Title: (Laughing with a) Mouth of Blood
Disclaimer: I don't own the boys, we all know who does. They are aged up above legal age of consent.
Summary: Kenny's just trying to get by in the world and protect the one good thing in his life, his baby sister Karen. Karen's a dreamer, her ability to create imaginary worlds is a constant marvel to Kenny. But one day, her imagination becomes all too real when she is whisked away to a strange circus land and it's down to Kenny to get her back.
Author's Notes: This is set in an Imaginationland AU. The boys didn't grow up together. Tital is taken from the song of the same title by St. Vincent which played a big hand in inspiring this story (the song quoted in the beginning of each chapter). I hope you enjoy, my lovelies.
Just like an amnesiac
Trying to get my senses back
(Oh, where did they go?)
Laughing with a mouth of blood
From a little spill I took
(Oh, what are you laughing at?)
Kenny knew he would do anything for Karen. She was his baby sister and his world. It didn't matter what happened to him, as long as Karen was ok then so was he.
Their parents weren't bad at heart, they were just stupid and Kenny learnt at a young age that he couldn't rely on them for anything. The only thing he could count on was their ability to hunt down and drink anything even remotely alcoholic in the house. One time, when they were particularly low on their combined addictions, their drinking material even included a bottle of hand sanitizer from the bathroom.
When Karen was born, Kenny was six years old. His brother, Kevin, was in his teens and already taking the first tentative steps into following his parents in their self-destructive spiral. When Karen was first brought home from the hospital, she was a tiny shivering bundle of blankets and the raw redness of new skin.
Kenny sat for hours just watching her, marvelling at her tiny hands, her blue eyes that blinked up at the ceiling not yet able to focus on anything. Everything about her was so fresh and so pure; he'd never experienced anything like it. Before Karen was brought home, Kenny's life was made up of broken fragments and tarnished ideals. He didn't realise how much he'd needed something like Karen until he set eyes on that tiny little baby. Karen was the embodiment of a future to him, everything about her was love and goodness and from that moment, when he sat hunched over her cradle too scared to even touch her while their mother twitched and dozed from exhaustion and withdrawal beside them, from that moment Kenny vowed that no matter what happened to him, he would always be there for Karen. No matter what.
Karen grew into a timid, doleful soul despite Kenny's best efforts. She made a few friends, but she never brought them home with her. Kenny couldn't fault her for that, he rarely took anyone home either, he could never be sure what state his parents would be in when he did. Despite this, Karen was happy in her own company a lot of the time. Playing make-believe and reading, she was a dreamer, but in a way that felt more acute than was the norm. The intensity of Karen's dream world was less of an absent daydream, and more along the lines of a whole other universe that she seemed to cross between effortlessly. Often, when Kenny came home he could hear Karen up in her room holding entire conversations with her dolls. She would even stop every now and then, like she was listening to them, and then she would respond to whatever question they had asked.
Sometimes Kenny tried to join in, but when he picked up one of the dolls and danced it around putting on his best screechy little doll voice demanding 'tea and scones!', Karen would just look at him, smile softly and explain that 'none of her dolls liked tea but thank you for trying'.
With Karen being how she was and their home life being the state it was, it wasn't too surprising when Karen's dream world developed into a collection of imaginary friends.
None of them had names, but each one was a character from the circus.
There was the fat clown, a figure who Karen told Kenny was funny because of how surly he was.
The ring master, a mousey character who rarely visited.
The diamond dancers, they always came in groups, Kenny wasn't certain quite how many there were, they seemed to differ in numbers each time.
The handyman, a humble kindly figure who was always there when Karen was sad. Kenny thought maybe the handyman was the father Karen never had but always wanted.
And the trapeze artist, who Karen said was as lithe and proud as he was fiery. The trapeze artist seemed to be Karen's favourite. Karen would spend hours telling Kenny how beautiful the trapeze artist was with his sparkly outfits and his red hair. She told him that the trapeze artist and the fat clown didn't like each other and they always made her laugh with how much they fought.
If their parents had noticed then maybe they would have been worried about how immersed in her dream world Karen was becoming. But they barely saw anything past their next drink. If they'd noticed, like normal parents, maybe they would have had the wisdom to realise and put a stop to it. But they didn't; and Kenny, loving and protective as he was, was still young and he couldn't see. The way he saw it, Karen's dream world was about the only thing that could guarantee her some happiness and escapism, so he kept it a secret with her and let the world grow and develop.
And then one day she disappeared.
"I don't like it, Kenny," she'd said to him the night before her disappearance. "I don't want to talk to them anymore. They scare me."
It shocked him at the time; he couldn't quite comprehend what she was telling him. "Just stop talking to them," he told her.
But Karen was shaking her head. She couldn't stop. She couldn't make them go away. "The fat clown," she said. "He's gone so mean, he won't let the others through and he keeps telling me he's going to take me away." And then she was crying and telling Kenny that she didn't want to go, please don't let the fat clown take her.
Kenny held her and promised that he wouldn't let anything happen to her, hugging her tighter than was necessary until she gave a little squeak. He kissed her on the forehead as he told her that nothing was going to get her, not tonight. Tomorrow they would work something out, tomorrow.
By tomorrow, she was gone. And on her bed, a note was left.
She's ours now. You dumb fuck.
Two police officers sat in their front room with mugs of coffee balanced on their laps. Soap suds still lingered in the handles of the mugs from where Kenny had missed rinsing them off to brew the two officers the coffee.
Kenny's parents, who had managed to rouse themselves from their drunken stupor at least long enough to give some semblance of being responsible parents sat on two of the wooden chairs they'd brought in from the kitchen. Kenny's mum, Carol, was openly crying. Kenny's dad, Stuart, sat still and stiff as a post with ashen face and reddened eyes. Though it was unclear whether that was down to the shock of Karen going missing, or the beginnings of withdrawal.
The officers, who seemed to have read the situation of the household within minutes of setting foot through the doorway into their filthy living room, directed the majority of their questions to Kenny.
Kenny had always found it difficult trusting the police. He'd never been in trouble with them beyond the odd chastisement for petty theft or school truancy, but he had an inherent hatred for any form of established law. Perhaps because on some level he lived in constant fear of having his family torn apart by them, because dysfunctional as they were, they were still his family, and it was all he really had.
"You say she'd been seeing things?" one of the officers, a middle aged woman with pinched features and straw coloured hair asked. "What kind of things?"
"I don't know." Kenny shrugged, aggravated, he fretted at his already mussed up hair, wanting bitterly to pull his hood up, he always felt over exposed when it was down. "She just had these imaginary friends or something, these circus people. But it's not that she's, like, crazy or anything, they were just imaginary."
"No, of course," the officer said and she tried to smile in a gentle, soothing manner as her eyes glanced at the sorry states that were his parents. "That kind of thing is… normal, in these situations."
She meant well, she meant to comfort him and let him know that she understood, but her words only rubbed him the wrong way and he glared into the corner of the room.
"What're you going to do about this god damn pervert letter?" Stuart demanded, he banged the table with a fisted hand, but it was poorly timed and jarred awkwardly with his words. Kenny flinched at how it made his father look.
Carol let out a loud broken sob into a handful of tissues, her voice quavered in a low keening wail, repeating over and over 'my baby, they took my baby…'
The police officer who had not yet spoken looked at the two of them awkwardly and the other spoke for them.
"We're taking the letter into account, Mr. McCormick. I assure you we'll be doing everything we can."
Kenny could tell there was an unspoken 'but' there. He cleared his throat to catch the officers' attention and then nodded his head to the front door. His parents were so dazed and confused they didn't even raise comment when Kenny and the two officers stepped outside.
"You don't believe she's been taken." Kenny said, wading straight through the shit. The officers looked a little taken aback by his direct question, almost accusation. The female officer was first to recover.
"We're not taking this lightly," she reassured in the same gentle voice.
The two officers shared a look; a silent agreement seemed to pass between the two of them.
"Mr. McCormick," the female officer began. "We take every child runaway case seriously-"
"Runaway," Kenny repeated flatly.
"A suitcase of Karen's possessions was also missing; there was no sign of a struggle. For all intents and purposes this looks like a runaway case."
"And the letter?" Kenny felt a rising sense of anxiety, his baby sister was missing and the police weren't going to do much more than file a missing persons report.
"It's not uncommon for children in Karen's circumstances to create fantasy worlds. The letter could well be a plea for attention; it looks like she wants you to find her."
Kenny barked an ugly laugh; the anxiety plummeted to a lead weight of dread. "You can't be serious. Karen's not that kind of kid… she wouldn't run away!"
"We'll do all we can, kid," the other officer spoke up for the first time, and Kenny realised why he hadn't done so before. Gruff and abrasive, the female officer may have been able to adopt an air of concern and genuinely giving a crap, but this guy couldn't. "It's a busy time of year this, your sister's not the only kid to run off."
"Look, put up posters, ask her friends, you do what you can and we'll do what we can," the female officer said. "We'll be in touch."
Kenny watched them leave, silent anger bubbling within. He knew what that meant. Karen would be logged into the system, just another sad kid from a broken home. He story had already been written for her and they weren't going to go out of their way to search for her. Those efforts were saved for the golden children from the other side of town, the ones whose parents could offer thousands in rewards and endless press. His eyes pricked with a low simmering rage that only grew to encompass everything surrounding him. The cops for not giving a shit, the god damn note signed by EC whoever the hell that was, his parents for being such lousy shitty wastes of space. The only thing he didn't wish dead that very moment was Karen, and when he thought of her the rage dropped away to icy fear.
No one had seen Karen. Days passed with no sign; days turned to weeks which in turn became months. Darkness filled Kenny's world. He searched tirelessly for her. He did everything the police suggested; asking her friends, putting up posters, searching Karen's usual haunts, he even tried getting the local paper involved. They responded by publishing a small ad in the bottom corner of one of the back pages. He called the police daily until they told him to stop; if they found anything they would call him. Don't call us, we'll call you.
The emptiness ate away at him, the knowledge that he had lost the one thing he'd based his entire worth on. He'd promised to always look after Karen and with every passing day his failure became more and more apparent; and with it, Kenny began to spiral down, following in the same steps as his parents and his older brother. He understood now why they turned to drink; it was for escape from a world where nothing seemed worth living for.
The drink numbed things a little in that it made the days pass, but that was all it did. In his heart of hearts, Kenny knew it wasn't the right thing to do and he was becoming everything he hated so much about his parents. He was becoming a stupid spineless drunk who hid from his problems and faced up to nothing, but he just couldn't bring himself to care. Maybe if there was someone to pull him out of his funk, a well-meaning friend or something of the sort, but there was no one. The knowledge that he was now as good as completely alone in the world only contributed to his growing pit of self-pity.
Then one afternoon, when he was trudging out of the supermarket with a paper bag of alcohol and microwave meals under his arm, he saw a peculiar looking young man approaching him.
The man was dressed in a black and red swallowtail jacket and he walked along the street like there was nothing odd about it. He had a puff of candyfloss blond hair under a jauntily pitched top hat and blue eyes framed by smudged black kohl.
"Hello!" the peculiar young man called, raising a white gloved hand in greeting. Kenny looked all around him and over his shoulder, looking to see if there could be anyone else the peculiar young man was talking to. He was alone on the sidewalk, and sure enough, the young man came to a stop in front of him.
"I said hello!" he said in the same cheerful tone. "How do you do?"
Kenny blinked at the young man, taking in the entire ensemble, the fact that despite the heat of the day and the heavy layers of clothing, there was not a drop of sweat on him. "What the hell are you?" Kenny asked.
"I am the Great Leopold Stotch of Stotches Family Circus!" The young man gave a theatrical bow, rolling a hand before him. "But you can call me Butters."
"I didn't realise there was a circus in town…" Kenny muttered. A couple passed them on the street, their eyes boggling at Butters' attire. Kenny felt as strong wave of secondary embarrassment. "If you're looking for money or something, sorry. I'm all out."
"Boy are you mistaken," Butters chortled and it was such a boy howdy chortle it felt unreal. "I didn't come to take anything! I came to give you something, Kenny."
"How did you know my name?"
Butters didn't reply. He'd pulled his top hat from atop his puff of yellow hair and was fanning a hand over it, wriggling his fingers. As he pulled his hand away, a sealed envelope followed it. It hovered in the air between the two of them and stayed there until Butters motioned for Kenny to take it. Kenny turned it over in his hands, and then turned it over again.
"There's no way to open it," he said, frustrated.
"Now you won't be able to open it until you get home. And don't go trying to rip it!" Butters slapped lightly at Kenny's hand as he tried to do just that. With that same chortle, Butters smiled at Kenny, blue eyes big and round and lined with that dramatic black makeup. "You'd best hurry now. Karen's waiting."
"What the fuck do you know about—" Kenny's sentence went unfinished. Butters gloved hand knocked him back. It wasn't quite a punch, but whatever it was, it knocked Kenny for six. He heard the smashing of bottles when his bag hit the floor but he couldn't move. He could only lie there, blinking dazedly up at the sky. By the time he came back to himself, Butters was long gone.
Feeling confused and frantic at the first mention of Karen's name in weeks, Kenny fumbled with the envelope, but no matter what he tried, he couldn't rip it open. Each time he got it between his fingers it slipped away like it was greased. Then he remembered what Butters had told him, he had to open it at home.
It normally took Kenny half an hour to walk home. That afternoon it took him ten minutes. He flew through the front door, bypassed the living room where he just knew his parents were festering and ran straight for his room. He ripped the envelope open even before his door had fully closed. This time, it opened like any normal envelope should. Inside was a small square of card and on it was a typewriter written note, it was nothing like the note that had been signed 'EC'.
It sure was nice to meet you, Kenny.
I hope we get to see a lot more of each other
but you're gonna have to know a lot more about us first.
Karen's waiting for you.
The Great Butters L. Stotch,
Stotches Family Circus