Not for the first time, Jack found himself pondering whether the stresses of parent life could possibly compare to the stresses of mortal combat against drug-addicted maniacs.
Not all of parent life was stressful, in fact most of it was a pure joy Jack sometimes still couldn’t believe was his. Before his five daughters, all he remembered was the darkness-and everything that lurked in the darkness. Even now, he sometimes caught himself wondering when the other shoe would drop, when the girls might turn on him in the night and end him like they had Fontaine, or someone from that horrible city would appear to tear down everything Jack and the girls had worked to achieve.
But the girls remained sweet as ever, and not one Splicer or echo of the underwater city reared its ugly head.
That’s not to say Jack didn’t revisit that pile of twisted metal and evil in his nightmares, and from the shouts coming from the girl’s rooms at night, they were doing the same thing.
And not all physical reminders of Rapture were erased either, Jack still sported scars and burns from fighting, and the girls would find themselves sometimes spacing out without warning. Brigid Tenenbaum poked her head in sometimes too, hoping to help the girls and Jack in their transition to everyday life-but really, she just served to provide proof it had all not been some giant nightmare. And perhaps she knew that too, her visits had been getting less and less frequent lately. There had been some talk of her traveling, although to wear Jack wasn’t exactly sure.
But, back to the matter at hand, as Jack found himself sitting at his kitchen table, his kitchen table!, wondering if busting a Splicer’s head in would be preferable activity in comparison to attending a PTA meeting.
There were several reasons he wasn’t much willing to go, and most of them sounded rather funny when you said them out loud.
First, there would be the awkward, getting to know you questions. The ones Jack, no longer confident in his implanted memories, was sure he could answer. Where was he from? That was a long story. What did he do for a living? Currently he was surviving off whatever valuables he, Tenenbaum, and the girls had scraped together before fleeing in the bathyspheres. He was looking, but there wasn’t much available where all you had to do was hit things or electrocute them with a snap of your fingers. (Electrician sounded promising, but there was always the possibility of an accident, wasn’t there?).
And oh, just thinking about how prying some of these old mothers could be… his neighbor alone, a white haired old cat lady with too much time on her hands and not enough furry felines to keep her busy, kept popping in. Jack knew she was suspicious, after all what guy just moves in to an apartment with five little girls in the middle of the night with no warning and no backstory? She was probably convinced he was some serial kidnapper or child ring thug. Brigid popping in now and again may have been the one thing keeping the old bat from calling the police, showing up with nice smiles and honeyed words for the old crone and the girls.
Just think about a swarm of well-meaning mothers, picking his brains until they found something to be suspicious about. What was his life’s story? Technically he was younger than the girls, he was four years old for heaven’s sake! He didn’t even remember any of those four years (and the parts he did remember he pretended to forget as soon as they surfaced), just a bunch of labs and needles as they pumped him so full of chemicals he accelerated to what he was today.
Jack sighed, wondering what he was to do. Go, get stared at and picked at like road kill for vultures? Stay home and remain the aloof and mysterious possible child extortionist his neighbor believed him to be?
And the girls… Sally had looked rather excited at the prospect of getting him to meet her teacher. Leta too…
Jack groaned quietly into his hands, crumpling the yellow announcement of the upcoming meeting-the upcoming meeting being held tonight in fact-and realized the pleading expressions on young children’s faces was probably his downfall.
The meeting was coupled by an open house, allowing the kids to introduce parents to teachers and giving them a chance to show off classwork. Masha had described in avid detail how she’d placed everything around her desk just so, allowing it all to fit on her desk in a way that nothing covered anything else.
There was a swift knock at the door, breaking Jack from his self-induced trance of anxiety and worry. The thunder of the girl’s feet had him sprinting to the door, trying to beat them before Susie or Sally could throw it open without checking who it was first.
Turns out Jack hadn’t needed to worry, as Brigid stood on the other side looking tired but pleased to see everyone.
“Hello Jack,” She smiled, stepping into the apartment and rolling her shoulders as her bag slipped to the floor.
“Evening…” Jack muttered.
“Just checking in on the little ones, saying goodbyes.” Brigid muttered, stepping close to speak as privately as possible with five girls jumping at her for greeting hugs.
“Goodbye?” Jack frowned, “Why?”
Brigid sighed, reaching up to play with Jack’s bangs in a way that seemed mothering, and yet also sympathetic, “For personal reasons I can’t bring myself to drag you into. There are a great many things I still need to atone for, and now I have no excuse to keep putting it off any longer.”
Jack was surprised to hear himself say, “Are you coming back?”
Brigid’s eyebrows rose in surprise, as did Jacks. Did he want her to come back? Sure, she was a link to the truth, but that was precisely it. She was a link to the truth. There was no pretending when she was around, able to cut down any delusions that everything that had transpired was a lie. She didn’t do this on purpose, but she was a reminder to the girls and to Jack that they were not as happy as they should be; that they were scarred in ways no one could ever dream possible. The girls still loved her, of course, preferring to look on the memories of their days in the safe house with her under Olympia Heights with admiration instead of the times cooped up in labs as she planted sea slugs into their stomachs with despair. Jack himself, on the odd nightmare that revealed more than memories of ambush and bloodshed, would remember days in a room playing with a dog while a woman stood back with a clipboard.
But… she understood. She knew what had happened and loathed talking about it as much as anyone else did. She could empathize with Jack, know just what to do on days he found the nightmares a little too much and had nowhere to turn. Jack would essentially be alone if she left; raising five scarred little girls as if they were meant to be the perfect family all on his own.
“Do not worry, I will do my best to make it back.” Tenenbaum said, looking a tiny bit… relieved? Had she sensed Jack’s unease at the reminder she served? Perhaps she’d merely drawn her own conclusion; she was a smart woman after all.
“Aww, you’re leaving?” Sally whimpered.
“No fair! You can’t leave us!” Masha cried.
“We should stick together!” Evelyn, usually the quietest of the bunch, shouted.
Brigid sunk to her knees, drawing all five of the girls into her arms tightly, “It is not forever. I will return, do not worry.”
“Promise?” Leta asked.
“Promise.” Brigid smiled as she rose to her feet. She frowned, seeming to finally notice all five of the girls dressed in their school uniforms despite the late hour.
“PTA meeting, and Open House.” Jack explained, rocking back and forth on his feet.
Tenenbaum looked both concerned and excited; a mask of ultimate trying-to-keep-it-togetherness Jack had to appreciate.
“Oh really? What fun.”
“The girls were pretty adamant about it… so…”
“How nice,” Brigid smiled, taking Leta’s hand as they all shuffled through the door, “And… you are ready for this?”
“Not really, no… but then again, will I ever be?”
“I’m sure with time and baby steps… no,” Brigid Tenenbaum shook her head, “No, you are right. For you and the girls to have a normal life, you must do these things. But… by yourself?”
Jack stilled, realizing something he hadn’t before.
He felt the back of his neck heat, and he rubbed it awkwardly, “Well… I’d been debating whether or not to even go… I wasn’t sure so I didn’t want to tell you unless I did.”
Brigid smiled, “Of course, and I’m sure you will have a good time with the girls.”
“You won’t be coming?” Jack heard himself cough.
Tenenbaum pursed her lips in a thin, tight smile, “If you want me there, I wouldn’t say no…”
“Come with us!” The girls chorused, “Come with us!”
Jack looked between the girls and Tenenbaum, a sheepish grin on his face, “It is the last time you’ll be seeing them for a while.”
“Well, then how could I refuse?”
The drive there in Tenenbaum’s car was a light one, filled with the incessant chatter of the five in the back while Jack sat quietly in the front beside Brigid, who kept her eyes fixed to the road. She had a thoughtful, faraway look on her face that led Jack to wonder where she could be at that very moment. He couldn’t bring himself to ask however, finding the silence preferable to forced conversation, no matter how interesting it could turn out to be.
The school the girls attended was surrounded by cars, parents and children milling about as they tried to find their way inside. Jack held tight to Sally and Masha’s hands, Evelyn and Leta capturing Tenenbaum’s and leaving Susie to lead the group inside, pointing and jumping as they neared the classrooms.
“Let’s visit Miss Brown first!”
“No! Mrs. Jones!” Sally argued as Masha demanded Mr. Green.
Jack smiled, Brigid letting loose a small chuckle.
“We will split up then, Leta, Evelyn and Susie to Miss Brown, Sally and Masha to Mr. Green.” She directed, turning around the corner as Evelyn and Susie pulled her in the direction of their teacher.
“Meet back here,” Jack called, turning in time to see Masha and Sally scurry off and he was forced to give chase down the hall.
Mr. Green was a large dark man with twinkling eyes, shaking Jack’s hand firmly as the girls lead him inside.
“So you’re Masha’s father then?” He grinned, “I have to say, she only ever has kind words for you.”
“Well, I can’t imagine why with all the chores she has to do at home.” Jack joked, giving a half-hearted smile. Mr. Green chuckled, allowing Jack to feel some ease as he stood in the doorway to the classroom. Masha and Sally were a part of a group of students, showing each other this and that as parents towering above them marveled at the children’s work.
“Well, Masha’s doing very well.” Mr. Green said and Jack realized he should probably be listening, “She’s very imaginative, writes some of the most interesting stories during writing time.”
“Yes, most have to do with a diver named Mr. Bubbles-“ Jack did not hear anymore, an all-consuming feeling of dread washed over him and he found himself fighting to remain calm. He could see the teacher’s lips moving, hear sound that should have been words but instead mushed into garbled grunts as echoes of low-pitched screams and whirring drills played softly in the distance.
Jack nodded mechanically, turning to look at the two as they laughed with some boy about their height.
How was it possible? Could they really look at monsters like the Big Daddies so lightly? Did they somehow forget the violence those beasts brought? The terror and pain? Jack didn’t think he could ever forget, the Big Daddy was a main character in most of his nightmares now.
And yet, Masha wrote stories of him, Mr. Bubbles, searching the sea floor for treasure.
Jack needed some air.
“Excuse me,” He whispered, swallowing painfully and turning for the door. He was sure he’d just cut Mr. Green off, but could he really care?
The hallways were packed, providing nowhere for “breathing room” but Jack remained glued to a post in the crowded hallway none the less. He forced himself to appear calm, give nothing to those surrounding him that something could be wrong. Air rushed in and out of his lungs, the sensation of breathing managing to calm him a little bit but still the prickles of fear tingled in his stomach and up his spine.
He found himself wishing Brigid was there.
Oh, how ironic. He’d spent many weeks wishing the woman to just disappear, fade into the background and let him forget, and now that she was leaving he realized he needed her here. Needed someone at his level who’d experienced the things they had and seen the things they’d seen. Who was going to calm him down in moments like this? Who was going to offer support when things he couldn’t even bring himself to talk about weighed him down?
Sally was tugging at his leg, a frown marring her face.
“You left, are you okay?”
Jack smiled tiredly, sinking to one knee and trailing his fingers through her blonde ponytail.
“Just fine… just fine.”
“Because if you’re not, I won’t be mad.”
“I’ll be fine Sally, don’t worry.”
Sally sighed, lacing her arms around Jack’s neck and letting her head fall to the side.
“Can we visit my teacher now? I promise she won’t be as scary as Mr. Green.”
Jack couldn’t help but let his head fall back a bit and laugh. Sally grinned too, and Jack had never had more appreciation for the things that came out of her mouth than at that moment.
Then, at that moment, he spied her.
A red headed woman, hair pulled tightly into a bun and eyes bouncing around his general direction in a vain attempt to not look as if she was staring at him. Jack was instantly suspicious, but even when he turned back to Sally, promising her she could hold his hand on the walk to the classroom, the woman remained pinned to the wall staring at things around them. Whenever her eyes did happen to land on them, her lips would compress and slide to one side of her face as she seemed to bite her cheek.
“Let’s go then,” Jack sighed, standing up and allowing Sally to lead him back into the fray by the hand. They stayed connected to one another, an unbreakable bond that the surrounding kids and adults could not penetrate, even as they entered the classroom and Sally’s teacher began to gush about the girl. Sally would smile at her friends, wave at passing adults with her free hand, but remained glued to Jack’s side the entire time. When Masha wandered in, looking slightly put out that she’d been left behind, she joined them at Jack’s other side and remained there until Mrs. Jones ran out of things to say.
Bidding her goodbye, Jack took his cue to go.
The woman was gone when he looked her way.
Brigid looked a bit tired when they met up at the junction of the halls, still smiling and with glowing reports for the girls.
The woman had returned, hanging in Jack’s peripheral as she glanced nonchalantly around-anywhere but at him.
Then, for a moment, the traffic of the hallway seemed to lessen a bit and the woman was moving. She walked with the gait of someone who thought themselves important, and the way she held herself up and with a force about her, the haughty look in her eye was not misplaced.
Jack found it odd, someone with so much self-purpose and gravity, to be walking through an elementary school hallway-unaccompanied by any children of her own no less. He wondered if she was a teacher or administrator, trying to think if one of the girls had pointed her out to him in the past.
She walked in Jack’s direction, her eyes fixed on Sally; the look hard and cold. When she reached them she stood for a moment, the steely look melting to a softer one and she pursed her lips.
“You have a beautiful daughter.” She said, voice clear and unbroken but with a slight tremor to it.
Not knowing what else to say, Jack muttered a shy, “Thank you.”
His grip tightened a bit on Sally’s hand, and she looked up at the woman with a passive, blank face. Jack wondered why, knowing Sally usually smiled at everyone. But for this woman, a shadow passed over the girl and she began to frown before turning to look around the hall for her sisters and Tenenbaum.
“I’m sure she’s very precious to you.” The mystery woman continued, looking uncomfortable as she said this, almost like she was forcing herself, “And I know you are very precious to her.”
Jack swallowed, wondering what direction this woman’s speech was headed.
“I also happened to know she was very precious to another little girl I knew-so precious the effort it took to get her to you was rather steep.” The woman swallowed, “Please treat Sally kindly.”
Alarm bells rang in Jack’s head; who was this woman? How did she know Sally’s name? Why was she saying these things?
But she’d turned and begun walking away, and the pressure of the crowd worked against Jack and Sally as they tried to pursue. Within moments the woman was gone, probably turned a corner or was covered by all the people around them. Nevertheless, she was gone. Jack couldn’t see any way she might have headed, and the flow of the people around him surged to the point he and Sally were forced to walk towards the front doors of the school and into the night where the darkness offered nothing more than a disturbed sense of foreboding.
As soon as the crowd around them began to spread to the cars of the parking lot and they were no longer being forced to move, Jack bent to Sally’s level and looked her square in the eye.
“Did you know that woman?” He asked evenly.
Sally shook her head, “I’ve never seen her before.”
As the car pulled out of its parking space and joined the line of other cars, the redheaded woman watched from the side of the building. A man, also red haired and similar in looks and gait to the woman, strode up from behind.
“Well?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Well what?” The woman snapped.
“How’d meeting her new father go?”
The woman turned to fix the man with a confused look, to which he rolled his eyes.
“You wanted to confirm Sally would be alright, right? Well?”
“We were correct… Sally is in safe hands and it appears there is no longer any cause to worry.” Rosalind Lutece muttered, still looking put-out.
Robert smiled gently, offering his hand out to his sister, “Perhaps you can sleep better at night then? Come on, let’s let the story end here.”
After a moment of silent stewing, Rosalind relented and took her brother’s hand, allowing him to lead her off into the darkness. Still, she couldn’t help but cast a last glance to the car that was driving off into the night. Robert caught her looking, and nudged her shoulder with his playfully.
“Come sister,” He said sweetly, “There are many more mysteries to explore.”