CHAPTER FIVE: "Christmas"
It's a soft noise that wakes him. Soft and abnormal; not the typical stomping footsteps, hushed voices, or various appliances. It's a whirring sound, like machinery. Just below him in the basement.
Sleepily, Johnny hunts for the source of the noise, trying to pinpoint its place in the basement based on what he can hear from the ground floor. He finds that the sound is consistent no matter where he is in the room. He wonders if he's just hearing things, writes it off as nothing, and goes back to sleep under the desk.
Johnny turns thirteen halfway through fall, and has a bit of a growth spurt the first week of December, which Jeff finds nothing short of hilarious.
"I didn't know you could grow up and not out," he chides, handing him something. It's a bundle of clothes, about two sizes too large. "They don't fit me anymore," Jeff adds when Johnny goes to hand the clothing back, "And it looks like you'll need them more than I will."
He's right, and Johnny knows he's right. A few more inches and none of the few articles he has will be able to hold together. Reluctant and not wanting to feel like a charity case, Johnny accepts the gift.
"Merry Christmas," Jeff quips, "Oh, speaking of which. We're gonna have to lay low for the holidays."
Johnny isn't surprised about this. They'd had to lay low during Thanksgiving and Black Friday as well. The influx of people making it harder to pick off targets with no witnesses or survivors, and the late-night parties made breaking into houses almost impossible. The two could pick off a straggler or two in the early mornings, but it wasn't much, and, for Johnny, not nearly enough to settle him. He doesn't say anything though, knowing his standing with Jeff is still tentative at best, and he doesn't want to earn the older boy's disfavor again.
He'd just gotten out of trouble.
Johnny realizes Jeff is staring at him. "What?"
"I asked you a question," Jeff grumbles, "Maybe if you listened to the voices of people around you instead of just the ones in your head, we'd get more done."
Johnny glares, "What did you ask?"
"Does anyone come check on your mother during the holidays?"
Johnny stares, confused.
"You're mother's a psycho, one would think she'd get noticed after a while," Jeff explains. "Does someone come see if she'd burned the house down? A family member or something?"
"Not that I know of."
Jeff makes a thoughtful noise, and Johnny knows exactly what he's thinking. He tries to sound firm, but his voice cracks about halfway through, "I am not killing her."
The other boy laughs at him and Johnny, face hot, wants to stab him in the throat; right where the scarred whiteness of his face and jaw meet the tan, healthy skin of his collar. He pictures it: how easily the two incongruous pieces would separate.
It surprises him how satisfying the image is.
Jeff stops laughing and the whole world seems to go silent. Johnny really needs to figure out how he does that.
"What are you doing for Christmas?" Johnny also really needs to figure out how to control what he says. It's like he doesn't have a filter or something.
Jeff stops, blinks, and then resumes walking "Same thing I do every year. Sit in the attic while the Jamesons pretend I'm not there and collect a meager sum from the government every other week."
The name is familiar and Johnny puts names to faces almost immediately, "Wait- Bill and Mindy? Those Jamesons? Don't they already have two kids?"
Jeff chuckles as Johnny hurriedly catches up to him, soft bundle tucked under his arm, "Yeah, but they're good Christians," a bright red line appears high on his cheek when he sneers in disgust at the term, already too-fragile skin made dry and paper-like by the cool air cracking with the expression, "so they take in wards of the state." His voice gets low, "They think I'm some sort of demon. Lock me in the attic all the time I'm there so they don't have to look at me. They've been trying to get me to go to church for years." Fondness edges its way in, both in Jeff's expression and tone, "I went. Once."
"I'm sure that went over well," Johnny prods him in the ribs with his free elbow.
"If crying babies, screaming mothers, flying bibles and really angry nuns is your definition of 'well' then, yes. It went very well indeed."
They laugh all the way to the end of the street.
Part of Johnny still wants to stab him.
Jeff disappears into the shadows after another unsuccessful night hunting, and Johnny realizes this is the last time he'll see his friend for the rest of the year. This also means that his only options for companionship for the next month or so are the few homeless people left in the park, and his mother.
Yeah, fuck that.
The walk home is a boring one, and Johnny wonders aimlessly until the sky turns that weird grey color it gets right before sunrise. It doesn't seem natural to him though. It's different somehow. He thinks he can hear something in the distance.
He isn't sure, and his eyes burn from lack of sleep, so he shrugs and heads home. He can still hear the noise when he ducks in the window; in fact, he thinks it's gotten louder. There's a smell too, something acrid and heavy that sticks to the back of his throat.
It's gone before he can pinpoint just what it is, or perhaps it isn't gone and he's just fallen asleep.
All he knows is that he wakes up to the front door slamming and his mother's voice raving loudly on the front lawn. He peeks between the blinds, and sees her. She's staggering down the street, hunched forward so far the knuckles of the hand that isn't tugging painfully on her short locks of hair nearly scrape the ground. Her feet shuffle slowly away from the yard, and she's muttering to herself expression alternating between fearful and angry at irregular intervals. Johnny watches her until she shuffles out of his line of sight.
Then he hears the noise again.
It's a whirring sound, louder than it's ever been, coming from somewhere beneath his feet. Johnny decides that now is as good a time as any to investigate since his mother is out of the house, and probably would be for some time.
He moves his makeshift barricade, unlocks the door, and steps into the hall. Johnny makes his way to the basement door, unlocks it, and flings it open.
But the noise doesn't get louder.
He walks down the stairs, trying to follow the whirring sound, only to find when he reaches the bottom of the stairs a new sound joins in: a high pitched whine, like microphone feedback. He winces at first, but adjusts to the sound.
"Jeff," he says to the dimly lit space of the basement, "I swear to God, if that's you, I'm gonna rip your face off."
The odor returns and the air grows warm and humid around him.
The air becomes so thick and the stench so abhorrent that Johnny has to gulp air through his mouth just to prevent dizziness from setting in. He feels nauseous and his eyes water. He starts to cough and gag, wheezing against the denseness of the air. The whine and the whirring are almost deafening in a matter of a few coughs: one constant, and the other in bursts; like an old ventilator that is still working even though the patient has flat lined. He doesn't realize that he's screaming in pain from the noise until his throat closes up and he retches, falling to his knees on the dirty stone floor.
He looks up, and his vision is blurry, burning hot tears are reluctant to leave his eyes when he tries to clear them.
Johnny sees the wood on the wall crack, but doesn't hear it.
He sees the monster's maw open, shining white strings of saliva connecting the rows and rows of teeth across a deep red mouth, but doesn't hear it roar, doesn't smell its breath even when the strands of hair are blown from his brow.
He feels the monster's hunger, its rage, its bloodlust, but all he can do is laugh in its face, his chest tightening as the air leaves his lungs but does not return, and slip away to teary-eyed blackness and near-silence.
Johnny wakes up so violently he slams his head against the bottom of the desk and sees stars. It's around noon if the sounds drifting in from beyond the door and the amount of light pouring in the blinds is any indication.
He's sweaty and shaking and freezing cold despite the unseasonably temperate environment.
It was a dream.
It was all a dream.
Johnny listens intently for a few moments and takes several deep breaths through his nose. No whirring, no whine, no smell. He breathes a sigh of relief and settles into his cubby trying to stop his limbs from doing that shaky, weightless thing that they do when his heart beats too fast. He shivers and feels light headed for several minutes.
When the world slows down and he feels normal again, Johnny crawls out from his tiny living space and stretches the last of the shakiness from his limbs, joints cracking in his elbows, neck, and back. He groans behind clinched teeth as the last bit of stretching strains his shoulder.
"God damn it."
His clothes are damp and cling to him, irritating his skin as he moves. With a reluctant groan and more than a little time spent debating the logistics of getting his current clothing washed and dried before his mother notices him even though he knows that's not going to work out before the debate even begins, Johnny unravels the bundle Jeff gave him by unfastening the belt that holds it together.
It's not much. The top piece is a thin, dingy grey hooded shirt with long sleeves that are frayed at the wrists and worn almost to tearing at the elbows. There are two short sleeved shirts: one solid black faded at the underarms and collar, the other a dark red with more than a few holes. Last, two pairs of jeans Johnny knows will not fit him without the belt that was so thoughtfully supplied; both are dark, faded and torn at the hems and knees, the denim is soft to the touch from years of wear. The whole bundle smells of dust and moth balls, and there's lint stuck to the dark fabrics.
He changes quickly into the dusty second-hand goods, leaving the remaining shirt and jeans in a neatly folded stack under the desk. He gathers his own clothing, and presses his ear to the door.
The house is still.
He nudges the door open, and quickly shuts it again.
The file cabinet he uses to block the door is standing straight just beside the door jamb and the door is unlocked.
He feels ill.
Johnny quickly ducks out into the hallway and presses his back to the door; he eyes the latches on the basement entrance out of the corner of his eye. They're still locked. At least, he hopes it's 'still'.
Crouching below the counter, he trudges through the kitchen and into the small alcove that houses their washer/dryer setup. He tosses his clothes, along with a few towels from a nearby hamper inside and starts the cycle. Creeping back through the kitchen is a little more difficult. The sound of the washer causes his mother to stir, grumbling into the empty space of the living room and questioning the newest holes in the wall. He has to bolt to make it to the hallway before she notices his presence, and even then he doesn't quite make it.
The whirring starts up again, steady and in time with his breaths. He can feel the blood rushing in his chest and neck.
His heart stops when he tries to shut the door and it doesn't close behind him.
She grabs him by the hood of his long sleeved shirt and pulls him past her and into the hallway. His back slams hard into the wall, he's pretty sure he hit a stud, and dislodges a few framed pictures from their places; they thud against the carpet, but don't break.
Johnny pushes off from the wall and tries to bolt, but she grabs him by the hood and throws him again. He hears crunching when he lands and feels sharp stabbing and warmth under his hands as he rises.
His eyes never leave his mother.
She's pale, paler than is usual for her. Her dark eyes are wide and fearful under her scowling brow, they shimmer a bit and redness inches its way across her corneas. A choked sob causes disjointed pauses when she starts screaming obscenities at him.
She stops screaming, the whirring and whine quiets a bit, so only harsh breathing remains.
"Enough," Johnny says again, hoping it will bring silence. It doesn't.
His mother hisses through cracked and yellowing teeth. "You… you son of a bitch." She is trembling with rage. "You son of a bitch. You did this to me."
"What the fuck are you—" She lunges at him, and he manages to grab her by the wrists, holding her firmly in place. Johnny can't tell if she's just off today, or if the practice he's been getting is paying off. Perhaps a little of both. "What the fuck are you going on about?"
The woman shrieks in his face and struggles against him, tears in her eyes. She drags him across the glass shards and onto the matted carpet before giving up on getting free and screaming at him again until it dissolves into a laugh. "They said you'd come back for me. They said, but I wouldn't listen." She repeats the phrase over and over, "They said, but I wouldn't listen."
"It wasn't bad enough was it?!" She shouts, drops of spittle hitting him square in the face cause his grip to tighten involuntarily, the wisp of a woman laughs, "Of course not. It's never enough. It's bad enough I have to see your goddamn face every day." She makes a low, feral noise. "What else do you want to take from me?"
Johnny feels his grip slipping.
Maybe it would be best to end her.
"I haven't taken anything from you!" he screams back at her. His screaming gains momentum as she shrinks away. "I've never taken a goddamn thing! I walk on eggshells for you, you fucking psycho!"
She just shrieks and struggles to get away. "You sent that little hellion after me. To-to watch me until you thought I'd had enough time- That fucking hallucination. It was you. IT WAS ALWAYS YOU. YOU GODDAMN MONSTER."
Johnny grits his teeth, "I've never done anything to you! I've never SPOKEN TO YOU and all you do is lock me in the basement! I don't deserve this! You're my—"
The woman wrenches her wrist free and latches on, digging her cracked and filthy nails into the back of his head and neck, and pressing her full weight into bringing him down to the floor, all the while screaming:
Something inside Johnny snaps at the word and what it implies. What it means. What it explains.
He grabs a fistful of her hair and tugs as hard as he can to get her screaming face away from him. His grip slips as strands come loose and he can feel the tacky wetness of blood and the burn of tearing skin behind his ear. He shifts, bending a knee to put even more distance between him and the raging female before planting his only free limb, his right foot, against her stomach, releasing her wrist and kicking out as hard as he can.
Her nails slash his face and a strands of hair fall between the fingers of his still clenched fist. He scrambles to his feet as she picks up a frame and throws it at him.
He stumbles, and she catches up to him using her momentum to slam them both into the wall. Blindly, he swings his elbow back, turns, and throws a punch; only the elbow connects and she still has hold of him when they reach the basement door.
The noise is deafening.
Johnny loses a few moments to the noise.
When his wits return, he's grappling with his mother, leaning precariously at the top of the staircase. The wood creaks, and that putrid smell wafts up in warm drafts at his back.
Johnny wraps his arm around her when she shoves him, but loses his balance anyway and they both tumble down the stairs.
Well, she tumbles down the stairs; Johnny actually hits the tenth step from the bottom hard enough to go through it instead of bouncing off it. Somewhere in the fall there is a gush of blood, a harsh crack he can barely hear over the sounds of machinery wracking his brain to the point of physical pain. Everything goes black around motes of dust and splinters kicked up from the floor by his breath.
"Fuck-" He groans, pushing up on his elbows. "Fuck…ow…" He looks at the hole in the staircase and the shards of wood collected around him. There's a small puddle of blood on the floor, bright red still streams from his nose and widens the diameter. Johnny stares at the puddle, transfixed. He can't think through the ringing in his ears and the throbbing pain in his…everything.
Until a kick to the ribs knocks the wind out of him. He curls defensively on his side, coughing wetly between gasps for air.
The barrage stops after a few kicks, and he looks up to see his mother, arm bent at a grotesquely awkward angle dangling at her side and her head cocked toward a shard of bone sticking out of the once defined line of her clavicle. Bright blood gushes from her wounds. Her skin looks grey and she wobbles. Her eyes don't focus on him, but on a spot on the floor next to him, wide and crazy as ever.
He retaliates, hooking a leg around her ankle and pulling backward with enough force to throw off her balance and send her tumbling to the floor with a wet thud. She shrieks, cries, and occasionally laughs, struggling to get up and failing.
Johnny rises, numbness taking the place of the pulsing bruises, and pins her to the floor digging his bony knees into her upper arms. She curses at him, struggling against his weight and her own blood loss, and he just stares at her. He plants one hand on the floor on either side of her head and stares at her. She screams, spits at him, and howls when his blood drips on her face, and he stares at her.
Her dark skin, thin bony form, graying hair. The cracks in her teeth and swelling around her eyes. The blood collecting around her ears. The bloodied shard of bone sticking out of her heaving ribcage of a chest.
This is what he'd been so afraid of.
She was so frail. Little more than a twig.
He feels his jaw moving, forming words, the vibrations in his throat that are so commonly associated with speech it's almost alarming when he can't hear the syllables. Almost. She stops screaming and watches him, appearing to listen intently.
The whirring and the whine return, the breathing and the flat line.
He's screaming now, but can't hear the words.
She looks terrified.
For a moment, he's outside of his body. Completely out of control. His hand grabs hold of the projection of bone and twists.
Her face contorts in agony.
Johnny takes hold of what's left of his mother's hair, digging his fingernails into her scalp. He pulls her face to his.
"I am your son." He feels the words, but doesn't hear them.
With every ounce of strength he can muster, he strikes her head against the solid floor, and uses the force to push himself to his feet. He presses a booted foot to her cheek.
"You were supposed to care." His voice cracks as he stomps down, using what little body mass he has to generate enough force to ensure that a second stop isn't necessary.
Her body deflates.
He stomps again anyway. "You fucking bitch!" Screaming at her, he stomps down again and again "You were supposed to care!" until he loses his balance and falls, planting his hands in the gory pulp that was once his mother's face and head. Johnny's up to his wrists in the stuff. "I'm your son."
"I needed you."
He takes a few heaving breaths, coughing drops of blood in between.
The damn noise just won't stop.
It only gets louder.
Johnny looks over his shoulder at the wall. He can see cracks in the wood, but no monster maw. "Shut up!" he shouts.
It's inside his head. Like his brain is throbbing in rebellion against the sound. He retches. "Shut up!"
On blind anger he rises to his feet and rushes to the wall, pounding his bloodied fists against the cracked wall as his tired body slowly sinks to the floor.
The sound begins to fade, so does the pain and weakness in his limbs, and the world around him. The last thing he feels is the wood against his face, and a gentle pulsing behind it. Like the heartbeat of a living tree come to take him away from the waking world and its horrors.
Sleep comes quickly.
A cold circle presses against his cheek and Johnny sputters awake, falling off the park bench and crashing to the sidewalk. A jolt of pain shoots up his back.
"The fuck!?" He shouts, rubbing the pain away.
Jeff cackles, and offers Johnny the offending cold thing. It's a freezy; he'd recognize that red slush anywhere. Jeff has a steaming foam cup in his other hand and uses it to muffle his cackling just a bit.
Johnny snatches the beverage and downs it in huge gulps. He presses his tongue to the roof of his mouth to prevent brain freeze with minimal success and winces. Jeff begins full on laughing at him, and Johnny hurls the half-empty cup at him in anger. Jeff dodges the projectile just barely and Johnny immediately regrets the action.
Johnny collapses on the bench, another jolt of pain surging along his spine when it hits the wood and steel backing of the seat. He groans loudly.
"What happened to you?" Jeff asks, coming around to face him. He stands directly in front of Johnny, head tilted to one side.
Johnny covers his face with his hands.
"What day is it?"
Jeff tilts his head further, "What?"
"What day is it?"
Jeff thinks for a moment, "The tenth."
"January," Jeff corrects. "Why?"
Johnny doesn't say anything, and covers his face with his hands again.
"You seem to be holding up well," Jeff says after a few moments of silence.
Johnny makes a questioning noise.
"For someone so adamant about not killing his family, you've been coping well with the whole 'killing your mother on Christmas' thing."
"That was on—" He doesn't even want to think about this whole mess anymore. He's losing time now. Large chunks of it.
He retches loudly. Jeff takes a step back. "Jesus Christ, man. What's wrong?"
Johnny coughs and sputters, staring at the concrete and trying in vain to swallow the burning in his throat.
"Ha ha ha ha."
Johnny glares up at Jeff, but he isn't the one laughing.
Jeff stares at him hard. "Is something wrong? You seem sick." He takes another step back, "So help me if you are contagious."
"I'm not-" He rubs a hand across his face, "I'm fine. I just… I don't know what to do next."
Jeff steps closer, "What do you mean?"
"I can't go home. I can't sleep on this bench forever…"
"Hmm." Jeff sips his coffee thoughtfully.
"I'm not in the system."
This is a shot in the dark. He doesn't think it'll take. "Do you think… the Jamesons'll take me? I have nowhere else to go-"
"No." Jeff says firmly.
"What? But I-"
Jeff sighs, "The Jamesons can't take you in because they're dead." Johnny opens his mouth to question, but he cuts him off, "The legal work went through so I could get my trust fund. I didn't need them anymore, but they wanted to keep me anyway. They're dead."
Johnny groans, defeated…But, if his foster family was dead, and he had access to trust fund money. Jeff probably had his own place.
"Can I stay with you?"
There is a tense silence that settles between them. Jeff stares at him through the steam rising from his coffee, the Styrofoam cup obstructing his face. His brow furrows, dark ashen lids nearly close, then open again. Johnny realizes he's shaking under the intensity of the stare masked by steam.
The world is still and quiet, as if it too is awaiting Jeff's decision.
Johnny has to figure out how he does that.