A/N: Edit 7/2/2009: Chapter has been re-edited. Basically, I made it flow better and corrected some inconsistencies and mistakes. I may go through the story and do more (when I feel like it), because the earlier chapters don't match the last ones anymore in the sense that my writing has changed over the past one and a half years.
Reviews are appreciated. If you are confused about something or have any questions, please ask. I found that questions and/or comments keep me on track. I always reply to signed reviews.
Story warnings: depression, alcohol abuse, possible language.
Disclaimer: I do not own Danny Phantom.
Chapter 1: Adrift
The dusty road stretched out before me, the grass on the side of it yellow from the lack of water, the few trees standing a little further away looking dry and twisted, as if trying to grow despite the hostile landscape. Other than that, a rocky ground, hills, shrubs. I looked back at the trail behind me, the trail I had been following for the past hours. It was hardly visible from here and if I hadn't just walked it for a few hours, I wouldn't have noticed it from down here.
The road would be better, it meant cars and people. People going somewhere, maybe offering me a ride someplace where I could get something to eat. My stomach grumbled. I hadn't eaten in at least two days, though I couldn't be sure as my mind was a bit foggy about it.
The road. Left or right? The decision was harder than it seemed, as I couldn't quite see what the consequences would be of my choice. Finally, I simply mentally flipped a coin and chose right. It didn't really matter where I was going, as long as I kept walking. The road had to lead somewhere.
Mentally ticking off the classic stages – denial and anger – I decided I had now arrived at depression. I was making progress at a fantastic rate here, because it had taken me only two days to get there. It was also the only positive thing I could find in it, being depressed and all. Acceptance was still a long way off.
My anger had been... violent. My temper had flared, and in a bout of rage I had destroyed the perfectly good chair in the cabin, lifting it into the air and smashing it against the wall. It had splintered, and in my clumsiness I had managed to stumble against it and gash my right arm from elbow to wrist. My rage had died then, as quickly as it had come.
I had sat on the floor after that, staring at the blood flowing out, wondering what would happen if I just left it. Would I bleed to death? Would it matter? Would there be people that missed me? It was that last thought, that and the fact that I was starting to feel light headed, that had made me get up and stumble to the bed in the corner, tear a piece of the dirty white sheet and haphazardly bandage my arm. I might die from an infection now, but at least I wouldn't bleed to death.
After that, I had searched the cabin for food, only finding two cans of beans, rusty with age. I wasn't that hungry. I sat on the bed for a while, trying to figure out what to do, and finally decided that I needed to get out of there, if only to find something decent to eat. It had been surprisingly difficult to come up with that thought.
Once the decision was made though, I was quick to put it into effect. I got up, walked to the door and right before opening it, I caught a glimpse of me in a mirror that was hanging in the far corner. I had somehow missed the thing in the two days I had spent there moping, so I stopped and looked at myself. The mirror was old and dirty, but I could still make out my features.
Messy black hair, empty blue eyes. Black eye, too. I brought my hand to my face, touched it and winced. Whatever had caused that, it must have hurt. Maybe enough to knock me unconscious. White t-shirt with a red oval on it, and some other red spots that clearly didn't belong there. Blue jeans, ripped, showing bruised knees. Red and white sneakers. About sixteen years old. I felt older.
Abruptly, I turned around and left through the door, out of the cabin, into the hot summer air outside. I was somewhere in the woods, a clearing with a narrow track leading God knows where. The cabin had once been green, but was now gray, it's paint peeling off. The windows were broken, and in fact the door was broken as well. The place had been ransacked a while ago, long before I arrived. At least, I that was what I thought. No way of knowing for sure.
I had walked the trail for about two hours and the landscape had changed. The trees had thinned until the woods were completely gone, and the hot sun had burned down on me, making me doubt my decision to simply walk away without knowing where I was going. When I had finally arrived at the road and the promise of civilization, it had brought me both an immense feeling of relief and a new dilemma, namely choosing a direction. I had slowly mulled it over in my head, standing there by the side of the road, and finally had chosen right, because it was downhill.
As I was walking, I went over the things I knew in my head. It wasn't much. The cabin. The bruise at my left eye. The sore feeling all over my body. And the secret that was buried deep down inside of me. I shivered and for a moment felt cold. Whatever happened, I shouldn't tell anybody. I had to keep my secret at all cost.
I think I must have been walking for about another two hours, before I finally heard a car approach from behind me. I stopped and turned around, facing it, hoping to get a ride. I raised my hand and stuck out my thumb, the international signal for hitchhiking. Sure enough, the car stopped, and a middle aged man with graying black hair and a thin mustache leaned out the passenger side.
"Need a ride?" he asked.
I noticed he slurred his words somewhat and bent over to have a look at the driver. As soon as my head approached the window, I smelled the beer coming from the car and I stepped back warily. The driver was a younger man, blond, very muscular, smiling happily at me.
"This is a quiet road, son," the first man said, "You may not see another car for hours. We're your best bet."
He kept smiling, but his dark eyes held no mirth. Still... I didn't like my chances much, but he was right. I hadn't seen a car in two hours, it was almost noon judging from the sun, and the temperature was still rising. I needed to get out of there.
"Where are you headed?" I asked, stalling.
"Amity Park, where else," the driver said.
I nodded, making a decision. "Me too. How far is it?"
I walked to the back of the car and got in, pushing some empty beer cans aside. This was probably a bad idea, but there was no other traffic on this road, so chances were we wouldn't hit anybody. The only thing the driver had to do was keep the car on the road. I'd get out as soon as we reached the outskirts of the town.
"Ten miles, give or take," the first man said, turning in his chair to stare at me.
I didn't like the way he looked at me at all, so I pressed myself into the corner, ready to open the door and bolt should he make a move. The driver laughed, took his foot off the brake and slammed it down on the accelerator. The car jumped forward, and I hit my head against the window. The first man grinned, reached in front of him and took out another beer. He offered it to me, but I just shook my head. I was pretty sure I wasn't old enough to drink.
"Don't be impolite," he said, and although he was smiling, it sounded like a threat.
Hesitantly I took the can from his hands and opened it. Being thirsty, I took a small sip and grimaced. I didn't like the bitter taste much, but it did quell my thirst a little so I decided to just suck it up and drink it, as there seemed to be nothing else to drink in the car. I took a large gulp, then put the can down and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. The man was still staring at me, his eyes steadily shifting from my face to the can and back. I gulped, and, trying to distract him, I asked him his name.
"Terry," he said, and then, nodding to the blond driver, "Frank. What's yours?"
I should have known it was a bad idea to ask them their names, they'd want to know mine next. I blinked and, trying to buy time, took a large gulp from my beer.
"John," I said.
The man smirked and then waved at me, encouraging me to drink the rest of it. I didn't want to, so I took a very small sip, pretending to take a large one. Those first few sips had left me slightly light headed.
"Well, John," he said, "What are you running away from?"
I said nothing, but instead looked at the dials on the dashboard. Seven more miles to Amity Park. Terry saw me doing it and laughed.
"You're a piece of work," he grinned.
Suddenly he leaned closer, grabbing the front of my t-shirt in an unsuspected move. I squeaked and let go of the can of beer, which fell to the floor. From really up close, Terry looked even more menacing, and I started to think I should have foregone the opportunity to get somewhere in their car. Slightly cross eyed, I looked at the small scar next to his left eye.
"Are the police after you?"
I shook my head vigorously. Not that I knew of.
"What'd you do, some stepfather whack you or something?"
I nodded, not knowing what else to say. He let go of me and I sank back in my seat, tugging at my t-shirt to straighten it. From the corner of my eye, I saw the beer still slowly pouring out of the can on the floor, soaking the mat. Better there than inside of me, I decided. Beer was not my thing. I'd get something decent to drink when we reached town.
"So, you're all alone then," Terry said, "What are you going to do?"
Shrugging, I looked outside the window. We were passing trees and some houses in the distance with long driveways. Mailboxes at the side of the road, clustered together, with large painted white numbers on them. Five more miles to go.
"I'll tell you what you're going to do," Terry continued, "You'll be looking for a place to stay, but you won't find any. You'll end up sleeping under a bridge or in the park, where either the police will get you or someone will pick up up for some fun, if you know what I mean. You'll try to get a job, and you'll find out they're not hiring punks with bloody t-shirts and a black eye. You'll try to steal clothes or food, and you'll get busted and if you're lucky they'll call the police and won't beat you into a bloody pulp. That's what you're going to do."
I remained silent. I hadn't thought about what I'd do once I reached Amity Park. My only plan at that point had been getting away from these two. They were bad news. I looked at my bandaged arm and remembered the rage. Maybe I was bad news too.
"What are you suggesting," I said finally.
He shrugged and for the first time turned around to watch the road in front of us, wiggling a bit in his seat to get into a comfortable position.
"I'll give you some clothes," he said, "Get you some food. You'll owe me. We'll take it from there."
Again, I remained silent, slowly examining his proposition, turning it around in my mind. The scenario he had suggested wasn't very appealing. I could very well end up that way. Terry was offering me clothes and food. And a debt. I didn't know what I was getting into, but I surmised that owing Terry would be a bad idea.
"I don't know," I said, "You'll want something in return. I'm not sure I'll be able to give it."
He shook his head. Four miles.
"I'm the best you can get right now, kid," he said, "And don't worry, I won't molest you. I'm not into that kind of thing." He chuckled. "I just need some help with a few things."
Three miles. I could see the beginning of the suburbs in the distance, houses were closer together now. Frank was still driving at high speed, swerving a little on the road, but otherwise going in a straight line. Terry touched his arm and pointed at the speedometer. Frank slowed down a little. I guess he didn't want to attract attention with all the beer in the car and inside of him. Terry turned around again.
Two miles. Now was the time. I could just open the door and let myself fall out of the car, or I could wait for a traffic light. That'd look real good. Boy in a bloody t-shirt, running from a car. The police would arrest me within the blink of an eye, throw me in jail and then start figuring out what to do with me. Not an option.
"Alright," I said, "Whatever you say."
I sat back and relaxed somewhat. Terry shot me a stern look and faced the front again, clearly checking Frank for making the right decisions in the heavy traffic. I wondered why they took the chance of being stopped by the police with all that beer in the car, and decided that the chances of getting caught must be pretty slim around here.
Frank wormed his way through traffic, turning and twisting through town. I had no idea where we were going, but the houses became shabbier and the roads dirtier. Car wrecks were standing next to very expensive looking Corvettes, overflowing dumpsters next to a playground with screaming children, a few boarded up houses. Frank stopped at the curb next to a house that looked like an old warehouse converted into apartments.
Frank and Terry stepped out of the car, and I followed them up the steps to the entrance of what must have been a nice apartment building once. Not anymore. The once ornate door had its paint peeling off and the tiled hallway was filthy with dust and grime. It was also dark inside, and I could hear loud voices somewhere in the back. The doors to the first floor apartments were open, and a large, muscular man stepped out of one of them, looked first at Frank and Terry and then at me. I cringed a bit.
"Drugs," I thought apprehensively, "They're selling drugs."
Terry turned to me, grinning.
"It's not what you think," he said as if reading my mind.
I decided to postpone judgment for the moment, knowing how appearances can be deceiving. We went up the stairs to the second floor, where the apartments had no doors at all and I could see inside completely bare apartments with writings on the walls and empty beer cans scattered about. The floor consisted of bare wooden planks, and there were dark spots on the wall as if water was leaking through. Frank spoke for the first time.
"Come with me," he said, "I'll get you some clothes."
Not left with much choice, I followed him into one of the apartments, and he started rummaging through a box in the corner. Most of the clothes he got out were to big for me, but finally he managed to find a relatively clean pair of jeans and a gray shirt. He threw them at me and I caught them.
"Change," he said.
I took off my torn jeans and bloody t-shirt and saw his eyes go wide. I looked down at myself. Three rather nasty looking gashes right across my chest. Bruises everywhere. Underneath the bruises, older scars. I stretched a little. Didn't hurt much.
"He got you pretty good, didn't he," Frank said and his eyes traveled up to my arms. "You work out some, huh?"
I didn't know how to answer that, so I stayed quiet. I nodded, though, to give him some sort of answer. My silence prevented him from asking any further. Quickly, I slid on the gray shirt to hide the injuries and then put on the jeans. They were a little to wide for me, so I took the belt from my old jeans and put it in the new one. Didn't want my pants to suddenly drop down to my knees. A sense of deja vu hit me at that moment, and I stared at the wall for a moment, but then I dismissed it.
When I was done, he beckoned me to follow him down again and we entered one of the ground flour apartments which actually had some furniture. Frank strode right through the living room all the way into the kitchen. An old woman was sitting at a table, smoking. Her long gray hair was hanging loose, and she squinted at me through the smoke.
"Hi, Grace," Frank said, "This boy is hungry. Have you got some of that soup left?"
She scowled at him. "What am I, your servant?" she asked and then gestured to the stove. "In the pan. Heat it up."
Frank walked to the stove and turned it on after peering in the pan to check the contents. I stood in the doorway, not quite knowing what was expected of me.
"Sit," Grace said.
I sat down at the table.
"John," I said.
Grace shook her head. "Already gotta John. Everybody's always calling themselves John. Be more original, kid."
I shrugged. It didn't matter to me. Frank was stirring the soup.
"How about Mike," he said, "Or Alan. We don't have an Alan yet. Or Harry. Or Bert. Or..."
I waved my hand. "Alan will do," I said.
Frank grinned again, and I wondered if he was retarded. He was way too happy all the time. Maybe it was the alcohol. I wondered if alcohol would have that effect on me too. Make me act like a moron.
Frank stuck his finger in the soup and judged it to be warm enough, so he handed me a bowl and tossed me a piece of bread to go with it. I ate it as quickly as the hot liquid allowed me and then got up for seconds. Grace was watching me the whole time with piercing gray eyes.
"So," she said, "Alan. Where are you from."
Beside me, a shadow appeared in the doorway, and I looked up to see Terry standing there, looking at me quietly. I remained silent and shrugged. Grace leaned closer and grabbed my wrist, her bony fingers digging painfully in my skin. I had to let go of the spoon.
"Have you ever been in any kind of trouble before?" she asked, "Are the police looking for you?"
I slowly shook my head, not knowing if that was the right answer. I didn't know what they were looking for, a criminal, or someone with a clean sheet. Grace smiled.
"Good," she said, "Then we can use you."
She let go of my hand and ruffled my hair so that it fell into my face. I wiped it away again and looked irritably at her.
"To hide your black eye until it heals," she explained, "That way you won't attract attention."
That made sense. I still didn't know what they wanted me to do though.
"How old are you?"
I turned to the speaker, Terry, in the doorway. "Sixteen."
He nodded, turned around and left. I turned to my soup again and was just about to put another spoonful in my mouth when Grace started poking my arms, pinching my biceps.
"Good," she said, "Strong."
For some reason, I blushed. Grace cackled when she saw that and I looked down at my almost finished bowl of soup. I was starting to really dislike her. But the soup was OK. When I finished it, Grace shooed Frank and me out of the kitchen. We left and went outside to sit on the steps in the sun. In passing, Frank had grabbed another beer and had offered me one to, but I refused. Unlike Terry, he wasn't offended by this, but just made a vague gesture implying something along the line of 'suit yourself then'.
"So," I said, "What's going on here?"
I really needed to know what I was getting into. I was grateful for the clothes and the soup, but there were limits to my gratitude. If this was a drug gang, I was out of there and damn the consequences. Frank laughed his silly laugh.
"Nothing much," he said, "Just some sports fans coming together. You know."
I shook my head. I hadn't a clue what he meant.
"Is it... drugs?" I asked.
Frank frowned. "No, of course not," he said, "That'd be stupid. Police are all over the place. Drug dealers get caught all the time. What we're doing is... legal. Sort of. We're supplying cheep medications to sports schools, is all."
Medications. Right. I looked at him, his pumped up arms and legs, and I understood. Not drugs. Steroids. So these idiots could look even more idiotic. I was prudent enough not to say that though. I could see, however, how this was a low risk operation. The police were always hunting the drug dealers. They couldn't care less about people who wanted to sculpt their bodies into something that would need a size XXL. And neither did I. If people wanted to do that to themselves, that was fine by me. I got up and looked around.
"I'm going for a walk," I announced.
Frank waved his hand, a wide gesture, be my guest. "Be back tonight," he warned.
I put my hands in my pocket and turned them inside out. "No money," I said.
Frank smiled, reached inside his pocket and gave me a five dollar bill. "I like you," he said, "Alan. Get yourself a Nasty Burger. On me."
I blinked in surprise at him and then pocketed the money. Without thanking him, I turned around and started walking. Down the street, past the playground with the screaming children, a busy road with lots of traffic lights. I walked and walked until I finally reached the park. I looked around somewhat and decided to climb the hill and just sit there for a while. It was still very warm, and I wondered what day it was. Not a school day, I decided, looking at the children playing in the park. At two o'clock, they still would have been in school. Maybe it was Saturday. Not a weekday. Way to many adults in the park, free from work.
Gently, I touched the bruise on my face and winced. It hurt. I leaned forward and let my hair fall in front of it, wrapping my arms around my knees. I rocked back and forth a little, contemplating the wonder of a warm breeze against my bare arms. My clothes weren't entirely comfortable, but at least I was inconspicuous this way.
After a while I got up again and wandered around town some more. I passed the school, Casper High School, some shops, the mall. In the distance, I could see a large sign reading 'Nasty Burger', but I passed it. I didn't feel like eating there. Instead, I walked on through a nice neighborhood with large houses, circled back to the park and finally set course to Terry's place again, buying a hot dog on the way.
Frank was gone. I entered the house and stopped in the hallway, trying to decide which way to go. I opted for Grace in the kitchen. She'd probably be able to tell me what to do next. As I entered, I saw not only Grace, but also Terry sitting at the table. When he saw me he got up, stepped closer and grabbed me by my new shirt, pulling me close. Must be a hobby of his.
"Where have you been?" he demanded.
I blinked. "Taking a walk," I said, "Checking the place out."
He grunted and let go of me. Grace's face was impassive. Terry pushed me out of the door.
"Find yourself a place to sleep," he said, "Upstairs. Look around. The whole building is mine. Just try not to take a bed that's taken, or you'll regret it."
I believed him. I went up the stairs and checked the rooms there. One was empty, and one had boxes in it, one of which at least, I knew, containing clothing. In the far corner there was a bed, but it had some clothes thrown onto it so I gathered that one was taken. I left and ascended the stairs to the third floor.
Here, one of the doors was closed. I tried it, but it was locked, so I moved to the next one. This one was open, but I heard voices inside so I quickly skipped it and made my way to the back of the house, wondering about the strangeness of the place. It seemed that people were living here, somehow, housed by Terry. He seemed the boss around here, ordering everybody, including me, around.
The last room was quite large, and at least five beds were standing in it, close together. They looked unoccupied, so I just sat down on the one in the far corner, as far away from the window as possible. There were no curtains, and the setting sun was shining in, setting the room on fire.
The bed had a bumpy mattress and an old blanket, but I didn't mind. I took off my shoes and laid down on it, staring at the ceiling, my hands behind my head. Suddenly I was very tired. My swirling thoughts became random and I felt my eyes close, drifting off into a dreamless sleep.