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The Fool

[NOTE: This one needs a couple of edits, mostly around the part where he just happens to run into Cindy. I'm figuring it out...]

The Fool Tommy was awake, but barely. And for a moment, a singular second, everything was okay. He was safe, and bundled up in a pile of fluffy things in the wagon. But then he registered the absence of Remus’ snoring, and it all came back to him in one tidal wave of pain. For thirteen years Tommy had traveled with Remus in the magical gypsy wagon, seeing things and meeting people that he’d never imagined in his wildest dreams. But now a vital part of his life was gone, and all that energy and happiness has slipped out of the resulting hole like sand. It had happened so quickly. One day Mathilda had brought Remus and Tommy back to H’Thalee, where yet another plague had broken out, and the next, the older man had caught it himself. Tommy had tried everything that he could think of, but it hadn’t been enough. For the first few days after Remus’... no, he couldn’t even say the word. For the first few days of Remus’ absence he hadn’t really had time to think, because there was still a plague, people were still dying. And eventually, he did find a cure. But too late for Remus. It was then that the true weight of the last few days began to press down on him, and now, it was crushing him still. As he lay in the dark of the wagon, he couldn’t help noticing how big it seemed, how empty. It had never been so massive before, not even when Tommy had been half as tall. For the longest time, he couldn’t move. He felt paralyzed, laying there in the dark, and he couldn’t even work up the will to open his eyes. Every moment made this reality more real, every second distanced himself from his father. Because that’s what Remus had become. It had been that way for a long time. And just when it seemed as if Tommy had finally found something good, it was snatched from his grip once again. What was the point in moving, in breathing even? None, there was nothing left. He couldn’t do it on his own. Yet despite himself, Tommy kept breathing. And he had to move sometime. He couldn’t just lay there forever, letting the same thoughts circle over and over again in his mind. If he did that, he would go insane. He didn’t want to be in his own head anymore. Alright Tommy: open your eyes, he instructed himself. Tommy opened his eyes. The wagon was dark, the gauzy curtains were drawn, and the air was heavy. Mathilda had always seemed like another world to him, entirely cut off from the realities. He’d always liked the quiet, the isolation. Now it was suffocating him. Move your arm, he commanded, and moved him arm up to his long, beyond tangled hair, brushing the bangs out of his eyes. Then he moved the other arm, and began absently following the curving lines of the tattoo that twisted around the left side of his neck, torso, and arm, taking care to avoid the scar on his neck that the tattoo so cleverly hid. He didn’t need to tell himself to sit up, as he was getting sick of laying in the dark. He did that himself, and made to stumble the few steps towards Mathilda’s back curtain. He’d managed getting up, now it was time to see where he was. That’s right, take it one step at a time.

But when he peaked through the curtain and into the burning sun beyond, he almost turned back to hide in his bed. To the right of him was the ugly as sin, neon-green sign that signaled the Dollar Tree. To the left was the tan square that was the Chico’s. And just ahead of him, beyond the dead, brown grass of the abandoned lot was the chain link fence of the school playground. For the first time in thirteen years, Mathilda had brought him home. “Cow,” he muttered under his breath. Tommy balled his hand into a fist, but couldn’t bring himself to punch the side of the wagon that had provided so much joy in his life. Besides, bad things happened when Mathilda was mad. Why would she bring him back to Ede Valley? Of all the countless realities he’d seen, this one was by far the shittiest. Perhaps he was a little bias, he’d freely admit that. After all, the only things he’d left behind here were bad memories and a broken family. Wait, he paused in the middle of turning away. Oh... he knew why Mathilda had brought him here. In her own well-meaning, misguided way, she had thought that bringing him back to his home reality, to his real family, would help him get through this “trying time.” Tommy sighed. He knew far too well that Mathilda wouldn’t let him leave until he’d helped whoever she’d deemed needed it the most. He guessed that he was the one who needed help now. But whatever she thought, if a wagon was even capable of thinking, kick-starting this impromptu family reunion wasn’t going to make things any easier for him. Yet, at the very least, it gave him something besides Remus’ pale, clammy face, his greying hair plastered to his forehead—no, stop that—to think about. Again, he found himself unable to move for the longest time, to do what needed to be done. Tommy just stared absently across the street towards the playground, where a bunch of screaming pipsqueaks were playing. In thirteen years, it hadn’t changed. Some of that equipment had to be rusted to shit by now. He roused himself. “Alright, get moving, Tommy,” he whispered under his breath. Turning briefly back into the wagon, he rustled around in the mess until he found a mostly clean shirt, and cinched his knotted hair back with the beaded yarn that he still kept with him. Cindy’s good luck charm. Poking his head out once more, Tommy could see his breath in the air. He grabbed a coat too. What month was it? Let’s see, his birthday was in a month, so that must have made it... Early December. Damn. Well, he guessed he’d be a surprising Christmas present. Shivering, he stepped down Mathilda’s single, creaking stair and out into his home reality. Shit, even the air smelled the same, that slightly greasy, fried smell that wafted over from the Burger King down the street. He clenched his teeth subconsciously. At this rate, he was going to start getting PTSD flashbacks. Tommy hesitated for just a moment, then started walking. There was only one place to start: the old apartment. They probably didn’t even live there anymore, his mother and Cindy and Baby Mikey and... his father. He’d have to see him too. He was probably the number one family member Mathilda wanted him to see. Maybe Tommy would get lucky, maybe Robert Miller had died of a heart attack years ago. But he sincerely doubted that. Only good people died young. His boots crunched over the tiny spattering of snow that laced the sidewalk, mostly melted. Looked like it might be a brown Christmas this year. Tommy laughed a little to himself. It was so strange how in even the most trying moments, the stupidest, inane thoughts would run through his head. Who cared about the fucking snow, anyway? At any other time, Tommy would have, he answered his own question. But it was hard to be whimsical when the last time he’d seen this sidewalk he’d been running for his life. And there were all these other things he remembered too. There was his best friend’s house, where they’d played video games in the basement, buried in the midst of an impromptu blanket fort. There was the Starbucks where Tommy had sat and tried to read people for the first time. He’d come a long way since then. He could read almost anyone now. Almost. And though he tried to stall, as he had on so many days after school, before long Tommy reached the drive to the apartment complex. It was almost as if there was a strong wind blowing against him, for Tommy found himself nearly blown back at the sight of it; his skin crawled and his head screamed for him to get out of there. He commanded himself to relax. They probably didn’t even live there anymore, so he should ask someone about it first. Yeah, he didn’t have to go just yet. Tommy looked back and forth, trying to find someone who might know about the occupants of the building, and for a moment, the place seemed abandoned. But then, out of the corner of his eye he saw a girl walking up the sidewalk towards him. She could have been anyone, yet Tommy’s trained eye noticed how she kept glancing nervously up at the complex. She knew this place, he saw the familiarity in her sharp eyes. “Excuse me,” he took a step in front of her, and the girl tensed. “Do you know if Carol and... Robert Miller still live in that building?” It was a long shot, but Tommy guessed he was lucky, for the girl’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you wanna know?” “Uh, I...” Oh boy, he hadn’t thought that far ahead. How could he explain that he was their long lost son come home after thirteen years without sounding like a loon? “I...” he glanced back towards the building. As Tommy turned his head, the girl noticed his good luck charm, and frowned. “What’s that?” she asked. “What?” he blinked. “In your hair.” “Oh, it’s...” he stuttered a little, “A good luck charm.” Subconsciously, he reached back to finger it.

“A good luck...” the girl repeated before falling off. She looked at Tommy’s face, and after a minute her eyes widened with recognition. “Tommy?” she asked. Tommy paused. How did she know who he was? But then he looked down at her, really looked at the mousy hair, sharp eyes, and serious expression, and his mouth gaped open. “Cindy?” “It is you!” She shook her head in disbelief, before tackling him in a hug. It almost knocked the breath out of him with how hard she squeezed, as if afraid he would disappear if she let go. And yet, it felt good. Shock mixed with confusion and joy, yet he found himself incapable of saying anything. So he simply hugged back instead. After a minute, Cindy pulled back. “Oh my god you’re... you’re not dead!” “You’re not either,” he said sincerely. “And for all these years, I was sure...” she didn’t cry, just shook her head in wonder. “Tommy, where have you been?” Tommy looked vaguely upwards, as if the sky would help him explain. “It’s, uh... complicated.” “Try me.” Sighing, he grasped desperately for somewhere to start. “The Tarot cards,” he began. “Do you remember the Tarot cards I showed you the night before I left?” “Vaguely.” Cindy nodded. “Well, they were given to me by a man named Remus,” he almost tripped over the word. “He was a fortune-teller that took me in after, well...” By habit, Tommy fingered the scar on his neck. “And we’ve been... very far away ever since.” “Was...” Cindy looked down. “So he’s?” “Not... here anymore,” Tommy spat out. “Sorry.” There was silence for a moment. But Tommy shook himself. Now was not the time to let himself drown. “So, what about you?” he asked. “And Mom and Mike and... Dad.” Cindy stared at him straight in the face. “We’re much better,” she stated. “You running away was the last straw for Mom. She got Mike and me out of there and never looked back. We live in a nice house on Williams Street now.” Despite himself, Tommy smiled. Of all the fates he’d imagined for his family over the years, this was one he hadn’t dared hope for. “That’s... that’s wonderful.”

“I’m heading there now. You should come with me. Mom will have a heart attack and Mike, well, Mike probably doesn’t remember you, but I’m sure he’d be thrilled too.” “I’d love to, but—” Tommy stopped himself, and glanced over at the complex one last time. “Where’s Dad?” Cindy’s smile dropped. “Well, he’s not dead,” she looked away. “The last I heard he was living in a shithole on the crappy side of town. What... what are you going to do, Tommy?” “I’m not gonna kill him,” Tommy reassured her. “I just want to talk.” “Do you have a cellphone?” she asked, and he stared at her blankly. Cellphone? Did a lot of people have those now? “Wow, you really have been far away,” she said, reaching into her backpack and pulling out a sheet of notebook paper. “Here’s the address of the place, and here’s my number. When you’re done with... whatever it is you’re planning on doing, find a payphone or something, I don’t care, just call me. Don’t leave yet.” “I won’t,” he agreed. “I promise.” She smiled. “Guess you haven’t broken a promise yet.” Cindy took a few steps backward, like she was afraid to let him out of her sight, then began walking. Tommy watched until she was out of sight, down a nearby hill, then glanced down at the address she’d left him. 6th street was a place that the kids never went to, yet somehow, everyone knew how to get there. He started walking. The sidewalks all the way there sloped gradually downward, and Tommy had to look down as they turned to bricks beneath his feet. 6th street was in the old part of town, from when Ede Valley had been a burgeoning town of its own before the urban sprawl claimed it. Soon, the buildings around him began to look old, and worn, and seemed to be melting into the ancient swamp that had been filled in so many years ago. Here were pawn shops and old, antique houses, run down apartments, and who could miss the bars? There was one—or more—on almost every block, cigarette smoke spewing from every orifice. There were loud sports bars, dingy dives, quiet, out of the way places, everything you could think of. So it came as no surprise to Tommy that the address he’d been given was to an apartment over a British pub. How anyone could sleep with that neon sign of a goat right outside their window, he couldn’t even begin to guess. But he supposed that if you were living here, you didn’t have much of a choice. Tommy plodded up the worn down stairs to the door, to the side of which was a callbox that looked as if at some point, someone had taken a bat to it. Several times. He ran a finger down the list of names, secretly hoping that the name he was looking for wouldn’t actually be there. But nope, his heart sank as his eyes caught the faded name of Robert Miller. It took him a solid minute to work up the courage to press the button beside it. But he did, and waited with baited breath as the dial tone came through the singular, crappy speaker. Just when he thought that he wasn’t home, there was a click, and shivers ran down Tommy’s spine as he heard the voice that haunted his dreams. “Look,” it said impatiently, “I’m not interested in your damned encyclopedias, so why don’t you just—?” “Hello Dad,” Tommy interrupted, mostly just to get the voice to stop for one second. “Mike?” it asked. “What are you doing—?” “Not Mike,” he replied through clenched teeth. “Tommy.” There was a long, excruciating pause. Tommy almost walked away, but then there was a small click as the door unlocked. Steeling himself, Tommy gripped the brass handle, and stepped into the musty foyer beyond. Nothing much was there, save the matted carpet molded into the stairs and a distinctive, skunky smell that seemed to be etched into the fiber of this place. Tommy didn’t linger, just trooped up the stairs and to the long hallway above. The window beside him was boarded up with scrap wood and copious amounts of duct tape, leaving the walk ahead of him to be very dark indeed. He passed a door with police tape pasted onto it, and finally reached apartment 4. Not giving himself time to think about it, Tommy knocked. There was a second’s pause, before the door burst open. “Alright,” growled the scrubby man beyond it, “who the hell do you think you are, impersonating my dead—?” But he stopped as he saw Tommy’s face. When Tommy was little, his father had been an imposing giant, the ultimate authority, the right hand of god. His word was law, and oceans parted before him. For a moment, Tommy wondered if the man gaping at him was the same person at all. He was short, shorter than Tommy, with his ratty button-down open to reveal the off-white wife-beater beneath. But no, it was definitely him. Underneath the sagging years, the man still held himself stock-straight, as if after all this time his army days hadn’t left him, and he still had that sharp, foxlike look in his eyes. That used to terrify Tommy, and even now he began to tense. And yet, with a start, he realized that it was more habit than anything else. He wasn’t actually afraid. Tommy wasn’t a helpless child anymore, and truth be told, by the look of him, Tommy could probably kill his father. No, that was stupid. Tommy hadn’t killed anyone in his life. Violence was never the answer, that’s what Remus had taught him. After a solid minute, Robert Miller blinked, and shook himself. “So, you’ve finally come crawling back after all these years, hm?” Tommy snorted disparagingly, shaking his head. He didn’t know what he had expected. “And what’s so funny? Speak up!” “Oh, nothing,” Tommy said. “Just no: ‘I’ve missed you Tommy, where have you been? I’m sorry I almost broke your neck with a fucking belt.’” Robert’s eyes flared. “You watch your tongue, boy!” “Oh, and of all the words in that sentence, that’s the one you latch onto.” Tommy herd his voice rising, sarcasm quickly bubbling into anger. “You dare raise your voice at me?” He watched, almost in slow motion, as Robert adjusted his grip on his cigarette and reached for Tommy’s arm. Violence may have not been the answer, but you needed to know how to defend yourself from people who didn’t agree with that philosophy. Tommy grabbed his father’s forearm, and twisted upwards. Not enough to break it, of course, but certainly enough to make him drop the cigarette. It bounced on the carpet, sizzling slightly. “You wanna try?” Tommy asked quietly. Robert looked downwards, and relaxed. Tommy let go of his arm. “What do you want?” Robert growled, rubbing his arm. “Have you just come back to insult me?” Tommy sighed. “No,” he shook his head. “I just want to talk.” Taking a step backwards, Robert gestured into the apartment, but Tommy noticed that he never turned his back to him. He followed him into the tiny, dim room, the overpowering smell of stale cigarettes catching him off guard. The older man sat heavily in an old arm chair, and gestured Tommy to the equally dilapidated loveseat across from him. For a minute, Robert just stared at his son, disapproval etched across the many wrinkles in his face. “Is that an earring, boy?” He said finally, pointing to the small, gold ring in Tommy’s right ear. “What are you, a faggot?” Shaking his head, Tommy looked off towards the ceiling. He did not want to open that can of worms right now. “No,” he replied. It wasn’t exactly a lie. Half of a lie, maybe. And besides, how was he supposed to explain that he had received it as a coming of age rite on the artificial island of Steeme? He’d only be called a lying faggot then. “And sit up straight,” Robert continued without heed. “You were always such a goddamn sloucher.” Tommy straightened a mere quarter of an inch. Again, there was silence, and Tommy waited for the question. But it never came. After a minute, he blew out the breath he was holding. This was some kind of stupid, bullshit power play that his father was trying to pull, but he didn’t want to be in this dark, smelly apartment any longer than he had to. “So, aren’t you going to ask me?” he gave in. “Ask you what?” “Oh, you know, just where I’ve been for the past thirteen years.” Tommy tried—and failed—to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. “No,” Robert replied. “No, I’m not. You wanna know why?” He leaned forward. “Because running away was the only smart thing you ever did. I would’ve killed you it you hadn’t.” Tommy opened his mouth in surprise, but Robert continued over him. “I don’t need you, or Carol, or anyone telling me what a shitty father I was. Believe me, I already know. And here you are, thirteen goddamn years later,” he stood abruptly, and began to pace. “I bet you found some nice, rich family to take you in, huh? I bet your new dad played catch with you in the yard and went to all your baseball games. I bet... that he’s the kindest, most loyal, best fucking father in the whole world.” “He was,” Tommy muttered, glaring upwards, but Robert didn’t seem to hear him. “But there must have been some things he didn’t tell you, right? Nobody’s perfect, even your dumb ass knows it. Nothing lasts forever, right?” His voice grew louder and louder, and with it rose Tommy’s heart in his chest. No, he had it all wrong, not everyone was like that. There was some goodness in the world. If there was one thing he’d learned in his travels, it was that. And Remus was one of the best. “Stop,” he warned, but still Robert persisted. “What was it, hm? Did he gamble all his money away? Or sleep with his secretary? Her name was Debra, or Jeanne, or something equally frivolous, I’ll bet.” Rising now too, Tommy clenched his fists so hard that his fingernails cut into the skin of his palms. “You don’t get to say those things about him.” “Well, there’s got to be something, hasn’t there? Otherwise you would be with him right now, not crawling back to this shithole like some slimy little—” “He died!” Tommy shouted, and Robert fell silent. The room went quiet while Tommy breathed heavily. “He died trying to save people’s lives. That’s what he did, day in and day out, he helped people. No thanks, no recognition. Just there and gone. And look at you: all you’ve done in the last thirteen years is sit in your own fucking shit and sulk!” He shook his head. “Why the universe took him and spared you, I’ll never fucking know.” He turned on his heel and stormed out of the room, not looking back. Down the hallway, crashing down the stairs, out the door, down the street, all the way back to the abandoned lot, and Mathilda. Sorry Cindy, this was one promise he’d have to break. “Alright!” He shouted at the wagon. “I did what you wanted, now get us out of here. Please.” Tommy waited, his eyes wet, and waited. But nothing happened. No magical wind, no darkness. Just silence. “Damn it...” Tommy groaned, kicking the old wood of one of Mathilda’s beams. “Damn it!” Something hadn’t been right. There was still something left to do here. Meet with the rest of his family, keep his promise. But somehow, something was nagging him, a tingling at the back of his mind. Maybe he wasn’t the one who needed help, after all. But right at this moment, none of that mattered. As his rage began to disintegrate, Tommy just felt tired. What he needed right now was a stiff drink. He was slightly surprised to find his feet moving of their own accord, and a few minutes later, quite without conscious thought, he was outside the old, sagging British pub. Now that he read the neon sign properly, he discovered it was called The Smiling Goat. The inside was dark and smoky, but in a warm, glowing sort of way. Sitting down heavily at the bar, Tommy must have looked as exhausted as he felt, because the first words out of the tall, lanky bartender’s mouth was: “Rough day, ay mate?” “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Tommy shook his head. “This is a British Pub, right? Gin, please. The strongest you’ve got.” Within thirty seconds the gin was in front of him, and the bartender kindly placed the bottle on the counter. He leaned on an arm, and glanced at Tommy sympathetically over his round spectacles. “I’ve got nowhere to be. So, why don’t you start at the beginning?”

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