August had stayed out on that cliff for hours, long past when he'd been soaked in rainwater down to the bone. It hadn't been a conscious thought at the time, but when he looked back on it, he would have had to admit he was waiting for something. A sign, perhaps. A cleansing of his soul and misdeeds, more likely.
It didn't surprise him when he turned up empty-handed.
By time he'd made it back to the motel that afternoon, Emma was gone, the door open wide as a cleaning cart obstructed the entranceway itself while a maid pulled out clean linens to replace the old. There was no sign of her, not even as he circled the nearby blocks on the back of his motorcycle, looking for her though he feared what he might do if he did cross her path.
In the end, it didn't stop him from expecting to see her around every corner whether he knew it or not, and two days later in mid-afternoon with the sun shining bright again, August saw her once more.
And she was jimmying open an old Volkswagen bug.
Emma acted with a grace and familiarity, evident even from afar, and August had the sinking feeling that despite the details of her life she'd come clean with over their last few days together, Emma was just about as good at being honest as he was. He knew absolutely nothing about that girl, and that particular fact, was the hardest to swallow. That was, until he'd seen the way she clung to the new stranger in her life.
The sourness of his stomach hadn't been an immediate reaction to the anonymous man, but rather a slow build up, exponentially increasing as time had passed. What August had done for Emma—or to Emma as he pitifully argued with himself on particularly miserable days—had been for her own good, and August had to wonder if this man wasn't the price that came with the magic he'd used. This man, Neal Cassady—as he'd learned his name from the same poster that held the details of his unsavory past—would ruin her.
It was that mantra that propelled August in chase of Neal down a street and through an alleyway, even gave him that flow of adrenaline he needed when he pulled Neal off the fence and threw him to the ground.
"You want to protect Emma?" He said over the sounds of Neal's struggling. "Then come with me."
"How do you know Emma?" Neal shouted.
Exhaustion burned behind August's eyes, only outweighed by the hunger pangs that had become a constant companion in the time since he had bid Emma goodbye. That steady life he'd built in Portland had quickly fallen apart since then, each vital piece pulling another with it. Fatigue had him spouting off some line about a guardian angel, words that barely made sense as they left his lips, especially considering the circumstances.
Neal only reconfirmed what he already felt.
"This world—full of temptations," and though he could make a list a mile long of every temptation he'd ever succumbed to or wanted to, he thought only of Emma. "Turns out I'm not that great at saying no." As he spoke, August became aware of a strange undercurrent of something that ran straight through him, growing more insistent and impossible to ignore. "But I'm here now."
"So who are you?"
"We were in the same home as kids," he confessed, and other than what little he'd said to Emma herself about the girl he was searching for, it was the first time he'd allowed himself to speak aloud about what he'd done seventeen years earlier. "I thought she'd be safe inside the system, but now that she's out…" That unknown sensation again nagged at him, skin crawling. "I promised I'd take care of her."
Neal leaned in, head held high, the image of bravery August had so often wished he'd possessed in his life. "We promised to take care of each other."
For the moment, all else was drowned out by the revelation laid out before him. He hadn't wanted to see it, hadn't chosen to see it before out of some desperate self-preservation mechanism, but there was no denial of it now. His brow crinkled and jaw stiffened, lips parted as his body felt more wooden than it ever had since he'd actually been that animated puppet. He spoke wish a hushed voice. "You love her?"
It was jealousy that he knew he hadn't exactly earned the right to have in the first place. Jealousy not because he loved her in such a way or had thought—before or after things had gone so far to shit between them—that she might have loved him, but because now that chance of ever knowing if it could be possible at all had been taken from him. In fact… he had taken it from himself.
"Good," he said, "that means you have to do right by her."
Neal's gaze was unwavering. "That's what I'm tying to do."
"Then leave her." August saw his own face in Neal's as he spoke, talking of that destiny Emma had following her around. It had been him in his place only a week or two before, listening to the fairy turned nun—the embodiment of what he'd always known to be the pinnacle of all that was just and good—tell him why he had to do what felt unbearable. Now… now it was August's turn to pass that message on to someone else that was so incredibly like himself: wayward, lost, and only dragging Emma down along with him.
August felt his tentative grasp on Neal slip away with the expression of doubt the man wore, and just when he feared it was too late, that hum that vibrated through him like never before came back to the forefront of his senses. It made August take a sudden, figurative leap. He cocked his head to the side. "Do you believe in magic?"
The stranger looked away, and August knew that gut feeling had been right. Neal seeing the true contents of the wooden box only further proved it, and though August had a million questions like how and why and who the hell are you really, he only wasted his breath on telling Neal of the story he'd rehearsed in his head for the last seventeen years.
A boy and a baby. A tree and a wardrobe. A curse to be broken and only one capable of doing it.
Telling that story was cathartic.
"She needs to be scared straight," August said, hands to the seat of his bike as he leaned forward against it for support, head hanging. "Nothing else is going to convince her to pull herself out of this life before its too late."
Neal sighed loudly where he stood. "If I just sell these… me and her were gonna start over. New names, new lives—do it right."
"And what happens when that money runs out? What happens when one of you gets sick or the car breaks down or someone finds out who you two really are or—anything," he said exasperatedly. "When you have nothing else, what then? You'll both go back to robbing convenience stores and stealing cars."
"I wouldn't let—"
"It'll be the easy thing to do." August swallowed hard, speaking from experience. "And it'll keep going until one or both of you does get caught. Only it'll be worse—because then she'll be an adult and she'll be trading on a fake name. She'll waste a decade of her life rotting in jail and the curse will never get broken. And that—all of that will be on you."
The man paced on the other side of the motorcycle, scrubbing a hand over his jaw and then through his hair, deep in thought.
"If you really do love her… then you need to give her the chance to be better than this. Better than us."
Neal stilled, and then lifted his head to meet August's eyes, resignation apparent. "What do I do?"
"Find a pay phone. Make a phone call. And then… disappear."
The weeks weren't kind to him, to say the least. On a lark, he'd made the decision to follow Emma down to Phoenix; it had been an ill-conceived trip, one destined to fail from the start and August had made it as far as small ski resort town in northern California when his bike had refused to go any further.
Work would be hard to find there especially in the off season, the hills barren of snow and town near abandoned without the tourists to fill up the streets and stores, and it was with a heavy heart that August had to silently acknowledge that he was not a stranger to the desperate choice between paying for a place to sleep or paying for dinner. He'd had enough cash when he'd left Portland to make it to Phoenix if he rode solid ten hour days and ate light; if there was a cheap enough motel he might have even been able to afford a bed to rest his head at night instead of sleeping beside his bike and hoping the local animals didn't get too curious. He'd had enough to get to Phoenix, he was sure of it, but not enough for anything else.
While the town was something of a curse, it also served as a blessing with the number of vacation homes that circled the edge of the town proper, nestled into the woods. They were isolated, remote, and most importantly, empty. He warred with himself for some time that first day there—his feet and back aching from pushing the dead motorcycle on forward—about the rights and wrongs of the situation and whether his desperate need for shelter outweighed the rights the homeowner had, and as much as it pained him to, he made the obvious choice as the sun began to set.
He chose a smaller house, one that seemed less likely to be armed with an alarm system, and was far enough removed from the roadside and neighbors as to not draw any attention to himself. It helped that the house looked as though it had been vacated for sometime, no doubt closed up for the season until more ideal weather hit, and as August pushed his bike up the driveway and tucked it around back, he made a silent prayer to whatever deity was listening that he wasn't found out. He had been, of course, a number of times in the past. Squatting was the official term for it, but usually he'd had a working vehicle back then which made for a quick getaway when need be. This time he would have to play it smart.
The backdoor of the home was easy enough to pick, a skill he'd honed in his youth and practiced this time with lingering guilt even as the locking mechanism gave way. A quick check of the kitchen faucet in the cabin told him the water had been turned off and a flick of the light switch likewise confirmed a similar story. They were only temporary setbacks however, as in the garage he found both the circuit breaker and the main water valve, and though it would leave evidence that he'd been there at all, August would be long gone by time the homeowner got a bill for the utilities.
The fridge was warm and empty, no surprise there, but the cupboards were another story. For someone that had lived out of a motel room for the last month, the cabinets were a veritable goldmine and August wasted no time in tearing through the first things that caught his eye. His hunger, as it turned out, negated the guilt that returned when his stomach was full. It was a feast of canned soup and vegetables, and just because for the first time in so long he could, August took to using the stove instead of a microwave. It was about as close to home cooking as he'd had in a long time, and god it tasted good.
Non-perishables weren't been the only supplies stocked and it didn't taken August more than an hour past dusk to find the liquor cabinet. He fell asleep that night with a belly of cut green beans and the most expensive whiskey he ever had. It was a good night, one without dreams.
The parts he needed, they said, would take a week to get there. It took just over that much time for August to scrape the money together from odd jobs here and there, and a few days more spent with his nose in instructional manuals at the local library learning how to do the repairs right. It was time to finally go, the cabinets picked through of food and alcohol, but the cabin provided a familiarity—the illusion of putting down roots—he couldn't bear to leave.
Another week and dinner meant picking out the black specks of dead beetles from an old box of pancake mix found in the back of the pantry, mixing up the powder with water and pouring out the batter into a frying pan. There was no butter or syrup to be had with it and they were impossibly dry, but there was coffee—black—with filters made of folded paper towel. For awhile, he convinced himself that life of barely subsisting at all was enough, unwilling to admit to even himself that his reluctance to go was also a reluctance to have to face where he'd been responsible in sending Emma.
It was right, he fed himself the line repeatedly late at night, the only sound in the cabin a small radio he'd found in a closet. It was right. It was what Emma needed and when she emerged from it all perhaps it would be like a caterpillar undergoing a metamorphosis, climbing out from its shell changed and whole and brand new. He wanted to believe it, not just for her sake, but because he wanted to believe that maybe there would come a day for him when he would too be able to leave the past behind and start over. Never too late to start new, he'd said to her, and August did believe it, truthfully, wholeheartedly… just not when it came to himself.
Yeah, it was the right thing.
Come morning, August was feeding nickels into a photocopier in what looked as though it had once been a dining room before the home had been repurposed into a library. It seemed prudent to keep a copy of the more complicated repairs in the service manual he'd dug up there, and so the minutes passed along with his change, flipping the book's pages, settling the top down, and pressing print as another piece of paper hot to the touch was spit out the other end of the copier.
Down the center of the room was a lengthy folding table to replace where the dining table had likely once been, a stark contrast to the otherwise quaint and intricate craftsmanship of the home, and upon that table computers lined up in a row. An elderly man, one August had seen milling about the library before at a similarly early hour, stood from the seat he'd occupied long before August had even arrived, pulling on his coat and leaving the empty room behind.
August watched him go, letting out a deep breath at that feeling of finally being alone, though he suspected the man wouldn't have even known of his presence if it hadn't been for that steady, almost rhythmic sound of the photocopier churning out page after page. Just as he was about to turn back to his work, however, August's eyes lingered on the computer screen that had been previously in use, and how unlike all the other computers that sat in various states of dormancy, this one was not loaded back to the generic log on screen asking for a library cardholder's information.
He gathered the book and copied pages from the machine quickly, rushing to the computer that offered a lifeline to the outside world. August sank into the seat, and without even a second consideration, brought up the homepage search engine. Phoenix news, he typed, and though he didn't know exactly what he was searching for, he took a gamble on the first return, a website for a conglomerate of newspapers servicing various points of Arizona, including Phoenix.
The website was barebones at best, featuring weather and headline news local to the area, all of which was of little importance compared to what he sought out. He tried specifying his search, with keywords like theft and robbery which yielded too much to easily sort through and Emma Swan which delivered nothing. On a hunch, he tried one more search, Neal Cassady, and it was, as they sometimes said, the magic word. Open sesame.
There were a few articles archived regarding the thief and his unknown whereabouts, but what was most important was the article most recently written only—he checked the date near the clock on the computer's toolbar, Christ, had he wasted that much time in this shitty little town?—two days before the current.
Nowhere in the article did he find Emma's name, but instinctually he knew to whom the author referred. The anonymity meant she'd been tried as a minor then, and not an adult, which was a small mercy in itself. The details of the theft were laid out, especially noting how Neal Cassady was still at large but the unnamed accomplice had struck a plea deal in exchange for any information as to his whereabouts. She'd gotten eleven months in a minimum security women's prison, and would be comped for time already served.
It was a short piece, nothing more than a few facts without the usual flowery content of bigger drawing articles, and though August couldn't have expected more from it, he was left unsatisfied.
How was she? The last he'd seen of her had been from a distance as she was cuffed and pushed into the back of a police car, and that solemn expression of abandonment and betrayal had stung him somewhere deep. It was the right thing to do for her, and yet it didn't feel right. He thought back to some of the last words his father had said to him: that sometimes you must lie to protect the ones you love; It wasn't exactly the same situation, Emma was guilty in a technical sense even if Neal was the one who deserved to be behind bars instead, but it was the same idea. Sometimes you had to make the hard choice, even if it wasn't what someone may have thought they wanted.
August sat back in his seat, vision out of focus. Against his thigh, his cell phone vibrated in his pocket, and August pulled it out, looking to the outer screen. It was a phone kept mostly for emergencies and necessity, and barring a phone call from someone he was regularly working under, it simply did not ring. He didn't recognize the number, nor the area code that read on it, but just as August was about to let the call go unanswered, he took a glance back to the computer screen. He had a vision of Emma on her own, making a phone call from the prison where she was kept.
He flipped the phone open and put it to his ear.
It was at that moment that he remembered that Emma had no reason to remember his number… or him, at all.
August scooped the Indian Chief service manual from the table, leaving the photocopies behind as he violently shoved the book into the breast of his buttoned jacket and made haste out of the library, back onto the town's streets and headed in the direction of the cabin.
"August, man, you there?"
"Yeah." He said breathlessly, fatigue suddenly hitting him just as the cool air did.
"I'm in Vancouver," Neal said from a thousand miles away. "Can we meet?"
That money was going to burn a whole in his pocket, he was sure of it. If he let his imagination run wild enough, August swore he could even feel it beginning to heat up, ready to spontaneously combust and taking him out with it. A similar nightmare from his childhood as a wooden boy often sprang to mind.
August had never seen that much money at once before, at least not in real life and off of a movie screen or television set. Sums of money like that—twenty grand give or take a couple hundred in either direction—didn't just fall into people's laps, certainly not people like him. He'd held a couple thousand a few times, though on those occasions the money hadn't exactly belonged to him, he was merely a somewhat trusted go-between for bigger players in a business he'd never been devoted to. Even when he'd bought that bike of his—rusted out and in horrid disrepair, a sight that had hurt him what with such a beautiful bike it could be and once had been—August hadn't held more than a small wad of bills in various denominations before he'd handed over what equated to his life savings. Twenty thousand dollars… it would be his undoing.
He knew what he ought to do, of course: drive that car down to Phoenix; change its oil and otherwise prep the VW bug for sitting unused during the remaining nine months of Emma's sentence; acquire a safety deposit box for the money that remained and send the information to her. But what August ought to do and what he was inclined to do—those were two very different things.
A hotel room came first—one with clean sheets and indoor hallways, someone at the front desk that called themselves the concierge—and he took to hiding away most of the cash in the in-room safe. It wasn't exactly the best idea, but it was enough for the night and was at least safer than carrying it around on his person. He showered immediately, the water so hot it felt as though it had sloughed off the top layers of his skin as well as the last weeks, months, years of dirt, silt, and guilt that was caked into his every pore. And before he could stop moving and have to think, August was out of the hotel just as fast, looking for anything—or anyone—to occupy his mind and body for the night.
It wasn't difficult to find what he needed, especially while a couple hundred dollars in cash burned in the breast pocket of his jacket, begging to be spent, and spend it he did, covering rounds for anyone at the bar that looked his way.
August couldn't remember the girl's name the moment after she first said it, just the hard sound of a consonant as the first letter, and so he took to calling the dark haired stranger sweet murmurs of affection as compensation. It was enough for both of them under the heavy guise of alcohol, more than enough to get them back to his hotel room and for the night to proceed just as he'd intended.
It was good in a physical sense—always was with few rare exceptions—but when the woman beside him curled in closer afterward, there was only a deeply ingrained instinct to pull away. He stood without hesitation and crossed the room to his discarded clothing, pulling from a pocket a wrinkled canadian bill, and then returned to where she laid.
"Should be enough for a cab," he said, his subtlety gone as he tucked the money into her hand. She lifted her head for a kiss despite the brush off but August dodged it, instead dropping his lips to her forehead, barely touching her skin. "I had a great time."
It was a kindness that the girl put up no argument, having known what she was getting into before following him back, although he suspected she might have appreciated staying the night.
The door slammed shut behind her and August was already out on the small balcony that overlooked the rest of the city. The view wasn't great: mostly buildings nearby that were just as tall, but if he angled himself just right he could catch a slice of the distant waterfront. Wind came in with the currents and it was almost briny, a slightly different scent than he'd taken in on the east coast, and the somewhat sticky humidity of the day clung to his skin much like the lingering hints of the woman who had just left him behind.
August sighed and leaned over the railing, slouched and shoulders hunched as his weight rested upon his elbows. From up above, the world seemed quiet and simple, and just as he always did, he felt absolutely and completely disconnected, like a boy—not a man—straddling both worlds with not a place for him made in either. An anomaly, an outcast, something that never really belonged anywhere to start with.
A height of that magnitude above the street level gave him the same uncomfortable response that the ocean had in the past on the lonelier, more despairing nights. It would have been easy, he'd thought far too many times to recall, to slip off the edge of the schooner he'd found temporary work upon and sink down into the depthless black ocean bottom, ending it all. Selfishly, it wasn't the thought of the cursed town or his father that had kept him from ever doing so, but the fear of what came after. Did a boy like him, one carved from wood, have a soul? Was there an afterlife that would take him in? Or would there just be nothingness that waited for him as he ceased to have ever existed at all?
…Would anyone have even noticed he was gone?
Another salty breeze rolled in off the bay and it reminded him of that cliff back in Oregon—not of the time he'd sat there alone but rather the first occurrence, with Emma by his side. More specifically, he thought of his plans he'd told her of traveling and seeing the world, breaking the cycle his life had fallen victim to.
He turned back and stepped into the bedroom through the balcony's sliding glass door. At the other side of the room in the open closet, August's eyes settled on the locked safe.
Phuket was meant to be temporary—while still an escape—but a retreat measured in weeks instead of months. He'd arrived with the hopes that it would be a trip based in the vastly unfamiliar, a place to clear his head and come to terms with not just the last weeks stateside, but the rest of his life. Maybe there'd be something in the water there that would wash away his sins just as he'd similarly hoped the rain would do to him every time grey clouds overhead opened up. It never worked, at least not so far, but that didn't mean that the quick fix wasn't coming someday, somewhere, however far down the line. He needed it to be that simple.
What he hadn't counted on was that Phuket would grow to be more like a home than almost anywhere else had felt in the last couple of years, and it wasn't just couches he crashed on or temporary shelter taken in by-the-week rentals. He'd found a studio shortly after his arrival, a small space that had come furnished and included a kitchenette and a ceiling fan generously called air-conditioning. It was muggy as the hottest circle of hell when it was humid, almost unbearably so, but it was on a corner two floors above street level and when the windows were opened, the cross-breeze that came through the place was downright heavenly.
August had also found the steadiest work he'd had his whole life, a lucky little job working with a couple of entrepreneuring ex-pats in ownership of a few boats that shuttled tourists about the nearby waters to the sweetest snorkeling spots. The pay was good for the hours, the water clear and beautiful, and every so often if he played his cards just right, there was a girl on holiday or an older woman looking to let go of her inhibitions on vacation. A twenty-five year old from Kansas, for some reason, seemed to be the perfect balance between risk and reasonably safe in the grand scheme of things.
He dared to even say he'd made friends, not that he had anyone to say that to, but nonetheless it was a spot of pride for him. August had something for himself there, and it was almost enough to do as he'd intended: drown out the thought of the lives he'd lived before and the obligations that otherwise loomed in the distance awaiting him. If he didn't think about it too much, despite it all… he may have even been happy. Relative happiness, at the very least, even if it had taken longer than he'd anticipated.
Some nights he thought of the motorcycle he'd left behind in a storage unit in Vancouver before he'd driven the yellow Volkswagen to Phoenix, a couple bills left in the glove compartment to at least afford Emma a few tanks of gas so she could get the hell out of Dodge once her sentencing was up. He missed that bike, the way it vibrated between his legs and the roaring sound it had as it came to life, but it would have been out of place here surrounded by tiny dented cars and rickety scooters that would have long since been out of commission due to safety risks back home. But that bike, it would be waiting for him when he got back, if he ever did—though that idea was much too tantalizing to let himself really consider.
The afternoon rain had ended the day's last planned excursion slightly ahead of schedule, and as lightning flashed overhead and thunder cracked mere seconds later, August was comforted in the thought that he'd been right to make the call to fish those snorkeling tourists out of the water early to get them back to shore before the water grew too rough. On land, the storm didn't seem quite so bad, not only because there was solid ground beneath his feet, but because it gave the local eateries and bars a sense of coziness as the usually opened doors and windows were battened down to protect property and patrons alike, to say nothing of the fact that these places were also far more packed than ever as everyone tried to hide out from the rain. There was camaraderie in it, a room full of rain soaked people drinking to their hearts' content and not thinking about what came next. In other words, it was his ideal kind of experience.
The bar itself felt as though it was alive, like it had taken on the energy of its occupants, turning itself from inanimate to a living, breathing thing. Laughter echoed off the walls, the chatter loud and raucous, complete with a scent of sweat and alcohol and the slowly dissipating smell of food vendors that had once been outside in happier weather. The woman at August's right laughed at something another said and then stroked her hand along the length of his forearm, the slyest of glances given as she coyly smiled in his direction for only a moment.
That look in and of itself was an accurate representation of their relationship—August always waiting for more and the woman never quite giving enough, their relationship, or lack thereof, still in infancy. Michele had been one of the first people he'd met months ago, a native from the south of France looking to get away. He never asked about what she was running from and in return, she never asked him. It was a comforting falsehood built on insecurity and half-truths, but from the dimly lit bar it was just as bit as enticing as something more sincere.
Michele leaned back into him over the arm of her chair, a peck left to his cheek. "Let's take our leave," she said, but for all the other volume in the room, it felt like a whisper. Her hand sought his out, fingers lacing together as she squeezed.
August's brow quirked followed by a squint to his eyes as he mulled over the hidden meaning of her words. "You sure?"
"Are you saying no?" She smiled as she asked, all the while beginning to stand as she pushed her chair out, leading him by their still linked limbs. "Doesn't sound like the man I know you to be to say no."
In a more sober mood the words might have stung, but August only saw Michele, dark hair and light eyes, her skin golden from the sun, and just how much he'd wanted this, wanted her for the last half a year. He followed like any boy would.
It was still drizzling when they hit the streets and in contrast to the usual late nights of street vendors and crowds milling about not yet wanting to go to sleep, the narrow roadway was abandoned. Michele paid no mind to the rain drops as they fell, and instead of trying to duck under awnings and overhangs of old architecture, she pulled him by the hand out into the middle of the street to continue their slow pace. August let his arm slip around her to her other side, hand at her waist to keep her close.
He wished he hadn't drunk so much, wished he'd be able to remember the rapid beating of his heart and the pressure in his groin with greater clarity in the morning, but there were no circumstances in which he was ready to tell her 'No,' or 'wait,' or 'perhaps another time.' Especially not as she leaned in close, kissing the skin below his ear, her hand settled on his backside at the waistband of his shorts.
"Mmm," he hummed as her fingers slid up under the hem of his shirt, making skin to skin contact. "Keep going—ow, what the fuck!" His encouragement ended early as he felt something scratch along his scalp, and he instead instinctively jerked away from her, ducking his head down. August swept a palm over the crown of his head. "What in the hell—"
Michele laughed, waving a hand in the direction of the night sky. A bird of some sort—was it a bat? Jesus Christ, after everything else, was he going to end up dying of rabies from some indigenous bat?—flew erratically above them.
"He likes you," she said through her wheezing laughter, accent so thick her words were barely intelligible at all.
"Go away!" August shouted to the sky, but it only further fueled the bird as it swooped down at him again and had he been half a second slower, the claws would've once again been dragging over his skin. "Leave me alone you stupid—stupid—" his words failed him and he was left yelling in the night like a small child with a limited vocabulary with the anger and indignation of the twenty-five year old he was, "bird!" Not his finest hour.
It made a third attempt, wings opened wide and fluttering rapidly at August, as though it was trying to scare him off, or maybe just attract his attention. August drew his arms up to protect his face but a moment later the bird stopped, and when he hesitantly opened his eyes, it was sitting on the pavement in front of him, beady black eyes blinking up at him like nothing was ever amiss. But it wasn't the possible future repeated threat of the bird that left August's mouth gaping, instead it was the bird itself.
A god damned pigeon.
"August…?" Michele cautiously called to him as he was locked into a staring contest with the bird. "Are you alright?"
He barely heard her, instead unable to pull his attention away from the pigeon as it cooed, head jerking before strutting half a foot closer to him. With careful balance, it lifted one of its legs, and that was when August saw it: a small coil of paper fastened to the bird's ankle.
Everything he'd ever been avoiding came crashing back at him and before he knew what he was doing, August dropped to a knee, freeing the bird of the burden of the message it carried.
"Did you—" Michele mumbled something in french, a language of which he still only knew very few words, but it distinctly sounded like a curse. "Mon Dieu, was there something on that bird?" She asked, incredulous.
August didn't know how to respond, unfurling the paper until its message was revealed.
Come home, Pinocchio.
He blanched, stomach queasy, and shoved the paper in his pocket. The bird took off and in the same moment, Michele touched his shoulder hesitantly.
"I—I have to go," he said quickly as he stood back up.
"Désolé," August repeated his apologies and took both of her hands in his. "I'm sorry."
Before her thoughts could be made verbal, he pulled away, turning back to head in the direction of his apartment. She shouted something after him, but her words were drowned out by the pulse of blood in his ears and the pounding of his feet on the pavement.
He took the steps in the narrow stairwell to his apartment two at a time, and when inside, tore in through his belongings. First the closet and then the end table, seeking out what he'd hoped to never have to use again. He found the calling card first, purchased just in case and still unused, and then found the small piece of torn paper with its faded inked digits and fraying edges. August dialed, his head wound up in the thoughts of why he was being called back, of what could have happened to warrant being sought out and so desperately so. Had something happened with the curse? Emma? His father? Tears pricked his eyes.
He'd been foolish to run away. It was just like Pinocchio to live up to his name, shirking duty instead for debauchery, forgetting the rest of the world and its troubles.
The voice on the other line belonged to Blue and he panicked, remaining silent.
A cough left his throat, words unsteady. "What happened?"
"You need to come home," she replied, giving nothing away.
"Just—just tell me," he demanded of her. "Is it my father? Has someone found out—does Regina know I made it out? Is she—"
"You have to do something for me."
"What—" But nothing prepared him for what was coming.
"Emma… she's had a baby."
Where before he'd been keenly aware of his heart pumping, his chest expanding and contracting with each breath, even the rain drops falling outside his window, August heard nothing now. Not a damn thing.
He'd sent her to prison and she'd been seventeen and pregnant. Had Neal known? Had he known and still given her up?
August leaned forward where he sat on the edge of the bed, making himself as small as possible. This was his fault. Like so many things, it was his fault.
"August? August… are you there? Pinocchio?"
Just how profoundly he'd fucked up began to set in.
"August—it'll be alright," Blue made an attempt at comforting him, but unlike when he was a child, her calming voice and carefully chosen words no longer held as much weight as they once had before he was jaded and embittered to the harsh realities of this world. "It will be alright, but you have to help."
He hadn't changed at all and maybe that's what she was counting on; he still wasn't good at saying no.
If he'd had a million years, August never would have been prepared for what Blue asked of him. It was simple really: he was to be a go-between for Blue, a liaison between the outside world and Storybrooke that went where she couldn't and ensured that the newborn ended up right where he belonged. A few hours, that was all it would take, but August was certain he would end up paying for the stress of it all instead with years off his life.
The social worker had barely so much as given a cursory glance to his forged credentials and exchanged a few words before she traded him an infant of barely a few weeks old. August looked for something in the woman's eyes, something that told him she was under a spell of magic or curse or anything to explain just how the Blue Fairy had pulled the wool over everyone's eyes, but he saw nothing there, nothing save for the desolate apathy and indifference that was a plague around the world.
Just like that, August Wayne Booth was left in the middle of arrivals at Logan International Airport with a newborn and what few belongings the child called his own.
The baby wailed from beneath the blanket that cloaked the bulky carrier August held within the circle of his arms, and it was that alone that shook him awake enough to return to his senses. Around him, the rest of the world moved on, eyes of strangers lingering on him as they passed, no doubt in curiosity at the sight of the bewildered guardian with the child growing more insistent and irritated as each second passed. August felt his skin heat up at the scrutiny and made haste from the airport to the parking garage.
By time he found the rental car once again, what had once been intermittent cries evolved into full-bodied sobs, so piercing they tugged at his heart strings. It reminded him of that forest so long ago, Emma in his arms as he tried to navigate the darkness. He'd been sure then that perhaps this world was abandoned, no one to be found but the animals he'd heard at night, and that somehow he'd be left to provide for the child on his own. It had terrified him even more than her cries had as he had continued to walk aimlessly, knowing full well a forest provided no nourishment a baby needed. He would watch her starve.
But time had passed, he had grown, and eighteen years ago he had found that roadside eatery that had been their salvation. He was no longer a child, and he could, for the time being, at least calm this newborn's cries.
August fit the carrier into the locking mechanism of the car seat then sifted through the small carryon the child had come with. He was careful, mindful of the boy's birth certificate and other records that tied him to this world, and at the bottom of the bag he found what he sought, a few pre-made bottles of formula. It wouldn't be warm, not like he knew children tended to prefer, but it would be sustenance and something for the baby to suckle at to keep his calm. August shook and then uncapped the bottle, peeling back the factory-seal to replace it with one of the screw-top nipples, and then from the other side of the car, climbed into the backseat towards the baby.
"Don't cry," he said, echoing his words from nearly two decades ago as he inched closer to the boy. August drew back the blanket with one hand.
He was beautiful. God damn beautiful, even as he cried out of frustration, a child denied the love of a mother just as Emma had been, and August's heart ached at the innate loneliness the boy must have felt without even knowing it.
August was as careful as he could be in easing the boy's pain, first releasing the clasps that secured the baby to the seat, then lifting the infant and the blanket into his arms. He cradled him there, the shockingly powerful limbs thrusting and kicking in every which way while a toothless mouth gaped with each shattering cry. As a consolation, August offered him the formula, and though it wasn't quite the magic trick he'd been hoping for, the baby took to suckling it, calming eventually in time.
And August, he was left marveling.
"I'm sorry," he apologized aloud to the baby, his words tentative and hushed. "There should've been another way and… I made a mistake. You're going to have to pay for it and because of that—I—I'm sorry."
The baby watched him from where he laid as he continued to eat, not even making so much as a gurgle that August could convince himself to believe was the newborn's acceptance of his apology. August hung his head and let out his own self-pitying sigh.
That boy was so much of Emma, August didn't see an ounce of his father in him. He was too fair skinned to take after Neal, his features too soft. Even the wrinkle of his nose or the way he kept a fist close to his face as he ate was reminiscent of Emma and how she slept, hand tucked under her cheek.
A snug cloth hat covered his head and August ran his fingers along the sewn edge, for a second taking the time to imagine what he'd find underneath. A thick head of dark hair, perhaps the one thing he'd gotten from his father? Light, nearly invisible filaments of downy hair like his mother? Nothing at all? Somewhere in between?
He pushed the hat up slowly and was greeted by the reddest shock of hair he'd ever seen on a newborn. Finally and without warning, August wept.
His body curled around the child, that great care he'd previously taken suddenly gone and none of his concern, only seeking to make himself as close to the baby in his arms as humanly possible. Tears, the kind that came so easily, so without warning, and in such number—the likes of which he didn't think he'd ever shed, not even as a child—streaked down his cheeks, passing from his skin to that of his son's, wetting the infant's hair. August thought he'd known pain and desperation, known the misery that came with one's actions—whether it was climbing into a wardrobe or leaving an orphanage or abandoning Emma for a second time—but all of it, it was nothing compared to what he felt right then.
August kissed the baby's scalp as he cried, daring for contact while holding the bottle still in place, albeit somewhat haphazardly. He breathed him in, that sweet scent that went beyond diapers and detergent, the kind of vivid memory drummed up in his olfactory senses that reminded him of the only other time he'd held a baby in his life. It was a calming balm to him, despite the imagery he saw behind closed eyelids of a forest and a different newborn, and August let himself be consumed in it, inside and out, spreading like a warmth in his chest to the rest of his limbs.
How hadn't he seen it before? How had he looked at this child and looked for Neal in the baby's face? How hadn't he see something of himself in him until now?
He shifted, the boy mostly supported across his lap and cradled in the crook of his arm, that same hand now also supporting the bottle so that his other could go free. Fingers brushed across the baby's eyebrows, thin and nearly translucent, and then down the slope of his nose, everything about him in tiny and miniature in the kind of way that was more obvious and striking now that he was twenty-five instead of seven.
Did Emma even hold him? he wondered. Or had she not wanted to see him? Did all of this—her having his child—somehow negate the magic at work? Did she remember him now? Or was she left to believe the obvious, that the other man had been responsible for it? Had she even wanted to have the baby or had she been left with no other choice? If he hadn't listened to Blue, if he'd stood by Emma with the courage he'd always longed for, would they have kept it? August feared the answer to that question because no matter the choice, there was no ideal end to be had. He just wished she hadn't had to make that decision on her own.
The baby's eyelids grew heavy, drooping lower with each blink as he ate, only barely just staving off sleep for another few seconds, and in that moment, August was certain if he could feel this way forever, he would never find a reason move.
Going to Storybrooke as promised… that hadn't been an easy choice. In fact, August had sat with the car idling at the town line for over an hour as the afternoon gave way to dusk, certain that Storybrooke would be his undoing. Mostly, he was right.
He followed the directions from memory that Blue had given him, staying away from the town center and heading along the outskirts to find the convent. The streets were empty though he passed a few out for an evening stroll, even a man walking a dalmatian, slowing as he looked for familiar faces where there were none to be had. He recognized no one and part of him thought that just maybe he was in the wrong place, but the directions were right, each street and landmark just where it should be.
The large residence, somehow exactly as he pictured it, waited for him as he pulled up, turning the ignition off. The dread that had pooled in his stomach hours ago prevented him from getting out, even under the cloak of darkness that now bathed the town. August leaned forward and set his forehead against the top of the steering wheel, fingers still gripped tightly around it. He had to go in, but just the same, he knew he couldn't. He couldn't. It didn't matter if his son had been blissfully asleep for the last few hours, lulled into a happier state by a full stomach and the soft vibrations of the car around him, and thus not an obvious reminder of what he was to be giving up, August couldn't forget.
He sighed deep, eyes shut, and then a tap at his car window jerked him awake. Blue—at a height befitting a human instead of a fairy and in a rather drab wardrobe—stood, clutching her shawl tight as she leaned down to look at him through the glass. Her face wore concern, and at the same time, relief.
"August," she said, voice muffled.
He pulled the door release and unfastened his seatbelt, and with unsure hesitance, stepped out. Immediately, she had him wrapped up in her arms, and he returned the gesture without second guessing. God it felt good to touch someone else like that, someone else who knew who he really was, of which there'd been none in this life.
"You've grown up," Blue said softly as she pulled back, her tight squeeze around him gone slack as she instead cupped his cheek while looking up to him.
An aborted laugh left his throat, head shaking slightly as he glanced down and away before looking back to her. "Not much…. And not well."
Her eyes squinted slightly from the smile that grew over her lips, cheekbones rising to accommodate. "You're here, and that says enough for me."
"I'm sorry," he said quickly, his words eighteen years too late.
She seemed to know what he was apologizing for and shook her head in a rejection of his apology, not because she didn't accept it, but because it wasn't necessary. "Wasn't your fault, August. You were a boy."
Maybe he just needed her to hear it though, either way. "I'm still sorry. We wouldn't be in this mess if—"
"Please," she interrupted, hand brushing gently over the center of his chest and it effectively silenced August. "We should go inside, it isn't safe to talk out here."
"Is it any safer in there?" He questioned, a glimpse taken of the building and the others that shared the space with her.
Blue sighed. "It's something. But—the baby—is he… did it all work out like I said it would?"
August moved a few steps towards the rear, opening the backdoor. He leaned in and over the child, first going for his carryall of belongings and slinging it over his shoulder, then finally disengaging the car seat from where it had been secured. He nudged the car door shut with his hip, his arms full.
"Let me," Blue said, offering an open set of arms for whatever he would offer her, but August stepped away with something of an acutely, but also suddenly, cultivated protective instinct, his grip tightening around the plastic carrier.
"Just show me the way," he said tightly, barely moving his mouth out of fear it would wreck the carefully coiled control he had. The wrinkle in her brow warned him of her early skepticism, but she did as asked, and led them into the home and then into an upper, more isolated room.
August set the baby's things down and then finally the baby himself, atop the lone bed in the room. He sat beside him, his body sagging down with the bed, defeated. Blue gave him the space he so desired, but only for a moment before she, too, came over, only this time her attention wasn't on him, it was on the sleeping infant. She said nothing.
"He's mine," he stated, simple and to the point, but then lifted an eyebrow and his head as he looked to her. "But I think you knew that."
Though she didn't move from where she stood, she looked as though she were withdrawn immediately, her gaze shifting from son to father. "How would I have known that?"
"I don't know," he raised his hands, palms open to the world as he gesticulated around him. "How have you ever done or known anything? Magic?"
"You know there's no magic here, August," and that was the tone he knew from her when he was younger, the same voice he'd heard from teachers through his childhood. Correcting him, always correcting him.
"Bullshit," he snapped, and from the widening of her eyes, his word had its intended impact. He was no longer a little boy to her. "You gave me that potion for Emma," August spoke, ticking off his list bullet by bullet. "You somehow convinced someone to adopt a child into a place that doesn't even exist to the outside world. And years ago—how did you find me? How did you even know I was here?"
Blue looked away.
"Don't lie to me. You've no right, not when you told me not to. I'm not a child anymore, not someone you can manipulate, not someone you can make do all the things you can't, be how you want me to be. This world comes with choice." There was anger in him, only just barely withheld.
"Easy, Pinocchio," she warned more to a wounded animal than a grown man.
"That's not my name," he bit out. "It hasn't been in a long time."
"August. August, then," Blue amended, conceding.
He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes, applying pressure to stop the tears from coming, the tears he so desperately didn't want to fall again as they had hours earlier in the backseat of the car with his child in his arms. A child with hair so red it reminded him of his own from his youth, hair that had faded and darkened as he aged, and that he suspected, would do just the same for his son as he grew up. No matter how dedicated his efforts, however, the tears came to his eyes, spilling from the corners faster than he could wipe them away. How he still could have tears at all, he didn't know.
Blue's voice, small and gentle, spoke up. "I was trying to protect you from this hurt."
Sometimes you must lie to protect the ones you love. August had believed those words then from his father, a man that had done nothing but loved and cared for him, and though he may have once believed it from Blue as well… he didn't believe it tonight.
"By never letting me know I had a son? Is that what you expected to happen—that I just wouldn't figure it out? That I'd bring him here and just—" his head swept back and forth rapidly, "—just give him to you without a word?"
Blue came to sit beside him, a hand to his knee as she turned in his direction. "He has to be here, August. I wish I could tell you how I know it, but I do. He's going to bring her here when the time comes and the two of you—you'll help her believe."
"She doesn't even remember me!" His volume rose, mood growing gradually untethered. "I'll be no one to him, just a stranger for the rest of his life because of what I did. Do you even understand what you're asking of me?"
"I do," she solemnly answered.
"No. No you fucking don't—because if you did, you'd never ask."
Blue winced at his tone and choice of language.
"Just let me…" he sucked in a breath of air deep, praying for the strength he needed as he lifted his eyes from the floor to her, daring to bare the tears and vulnerability there. "Let me take him. Let me make up for what I did wrong with Emma. I'm not a kid anymore, I can do it, I can—I can—I can be a father. Please. Just let me have that chance again. I'll do it right."
"Oh August," she whispered, repeating her gesture from outside as she touched a palm to his cheek, only this time she drew his head to her shoulder in the act of comfort. "You could have taken the boy and gone anywhere, but you came here tonight."
She was right on that account, of course. He'd even thought of running off with the baby—his son—and making a go at the parenting gig, but he'd been scared. Terrified, even. But that self awareness didn't make it any easier for him to let go what he'd only just found, and so his anger with her, the world, every person who had once had a hand in making that fucking curse, and yes, himself, poured out of him, channeled into the only other adult in the room.
"It's not easy raising a child…"
August resisted the urge to yell back at her while she talked, accuse her of knowing nothing about being a parent, but he held his tongue as she went on.
"Emma gave him up because she knew she couldn't do it, and I think you know you're not in a place to either. Where would you stay? What would you do for work? Who would care for him when you couldn't be there?"
Just as he'd done to Neal, the Blue Fairy rebuffed his hopes with logic, even if something in August's heart told him there was no place for logic when it came to matters like this. When it came to love.
August looked away from her and back to the child that still slumbered, unaware. Jesus Christ. He—Pinocchio, August Wayne Booth, whoever he felt he was today—loved that kid. After all that time, he finally found something in this world that he loved without question or reluctance.
"You'll meet again," she whispered.
He loved that kid, but damn if he didn't hate Blue.
"Please," he tried again. "Please."
"I just," he turned away from her more completely, body angled towards his son rather than her, and let a hand slip into the carrier as his palm engulfed the roundness of his son's head. His thumb brushed over the wisps of red hair closest to his forehead and then August moved in, his cheek grazing his son's before lips pressed to the infant's forehead. He lingered, unwilling to move right away, but finally pulled back, his eyes never leaving the boy. "I don't want him to be alone. I don't want him to be alone like I was my entire life."
"And he won't be," Blue said, rising to stand before him.
August tilted his had back to look up, his watery, reddened eyes making contact with hers. "Is this my family's curse?"
She was bewildered at the suggestion. "Curse?"
"To never raise their children. My grandparents didn't—and then my father—and now me. Will my son's children have to suffer the same way? Is it Emma's curse as well?" In this world, that sort of coincidence was often labeled as learned behavior, one generation passing on to the next its shortcomings and failures. Of course, in this world the reasons for not raising one's children didn't include because they were turned into puppets, or because a magical curse was coming. But they did include twenty-five year old fathers who were afraid of responsibility.
"Both of your families have shared a great deal of heartache, but that doesn't mean there's a curse to blame. Just life, Pinocchio."
"Please," he begged, and this time reached out to her, fingers tangling and tugging at the fabric of her sweater. "I'll be good."
Blue took him in her arms again, this time his face burying itself around her middle due to her standing and him sitting. She leaned forward and kissed the crown of his head.
"I'll be good," he repeated as the tears returned to him, vision blurry for what little he did see. "Let me be brave enough to try."
"You'll get that chance, it just isn't now."
August heard her own voice tighten from its usual stoic calm, quivering as she spoke, and that loss of her constant stalwartness was enough to shake him further, his chest heaving with sobs. For all the annoyance he'd found at being treated by her, at times, like he was still a child, August—himself—felt as though he was a little boy now, nothing of the man remaining. He was, for the first time in a long time, Pinocchio.
"I don't want to be alone!" He shouted as he pulled away, hands covering his face, fingers given up the futile game of wiping away his tears. The truth had been disguised before, but now it was out in the open. He didn't want his son to be alone, but more than that, August didn't want to be on his own either, just as he'd always been since he'd left the Enchanted Forest in a wardrobe. His body quaked with his shame, gasping breaths taken the more exhausted his body grew from the emotional turmoil. In a way, it was every ounce of fear and sadness he'd hid away for years now, all bottlenecking inside of him as it fought to come out.
"Do you know what they think of Pinocchio in this world?" He asked, his words stuttered and interrupted by the need for gulps of air as his body was fighting to maintain a proper oxygen flow. "They think he's a liar and a coward, that you can't trust him. You're making me more like him than I ever really was."
Blue touched his shoulder but August jerked away, going so far as to stand up and cross the room, his back given to her as he attempted to preserve what little of his dignity was left.
"Those are just stories here. They're not anything more."
"But I am a coward," he countered, and no matter what she—or anyone—could ever say, August would always believe it. A coward through life, that's what he was and what he was built to be.
From behind him, he could hear the already familiar sound of the baby stirring—the rustling of cloth, even a frustrated but short cry as he returned to the waking world—and it was that which drew August back towards Blue and his son. It was magnetic, almost, like they were two oppositely charged particles forced to be together no matter how much they may have resisted.
The baby fussed in his arms and August took to what came natural, kissing his face, holding him close, stroking his scalp and cheek as he paced the room, hoping the gentle rhythm would be enough of a deterrent to keep the boy from crying out so soon. Just as he offered the boy a sliver of peace, the newborn returned it, calming the stormy seas inside of August to a breezeless, tranquil surface. The two of them together, they existed in a kind of harmony.
"I didn't think I even could… you know, have children," he said, his cheeks reddening at the thought of broaching such a topic.
"Why would you think that?"
"I don't know." A pause of consideration. "Because I'm not real. Thought that being a father was something that didn't come with the magic that made me alive. I think I'd even accepted it, come to understand that the best in way of a family that I could ever hope for was seeing my father again. But this…" he sighed with contentment despite the tears that still stained his cheeks and even waited in the corners of his eyes, "he's real and there aren't any rules or conditions on that like there were for me. He'll always be real. Nothing can take that away."
For a second, August allowed himself to shut his eyes, choosing to shut out the rest of the world save for who he held in his arms. He could feel the baby squirm only slightly, hear every tired, struggling sound that his son made, seemingly satisfied for the time being at just being held to another person. Where this feeling came from—a feeling of never wanting to let go, of never wanting to let his child be out of his sight—August didn't know. It was instinct, something deeply human and not wooden, and fighting instinct… it was not something easily done.
"Do you know—have you heard anything—" he stopped, swallowing over a painfully dry throat as he tried to gather his words. "Emma… is she alright?"
"She's as good as anyone can be after something like this. Giving her child up… it's going to help her turn her life around. You did the right thing."
It was a hollow comfort, one he wasn't sure if he believed was the only choice now that the repercussions had been met. But there was no rewinding time, no turning back the clock, and so he chose to believe Blue's words because, like so many times before, he had to in order to get by.
As he continued to rock the child as he walked, August stopped as he approached a desk on the far wall of the room. Despite the orderly state of the rest of the residence—or what little of it he'd seen—and the room, the desk itself was in disarray, papers strewn about the surface in some type of order that didn't make sense to him as a stranger, but that he was sure Blue understood herself. Fingertips ran across the hand-inked scrawl of the top most, and only half-finished page of scrap, and though the handwriting was rushed and messy, he could make out enough to pique his attention. August canted his head back towards Blue.
"What is this?"
It was an opening she'd seemingly been waiting for and she neared him, overlooking the pages. "All of our stories from back home. I'm going to make a book for your son, make sure he gets it when he'll need it."
"You always said it was too much of a burden for me to have, and now you're willing to put this on him?"
"If there was another way… And besides," she touched his elbow, "his father will be there to help him. He won't be alone."
August's vision dropped back down to that of his son. "Are you sure he'll be alright here?"
Because he only had eyes for the boy, he missed the uncertainty that Blue, if only for a fraction of a second, shone in her eyes. "He will be."
August nodded slowly and steadily. He dipped his head down, kissing the infant's forehead, breathing in that intoxicating scent that belonged to him, committing it to the depths of his memory no one would ever be able to touch. "Be a good boy," he whispered. "I'll see you soon."
Into Blue's awaiting arms, he regretfully passed over his son, and he couldn't shake the innate emptiness he felt with his arms no longer weighted down by the eight or nine pounds that the baby made. He felt those tears returning and so he finally tore his eyes away ,and making haste towards the room's door. He stopped, his hand on the knob.
"Don't," and his words were a stern warning, "try contacting me again, do you understand?"
"Just don't. No phone calls… no god damn birds. Just don't. Not after everything else that's happened in the last year."
"What are you going to do?"
His shoulders tensed at the question and he leaned forward just slightly, his forehead coming in contact with the cool, lacquered wood of the door. "I don't know. Spend the next ten years thinking about what I've done and what I've lost because of it."
The floor creaked as she took a step closer but he compensated, instead opening the door and moving so he was halfway out.
"Don't do anything you'll regret," she warned, the last words she said to him.
August said nothing as he left, the regrets he had were already too many to count.