It took awhile, 9 months to be precise, but Tom was finally allowed to go on an 'outing'. Sebastian was filled with a nervous excitement. He might have assumed that it had outstripped Tom's if he didn't know better. Tom's previously overly (some might have said verging on 'overtly') demonstrative manner had faded since the…incident. He wasn't as excitable or passionate as he had been before. Hard to be in this place, of course, but Tom had always seemed unnervingly capable of ignoring his surroundings and living in whatever moment he chose to be in at the time. Sebs had occasionally envied it in him. Bitterly. Realizing what Tom had lost made a painful sadness start to bubble up in his stomach but he instinctively pushed it down. Not today. He wasn't going to do this today. Today was for Tom.
Tom was no longer the shell he had been directly after The Incident. That took awhile too. Lots of back and forth between words and mutism, self-hatred and justification, resignation and rebellion but eventually Tom had claimed most of his humanity back. His words were slower, more measured at times. He spoke more thoughtfully and abstractly and he was blunt, lacking any of the dark humor that he occasionally used to possess. Sebs supposed Tom didn't want to take his chances with any shades of grey anymore. He was more cynical but in a matter-of-fact, emotionless type of way that gave Sebs the chills.
All of that aside, he was something like himself again and that was good enough.
Sebs accompanied his friend down the hallway trying not to walk ahead of or behind him even a little. Keeping step was hard because he hadn't had to anticipate Tom's movement on this scale in some time (nine fucking months). As they walked, Sebs couldn't shake the feeling, however irrational, that they were breaking the rules, that someone was going to stop them. Nothing happened, though. There wasn't even noise, aside from their footfalls echoing, painfully loud. It was a prison of silence. Sebs cringed. Tom seemed to notice and smiled.
"It's loud, isn't it? The quiet."
Sebs nodded, his words stuck in his throat.
"We're not quiet though," Tom continued, "Our sound is beating the quiet now."
Sebs was glad of that but somehow the talking feels almost like sacrilege, like he's breaking the unspoken rule of soundlessness that this place seemed to be run by. It was humbling.
"We're leaving and they can't stop us," said Tom with a cheerful lilt to his voice, eerily echoing the thought Sebs had had moments before.
They stepped into the elevator. Tom extended a finger towards the ground floor button. Sebs wondered if it felt good to engage in such typical day-to-day activity after all this time. Tom missed and hit the first floor button instead. Depth perception. Without missing a beat, Sebs hit the ground floor button. Irritation flashed in Tom's eyes-eye-but he said nothing. Sebs felt the pit of his stomach lurch as the elevator plummeted. He had never liked that feeling. It was his habit to take stairs whenever they were an option. People at work had made fun of him for it when they noticed. It wasn't that he was afraid of elevators, just…The feeling of falling, even controlled falling, bothered him. Made him feel helpless. It reminded him, just for a second, that everything about his life was not controlled completely by him. Just a little variation in tension; someone else's whim and he could plunge…
Tom didn't seem bothered by it. The annoyed look on his face had faded back into quiet contemplation and Sebs wondered if he had imagined it.
They hit the ground floor and entered the lobby, heading for the exit. Tom clearly meant to push the door open but missed, fingertips simply grazing the metal plate instead of making contact with his whole hand. He must have overcompensated, assumed the door was closer than he thought it was and tried to adjust accordingly. Sebs pushed the door open but Tom stopped it with his left hand.
"Don't do it for me. I can do it myself."
Sebs was taken aback.
"I know you can, man. I just did it, that's all."
"I don't want you to do it for me. They think they have to do things for me. They don't."
They? Oh, god.
"I'm not doing it because I have to or because I think you can't. I know you can. I did it because I want to. I'm your friend and I'm holding the door for you."
Tom's face screwed up at the word 'friend' and Sebs instantly regretted it. Why did I say it like that? Tom probably thought Sebs was trying to manipulate him into feeling like he overreacted.
But Tom's face smoothed into calmness again.
"I'm holding the door." He pointed out.
Tom appeared to be satisfied with this. He pushed the door open all the way and exited, waiting for Sebs directly outside the door's range. They proceeded in the general direction of downtown. Sebs would have thought that Tom's gaze would have been drawn to the saplings and bushes, having not seen the outside at large for so long. He had always been kind of an outdoors guy. It was surprising to see him, more often then not, staring at the ground or occasionally the side of a building.
"What's so interesting down there?"
"It's cracked. It's cracked and dirty and the edges are worn. It looks like people have been here. It looks real."
"I know." Tom had that giddy, slightly crazy smile on his face; the one from earlier. It made Sebs happy and slightly nervous at the same time.
Tom contemplated a piece of graffiti.
"I could leave a mark here. Someone would know it was me. It would stay here forever."
"Until the city wipes it off."
Tom's face fell, clouded with the unmistakable resentment of buzz kill. Sebs instantly regretted opening his mouth. Dammit.
They continued walking, Sebs trying lamely to make conversation.
"Nice day, isn't it?"
In truth it was cloudy but it wasn't too cool or too warm, despite the fact that they were wearing jackets. Were being the key word. Sebs had taken his off and was carrying it under his arm but Tom in true Tom-fashion must have been cold because his was still on, albeit unzipped. Tom had always had some weird intolerance to the cold (the man felt like a damn icicle most of the time) and spending most of nine fucking months inside probably hadn't helped with his response outside weather, specifically.
"It's weird." Tom said, "It's warmer out here than it is in there. It's cold in there, all the time. Too cold."
Sebs nodded. Tom didn't have to tell him; the place was a freaking icebox, regardless of the time of year. A big white icebox…
"Out here I'm actually allowed to make myself warmer…" Tom fidgeted with his jacket, "Nobody will think I'm hiding something if I zip up my coat."
"They might think you're a little weird or recovering from an illness, though-it's pretty mild today."
"I am weird. And I am recovering, or at least that's what they tell me…"
Eventually they stopped for lunch, Sebs choosing the place because Tom was indifferent. Sebs figured they'd be safe with a deli-type place, since Tom wasn't up for trying new things even at the best of times.
The place was average for a low-key deli, warm, and dark despite the florescent lights in the ceiling, all deep reds and dark wood.
Sebs was hungry, as far as he could tell, but didn't really have a taste for anything. He settled on an egg salad sandwich laden with some disturbingly wilted watercress (Lettuce? Spinach? He couldn't even tell). It wasn't terrible, he supposed, just bland.
Tom got some kind of hot sandwich with meat and cheese, dripping with…something. After the first bite Tom paused and smiled, then started eating more slowly but deliberately, relishing it like it was the last sandwich he was ever going to eat.
Sebs eyed the dripping pile of mush with disgust. He had to ask.
"It's real food. It actually tastes like real food. Like fresh. The cheese is still warm and it's melted all the way. The bread tastes buttery too."
Fresh? Sebs looked down at the remainder of his stale bread-and-browning lettuce sandwich. Tom had never complained about the food There before. Sebs made a mental note to bring Tom lunch whenever possible, if it was allowed.
Sebs slid out of the booth to pay and Tom followed, throwing out their garbage, as he did so. When he was finished he stood behind Sebs, off to the side. Shying away from the counter but unwilling to go back to the table by himself or stand in the open area near other patrons. Similarities to 'lost puppy dogs' started to define themselves in Sebs' head but he smiled briefly and cleared them from it.
Tom had brought his fountain drink out with him, paper cup and standard flimsy plastic lid with squeaky plastic straw. Tom had an old habit of pulling the straw up and down with his mouth when he drank, squeaking it something awful, and today was no exception. If it had been before The Incident, Sebs would have been annoyed, telling Tom to 'Cut it out! What are you, six?' but now it was comforting, a rare bit of normalcy to their interactions that had felt like uncharted territory since everything that happened. It was a Tom thing that had come back and it was good.
They continued on their way, Tom absorbed in his drink while still drinking in the world around him. Sebs became aware that he himself was still clutching the now empty water bottle from the deli. Is it that much of a habit? He was embarrassed that such a thing had stuck, even now that they weren't in the hospital. It's not Tom that makes me nervous…He resolved to throw it out as soon as he encountered a recycling bin.
Sebs couldn't help but notice that they were walking side-by-side on a sidewalk that was arguably too small for that, as the tide of people coming from the other direction was getting larger (it was the weekend, after all). One man was walking right down the middle of the way without making a point of moving over. Tom tried to shift accordingly but was out of touch with making such adjustments and, unable to pick a side, simply moved in closer to Sebs, which was still not out of the man's radius. He banged into Tom completely, even stepping on his foot. Sebs found himself irked.
"Hey!" He started to call out but Tom stopped him.
"Don't. It's fine."
"The guy almost knocked you over."
"Don't make a scene."
Tom telling him not to make a scene. That was rich.
"It's fine," Tom continued, "Besides, it feels right to have normal interactions with people. Normal people, not crazy people."
"Being normal doesn't mean putting up with people ignoring you."
Sebs swallowed. This was bad.
"People hurt each other accidently all the time," Tom said, "They hurt each other and annoy each other and are rude to each other because that's what people do. It's real. People who are quiet and avoid each other and stay in their own little cages are not. It's fake and it's weird and pardon my language but it's really fucking boring."
Sebs choked out a laugh despite himself, still unsure whether Tom's view was pragmatic or defeatist.
Finally they came upon their destination. Going to the zoo was Tom's idea, they had been there before together and Sebs figured it was relatively innocuous. More stimulating than, say, the park but not completely reliant on immersion, either.
As they proceeded, Sebs became aware that they were part of a very select group of adults present that day. Aside from some senior citizens with nowhere else to go and a group of teenagers who thought it'd be hilarious to go to the zoo and waste time by seeing how close they could get to the cages without being bitten, he and Tom were some of the only people there in their age group and, specifically, the only ones who didn't have kids with them. Tom didn't seem to mind, though. He had always seemed to like or, at least, to be unopposed to kids. Maybe it was something to do with being an oversize five year old himself, Sebs thought fondly, observing as Tom watched the snake in the tank with the same level of curiosity and enthusiasm as any of the children.
The reptile house was surprisingly large but still benefited from the crowding that was happening in the rest of the zoo. Don't people have anywhere else to go today? What was so special about today, anyway? His mother's voice came into his head, 'What are they giving away?', her old sarcastic standby when a place was full of people. It wasn't wholly unpleasant in there, however, he had to admit. Crowded or not, there was a decent amount of standing room and Tom seemed less reticent to leave Sebs' side, maybe because most of the patrons were children. The place was cool and dark, the colored lights from the tanks looking ghostly in the dim lighting. Almost haunting, Sebs might say.
Sebs spent more time than he meant to staring at the monitor lizard, mind filled with meditations on lone predators and the circle of life. It was Tom who pulled him out of it, urging that they both go outside.
The sudden light left both of them blinking as they moved towards the land mammals. Sebs recalled the first time they were here, Tom making a comment about how it must feel to be confined like the animals. It was like Tom could read his mind, because he repeated it.
"It must be depressing, being caged up like that."
Shit! Maybe I should just staple my mouth shut. Tom had been candid about his situation but not that candid.
But Tom's face got thoughtful.
"No. I know why I'm locked up. They don't."
Tom moved over to the next group of animals and Sebs followed, vaguely bemused. Tom seemed okay being slightly separated from him so Sebs moved over to a less-populated corner, still close to Tom's, where he noticed an admittedly rather pretty leopard of some kind.
He found himself staring into its large golden-green eyes, transfixed by its proud face.
'Whatsa matter kitty cat,' he said under his breath, 'No other kitties like you here?'
It swatted its tail lazily.
'You're a pretty boy, aren't you?'
"Actually, it's a girl. It says so on the sign."
"Jesus, Tom. You almost gave me a heart attack."
Tom was standing behind him, looking unnaturally calm, as usual. I need to put a bell on that boy.
"They're rare. Snow leopards. That's why she's lonely. They probably couldn't find another one. She's brave though, look. She's like the queen of her little run."
This was more emotional intimacy than Sebs was expecting to have with a snow leopard. He wanted to change the topic. His mind rounded on the fact that Tom had some strange obsession with giraffes.
"Interesting, Mr. Encylopedia. Hey, do you want to go check out the giraffes?"
Tom shook his head no and mumbled something that sounded like 'I'm not a giraffe anymore.'
But Tom wouldn't repeat it. He got quiet. Then-
"Sebs, what did you do when you turned twenty-one?"
"I passed the LSATs. I 'decided my future'." He added the last part with an exaggeratedly pompous sarcasm. It was true. He had taken the LSATs so close to his birthday it could have been the actual day for all he could remember. He had been proud but unsurprised when he got the results.
Tom looked Sebs square in the face in that oddly intense way of his, unnervingly earnest, voice low but neutral.
"When I turned twenty-one I decided that I was going to do something big. One day. I decided that one day I was going to move to New York and do something with my life. And here I am. I ruined people's lives. I ended up in the loony bin. I'm not a…I don't know if I'm the same person anymore or if I started out this way to begin with. I don't know and I know that I don't know and that's frustrating but I think it's all I can do. Not knowing is all I can do."
This was the most he had heard Tom say in one go in awhile. Certainly the most open he'd ever been about the effect The Incident was having on him.
"I mean, I'm better, I think. I'm not going to do it again. And I act okay most of the time. And I vent my anger when I get mad. I don't repress it or anything. I'm normal again, mostly. But I don't know what it means. I don't know."
Sebs had no idea what to say.
"I don't know what it means either, Tom, I'm not a psychiatrist or anything…"
Tom's good eye flashed with the same anger as before.
"They don't know either. They just want people to think that they do."
"-but you're you and that's enough for me. Look, I don't know why you did what you did or what incident in your childhood made you hate yuppies"-Tom winced. Sebs felt guilty but he couldn't stop now, "and if you want to tell me how you feel about it, I'll listen. Please, tell me. I'll listen. But all I know is I love you, in the most hetero way possible, and that's not enough, I know, but that's all I can give you."
Sebs refused to break Tom's gaze until Tom himself looked down.
"Do you want to go look at the semi-aquatic animals?" He wasn't looking at Sebs but his voice was clear. He had accepted Sebs' words.
There was a pointed heaviness in the air that lasted as they watched the seals until-
"What family are dugongs in?" Tom asked absently, "Are they related to seals?"
"I think they're related to manatees. They're a member of the umm… Um…"
"I'm pretty sure the Um is not a real animal family," Tom said, teasingly.
"Neither is the 'Bite me'."
"Sure it is. It lives on the shores of 'Shove it up Your Ass'." Sebs replied, unable to contain the smile that was pushing its way onto his face.
Tom laughed. A real, deep laugh, not bitter or manic, like Sebs hadn't heard in forever.
And, in that moment, Tom was Tom again. Sebs felt a dull warmth spread through his chest.
It was getting late. They headed for they exit and it suddenly became obvious to Sebs why Tom hadn't been getting the kind of stares he had expected a one-eyed guy to get. Tom's 'bad side' was closer to Sebs when they were walking side by side. Tom's left was the side people saw first. But now, from the other direction, Tom's bad eye was more of a focus. If nothing else, people were giving them a slightly wider breadth and Tom didn't seem to notice. Sebs didn't care and why should he?
"I don't wanna go!" A high-pitched, girlish voice pierced the hum of the crowd. "I don't wanna go home, I don't wanna!"
Automatically, both of them turned towards the source of the sound
"We are leaving. Now." Said the woman who was obviously the little girl's mother. A balding man who must have been the father was grinding out a similar sentiment.
"I don't wanna-"
"STOP!" The woman wrenched the little girl's arm in a way that, although it didn't look like it did lasting damage, obviously hurt.
Sebs couldn't help it. He ground his teeth, and resigned himself to literally biting his tongue. He looked over at Tom to see a similar expression of displeasure on his own face.
The woman had clearly succeeded in making the girl 'stop'. She became silent, but continued to cry without sound, little body racked with the force of her grievance. The woman picked her up in one strong motion without a word, carrying her from the park. The man followed. Murmurs were heard from the parents and grandparents about 'spoiled brat children' and 'back in my day'.
Tom and Sebs continued staring in the direction of the vacated family.
"Normal people can be messed up too." Tom said definitively, nodding his head.
Sebs snorted with laughter and Tom made a wry smile in response.
It was cold and dark so Sebs had made an executive decision to take the subway back since Tom didn't seem to want to walk in the cold and neither did Sebs at the moment. Even on the subway it was cold; Sebs had put his overcoat back on and Tom's hands had retreated inside of his oversize sleeves.
On the packed subway car, Tom's odd appearance was attracting more attention that he couldn't help but notice. In addition to the bandage covering his right eye, the clothes Tom had been given to wear were worn and baggy, work clothes slightly reminiscent of a lumberjack or a homeless person.
"I'm glad they're staring," Tom said quietly. "I like making them wonder what I'm doing here. Why I look like this." Almost to himself, he continued, "Maybe they have a better story than I do."
They had been fortunate enough to find seats (seats next to each other, at that) and Tom took advantage of the sitting position to stretch his feet out in his shoes.
"Feet hurt?" Sebs asked, noticing Tom shift from heel to toe.
"I'm not used to wearing shoes. Real shoes. And these are hard. And heavy."
Sebs made a mental note to bring Tom some sneakers next time.
The darkness of the surrounding tunnel and the suggestion of rocking on the part of the subway car lulled them both into a stupor. Sebs slowly realized that Tom was asleep next to him, huge jacket on backwards and wrapped around like a blanket. The childishness of the gesture amused Sebs ever so slightly. Tom looked peaceful asleep. Or, at least pacified. But so did everyone, Sebs supposed. Like in death. He shook the unexpectedly morbid thought from his mind. Sleeping and death, we're all the same. The great equalizers.
Tom had gone crazy and now Tom was in a prison of white and concrete, possibly forever. And, it took awhile, but Tom was Tom again and that was what made this bearable.
Sebs could deal with this.
He had to.