Disclaimer: I do not own the TMNT. Fair warning, this is not going to be one of my usual funny fluffy stories. I decided it was time to take trip outside my comfort zone and really test myself; it took me to the dark corner of my soul, and this is what I found. Special thanks to Sassyblonde, whose fic "Drowning" inspired me to push my boundaries as a writer.
This weather is going to be the death of me, April thought. She sat in traffic on a raw, rainy Saturday afternoon, unusual for the month of August. The heater in her car was broken again, so she had to wipe the windshield with her hand every two minutes in order to see the endless line of cars ahead of her. On the seat next to her were brown bags filled with groceries. Some of them were for her, but most were for the turtles. April sighed; it wasn't too long ago that she actually looked forward to visiting them.
How long ago had it all started? Three years? Four? Definitely no more than four. It seemed so much longer than that. Maybe that was because the life she knew before seemed so distant, so different, it was like it was like it had never existed at all.
Four years ago, Splinter began to forget. Little things at first; he'd misplace his walking staff, the teapot somehow ended up in the refrigerator...
April's cell phone rang. She picked it up and held it to her ear. "Hello?"
"April?" Casey's voice asked.
April smiled. "Hi honey."
"When are you coming home?"
"Soon. I just have to stop by the lair." There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Casey, we talked about this," April sighed. "I told Don I'd stop by for a few minutes."
"It's just that Abs is wondering when we get to have cake." Casey replied with an edge in his voice.
"Soon. I promise," April said forcefully, knowing full well his attitude had nothing to do with cake. "I'm just going to say a quick hi and then I'll be home. Okay?"
"Okay," Casey sighed, relenting. An infant wailed in the background. "Jack's up. I gotta go. Love you."
"Love you." April hung up and returned her phone to its place on the dashboard. At least some good had come out of the last four years; she and Casey had finally tied the knot, and they had been blessed with two beautiful children. April remembered the first time Splinter held Abigail in his arms, beaming like a proud grandparent; he was still able to recognize his loved ones back then.
April had snapped a photo of the two of them that day, and that same photo now sat on the mantle at home in a sterling silver picture frame. Some days looking at it made her happy, other days it filled her with sorrow; it was par for the course whenever she thought about Splinter.
She remembered the first time Splinter went missing. One moment he was sitting on the couch, watching his favorite television program, the next moment he was gone. It wasn't like the time he had disappeared while the turtles were fighting Shredder. Shredder was dead and the Foot was scattered to the far ends of the Earth; their enemies, at least those who were capable of snatching Splinter, were long gone. They were baffled.
April, Casey and the turtles searched the sewers for hours that day before they finally found him in a dead end tunnel, staring at the wall. When questioned, he had no idea how he had gotten there. They led him back to the lair, and once he was in his bedroom napping, they all assembled in the kitchen for some hot tea and coffee. They sat around in silence, sipping their drinks, until Michelangelo dared to breach the subject they were all turning over in their minds.
"So…what do you think happened to Sensei?"
His question was met with an uncomfortable silence. Finally Leo spoke. "He probably went for a walk and got a little lost, that's all."
This invoked a disgusted snort from Raphael. "Geez, Leo, it almost sounds as if you actually believe that."
"It could happen!" Mike snapped. "We've all gotten lost before!"
"Yeah, when we were kids!" Raph retorted. "Master Splinter knows these sewers better than anyone! There's something seriously wrong with him!"
"I wouldn't go that far, Raph," Don said quickly. "It's natural to be a little forgetful at his age."
"That's right," Casey added. "My grandma used to forget things all the time, but she could still tell a dirty joke and bake a mean lasagna right up until the day she died."
"None of us like the idea of Master Splinter getting old, but I don't think this is anything to get worked up about," Leo said. "I'm sure he'll be fine after a good night's rest."
Raph grunted and sipped his coffee, but did not press the matter any further. He was as anxious to drop the subject as the rest of them. As long as Splinter's behavior could be explained away, everything was fine.
But as the weeks and months passed, Splinter gradually grew worse. He eventually began to lash out, snapping at his sons over the smallest things, such as a dirty plate on the kitchen counter or a wrinkle in the rug. Still, his newly acquired temper was never discussed among the brothers, not even in private; they simply washed the plate or smoothed out the rug, and went about their business.
Then one day when the family assembled for morning exercises, Splinter stood in front of his students for over five minutes, doing nothing but staring blankly at them as if he had no idea what to do. Finally, Leonardo spoke up.
"Master," he had said with his usual tone of utmost respect, "should we start with our breathing exercises?"
Splinter responded with a foot to Leo's face, which sent him sailing across the room into the fall wall. "Do not question your master!" Splinter screamed, "NEVER QUESTION YOUR MASTER!" He then stormed out of the dojo, leaving behind four stunned sons, one of which was bruised and lying on the floor. It was at that moment the illusion they had spent so many months carefully building and nurturing was shattered beyond repair; they knew they could no longer pretend that everything was fine.
Late that night the four of them met secretly and compared notes, carefully documenting from memory every incident of odd behavior that until recently had been dismissed as a natural part of the aging process. Donatello complied all of the data, and after many sleepless nights in the lab he came to a chilling conclusion. He called April and asked…begged…her to look over his notes and prove him wrong. Unfortunately after several sleepless nights of her own, she arrived at the same conclusion…
Even now, more than two years later, the memory of that day made April wince; she clearly remembered the looks on the turtles' faces when she confirmed Don's findings. At that moment, they were no longer ninja warriors but a group of small children who had lost their only parent; scared, lost, and looking for someone to reassure them, to tell them everything would be all right.
They looked at her.
The traffic showed no signs of letting up. April grabbed her cell phone again and punched in the code for Donatello's communicator. She had long ago stopped carrying a communicator of her own; as a busy wife, mother, and proprietor of an antique store she didn't have room in her purse for extras like that. As usual, Don had come up with a perfect solution; he programmed individual codes for each of the turtles' communicators into her cell phone, as if they were regular phone numbers. Even so, she rarely used any of them; Don's was the only one she knew by heart.
April let the phone ring a dozen times before hanging up, figuring Don must be absorbed in another project. She took some comfort in that; it was nice to know some things never changed.
After the diagnosis, things changed a lot. They all knew Splinter would need constant supervision; working together, they came up with a schedule where each of the turtles would take turns watching their father. For her part April did a lot of research on Dementia, so that the turtles would have some idea what to expect, and learn how to cope with their new role as caretakers. Finally, there was only one thing left to do…talk to Master Splinter.
That was April's idea. It made the turtles uncomfortable, but April firmly believed he had the right to know. They waited until he was having a "good" day, a day when he more like his old self, to confront him. When that day came, April was right by their side.
"Master Splinter," Leonardo said. He sat on the couch with his brothers and April, facing his father. "We need to talk."
Splinter looked at him kindly. "What is it, my son?"
Leonardo paused. Sitting beside him, April could feel his anxiety. She squeezed his hand; Leonardo straightened up and spoke his mind.
"Sensei, you're sick. We love you and want to help." He blurted out.
Splinter's expression didn't change. "I don't know why you believe that, my son, but you are mistaken."
"But, Sensei, you have to admit you haven't been yourself lately!" Michelangelo exclaimed.
"Michelangelo!" Splinter snapped. "You will address me with the proper respect!"
"Sensei, please!" Raphael said. "We don't mean any disrespect, we just think…"
"Think what!" Splinter cried. "Think you are better than me? Better than your Master!"
"Sensei…" Donatello began.
Splinter jumped out of his seat. "ENOUGH!" He shouted. "HOW DARE YOU DISRESPECT YOUR MASTER!" He raised his walking stick to strike.
April jumped up, placing herself between Splinter and his sons. "Master Splinter, please!" She cried. "You don't want to hurt anyone! We love you and you love us! Please stop before you do something you'll regret!"
Splinter froze. Then he did something shocking, something none of them had ever seen him do before.
He began to cry.
It wasn't long before they all were.
April reached for her cell phone to try Don again, but at that moment traffic suddenly opened up. She grabbed the steering wheel and drove forward, slowly picking up speed, until she was forced to slam on the brakes when traffic suddenly stopped again. April smacked the dashboard in frustration. She didn't have time for this. It was Casey's birthday and their daughter, Abigail, was waiting to eat the cake…maybe she could drop by the lair next week.
That last thought was immediately followed by a pang of guilt; the turtles had always been there when she needed them, and had saved her life countless times. They were the ones who introduced her to Casey Jones; it was safe to say she owed everything she had to them. Why was she so reluctant to pay them a long overdue visit?
You know why, her inner voice scolded. You're afraid.
"I am not!" April thought. "Why would I be afraid of them? They're my family!"
Oh? Is that why you haven't visited them in months? Why you won't bring the children around anymore? The voice taunted.
"I've been busy!" April replied. "I have to run the antique store and take care of my family…"
But you just said the turtles are your family.
"They are!" April snapped. "It's just that…that…"
"I'm too…I'm so…"
April hung her head. "I'm afraid," she whispered.
Taking care of Splinter had been difficult, but with the four brothers working together it hadn't been so bad. Now that he had accepted what was happening to him, Splinter could be lucid for long periods of time, much longer than most other dementia patients, thanks to the mental discipline of his ninja training. April even harbored a secret hope that maybe he could fully recover, and she had a feeling she wasn't the only one. They had all faced impossible odds before and won, and if anyone could beat the odds this time, it was Splinter.
Then one terrible day six months ago, April was reminded of how cruel and unforgiving life could be.
"Guys!" April called out as she entered the lair, her arms filled with groceries. "I could use some help here."
No answer. April looked around the lair, but there was not a turtle in sight. Instead there was an odd silence. "Guys?" She called again. "Guys where are y…"
Suddenly she was knocked to the ground, and a sharp pain rippled across her left forearm. April screamed and instinctively covered her head, but there was no second attack. Too terrified to open her eyes, she listened to the sounds of a struggle and the excited cries of her friends. Moments later, everything was quiet.
"April?" Don's voice said. Slowly, hesitantly she opened her eyes and met his worried gaze. He offered her his hand. Still shaking, she reached out to take it, and was horrified at the sight of her blood-covered arm; three long angry lines were cut into her flesh. She looked around and saw her attacker.
Splinter sat on the floor, surrounded by his three other sons, staring at the floor with vacant eyes. Yet it didn't seem like Splinter; it was as if everything that was Splinter was gone, leaving behind a hollow shell. A shell with three long, bony claws that matched the pattern of her wounds. April's questioning gaze went from Leo to Raph to Mike, but none of them would even look at her.
"Come on, April," Don said quietly. "Let's get you patched up."
April sat in Don's lab pressing a hand towel against her arm, while he rummaged through the cabinets for some bandages and antiseptics. An uncomfortable silence hung in the air. Finally, Don turned and walked over to April, supplies in hand. April removed the towel from her arm and placed it on the table, carefully folding it so that it wouldn't leave a bloodstain.
Don examined the wound closely. "It's not as bad as it looks," he mumbled. "I don't think you need stitches."
"Good," April said absently.
Don went to work. The silence grew heavier and heavier over their heads, pressing down on them like lead bricks, until April finally gave in to the inevitable.
"How long has he been like this?"
Don sighed heavily. "A few weeks. He started hearing voices…he's convinced demons are after him, and they usually look like the four of us. He's lashed out before, but we've been able to keep it under control."
"Good job," April muttered. Don flinched slightly, but continued to carefully wrap April's arm. After a brief silence, Don spoke again.
"It hasn't been easy, you know. His mind might be off, but his Ninjitsu skills are as sharp as ever. The medication is the only thing that makes him manageable."
April looked at him. "What medication?"
"It's just something to calm him down," Don said quickly. "We slip it into his tea. He doesn't notice a thing." He looked at April's arm. "I guess we'll have to increase the dose again."
"You're drugging him?" April exclaimed. "Don, how could you? He's your father!"
"You think I want to do it?" Don spat. "Do you have any idea what it's like to have to take care of the person who loved you and raised you and protected you your whole life? To watch someone you love more than life itself deteriorate to the point where they don't even recognize you anymore? You have no right to judge me! You have no right!"
Leonardo appeared in the doorway. "Don! Be quiet!" He whispered angrily.
"Sorry, Leo," Don replied quickly, his voice much lower. "How's Splinter?"
"He's almost asleep, no thanks you," he snapped.
"I said I was sorry," Don said, his voice rising slightly.
"Guys, please, it was my fault," April said quickly. "I was the one who got upset and started yelling. I'm sorry."
Leo's face softened slightly; with a nod to April, he left the room. Don went back to work on April's bandage. "We try not to raise our voices," Don muttered. "It upsets Sensei."
April did not respond, and the heavy silence settled in again. In the midst of that silence, April was alone with her thoughts. Suddenly she realized Leo and Raph weren't yelling at each other. Mike wasn't cracking jokes or baiting Raph. In fact, the only turtle that had raised his voice in anger since she'd arrived was Don. It was at that moment reality finally sunk in, and it was far, far heavier than anything she'd ever felt before.
April lowered her eyes. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
"Me too," Don replied quietly.
The harsh blare of a car horn jolted April back to the present. Traffic had opened up again; this time there were no further interruptions, and April drove to the old warehouse that stood above the turtles' lair. She got out of the car, grabbed the groceries, and entered the warehouse. Moments later she walked through the door to the turtles' secret lair. April looked around; the lair was quiet, not a turtle in sight.
"Guys?" April called out as quietly as she could. A kettle whistled, and April followed the sound to the kitchen; she was surprised to find it empty. Putting down the groceries, she turned off the burner. To the right of the stove Splinter's tea set was arranged on a tray, along with the medicine Don had told her about. Seeing it sent a pang through her chest; she walked back to the entrance of the kitchen and looked around for the guys, determined to say a quick hello and get going. Unfortunately, there was nothing out there except silence. A silence that was frighteningly familiar.
"Guys, where are you?" April cried with a sudden sense of urgency. Still nothing. Her gaze fell on the door to Splinter's bedroom, where he was usually confined with one of his sons keeping an eye on him, day and night. Someone had to be in there.
April walked over to the door and slowly pushed it open. She saw Raphael slumped wearily in a chair half-asleep, staring at a lump on the bed covered in blankets. A wave of relief washed over her; she even smiled a bit at the sight of a dutiful son watching over his father. She walked into the room. "Hey, Raph," she said quietly, gently shaking his shoulder. "Wake…"
Raphael slid off the chair and fell to the floor in a heap. "Raphael!" April cried, falling to her knees beside him. She shook him vigorously, but there was no response. "DON!" She shouted frantically. "Come quick! Rapheal…"
The rest of the sentence froze in her throat when she noticed the bruising on Raphael's neck. April leaned in closer; one look at Raphael's half-open eyes, frosted over with a white glaze, told her that no amount of first aid could help him now.
Immediately a cold hard chill rushed through April's body. She screamed and pushed herself away, stumbling back onto the bed. The lump of blankets crumpled under her weight, revealing that the bed was empty. She gasped for air, her heavy, gulping breaths ringing in her ears, yet she couldn't breathe; through sheer force of will she stumbled out of the room that was suffocating her.
April ran frantically into what turned out to be the dojo, where she saw Leonardo kneeling on the mat, meditating. "Leo, quick," she cried, "I need…" as soon as she grabbed his shoulder, his body crumpled to the floor, revealing bruises on his neck that matched Rapheal's, and empty glazed eyes staring listlessly at nothing in particular.
April turned and flew through the lair into Don's lab. Don was sitting in front of his computer, his head lying on the keyboard, looking as though he had fallen asleep at his desk like he had many times before…but April instantly knew he was not asleep.
Her body suddenly felt numb; she clumsily stumbled out of the lab like a puppet on a string, slammed against one of the large stone pillars and hung on for dear life. She looked around the lair and listened for any sign of life, but all she could hear was the hammering of her heart.
She noticed the TV was on. There was no volume, but a video image flickered across the screen. April swallowed hard, afraid to leave the safety of the pillar, but knowing she had to. Slowly, very slowly, she pushed away and approached the TV, focusing intently on the screen. As she came closer, she noticed that the image was of Mikey's favorite video game, Space Samurai, with GAME OVER flashing across the middle. She rounded the couch and felt her foot bump against something; she looked down upon the crumpled form of Michelangelo.
The controller was inches from his left hand; April's brain suddenly recalled how Mikey used to say the day they took away his video games was the day they pried them from his cold dead hand. April began to laugh. She couldn't stop herself. She sank onto the arm of the couch and just kept laughing and laughing and laughing…
"What are you!" A voice hissed.
April spun around and saw Splinter staring at her from the other side of the room. She sprang to her feet and backed away, nearly tripping over Michelangelo's foot again. Slowly she inched her way towards the door, her terrified eyes locked on Splinter's angry ones.
"I…I'm sorry, I didn't mean to…I'll just leave…" April thought she saw him take a step towards her, panicked, and ran for the door; she was only a few feet away when Splinter jumped in front of her, blocking the only exit.
April barely recognized him. Gone was the kind, caring father figure; in his place stood a scruffy, wild-eyed animal that looked ready to attack at any moment. Terrified of upsetting him further, April struggled to suppress a scream. Instead, she still perfectly still and tried to stay clam.
"What are you!" Splinter said again.
"I…I'm nobody," April stammered. "I didn't come here to hurt you, I…"
"Do you hear them?" Splinter asked, eyes darting from side to side.
"W-who?" April asked.
"The demons," Splinter hissed. "They're here. I see them whispering, watching me, whispering…they think they can get me, but I found them…" he paused and shook his head violently. "I found them, but there are more, waiting for me." He glared at April.
"Splinter, I swear I'm not here to hurt you," April said, desperately trying to hide her fear. "I came to…make you some tea. Do you want some tea?"
Splinter didn't reply. He just looked at her through narrowed eyes.
"Why don't I make you some tea? I'm going into the kitchen now." April turned and began to slowly walk to the kitchen, fighting the urge to run like a crazed maniac with every step. She fully expected to be attacked at any moment, to feel Splinter's arm wrap around her neck right before he…
April pushed that thought from her mind. She focused instead on Casey and the babies and getting home to them. "I'll bring you some cookies, too," she called out cheerfully as she walked into the kitchen.
Once inside she hurried over to the teapot, pulled off the lid, and checked the contents. Empty. She grabbed the ceramic jar that held the tea leaves and threw several of them into the pot. She then reached for the medicine, but stopped. Her mind raced; should she put the medicine in first, and then add the water, or add the water and then the medicine? April opted for the latter. She doused the leaves with still-hot water from the kettle; while it brewed she frantically searched her grocery bags for the cookies she had promised Splinter, until the sight of a certain box caused her to freeze in her tracks.
She had bought it for her antique shop, which lately had become infested with vermin. Her first thought was to stuff it back into the bag and forget about it, but that was quickly overwhelmed by many other thoughts…
If she did get out of the lair, what then? Just leave Splinter alone with the bodies of his sons? What if he went looking for more demons? Demons that were just ordinary people going about their daily lives, never knowing it was all about to end, right up until the moment their necks were snapped like candy canes? How would she ever sleep again knowing that could happen to anyone, anywhere? Casey was anyone. Their apartment was anywhere.
April grabbed the box and tore it open. Slowly, gingerly, she shook the poison into the teapot until she was sure there was enough; she then put the lid on the pot, picked it up, and gently swirled it around. She poured a cup of tea, added lots of sugar and a squeeze of lemon, and swirled it all around with a spoon. Finally, she placed the cup on the tray and, after taking several deep breaths, she carried it out of the kitchen.
Splinter was kneeling in his favorite chair, eyes closed as if in deep meditation. He was so still that April briefly considered making a run for it, but her inner voice told her to stay calm and keep going.
"Here you go," she said, placing the tray on the coffee table in front of him. Splinter opened his eyes and stared at the cup, but made no move to pick it up. April waited a full minute before picking up the cup herself. "Get it while it's hot," April said, offering it to him. "I made it just the way you…"
Splinter struck like lightning, knocking the cup out of April's hand with such force that she stumbled backwards, tripped over her own feet and fell to the ground.
"Demons!" He shouted, jumping to his feet. "Demons trying to kill me! I kill them, but they don't die! They keep coming back for me!" He glared at April.
"Splinter, no!" April cried frantically. "There are no demons! No one is trying to poison you! Watch!" She snatched the teacup and kneeled in front of the coffee table on the opposite side of Splinter. She poured a second cup. "See? No one is trying to kill you. It's just plain, ordinary, tea."
Splinter shook his head violently, as if trying to shake something from his brain. He looked around. "The demons!" He cried. "Can you hear them whispering?"
"No," April said quietly. "I don't hear anything. The demons are gone."
Splinter looked around again. "Gone?" Surrounded by nothing but dead silence, it began to sink in. Splinter's face began to crumble, and then he sank to his knees, as if his body had suddenly become very heavy. He looked at April with mournful eyes. "They're gone," he said quietly. "All gone."
"Yes," April choked. "But it's all right. Everything is going to be all right. I promise."
She moved the coffee table aside so that she was kneeling directly in front of Splinter. She then held the teacup to his lips; after a moment's hesitation, he opened his mouth. Tears flowed freely down April's face as she titled the cup forward bit by bit, making sure he drank every last drop…