickly, like she was worried he wouldn't believe her if she hesitated too long. "The Sisters always tell us it's 'cuz they're busy in their new home and prob'ly just forgot, but we know better. We know."

James held up a hand. He was the adult here, right? He was supposed to be the reasonable one. And although his childhood was a far-off memory he didn't care to look at too closely, there were some things he remembered.

Every school had that one kid who told stories on the edge of the playground. Stories about secret attics above the school, or the strange house on the corner, or crocodiles in the sewers. Hell, if he recalled correctly (which he did, because those sorts of things had a tendency to stick with you no matter how much you wanted to forget them), his own father had been the subject of more than a few of those whispered schoolyard chillers.

Surely that was all this was.

"Laura... why would a buncha nuns ever send their kids somewhere dangerous?"

The girl's expression turned sour instantly.

She leaned back, crossing her arms and giving him a glare so disgusted that James instantly regretted his words.

"You're just like everybody else. You don't believe me."

"Laura, I—" James blustered. "It's not that I don't believe you, it's just that..."

And then he trailed off.

That uneasy feeling from before was back. It suggested that maybe trying to be the 'reasonable adult' about this just wasn't the way to go.

Tall tales were a part of childhood. That was just a fact. Kids hungry for something to break up the monotonous day-to-day school activities could not only get very creative, but they could also get pretty damn good at convincing themselves that their own stories were true. Those beliefs could spread like wildfire.

But one thing that was always a constant no matter how gullible and easily-swept into the thrill of pretend danger you were, in the very back of your head there was always a certain amount of knowledge that the stories weren't real. Kids could gape or squeal or run away from the ghostly face someone claimed they just saw in the window of that abandoned shack on the corner as much as they wanted, but it was all part of the game.

But something in his gut told him that now was the time to shut up and listen— to really listen. He was a man who had received a letter from a dead woman, had battled monsters straight from the imagination of some disturbed horror writer, had watched as his own memories were proven false before his very eyes. He was certifiably, undeniably crazy. And here he was, trying to be reasonable.

For some reason, Laura was trying to tell him something important. And he had no place to question it. She had been wrong about many things in the short time James had known her, but she'd been right about more.

So, with a swallow and a creak of the plastic-coated cushion he was sitting on, he leaned forward once more, voice lowered.

"How d'you know the place the other kids get sent to is bad?"

Laura evaluated him solemnly and resentfully, eyes roaming over every inch of his face before she settled again. James got the distinct impression that he'd already lost one strike, and if he screwed up again, he might have blown his chances at getting the answers he needed out of her entirely.

"Well, everybody knows," she said emphatically. "Even the Sisters do. Whenever they talk about it to us, they blink a lot an' sometimes they get outta breath. It's 'cause they're lying."

She paused there, possibly expecting him to interject with disbelief once more, but he only inclined his head, prompting her to continue. It was an unspoken I'm sorry. This time I'll listen.

Although she did not acknowledge it verbally, he knew she'd noticed it because when she licked her lips and spoke up again, she sounded less defensive. Less like she was expecting him to disbelieve her right off the bat.

On the other hand, her tone held a weird edge to it.

"I'm finished."

Blinking, James frowned lightly and tilted his head for a second as he tried to puzzle out what that was supposed to mean. Was she finished talking about it? Had he blown it?

Perhaps sensing his confusion, Laura rolled her eyes on principal. There was less heart in it than usual, but it made him cringe inwardly nonetheless.

"Eating. I'm done eating."

"Oh..."

James still felt baffled. Of course she was done eating— they'd finished a good ten minutes ago— but what did that have to do with... Ohhhh.

He pressed his hand down on the edge of the table in preparation to rise.

"You wanna go back out to the car?"

As Laura nodded and hopped off the seat, James couldn't help but feel a pinprick of pride in himself for having worked out the meaning in her dizzying array of unspoken statements and double meanings. It was pride that was quickly wiped away when she nearly left him behind in her swift scampering for the door, but c'est la vie.

Tiny raindrops were peppering the parking lot as they crossed to the car, and James held one arm over his head to shielf his bandaged brow from them. Laura, on the other hand, trotted straight over to the car without a care. He supposed she had bigger things on her mind than a bit of rain.

As soon as the door had clunked shut behind him, she turned to him again and all of the intensity she'd held before was back.

"Last year, there was a kid called Sammy," she told him shortly, as though there had been no pause in the conversation at all. There was a pause after that, though, but it seemed more to collect her thoughts than anything else.

James thought briefly about pulling back onto the road while she talked, but something stayed his hand from the keys. This conversation, somehow, did not feel like one they should be having on the move. Besides... he still didn't know where he was supposed to be going.

Instead, he took the opportunity to quietly ask, "Was he your friend?"

Laura shook her head.

"Nuh uh. One time we built a city in the sandbox together, but then he called me Nacho Butt so I kicked the town mayor's house into his face."

"Oh..."

The raindrops' frequency had started to increase, providing them with a gentle, pitter-pattering soundtrack as they came plopping down onto the windshield.

"He was always gettin' in trouble. He cussed a lot and sometimes stole stuff. One day they told us he was gettin' sent to Wish House 'cuz he was too much for the Sisters." She paused there and looked down at her lap, fidgeting. "He said he'd send letters to his friends. Swore on his mom's grave and spit on the ground twice to prove it. He always did that when he was gonna do something for sure."

"... But he didn't?"

She shook her head. "It was months and there wasn't a single one. His best friend Mattie cried and cried. Every night." Then her tone soured deeply and she added, repeating herself from before, "The Sisters always told us it was just because he was so busy where he was that he never had a chance to, but that's stupid. That's stupid and a lie."

And then, exhaling sharply through her nostrils, she shook her head again, even more vehemently— this time with a sort of outraged disbelief as more possibilities occurred to her. Her voice trembled slightly.

"They didn't even make a fake letter to make him feel better. They could've pretended like it came in with the next day's mail and given it to him, all like, 'Look Mattie! Look what came in the mail!', but they didn't. They just let him cry."

As James watched the girl in the passenger's seat, he felt all the doubts he might have previously had about the validity of her tall tales begin to slip away. She was talking about someone she didn't even like. And yet her voice was full of anger on his behalf, full of shock and outrage at the sheer injustice of it.

She would not be talking this way if it were not real.

"... Did this happen a lot?" he asked in a murmur.

"Not a lot... just sometimes. Maybe once every year. But we all knew about it. The older kids said it used to happen a ton. After lights-out they'd tell us the stories and we knew they were true 'cuz they were scared, not just saying spooky things to try and scare us. So we knew it could happen to any of us if we were real bad."

The pieces, at last, were beginning to fall together.

"... Did you do something bad, Laura?"

The girl was quiet for a time.

"... It wasn't anything real bad. I just got got in a fight with Jennifer over kickball. She said I cheated and kept running after I got tagged out on first, but I really didn't. The ball hit Carolyne's leg and bounced off and then hit me, so it didn't count. But Jennifer pointed at me and yelled and I yelled back and then when Sister Megan came out, she blamed me for it."

She frowned deeply, nose scrunched up. The classic expression of a child scorned, although James could hardly blame her, even if he did have a feeling she was probably the one responsible for the argument's escalation. Call it a hunch.

"She made me go upstairs to the bedroom for the rest of the day to think about what I did. Normally when that happens, I don't care cuz it's quiet and I just read the books we got up there, but..." Her hands opened and produced a pile of paper napkin shreddings that she must have taken with her when they had left the restaurant. Fiddling with them once more, she stared downwards at her shoes. "... I was thinkin' about something that the big kids said to us one night, about how Red Freddie heard that the Wish House had dogs they trained to be mean and bite you if you broke the rules, and— and a big spooky tower in the woods that they made you live in if you were bad, and I got afraid, and... and..."

The connections drifted together in James's head.

"... And... that was when you broke your arm..."

Laura nodded, almost looking a little guilty. Almost.

"I was ... I was tryin' to climb out the window. I thought I'd just leave. I thought maybe I could go and join the circus and take care of monkeys."

"But they didn't say anything about sending you away, did they? You... you probably didn't need to leave..."

"I was scared," Laura mumbled, looking like she was trying to burn a hole through the floor of his car with her eys. "Sister Megan was real mad. I thought for sure they were gonna send me to Wish House. I don't care if it was dumb. I hated living there anyway."

She was quiet for a second, then added, darkly, "Besides... when they were taking me to the hospital, I overheard them talking. They said I couldn't be controlled. And I heard one of 'em mention the S.H.S.S.S. ... That's what they call it when they don't want us to know what they're talkin' about. 'Cause they're stupid and they think we're stupid."

An SUV pulled into the empty parking space next to them and a rowdy gaggle of outdoorsy-looking teenage boys piled out of it. Amid a lot of loud slamming of car doors and yelling about how Coach wanted onions on his, they horsed their way towards the restaurant. Laura sent them a glare through the passenger's side window that could have withered evergreens.

They didn't notice, naturally, and she turned back to James after a second or two, her expression still sour. It brightened slightly when she noticed that he had been frowning at them, too. But when she spoke up again, her voice was still holding a note of that forlorn sound that James wasn't used to hearing from her her.

"I guess it was 'cuz it wasn't the first time I tried to run away. I kinda did that a lot."

This didn't surprise him in the slightest. It would explain why she'd avoided him so determinedly and effectively back in that town, and furthermore why she'd been able to run away to find Mary in the first place. She'd honed her skills through practice.

"So then I was at the hospital an' I met Mary there. She was the only grownup who ever liked talkin' to me. She said nobody else talked to her much, not even the doctors or her parents when they came to visit her."

The story was suddenly personal again and guilt flooded into James like a sack of loose spiders.

"I didn't even care that she looked ugly. She's the nicest lady I ever met. We talked about everything together. Sometimes when I'd finished my crackers and juice the nurses'd tell me to leave so that she could get her rest, but she always winked at me and said all quiet-like that I could sneak back in when they weren't looking and she wouldn't be mad."

James's chest hurt.

They had been young when they got married, so young that they'd never put much effort or thought into preparing for children. It wasn't that they hadn't wanted any— it was just that back then it had seemed like they'd have all the time in the world for that. It hadn't even been something they needed to talk about.

The unspoken sureness that they would settle down and create a family once they were ready was something both of them had taken for granted.

But out of the two... Mary had always been the one who seemed destined for the life of a parent. She had always been so good with kids.

With painful memories collecting in his head, James wanted to open his mouth— to tell Laura that he knew Mary thought the same way about her, but the words just wouldn't come out. Like animals huddling at the back of a cage. Somehow saying something like that felt sickeningly wrong. How could a killer speak for the person he had taken the life of— and to the child left behind?

Instead, his tongue found more questions to be asked. His voice sounded hollow and fuzzy to his ears, almost like he was listening to someone else as the questions from very far away.

"You said you met her last year... were you really in the hospital for that long? Just for your arm?"

"Yeah," Laura shrugged. She didn't seem particularly concerned with that part. It made sense. What reason would an eight-year-old have to question the one time circumstances seemed to align in her favor? "I dunno why. But I didn't care. It was nice."

"But you had to go back home, eventually." Otherwise she wouldn't have had to run away to the hospital again to begin with...

She nodded, scrunching up her face. "They didn't even let me say goodbye. Not the way I wanted to."

James had a feeling that she hadn't wanted to say goodbye at all, but he didn't say anything about it. He was starting to feel on the inside like Laura's face looked on the outside. It didn't feel good.

The teenage boys passed again, hooting and making ball-throwing motions to each other as they threw open the SUV's doors and piled inside with their boxed pizza slices and soft drinks. This time, Laura didn't looka t them. She had directed her attention to the windshield, which she stared out of with an expression more pensive and pained than any eight-year-old should be wearing.

It took a few minutes for James to summon the nerve to break the silence.

"... Did you get to see her again?" ... Before I...?

Laura shook her head.

"We talked through letters... like pen pals. I always used to want a pen pal." A faint smile appeared at the corners of her mouth. "Every week when we got mail, there'd be a letter from Mary. All the other kids were real jealous. A few of 'em even started saying I was gonna be 'dopted." Her chest swelled with pride as she said the word, and James could tell that she (and probably everybody else at the orphanage) had never thought she stood a chance at being wanted by anyone. As bratty as Laura was, she always seemed perfectly aware of the face that she was so unlovable. Perhaps it was even something she did on purpose.

Her smile had faded as she went back to looking down at the clasped hands in her lap.

"... Then one day there weren't any more letters. I'd ask every time we got mail and one time I even found the mail bag and looked in it myself 'cuz I thought they might be hiding 'em. But there weren't any... I got in trouble real bad for that."

Biting his lip, James folded his own hands. He had a feeling that must have been during Mary's last months. He remembered visiting her a few times on the particularly bad days and she'd been so weak she could hardly lift her hands at all, much less hold anything in them. Cups would slip right out of her fingers unless someone was there to hold them down firmly.

It had hurt so badly to watch.

And it hurt badly now, to even remember it. Especially now that he was imagining (without being able to help it, like a movie playing in his head) her trying to hold a pen in her hand long enough to write one of the weekly letters Laura spoke of, as it got harder and harder to do until finally she just couldn't do it anymore. She had probably cried. She cried a lot in those last few months.

Those had been the ones where she had really begun to turn into a different person. The sort of person who didn't just get angry with him, but one who cursed and said hateful, bile-filled, venomous things that he hadn't thought the Mary he knew could even think of, much less want to say out loud.

He had known that it was the disease talking. The pain and the suffering, the terrible fear of death and having to stare into its face alone. He'd known she couldn't help it.

But he had let those terrible words get to him anyway.

He should have stayed stronger. He should have been there for her.

Maybe if he had known about Laura, he could have helped her write those letters himself.

... No. No, the man he'd been then wouldn't have. He was too weak and too selfish.

... But somehow she'd found a way to write that last letter, even without him. She'd written that final letter to Laura, all by herself. And then she'd somehow written an even longer letter to him...

His body ached with shame.

"... I know she would've kept writing you if she could..." he started to murmur, but it was so quiet he could hardly hear it himself, and Laura had started her tale once more.

"I knew somethin' was wrong, and... and I had t' ... I had t'go find out what it was."

She was sitting up straight again now, not looking down at her lap for once, but not quite looking at James or out the window, either. Instead, her eyes were focused straight on the dashboard. Her face had gone pink and she was puffing through her nostrils like a worked-up pony.

"So... I ran away. For real this time. It wasn't hard. I just waited till everyone was playin' hide and seek and Sister Megan was lookin' the other way and I ran off down the sidewalk. Then I got on the bus to St. Jerome's. It took a long time 'cuz I got off at the wrong stop once and had to wait for the bus to come back. But I got there eventually."

"How'd you get in?"

"I walked through the front doors."

"Oh."

Now that he thought of it, that place wasn't really too stuffy about who came in and out. It was a busy hospital. They probably hadn't even noticed her.

He nodded to show that he was still listening and believed her, though he could tell that the tale was coming to a close.

"That's when you took the letter out of your nurse's locker... right?"

"Yeah. Rachel's. I remembered the combination."

He decided not to ask how or why she knew the combination to her nurse's private locker, but he had a sneaking suspicion she hadn't been meant to obtain that information.

Laura continued, her little fists bunched in front of her.

"I found the letter. At first I was looking through all the red envelopes lyin' on the bottom but it was in a white one on the shelf. I knew I'd get in trouble if I got caught, but it had MY name on it so I wasn't doing anything wrong! So— so I hid, and— and I read it, and ... and she wished me a happy birthday..."

James remembered. She had shown him that letter back there in Silent Hill, after all— he could remember holding it in his hands. The feel of the soft paper on his waterlogged fingers, pruny from splashing around for hours down in the cold, flooded tunnels underneath the Historical Society, and from rowing across the lake for what seemed like an eternity. For a second, the wet squeak of Laura's fingers drawing whimsical forms in the fogged-up courtyard doors scratched at his ears, even though her hands had not left her lap. The memory was just that clear, and it made his inner ears itch as he recalled his eyes roaming across the letter that had proven Laura spoke the truth when she told him Mary had been alive less than a year before...

But he did not stop her.

She was already continuing.

"In the letter, she said... she said she'd gone to a faraway place. One that was quiet. ... An'... an' she said she was sorry for not saying goodbye, and that Rachel was s'pposed to give me the letter after she'd already gone, but she didn't so it must've just... it must've just been there, and..."

Laura's lack of faith in anyone aside, James knew that her trip to the hospital must not have been long after Mary had gone home to begin with— gone but not gone. Not the sort of 'gone' she gently spoke of in her letter.

Because by the time he, James, had gotten to Silent Hill, Laura was already there, searching for her lost friend.

Which meant that while Laura had been sitting hunkered down with a letter she hadn't yet been meant to read in some broom closet in St. Jerome's, Mary had been alive, lying there in the guest room of her own house like a corpse, waiting for death to come.

And come it did.

In the form of her stupid, selfish, disgusting husband...

"She... told me to be good, and... And that... and that—"

It occurred to James that although he had seen her with tears on her face, and heard her voice choke up, he had never actually seen Laura cry. She didn't seem like the kind of child who would resort to tears to get her way— as bratty as she was, that seemed to be one low she would not stoop to. She was too proud, too determined to convince the world that there was no way it could get to her.

So when he saw the way her mouth wobbled as she spoke, it sent involuntary flutters of panic through him— that rush of adrenaline one gets while encountering something strange and new and upsetting and has no idea how to deal with it. And he could tell that she was aware of it, too— her face was struggling to compose itself, her eyes open wider than ever, as though challenging the tears that were threatening to fall.

"—that she— that she loved me like her very own daughter," she finally managed to say, the words wobbling out of her mouth like someone shaking them out of a bottle. "She said... she said that if things'd been diff'rent, she was gonna— she was gonna adopt me."

James had read the same words Laura had. He knew them by heart— they had stuck in his mind like the metallic sheen that appears on your hand after writing pages of notes in pencil— but hearing them from her...

His chest felt tight as a noose. The kind of pain that happened when you swallowed too much water at once, and it stretched and gouged all the way down through your chest like a burrowing worm.

He closed his hand tighter around the steering wheel because there was nothing else he could think of to do— like maybe if he squeezed that semi-pliable ring of rubber and cloth as hard as he could, some of the tightness and pain would bleed out of his chest. It was the only way he could bear to keep watching the little girl in the passenger's seat beside him.

At long last, a few tears dribbled down from her eyes and over her cheeks (which had been growing redder and redder with the effort of holding them back). She had lost the battle with her mouth, allowing the tenuous trembling to become a yank at the corners, pulling her lips into a long, fishlike downwards curve. Her voice was beginning to skip like a broken record.

"She was g—she was g-gunna adopt me..."

James felt his eyes burn and he turned to the windshield, which the rain had blurred into a muted gray painting.

Beside him, Laura spluttered and hiccoughed, her chest hitching as she tried valiantly to keep speaking. But the oncoming sobs chopped her words up like vegetables under an inexperienced hand's paring knife.

"So... so I w-went t-t-tuh Silent Hill-luh, because— hhnuh because she was m-muh-my friend and I m-m-missed her. A-and she said tat she was s-ssssomewhere quiet an'—an'—and beautiful, and she always u-used to t-tell me st-stuhuff about tht place— l-like the hotel, an' how t-there were guh-glass windows everywhere that l-lehet the light in, an'—an' sometimes she'd hhum this pretty t-tune that she said was f-fruh—from the o-old music boxes from th c-c-cluckkk—clock in the lobby— s-she said I'd like 'em b-because they were a-about princesses..."

James had sagged further forwards, onto the steering wheel— his hand creeping upwards to cover his mouth with more force than was necessary, sending creeping threads of pain up the bridge of his nose. His eyes had shut tight— he'd realized that the rain was not what was blurring his view out the windshield.

Laura was crying openly now, her face crinkled, puffy and red, glistening with tears. Her fingers were clenched tightly on either side of her, white-knuckled. There were tracks in the velvet from where her fingernails had scraped into fists. The gasping had trailed off, but in exchange, it had taken with it any semblance of composure.

"S-suh-sometimes, when I was s-sitting in her r-ruh-room... she'd get r-real quiet and ju-juhust look out the window... t-they put her in a room with b-big windows... an' I'd ask her what she was doin', and... an' she'd just look back at me n'smile. She didn' do that a whole lot 'cuz her face was so ugly, she said it m-made her feel self-cuh— conscious. S-so she'd smile at me and s-say 'Oh, I was just thinking about that place...' N'... n'then she'd tell me 'bout when you guys went, how— how you'd sit in R-ruh-rosewater Park... Rosewater. I a-always thought that was a real pretty name. I-it reminded me of the d-dried flow'r petals t-the Sisters kept in the bathroom... Anyway, she'd t-tell me about how you used t'go there, n'sit under the trees an' watch the w-water... h-how you'd— you'd watch it for hours and hours and everything s-smelled like blossoms f-fruh-from the trees..."

James's hand had migrated up to his eyes a he hunched forwards, his elbow tucked onto the lower ring of the steering wheel. He had a feeling it was all that was holding him up.

An agonized grin had stretched his lips from his teeth, baring them in a painful grimace as tight as an over-drawn violin string. He'd been trying to hide it, but there was no longer any point. His shoulders were heaving and high wheezes escaped through those tightly-gritted teeth, pulling on each tendon and pipe in his neck like hands on a rope. It hurt.

His thumb jabbed bluntly into the lid of his tender, blackened eye and his own tears erupted at last— they had just been waiting for an excuse to fall.

Laura, too, was spluttering even harder, fighting with every last bit of strength to keep from succumbing to the deep, chest-born sobs that were welling up and shaking her tiny body.

"S-she used to say... 'Laura, someday when I'm better, I'll take you there. I'll take you to Silent Hill and you can see he park, and all the shops and streets. We'll make it a vacation, just you and me.' S-so... when I read her letter, an'... an' she talked about having gone away... I... I thought... m-maybe she meant that sh was w-wuh-waiting for me there, l-like she always said we'd g-g-guh-go. And that— that m-maybe if I went t'... t'find her, s-she'd adopt me luh-like she said in her letter and we could just l-luh-live there till she got better... 'cuz... 'cuz she said she loved me. ME. N-not one of th-thuh other kids, she loved me. S-she was the o-only one who did. S-she... She was gonna adopt me..."

Oh, god...

James's teeth finally parted enough to suck in a quick breath of air, and a jerky, shoutish sound escaped him as he crumpled down against the steering wheel, chest heaving and painful, gasping sobs— the sound of someone who hadn't let themselves willingly cry in a long time and didn't remember how to cope with the way it made their bodies convulse like an animal lurching inside a trap— escaping him in spastic bursts.

He had cried in Silent Hill and he had cried while he took those wobbly, tentative steps to prepare for the departure from his old home. The first had been instinctive and involuntary, brought on by waves of overwhelming fear and confusion that had battered him relentlessly and involuntarily as he had stumbled through Hell towards his own chilling truth. The second had been cathartic and somehow cleansing, like he'd been bleeding out some of the poisons that had been circling through his system for three years: the helplessness, the hurt, the fear and anger and self-hatred. All so that he could start over. It had been a painful, but necessary, part of it all.

This was neither of those things. He couldn't find any excuse for or meaning in it— it just was what it was. Perhaps it was something he wouldn't have been able to do before now, before he had expelled those emotional toxins.

The rain came pattering down on the windshield at last, finally blurring the already-muted landscape for real.

This was a good thing— it offered some small shield from the outside world. It was nearing lunchtime and there were more cars meandering into the parking lot now, but anyone who happened to pass by and look into the windows of the little blue Oldsmobile wouldn't see anything out of the ordinary about the fuzzy forms of two people sitting in the front.

Mary had wanted to adopt Laura.

Laura, who was so unlovable that not even the other orphans seemed to want her around.

Just as the snippy little girl had been the one light in the last years of Mary's life, so too had Mary been the light in hers.

What James had done was bad enough on its own. No matter what his reasons had been, no matter how much Mary had hurt him, no matter how close she had been to death when he'd done it. There was no excuse and he knew it. He had known it even as he did it, and he had known it every step of the way in Silent Hill.

But somehow, hearing this side of the story was hitting him like a sledgehammer, so hard that it almost crippled.

Mary had been Laura's only hope, and he had taken it away.

He couldn't blame her for hating him. He deserved it. He deserved worse.

He did not reach over to comfort her.

Even if he could have (and he was certain that he couldn't— his slouched body felt alien and out of control as it jerked with grief, like a marionette with its strings being tugged at random), it wouldn't have been right.

They were both grieving for the same person, but they were not kindred innocents weathering a tragedy together despite their differences. Laura was the only innocent person in that car, and James, no matter how much he regretted it, no matter how much he hated himself for it, no matter how out of his broken mind he'd been when he'd done it, was the one who had caused both of them this terrible agony.

James had no right to hug her or tell her that it was going to be okay, especially because he wasn't entirely sure it would be.

The murderer could not comfort the people hurt by his crime, no matter how bad he felt about it.

So they sat there side by side for a time, an eight-year-old girl and a man on the cusp of thirty, both sobbing like they knew how to do nothing else, two feet apart from each other but separated by what felt like miles.

After what felt like an eternity, they both slowly recovered their composure. Laura's face was shiny with tears when he finally lifted his pounding head and looked over in her direction, and she was wiping her nose on her sleeve, leaving behind a dark, slick blotch in the fabric. Her cheeks and forehead were still red and splotchy, the breaths she took still deep and shuddering.

On James's part, his face was mostly dry. The tears had been brief— he had a feeling he'd cried a lot of them out the previous night as he had wandered his desolate abode and taken care of each memory-stirring task. But all the same, his eyes itched and stung around the rims from the saltwater they had shed, and his temples pounded feverishly. The rest of his body was what had taken the brunt of the breakdown— the rapid, helpless gasping had left his chest with a deep, bruised ache. His head felt heavy.

"You know..." Laura had straightened up and was now picking at the corners of her eyes to rid herself of whatever gunk had stayed there. Her voice was croopy and hoarse. "I think I kinda knew. When I read the letter. I kinda knew that she was gone. 'Cuz... 'cuz otherwise she would've taken me with her b'fore she went. She woulda come and got me first. N'steada just leaving."

James looked at her tiredly.

She didn't look back at first.

"But... she'd always said she was gonna take me to Silent Hill with her someday. I knew she was sick real bad, but..." Her brows furrowed and James could tell that if she hadn't just used up all her tears, they would have started again. "She promised."

At last, she turned her head to face him, salt-streaked face imploring.

"She's... she's really not comin' back, is she?"

James's eyes prickled again, but he too had wept himself dry, so none came. He turned to face front again, shaking his head wordlessly for a few seconds before croaking out, "No."

Laura didn't say anything else.

James inhaled deeply, filling his aching lungs with air that he hoped would help to clear his head.


It wouldn't have mattered, in the big picture, if he hadn't done what he had. The outcome would still have been the same.

Even if he had allowed Mary to slip slowly away on her own in that dark, depressing little room, Laura would still have run away. She still would have found the letter, and she still would have gone to Silent Hill by herself, only to be devastated when there proved to be no sign of her friend. Even if James had never even existed, Mary would not have been able to adopt Laura. She'd been given a death sentence that would have taken her life even without the help of her husband.

But somehow, the knowledge did nothing to ease his shame. He had still taken away the one chance this little girl had at a family. He had still taken the life of a human being, an innocent woman who had given him so much, more than could ever be invalidated by the cruelty brought out of her by her suffering. His hands were the ones that had— ... well. He had already relived that once in the past twenty-four hours. He wasn't sure he could handle doing it again so soon.

Regardless, the point stood.

He had done so much more damage than he ever could have imagined.

And worst of all, it was permanent.

Nothing could bring Mary back.

And the worst, most darkly hilarious and hopeless part of it all was that, despite the obvious and crushing weight of his own guilt, nothing would really have changed for Laura if he hadn't done it.

In fact, the only thing that would have turned out differently at all in the end would be the absence of this little side-trip on her way back from Silent Hill. She'd still have wound up going home to the orphanage— and eventually this mysterious 'Wish House'. A Grimms' Fairy Tale ending for her, after she had gotten a brief taste of what it was like to have a loving mother.

And he would never have been any the wiser about her very existence.

No matter which hypothetical scenario you carried out, James Sunderland still wound up being a sorry, useless son of a bitch. The only difference was that one of those sorry, useless sons of a bitch was also a murderer.

Helpless to save Mary from death, and helpless to save the child she'd loved from a questionable fate in—

... Wait.


Wait just one minute.

Slowly, James sat up again, his back protesting weakly. His brain didn't notice it. Puffy eyes aside, he suddenly felt like he could see a little more clearly than before. Something was dawning on him.

Perhaps noticing the way that his body had gone still and his gaze suddenly focused, Laura looked over at him. He could see her in his peripheral vision and could tell that even though she had just broken down right in front of him, she was still wary. He was Mary's killer, after all, even though he had a feeling she was at least beginning to accept that he hated what he had done.

"So... where are you going?" she said after a moment, interrupting his thoughts.

"... Hunh?" He turned to look at her, after a brief moment of difficulty in tearing his eyes away from the straight line they'd been pointing in— like his thought process was a speeding arrow, difficult to change the direction of without losing the train entirely.

She stared back at him evenly, having pulled herself together. Resettled on her still-blotchy face was the usual, almost-confrontational expression she usually wore.

"I said, where are you going? You're not going back to Mary's house... so... where?"

Sighing, he turned to look back at the film of rain seeping down over the glass.

"I... don't know," he replied after a moment, crossing his arms over the steering wheel and leaning down to rest his chin on them. "Not yet, anyway..."

And then, eyes sliding slowly, almost timidly, back over to the girl in the passenger seat, he added, "... Would you... like to come with me?"

Back in the dirty little lot behind Vick's bar, he had seen her look shocked at him, but it had always faded after a few seconds at most. If she admitted that he'd surprised her, after all, that was a sign that somehow, somewhere, she'd been wrong. And Laura was not big on being proven wrong.

But this time, the sheer surprise and disbelief on her face lit up like a spotlight and stayed there. She stared at him, mouthing like a fish out of water before she was able to summon up her capacity for speech.

"You?" Although her voice still held a nasty creak from the crying, it was loud and challenging. But even more than that, it was incredulous. She could hardly believe her ears. "You... you're not gonna take me back to the orphanage?"

"Not unless you want me to. I mean... you didn't like it there, and you said they were gonna send you to... that other place."

"Yeah, but— you— you're..." She paused there, a million conflicting emotions playing across her face. He waited, patiently. He understood, after all. And even now, he wasn't sure if she'd accept the offer at all. Finally, like some kind of dam breaking, she burst out: "I don't even like you!", as though informing him of this for the first time.

"I know..." he told her. "And that's okay."

I don't really like me all that much, either.

Scrawny chest re-inflating all the way for the first time since she'd finished weeping, Laura drew herself up, looking James up and down with hawklike intensity. Analyzing him like a puzzle she just couldn't work out. If only she knew that she was the same thing to him... although he felt that he was starting to understand her a little better.

"... You'd adopt me like Mary?" she asked finally, dubiously.

"I... I'm not sure I can do that," James admitted, watching the dull lights of traffic whizzing by on the distant highway. "... I don't think they'd let me..."

Laura nodded, slowly. It had to make sense, even to a little kid. A mysterious man whose wife had just died, showing up out of nowhere and asking to take the orphanage's most troublesome resident home with him? When he didn't even have a home he could go back to? Fat chance.

She chewed on her lip for a moment, brows deeply furrowed, before piping up again.

"... So... we'd just... go?"

James nodded.

"That's the plan. ... It's... it's not much of a plan, but... well, it's something." He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, rolling his sore shoulders to get the kinks out of them. "I mean... you don't have to. I can take you back, too. But I just ... I just thought I'd ask. ... Thought that maybe we could..."

He trailed off there, fingers absentmindedly rustling through his hair to probe the nasty lump on the back of his head. He was relieved to find that the swelling had started to go down. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet and more than a little sheepish.

"I mean... I'm... kind of running away, too."

Quiet descended on the interior of the Oldsmobile as both of its occupants lapsed into thoughtful silence. The rain plinked and pattered gently on the old metal roof of the vehicle, but it was picking up force as its thickest clouds crawled slowly overhead from the west. Soon it would be pouring. But for now, the sound was faraway, almost dreamy. The inside of the car was dry and sheltered from whatever storm may have been coming, at the moment.

"... So when are we leavin'?"

Laura's chirping voice broke the silence and James looked at her in surprise, his brows flying up despite the fact that they made the bruises on his forehead twang in protest.

She was staring at him evenly and scrubbing the salt from one cheek with her sleeve, her blue eyes bloodshot but dry.

"I said, when are we leavin'? Are you deaf or something?"

James fought to keep the corners of his mouth from creeping upwards into a wobbly smile. His chest felt tight again.

"When—... whenever you want."

Finally sticking the keys into the ignition, he let the car rattle into life and pulled out of the parking lot and onto the open road.

Laura scooted into a more upright position in her seat. She was no longer fidgeting or slouching. She looked alert and the growing tension was gone.

"We gotta get some food," she told him authoritatively. "If we're going on a big trip, we're gonna need lots of food."

"We can stop at a grocery store and pick up some supplies there," he replied, heart feeling lighter than it had even when he'd gotten into the car with those freshly-sewn patches on his left shoulder.

He flicked the windshield-wipers on to clear the view. The road ahead was wide open and inviting.

He had no home, was technically kidnapping a girl who didn't like him and who he wasn't entirely sure wouldn't kill him in his sleep, and he had no idea where he was going.

For the first time in three years, things seemed to be going right.

"We can pick up some clothes for you, too. So you won't have to wear the same thing all the time."

"Clothes are good. Will we have a map?"

"I have one in the glove compartment."

"Is it of where we're goin'?"

"... Uh... aheh... no, I guess it isn't."

"Well, I'll MAKE a map of where we're goin', then."

"Heh, all right... we can get some paper and pens, too."

"Walkie-talkies. We should have those too."

"I'm... not sure about that."

"Well, you're stupid, so..."

"... I guess so, yeah..."

"So are you gonna buy walkie-talkies?"

"Maybe."


~*~



The last time James had been down the cereal aisle in a grocery store, he did not remember there being so many brands that looked more like packing peanuts soaked in food coloring than they did cereal.

Still, he found himself saying the words, "We should probably get some cereal while we're at it..." anyway. It was cheap, right? And he had a feeling it would be a good idea to stock up on food that didn't require more in the way of preparation than the addition of a liquid.

The basket in his hand (which was already feeling heavy) had already been caringly packed by Laura with boxes of crackers, chips, bagged bread, and other odds and ends including a tub of something called marshmallow fluff that James had eyed dubiously but conceded to when she insisted.

Speaking of insisting...

"Get that one."

She was standing beside him and pointing grimly up at some point towards the top of the Great Wall of Cereal. James followed the direction of her finger and wrinkled his nose.

"... Laura... that stuff is probably full of sugar..."

She looked at him slowly.

And then, after a moment of smoldering silence, said, "... If I screamed real loud right now like I was getting hurt, everyone in this store would look at you funny."

James sighed.

Then reached for the box of Sugar Krinkles.

Going right at last or not, this was going to be a very long trip.


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