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Sunburnt Hands I Used to Hold

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“You really do have the talent, Casey, I'm sorry they didn’t call you back.”

Casey could do much else but shrug at Mrs. Barnes’ words, kind as they were.

“It’s okay. I’m sure there were a lot of candidates.”

She hated how familiar the inside of the counselor’s office felt, how quiet and small it made her feel. Normally, these things would bring comfort to Casey, but the nostalgia of it all made her disgusted with herself. High School had been over- graduation two years ago, and she suddenly felt ashamed to be back here as she was: asking for help.

‘This was your idea… don't pussy out now.’

She clutched her bag a little tighter.

If the career counselor noticed Casey’s discomfort, she didn't say anything, instead flipping through a few papers in a folder and mumbling to herself.

Casey began to feel the edges of nervousness- maybe this was a mistake, and if John found out… she bit the inside of her cheek at the thought, the flesh already soft and pulp-like by habit. Inside her bag, she could feel her phone vibrate and she felt her chest tighten wondering if he had somehow read her mind and was texting her that he was on his way here to drag her back to his ugly truck and then up to his ugly apartment, kicking and screaming. Because let there be no mistake- Casey would not go willingly, anxious as the thought made her.

“Yes, let me see… right, yes…. Here I have it!” Mrs. Barnes declared, holding up a few sheets of paper- Casey could see in a specific bold font at the top right corner, ‘Philadelphia Zoo’.

“Now,” she continued, “It’s not an aquarium, but, I happen to know someone who works there and he told me very recently that they have a paid internship and if you apply now, I'm sure you’ll get it!” She smiled brightly at Casey who had a small sharp feeling in her chest- it didn't hurt, but it did feel suspiciously like hope, which (as experience had taught her) could be dangerous.

“Really?” Her words felt like dirty laundry hung out to dry- could she be more desperate?

“Absolutely. I can call my contact there, let him know about you and I could even set up an interview, I'm sure.”

 

“Wow, Mrs. Barnes that’s… that would be really helpful. Thank you.”

Though the words came out a little drier than she’d meant them to, she hoped the kind woman believed them, because she really had meant them. Another buzz in her bag told her she needed to be leaving soon, John was probably starting to get suspicious (“And just where the hell are you off to?” “The store.” “We have food here.” “I know, I just need… girl stuff.” That shut him up, but it wasn't a safeguard for long.)
She started to stand and took the papers the woman had offered up to her, kindness always in her eyes, in her voice.

“I'm really happy to help Casey, it was so good to see you. I’m glad to see you're doing alright.”
***

 

John (3:38) : Pick up some chips while ur at the store.

John (3:50): Where r u?

John (3:56): Where r u? Get home now.

John (3:57): Don’t make me come and get u.

By the time Casey is sitting in her car, she can't even be mad or anxious (she’d figure out some excuse by the time she got back to his apartment) at the texts John had sent her, that small sharp feeling in her chest has grown and she could feel it to the tips of her fingers while she read the different opportunities the Zoo job offers along with decent pay (12.50 an hour). That trickle of hope almost made her smile.

 

***

 

Over the next few days, Casey kept an eye on her phone, answering every call she got (few that they were, mostly telemarketers). She felt as if she was always holding it and every little buzz or notification sent her into a slight panic- was John around? If so, was he looking at her? Would he ask who was calling, and would she have an answer?

That was John- even when she had worked part time at John’s friends’ pawn shop, he had been wary to let her hold a job. When they’d been foreclosed on, he did a bad job of hiding his glee at having Casey home all the time again. Every day was spent hiding in her bedroom until John got home from work and made them spend ‘family time’ together, which seemed to only involve watching whatever sports were on and John getting plastered.
Anytime she brought up wanting to go to college or get another job, John dismissed her, saying she was young and could afford the gap year, which had now bled into a second year. Casey would fight him on this occasionally and it usually ended up scoring her a few bruises, a cut if John had drank beforehand. Usually he had.
Tensions were rising, and Casey knew she had to get out. If he wasn't going to let her have a job, she was sure as hell not gonna stay at home all day waiting for him to come home from his. At first, he pretended he didn't care where she went but as soon as she started to get home after dark John had found yet another excuse to keep her prisoner: boys.
It was always the same stupid questions, ‘Who is he?’ ‘Where did you meet?’ ‘How old is he?’ or ‘Don't tell me you're not seeing someone, there’s no reason for you to be out this late other than a boy.’ ‘Your father would be disgusted, you’re acting like a whore.’ . For Casey, the worst part was that there really was no boy. Or girl. Or friends. Or anyone.

Interrogation after interrogation had made her weary, and going out stopped being worth it. When Casey had to, she could put up a fight, but the line between ‘survival’ and ‘bickering’ was a wide one. Even if John had believed Casey, that she really was just at a coffee shop reading or at the library, he would come up with something else.

She’d started to realize that John had her right where he wanted her- under his fat, ugly thumb.

Cutting didn't feel… like anything anymore. Not that it mattered, John hadn't touched her in that way since… not for a long time. But cutting- that had been one thing that brought her true feeling- and even that was slipping away. Everything was numb, and doing it only made her angry at herself.

But the more she stayed there, trapped, the more restless she became. Her 20th birthday (a day hardly celebrated, a few of John’s work buddies came over and left it a mess she ended up cleaning the next day) was the inciting incident.

They were all being so loud and Casey had no choice but to sit on the lone stool in the kitchen and sip a beer that tasted like shit that John had thrusted at her, citing that if she was gonna be drinking next year, this year she should learn to hold her liquor. Casey didn't try and fight his twisted, drunk ‘logic’. A few of the burley men (all construction workers looked the same to Casey, just complacent adults blind to the monster right in front of them) tried to ask her what she was doing now that she was out of high school and if she had a boyfriend, but as usual John interrupted and answered every question for her (‘She’s still figuring things out’ and ‘My Casey-bear is too young for boys.’) like he was reciting a mantra of answers he’d been preparing since forever. It started to sicken her more than usual, and Casey excused herself.
Finding respite behind the only door that locked in John’s apartment, Casey gripped the sink and looked up. She stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, and wondered at the person behind the brown eyes.

Who was she, really? Twenty years alive, and she had little to no answer. Did she even exist? Was she even a real person? Did it matter?
She could always end it all. Just slit her wrists, leave the mess for John to clean up. Or down a bottle of pills she knew he kept stashed in his sock drawer. But then… He would win, wouldn't he? All those years, and she would be reduced to a sad story or a crappy eulogy John would read and he would have won. No consequences. Her life, a lie. A decision he made. Did it matter?

Casey decided, it did.

If it meant that he would win, she knew it did.

She couldn't let him fucking win. She had to try harder. The thought terrified and excited her all at once.

The next morning, after John had dragged himself out of bed, into a hangover and then to work, Casey looked up the phone number for her high school. She dialed the number and waited.

She was ready to start trying.

 

***

 

‘Thursday the 31st at 5:00… Thursday the 31st at 5:00, at 5:00 at 5:00…’

“Sounds great, Ms. Cooke, I’ll see you then.”

“Thanks, Mr. Scott. Bye.”

Casey hung up the phone and immediately wrote down the time and date at which her interview would start. She folded up the piece of paper and slid it into her pillowcase, her best time proven hiding spot. A small shiver of excitement and breathless disbelief rolled down her shoulders to the bottom of her spine; Casey couldn't help but shake a bit before plopping down on her bed, the ghost of a laugh on her lips.

Was this real?

***

“I need to return these books-”

He was quick and natural in his response,

“Bullshit, you don't read books.”

Casey felt her grip tighten on the different copies of animal guides in her hands. She knew she had to calm down… If this was gonna work, she had to be calm. She needed to relax.

“I won't be gone that long, I just need to return these, they’re overdue.”

John frowned at this and pointed a fat finger at her, “I hope you don't expect me to pay for the fees, because I won’t. You’re irresponsible, Casey, you should not be allowed to check out stuff if you can't return it on time-”

“I would have returned it if- Okay, you're right.” She held up her free hand in mock defeat and felt the pressure of time on her- it was 4:30, and if she wanted to beat traffic she needed to leave 5 minutes ago, but John was being more difficult than usual.

John eyed her suspiciously over a beer can, gulping a few times before setting it down and wiping the foam caught in his beard. He burped loudly, and sniffed.

“Look. I’m going out now. I’ll be back later.” Her voice didn't shake when she said it, and that surprised her.

That was the test, the line neither of them ever crossed- ‘I’m leaving and there’s nothing you can do about it because I'm an adult’ which she knew would lead to the ‘You still live under my roof’ and subsequently ‘Fine then I’ll leave’ and lastly ‘How? With what money?’. That last part she didn’t have figured out yet. But he didn't know that, and she was betting it all right now that he was either too drunk to pick that fight or forgot it existed. For now.

John stared at her with his beady eyes, like he was trying to see what was going on in her head, like he was reading her mind. Casey wondered again if he could, the fear very real. She’d wondered that many times.
Slowly, he turned his head and attention back to the tv, and simply grunted.

“Your car needs gas, fill it up while you’re out. You shouldn't let it get that low during the cold months.”

 

***

The Zoo was largely empty by the time Casey had finally found the public parking lot and made the short-ish walk towards the large, iron gates. They looked sturdy, she thought, but not enough to hold in a Lion or Gorilla if they decided they wanted a stroll around the city.

A few families still clung to the sides of exhibits, moving slowly and unbothered by the dimming light. With some amount of fear, Casey soon realized she actually had no idea where she was going. Where was she supposed to meet Mr. Scott? The front entrance had kiosks you had to buy tickets at before entering, and Casey didn't have money to buy ticket- did they expect her to?
The familiar edges of panic began to swirl around the confines of her mind and leak into the pit of her stomach. She figured she would have to ask someone at the kiosk, but when she approached, she saw a ‘CLOSED FOR THE EVENING’ sign. There were four separate seats behind the glass and all of them empty, slightly beyond she saw an office and a table. She bit the inside of her cheek.

Then, behind the glass she saw movement. A fluorescent light was on, and someone was moving in the office. Casey had to battle with the urge to be seen and not be seen before her own annoyance with herself won out, and she began tapping on the glass trying to get his attention. He was bent over the desk, flipping through a binder of some sort- why wasn't he- Oh. Casey saw a small buzzer on the side of the window and pushed it- he stood straight. She saw him turn and look at her through framed glasses, though she couldn't make out much else through the tinted glass. He began walking closer and pointed to the sign on the window- she had to stop herself from rolling her eyes at him.

“No- I- I have an interview? With Mr. Scott?” Her voice felt raw and too loud, but she wasn't sure he would hear her through the glass.

The man paused, turned and walked away. Casey shifted on her feet and huffed out a hot breath.

“Fucking shi-”

“You said you have an interview?”

Casey almost gasped and quickly turned on her heels. The man was standing there, she could see him better now. He wasn't especially tall, but there was something in his stance that made him incredibly intimidating. There was a frown on his brow, and a slight purse to his lips, but he was handsome (that part was strangely hard for her to ignore). She could see his head was shaved close to almost no hair although he wore a dark green hat that matched the shirt he wore with the Zoo’s emblem stitched onto the left breast and under it, in much smaller font, K. CRUMB. There was a wide stance to match his wide posture, arms crossed.

“Y-yeah. With Mr. Scott? I’m Casey Cooke.”

The last part felt weirdly out of place and by his stoic, non-reaction she could tell that meant nothing to him. She blushed.

“Alright, I’ll show you to him.” His accent was thick and voice deep, gruff, yet he spoke slowly and deliberately.

He turned around and began to head back the way he came and Casey found herself trailing behind, unsure. The man had a quick pace and when he went to open a small gate around the side of the kiosk building, he pulled something out of his pocket. It was a quick, small movement and Casey couldn't be sure she’d seen it at first, but the flash of yellow was there and when he held it open for her, standing so close to the gate like it hurt him, Casey saw he was covering his hand with a yellow rag. She looked away from it quickly and he was in front of her again but she felt bad staring at it, reasons unknown.

After a few long minutes of silence and simply walking (Casey was relieved when he didn't start up small talk) towards an unknown destination, the man finally slowed before a staircase and led her down while suggesting she watch her step. A long hall of doors came to an end with one at the end, ELI SCOTT, HUMAN RESOURCES. When she turned to thank the man for showing her the way, he was already ascending the stairs and then gone. She felt her voice catch in her throat, before clearing it and knocking on the door.

Eli Scott was a 40 something year old man with a charming voice and smile, and reminded Casey of a prince in a Disney movie. He had nice teeth that sort of surprised you when you looked at them and a loud baritone laugh that made Casey freeze up every time she heard it- which was often. He found lots of humor in small things, she noted.
Mr. Scott apologized for not meeting her at the front, saying he had got caught up in paperwork, and asked who showed her down. When she told him, he seemed pleasantly surprised, but Casey didn't know why.
He asked her a few in depth questions about why she was interested in working at the Zoo (she works well with animals- she thinks- and has always been fascinated with them), and if she was planning on going back to school at some point (she said she hoped that she would) and where she thought she would be in five years. The last one she struggled with for a bit, and finally mumbled her way through, saying she hoped she had a nice apartment and a good job. Although she felt silly, Mr. Scott still nodded thoughtfully and said they sounded like ‘fine goals for a young woman to have’.

Towards what Casey felt was the end of the interview, Mr. Scott asked what she liked best about the Zoo, leaving Casey to reply that she hadn't actually been in many years, but remembers liking the Penguin exhibit best. Mr. Scott replied he liked the Penguins too, and that his two twin boys made him take them to it every time they came to visit during work.
Casey tried to smile at this, but she was sure that it came out as more of a grimace.

Mr. Scott had seemed to sense Casey’s uncomfortability when he started to ask personal questions about her family, and stopped quickly, much to Casey’s relief. “Hey can someone call Crumb back in here?”

Casey tensed at the name.

‘Him?’

“He can give you the tour, and you said next week is good for you to start? We can fill out the rest of the paperwork when we have a little more time, I'm afraid my shift just ended… three minutes ago.” He sighed and chuckled lightly, meeting her eyes with warmth.

Casey could only nod at Mr. Scott’s load of information and try to digest it while beginning to worry about her Uncle and several other things.

“Oh, uh, by the way, Crumb- Kevin, the man who showed you here, real nice guy, but uh, he can be a bit… moody.” Mr. Scott said it with a slight wince and sympathetic edge to his voice.

Casey felt her eyebrows raise of their own accord and Mr. Scott immediately raised a hand,

“He’s a real, real nice guy but, uh, yeah… He’s just a little rough around the edges sometimes. Don't take it personally.” His smile was genuine but his words felt… forced. Casey nodded along, however.

As if on cue, the door opened and in walked the man from before- Kevin Crumb.

“You needed me?”

Casey noticed a change instantly. The man’s voice wasn't as deep now, and his shoulders not so… stiff. His glasses were gone, and his expression a little more relaxed.

“Hey, thanks for coming down here man, I know your shift just started, but I was hoping you could take Ms. Cooke here for a little tour of the internal facilities- she’s starting her internship here next week.”

Casey watched the expression on his face turn from curious to almost… afraid? Nervous?

“Uh, yeah, sure, that’s no problem.”

His voice was higher for sure, but not my much. Casey could see the outline of the glasses he had worn earlier stowed away in the left breast pocket. He was looking down and away from her, almost shy like. Earlier, he had stood so tall and rigid Casey thought just a look from him could bite her, but now… She wasn't sure, but something was off.
Casey didn't realise it, but it wasn't completely normal to notice so many things about a person by just a look- but it was her defense, her instinct that hadn't always been there. A tool in her survival bag, stowed away in her mind, but not so far from the conscious.

Casey stood and shook Mr. Scott’s hand before leaving with Mr. Crumb, who unlike last time, walked next to her instead of ahead. He was still quiet, though, keeping his distance while he showed her up the flight of stairs again and out into the main part of the Zoo. Casey, again, wasn't sure where they were headed, but felt somehow more comfortable with him now.
The Zoo was completely empty now, except for a few employees who would nod politely at Mr. Crumb and he would nod back, a few of them calling him by name, ‘Kevin’ all of them eyeing Casey curiously.

“So, uh, you’re interning here?”

Casey was surprised to hear him speak again while they walked past a Giraffe enclosure, towards the building that was just beyond it. She didn't see any Giraffes.

“Yeah, I guess so. I mean, yes. I start next week.” Mr. Crumb nodded at this and toyed with the set of keys previously at his side, before selecting one and bringing it the door. He swayed a little while he walked, another strange distinction Casey decided she probably just didn't notice before… probably.

“This is the main Giraffe house, I just uh, I close up every night and make sure everything’s secure and locked, basically. Sometimes maintenance and stuff like that.” Casey couldn't help but think of what Mr. Scott had said of him being ‘moody’ and agreed. He had seemed totally different earlier. It would have freaked her out more if he wasn't being a little nervous around her, like he was sorry he had acted the way he did.

“Um, how long have you worked here for?” Casey asked, unsure of what to say to him. It wasn't often she was around other people, especially males. Besides John, of course, but Casey didn't really count him as human at all.

“Ten years now, yeah.” He seemed tired by just saying it- ten years. That seemed like a long time to Casey.

Casey almost asked him if he liked it, but felt strange about that so settled for saying,

“That’s nice.”

“Y-yeah, it’s alright.” Mr. Crumb held the door open for her and they stepped inside.

Mr. Crumb seemed to not know what to say after that, and Casey felt that maybe it was best she just stood back and waited while he went around locking things up and turning off lights. She tried to stay out of his way, and simply watched while he did so.
He seemed to appreciate it, in an odd way. Giving her small smiles every now and then, while they walked in silence from building to building. He only spoke when explaining where they were and why he was doing what he was doing if it didn't seem overly obvious.

Casey decided she didn't mind the Zoo, at least right now. She’d gone on a class field trip once but she was little but couldn't really remember all that much, except it had been crowded and loud. Now it was dark and there was no one around- it felt safe. This man, Mr. Crumb, was focused on all his tasks, and he didn't seem to mind that Casey didn't talk much and kind of trailed behind him. She decided she didn't mind him either, then.

Casey tried to get a look into the different animal exhibits when they passed them, but, they all seemed to be in another part of their enclosures- hidden from public view. She would have been disappointed, but she knew she was working here now and there would be plenty of opportunities to get up close with the animals.

When they finally came back to the front gate an hour later, Casey wondered where the time had gone, it felt like only 15 minutes.

“I can show you to the parking lot, if you’d like?” Again, Casey couldn't help but notice how he seemed… smaller than before. A lot less intimidating. Kinder eyes. Maybe it was just the glasses.

“That’s alright, I can manage. Thanks though, for the tour and showing me everything.” Casey noticed her own voice was softer, a little more sincere. She didn't really know why.

“Yeah, of course. I was glad to.” He shrugs a bit and stuff his hands in his pockets, smiling back at her softly.

 

***

 

As Casey returned the apartment, she found she had confidence running through her veins, the surge of adrenaline pushed her to run up the three flights of stairs rather than take the elevator.

John yelled when she entered the apartment, swaying on his feet. Casey knew she had to get out in front of this, fast. When she was finally able to explain to him that she’d went out and got a job, John calmed and turned manipulative (unexpected but not unfamiliar) and guilted Casey into explaining why she thought she needed to hide the fact that she’d got a job from him, and that he was proud of her. That at last, he must’ve taught her something, because she was finally becoming mature. He drank more than enough for the both of them that night.

John hounded her on the details of the job, but she found she could handle it much better when she focused on the fact that she wouldn't be stuck at his apartment all day anymore. She spent her time avoiding John when he was home and secretly looking for apartment listings on her phone, careful to delete her history every time.
More than once, she thought of Kevin Crumb, wondering little things about what he did and where he went when his shift was over, what kind of friends he had. Casey told herself it was because he had been quiet and therefore intriguing, and that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that she found him attractive. And not in the sort of predictable way of a man like Mr. Scott or somebody on tv. He was… different.

Not that it mattered that much. Knowing her luck, she was sure she’d almost never see him at the Zoo, and the flighty way he’d acted around her pointed to the conclusion that he probably saw her for what she was: A Troublemaker, a baggage holder. Most people were able to discern that about her within the first five seconds of seeing her and if not, she made sure they knew within the first five minutes. She wasn't someone who impressed people or made them feel welcome to be around her.

She knew that.

She meant for that.

So why was she having to remind herself of that every time she thought of him?

 

***

 

“... and this is the locker room, we’ll get a name tag for your locker and you can put your work clothes or bag or whatever you want in there. Break room’s right over there to your left, you can eat lunch there. There’s a fridge, so just try to remember to label your stuff and you should be good. Any questions?”

Casey shook her head at Mr. Scott who’d been kind enough to show her things like the employee restroom and the locker room where they now stood. He had his hands low on his hips and a smile big enough to make her believe she wasn't in a slightly musty locker room but possibly a tour of the Lincoln Memorial. Not that she’d ever been.

Her first day had been slow so far, but she didn't mind. She’d been nervous that morning and the night before- scared that at any moment John would rush into her room and yell at her, tell her she wasn't allowed to go and that she would never get a job… She’d be there forever. It wouldn't be the first time he’d pretended to be excited for her- a birthday party or winning the spelling bee- she would be going onto regionals! Keep the hype going for a few days, then, at the last second tell her she wasn't going. Laugh at her, ask her if she really thought he was stupid enough to believe she needed that money for a birthday gift? Did she really think he was just going to drive her all the way to Harrisburg for some school event she probably made up?

Casey had to shake herself loose from the memories that grasped her tightly, trying to hear what Mr. Scott was saying to her.

 

“Alright, well, this afternoon you’ll be in the administrations building helping file some paperwork- I know, it sounds boring, but we always start our interns out with office work before moving onto more work that actually involves any of the animals.” Mr. Scott sounded like he’d said this to a thousand different interns, the cadence of his voice that dipped in some places and reached higher in others to say that it was simply ‘company policy’ or something like that.

“Oh right, that sounds good.” Casey actually felt very relieved at this information- despite the many books she’d been reading about what it was like to work with exotic animals for zoo-keeping, she felt enormously unprepared for tasks such as those.

‘Of course they wouldn't just set you loose with the Gorillas and see what happens. Duh.’

While they made the long trek to the administration building (a series of back trails that avoided the parts of the Zoo for the public), Mr. Scott got quiet, but not before clearing his voice and nodding ahead,
“I guess I should warn you, Emily, the girl you’ll be working with, she’s really nice but she can be a bit… affectionate at times. So if that kind of stuff is… uncomfortable for you just let her know, and she’ll back off. Again, she’s a very nice young woman,” The last part gets caught in his throat and Casey watches as he adjusts the brown tie he wears, “Just a little much at times if you get what I mean.”

Before she can stop the words from leaving her mouth, Casey quips, “Guess everyone here’s got issues, huh? You guys know how to pick em’.” Casey smiles when she says it but as soon as she’s done she knows instant regret. She looks to Mr. Scott to apologize, but he starts laughing.

“That’s, that’s definitely true. We sure do, we sure do, Ms. Cooke.” He struggles through the sentence between chuckles that get more and more wheezed.

A mixture of relief and embarrassment flood Casey while she attempts to match his pace (his legs are much longer than hers, and his laughter only seemed to drive him to walk faster),

“I’m sorry, that was-”

“Funny, Casey. It was funny. And true. Guess we’ll have to make sure you stick around, we need more humor like that.”

The small smile she shares with him for a shear moment brings a measure of confidence and comradery between them, and Casey decides she likes Mr. Scott.

The administration building was towards the very back west side of the zoo, away from almost all the exhibits. It was sort of dusty and quiet inside, a pretty orange light of the afternoon peaked through blinds and melded with normally headache inducing fluorescent lights. It was peaceful. There was a young woman named Emily at the front desk, couldn't be older than 25. She smiled warmly towards Casey and said she was glad to hear there would be another girl working in the office for a while, before briefly flitting her eyes to Mr. Scott and making her way around the desk.

“It’s great to meet you- wow! Has anyone ever told you, you have the prettiest hair? So long!” She spoke in a loud, friendly voice and when she reached out to touch her hair, Casey froze.
Emily was tall and blonde with obvious looks you couldn't hide away from- Casey thought she could be a model if she wanted to, and sort of scared Casey. She gave her a tight hug while Casey’s attempted handshake was replaced with the squeeze that kind of hurt.

“Oh, thanks. Nice to meet you, too.” Casey felt pressure to try hard and give exactly the same energy back to Emily, but she honestly had no idea how to. Maybe if she was younger, if she was a kid she could.

Emily nodded at Mr. Scott, “Eli, how’s it goin’ down in HR?” Casey watches as Emily shifts to lean against the counter that faces the main entrance.

Mr. Scott’s hands wring themselves together, nervously if not a little excitedly and Casey sees him fiddle with the gold band on his ring finger, absently.

“It’s goin’ just fine, just fine.” He smiles a little two brightly between Casey and Emily, nodding and acting as if this was a three way conversation and not a question directed specifically at him. He deflects, “So, Casey, just let me know if you need anything at all. There’s a radio at every station and you’ll find the different frequencies on a chart.”

“Okay, thanks.” She tries her best to give him a nice smile, sensing he clearly wants to leave that building, to leave Emily.

The whole while Emily’s simply staring at him appreciatively, waves when he leaves and follows it with a, “See you around Eli.” He waves back while walking out, his pace quickens.

Casey feels as if she just saw a scene from a soap opera- one where the acting is terrible.

“Ugh, did you see that? He totally wants me, I don't know why he acts like he doesn't? It’s ridiculous, but, he’s sort of worth it. Too cute.” Emily sighs with a dreamy look in her eyes, chin resting in the palm of her hand. Casey isn't sure what to say to that, so she tries for a small laugh but can't quite get the sound out right.

Emily chuckles and lightly places a hand on Casey’s arm, “Don't worry, I know he’s married, I just get a little kick watching him pretend to not notice my flirting, it’s too funny.”

Casey spends most of the afternoon of her first shift organizing file cabinets and learning how to fax things and how to work the outdated computer system. It isn't until Emily excuses herself to the restroom that Casey is really alone- she swivels a bit in the chair, a sense of calm in the quiet. There are little particles of dust that float through the air, caught in the rivets of light that flood through the windows shades. She’s lost in thought, lost in the dust when the rivets are disrupted, the door opens. Casey sits up quickly, and a satisfied sense of surprise settles in her stomach when she sees who it is.

“Hi.”

He looks up, he’s carrying papers in his hands, and he has to do a double-take once he sees it’s not a familiar face sitting in the seat.

“Oh, hi- Ms. Cooke..?” His eyebrows raised in question, his hand moves slowly forward. Casey takes it and likes the warmth and firmness of it.

“Just Casey is fine. Mr…?” Her echoed question (that she already knows the answer to, but needs permission for) is met with a shrug,

“Kevin. You can call me Kevin.” The words are said with a now almost familiar deliberate slowness, like he wants to feel the words on his tongue before giving them voice, deep and accented. His eyes roll over her face, her expression and there’s a light in his eyes that is soft, but behind it something is hidden… Something that Casey knows, she’s too familiar with but doesn't realise yet.

It’s hard to escape his eyes, she finds, and harder to reach her own words, “Cool. Um, sorry, Emily is in the bathroom right now.” Casey thumbs behind her, hoping he’ll stay for some reason. She internally chides herself for this, knows how strange it is. It was as if all the little thoughts she’d been having about him, all the questions were built up to this moment and she felt overflowed with them. Wanted answers, or at least a little conversation. That was the strangest part- Casey never wanted to converse with anyone.

“That’s alright, I just need to drop these off and pick up my check, it should be in the file cabinet behind you, third one down.”

Casey was quick to retrieve the envelope, and slid it across the counter.

“Thanks. So, how’s it been working with Barbie?” His voice deepened when he said the nickname, clearly nervous of Emily hearing.

“She’s been really nice and helpful, a little… um, affectionate, I guess?” Casey couldn't tell if the nickname was supposed to be kind or not and didn't want Kevin to think she didn't like Emily if it was.

“Yeah,” Kevin nodded slowly, looking down and then back to her, leaning slightly against the desk, “She was like that when I first met her, too. I don't know, I guess she sort of picked up I’m not much of a hugger eventually, because she goes for fistbumps everytime we- hey, Emily.”

Casey watched his attention stray from her to the hallway behind her, a small smile rising to his lips.

“Hey Crumbster, how’s it goin’? Gettin that payday yayday on?” Emily extended her arm across the counter and gave Kevin a fistbump- Casey and he share a knowing look while she silently held back a laugh.

“Somethin’ like that. I gotta get goin’, I’ll see you later.” Kevin nodded at Emily, while Casey mouthed ‘Crumbster?’ with an amused look, he lightly rolled his eyes and shrugged.

“See ya.” Emily was distracted with something on her phone.

“Bye Casey.” Kevin waved and she returned the gesture.

“Bye Kevin.”

They share another small smile before he’s through the door and walking out of her view. The light rivets are back, but the dust is swaying in the air from his presence, a piece of evidence that he really was there.

The rest of the afternoon felt lighter, and Casey became distracted by every person who came into the building, each time disappointed it wasn't who she’d hoped.

Chapter Text

The bread was tough and stale, but chewable, Casey found as she reached for her water bottle. It was from the day olds at the store, so she knew what she was getting herself into when she’d cut the sandwich this morning. Still, she thought she could have used at least a little more mustard or something- but John would’ve been pissed if he saw all the mustard gone.

The break room door opened and Casey pretended she didn't notice- she really didn't want to have to talk to anyone right now. Her lunch break had just started and Emily had basically drained her of any ability to socialize after her lamenting about her date the night before and Casey didn't think she could handle anymore fake smiles and pleasantries-

“The smell gettin’ to you that bad, huh?”

Already having to hide the grin that tugs at her cheeks, Casey looks up. Kevin pulls out a chair to sit down at the table across from hers and Casey is simultaneously relieved and disappointed by this. She has to think about his question for a second, not really sure how to answer.

“What?”

He slightly raises his eyebrows and gestures around them vaguely,

“The smell? Of the Zoo? You looked… It’s not… Disrupting your lunch? I couldn't stand it the first couple ‘a weeks. Had to eat in my car, but… it’s not bothering you?”

Casey inhales and can faintly smell animal droppings, sweat, public bathrooms. Nothing compared to the scent of weeks old food molding on the counter or a Buck freshly killed. Hot blood spilling out, guts, too. No, she’s smelled worse.

“No, actually. I don't really notice it that much, to be honest.” Casey shrugs, squashing the intrusive thought. Kevin nods and takes out a lunch box from his bag- like a real, tin, lunch box. It’s dark blue.

“Well, lucky you, I suppose.” There’s no malice or edge to his voice, just kindness. Kevin takes out a small thermos, and when he opens it Casey does immediately smell soup. Her mouth is salivating and not for the less than filling stale ham and mustard sandwich she’s half heartedly consuming.

“You want some?” Kevin lifts the thermos lightly. He’s staring at her, staring at his thermos. She quickly looks back to her sandwich as heat rushes to her cheeks and ears.

“No I’m okay, thanks though.”

She wondered if she would be able to eat it now, her mouth getting dry again just by looking at it. Casey takes another sip from her water, considering throwing away the whole sandwich all together, but… was there much food at home? She didn't want to ask John for cash to go to the store… No. She’ll just save the rest for later.
As she’s putting away the half eaten lunch back in her bag, Casey sees that Kevin is now reading a book- something by Stephen King. She smirks, thinking he does seem like the type of person to read Stephen King. But then she gets to thinking- she reads Stephen King… What kind of person is that and why is she one?

She considers asking him which one he’s reading but… She doesn't really want to bother him. He looks pretty into it, except when every now and then he’ll look sort of off into the distance. His eyes will flit back and forth like he’s thinking of something very important- what is it? Sometimes, she can feel him looking at her and she wonders if it’s out of deep thought or the same reason she can't stop looking at him.

But she wants to talk to him. He was nice earlier, offering his lunch to her. What can she offer back? He doesn't want conversation from someone who doesn't know how to converse- does he? No. No one wants that.

“Has Barbie given you a nickname yet?”

He’s looking at her again, putting the book away and she wonders if he’s already leaving… His thermos is still out, that’s a good sign.

“Uhm, no, not yet… Crumbster? That’s yours, right?” Like she forgot. Ha.

“Unfortunately. I mean, I like Emily. I guess I just don't know her that well. Can’t blame her for that one.” The last part is self deprecating, and he looks to his hands propped up in front of him on the desk, his elbows a sort of barrier between himself and her now.

“So ‘Barbie’ that’s just-”

“Something one of the guys from Security came up with. I don't know… I guess it’s kinda mean, I just think of her as a go-getter’ type. Like, how Barbies can be anything- ah’ astronaut, a doctor, a teacher.” He’s quick to explain like he doesn't want to be mean and Casey likes that. Kevin is nice, she can see that now. Kind.

“Yeah, she is.”

“How do you like it here so far?”

Her answer is surprisingly honest, it's suddenly not a struggle to find the right words,

“It's been okay. Not great, not terrible. Better than nothing, plus I need the money.”

“I get that, rents tough these days.”

“You live around here?” Casey is shocked at her own mouth asking the question, how creepy it probably sounded it him-

“Yeah, I live a few blocks down. It’s not far so it’s alright. How ‘bout you?” He’s not fazed at all.

“Oh, yeah, I just live with my uncle right now, about fifteen minutes away. I’m saving up, hopefully I can find a place closer.”

Kevin nods thoughtfully,

“I hope you find some place nice, I know it can be tough when all the college students take most the good places during spring and fall…” He sort of pauses and looks at her oddly, smiles to himself and then looks at her again, “Wait, you're… probably in college, huh? God, tactful, huh?”

Casey is shaking her head and laughs lightly (when does she laugh? ever?),

“No, no you're good. Not yet, at least. I hope to go someday.”

He looks a little embarrassed still, but smiles sincerely at her,

“That’s good. I hope you do. I never really got a chance to. Besides, you're what, 18? The world is your oyster, or whatever it is they say.”

Casey sits up a little in her chair, “20, and yeah, whatever it is they say.”

 

***

Every Tuesday and Thursday, Kevin and Casey have lunch. It isn't planned, but Casey likes that it doesn't have to be. She begins to just know that every Tuesday and Thursday at 11:00 she’ll walk into the break room and a few minutes later, so will Kevin (the second Thursday Casey learns he works a split shift twice a week- Tuesdays and Thursdays). He still sits at the table across from hers, but she finds she’s okay with that. She likes it even; Knows that if he came any closer she might feel the uncontrollable urge to move away.

Sometimes they talk, and sometimes they both sit in silence while he reads a book and Casey looks at her phone, sometimes she even has her own.

Silence with Kevin is never awkward or tense. It’s simply is. If she wants to say something or ask him anything it becomes easier and easier, she feels less like a traitor to her own mouth when she wants to share something with him (yes, share).
When they do converse, it's easy. He never asks anything about her home life or her Uncle which are basically one and the same. He seems to just… know. Not in any way that causes him to act like she’s some broken thing that needs fixing but a normal person. A person with interests and ideas and thoughts. Casey isn't really surprised he seems to know (because again, she’s Trouble, anyone can see) but rather in the way reacts to it. Or not reacts to it.
Intuition tells her that he has some skeletons in his closet as well, so she (thinks?) she knows not ask about certain things.

But, she does notice that normal, safe questions Kevin doesn't always have answers to. He likes to read, and write sometimes, that much he can elaborate. He guesses he doesn't really have a favorite movie or tv show but he liked the Indiana Jones movies growing up and Star Wars, too. Casey is chagrined to admit she’s only seen one of the Star Wars movies and it was one of the Prequels- Kevin is too shocked to speak at first, and then threatens to stop talking to her altogether until she watches ‘A New Hope’.

“I’m… I cannot believe you’ve never seen it? I’m actually disappointed in you. I guess I’ll just have to stop talking to you until you watch it.” The tinge of humor in his voice, the smallest smile upon his lips let’s Casey know it’s a simple joke… She knows it’s a joke… She knows this, but she Cannot stop the pit of disquiet that’s formed in her stomach.

“Not all of us were nerds growing up. Some of us had actual hobbies.” He squints at her, and she has to laugh a bit, the anxious feeling starts to dissipate.

“Right, and what were your hobbies? Please, elaborate, since you seem to know SO much about this?” She knows that he knows she doesn't do much outside of work- he’s trapped her. She grins.

“Actually, I used to take ballet, thank you very much.” Casey surprises herself at the amount of information she shares with him- the personal information. She has to keep reminding herself this is normal- this is what friends do (they are friends… right?).

“Wow, a dancer? I didn't peg you for the graceful, elegant type…” Casey knows he’s talking about the time when she spilled her water bottle all over the desk because he looks from her to the offending object and back.
Kevin has his arms crossed, and Casey is then (rather rudely) reminded of the first time she met Kevin- how different he had seemed. Nothing like the person sitting across from her, besides the arms of course.

Those are always hard to ignore.

“Oh come on, that was not my fault-”

“Oh really? How so.”

“I cannot be held responsible for my actions when you are telling a funny story about a certain trip to the doctors office.”

“Hey. Hey, now that was a story told in confidence and you pinky promised not to bring it up.” His reprimand is teased with her giggle (again, since when does she ‘giggle’?).

Since Kevin, that’s when.
***

She’s sitting on the floor in her room, the contents of a shoe box spilled around her- memories. Different pieces of proof that she was once a child.

There’s a pink ribbon, it’s ends thread bare and used. A birthday card from her father, it has an illustration of a teddy bear in a tutu holding balloons on the front- inside a little poem about girls who turn 5 and how special they are and a handwritten note telling Casey how much she’s loved (she doesn't like reading that part and she does at the same time).
Still inside the box is a picture of Casey’s mother and father on their wedding day- she’s pregnant with Casey. Just below her bust at the top of her waist is the pink ribbon; It doesn't really match her dress or the yellow flowers in her hair, but Casey thinks she’s beautiful. There’s a stone from a river that Casey brought home with her from her first ever hunting trip with her father (Uncle John was not with them that time). She holds it in her hand, the smoothness of it and dark color brings back memories of the late September waters- icy cold and clear. At the very bottom of the box, there are two very small, very worn in ballet slippers.

Casey is still holding the stone when a few loud knocks on her door startles her.

“Casey! Open up!”

She freezes, her eyes shoot to the door and then the small space around her.

‘Shit!’

“Y-yeah, hold on!”

She’s scrambling to do several things at once- shove the rest of the contents back in the box and into it’s hiding place in her closet, close the closet door quietly and quickly, while trying not to act panicked as she opens the door.

“The hell’s taking you so long-”

He’s mid sentence when she finally opens it, removing the chair that she’s placed under the door knob.

“What’s up?” She’s a little breathless from all the moving around, and swipes a stray hair from her face- if the situation were different, if he were different she thinks she might look funny.

“What are you doin’ in here, tryin’ to lock the door for?”

He shoves past her, his bulky build filling up the doorway and then he’s standing in the center of her room. Casey hates when he does that. Enough to want to take something heavy and hit him over the head, knock him unconscious (or more) like she’s seen in movies…. It looks simple. He’s sort of tall but not that tall, she could easily puncture the lower part of his skull hard enough to-

“Jesus, Casey, clean your goddamn room every once in a while, this is unacceptable… It’s a pigsty in here.”

He’s looking at a pile of clothes that sit in the corner of her room, there’s a bra that he reaches for, but Casey is quick to beat him to it. She gathers up the clothes and places them in the hamper that’s next to her desk.

“I was just reading, what do you need?” Her voice stays even, maybe a hint of malice, but none more than usual.

He’s still looking around her room, she knows he’s searching for something else to yell at her for but there’s nothing. The small framed painting on the wall is dusty but besides the desk and twin sized bed (where she does have a book out) there’s… nothing.

Casey waits and after a few more silent moments, John looks at her.

“I’m going out with some guys from work tonight, I won't be home till late.”

“Okay.”

“Don't invite anyone over.”

She waits for him to leave her room, but he’s still looking around like he needs something to be out of place, to be wrong.

“Who would I even invite over?”

John glares at her then and she knows it's all over in three of his glides- he hits her. Hard.

“Don't be a fucking bitch- this is my goddamn house and if I say don't invite anyone over I mean don't invite anyone over!”

Red. All Casey sees is Red. It’s everything: The sting of her cheek and the stumble she has to take as John shoves past her again and it’s the sound of the door slamming.

She stables, her hand that isn't cradling her too warm cheek grabs the wall.

Her breath, though weighted in her chest, is let out in small wispy increments, shaky. Waiting, she can feel/hear John stomping around the apartment for a minute, then the front door slams.

She exhales heavily.

Eventually her vision clears and the pain in her cheek starts to go away. Everything starts to slow… dissipate. She’s not angry anymore, or sad even. No feeling sits in her stomach or threatens to burst through her chest. There’s nothing. She’s staring out her window but she’s not really seeing anything. Casey leans against the wall, anchors to it because she’s almost sure without it she’d just fizzle away…

 

***

Casey gasps, and something hits the back of her head (‘Ouch.’). She pushes herself up into a sitting position- her neck hurts.

The nightmare is gone, she doesn't even remember what it was about, but, probably something to do with John… what's new? Rubbing the back of her head, she can see in the dim light of her room (she must’ve been asleep for an hour or so) she’d been laying against the wall. Her shoulder hurts a bit, but other than that she’s okay. She’s okay.

Laundry is easy, it’s distracting. Just throw the clothes in the washing machine and wait.

The waiting.

Cleaning the kitchen is distracting, too and she can take her time. Her music plays quietly through her phone and Casey doesn't have to think about anything while it’s so natural to scrub day old steak sauce off a plate.

Sometimes, she hates John so much that she can feel the waves of anger roll through her and it's as if she could form something palpable with them- like molding clay or slicing through an apple. She imagines what it would be like to just get rid of him. How she would do it (probably make him OD on the Valium he takes… but it’d have to be a lot) and what efforts she would take to dispose of the body. That part never appeals to her but the idea of him being so completely gone from existence does.

Other times it's just simpler to just do whatever it is he wants of her. There’s anger, yes, but it's not overwhelming- it’s just there as a default and when she can get through that part there’s a modicum of peace. Of sanctuary. If she can just get through it (which she can, she always has) then she’ll be okay.

Casey thinks of the small ballet shoes in the back of her closet.

***

There was a time after Casey’s father passed when things were… good. She missed him, and she kind of understood the concept of death and that he wouldn't be ‘back’ but Uncle John was being so nice and letting her have or do whatever she wanted that it was hard to remember he was gone all the time.
At night in her bed, Casey felt terrible about this, she would cry herself to sleep or knots would form in her tummy SO BIG that it HURT and sometimes she couldn't go potty for days.

But during the filled up hours of the day when Uncle John would let her watch cartoons and give her as much ice cream as she wanted she was distracted. He even still drove her to ballet every week! All her friends were there and it seemed like everyone was being extra nice all the time, that even when she would mess up or talk when they were supposed to be ‘seen and not heard’, no one got mad at her. Miss Michelle wouldn't tell Casey to be quiet or to go sit in the time out corner.

It was so nice!

Then all of a sudden, things weren't so nice anymore.

She had to go back to school and she had a lot of stuff she’d missed while she was away. So much stuff that she had to get a tutor and that made Casey feel… not good. Upset and small.

Casey missed her father.

And at home… Uncle John was… confusing. Sometimes, he would get very angry at Casey for things she didn't understand. Once in the middle of the night, Casey had to go to the bathroom, but when she was done, Uncle John was outside the door and asking her Why Did She Think It Was Okay To Wake Him Up So Late At Night When He Had Work In The Morning? Didn’t She Know How RUDE That Was? He had grabbed her upper arm so hard it hurt so bad and walked too fast back to her bed for her to keep up! The next day there were purple marks on her skin.
After that, Casey tried to hold it when she had to go but sometimes… some nights she just couldn't. And that made Uncle John very angry as well.

Casey misses her father.

Sometimes Uncle John drinks a lot of ‘Adult Soda’ and falls asleep on the couch and through the whole next morning and Casey has to walk herself to school (which is scary) or get up early and wait for the bus (which is also scary). And when she gets home from school, sometimes Uncle John isn't there and since she didn't eat breakfast or lunch, she’ll be very hungry. A few times there’s been chips on the counter or cereal she can eat but usually not. Uncle John is also forgetful because he’ll leave the pizza out on the counter until it starts to look funny and smell very bad… Casey is too hungry to care sometimes though and eats it anyway… She’ll usually feel pretty icky over the next few days. But isn't allowed to miss school. No. Not anymore.
One day during P.E., Mr. Thompson asks if Casey eats enough meat and veggies at home- she doesn't remember what she said to him but he must’ve told someone what she said because when she gets home from school, Uncle John shows her where the frozen meals will always be and how to work the microwave. Casey isn't usually too hungry after that.

Casey misses her father.

Then there are the other times when Uncle John wants to play games (these are the same ones he wanted to play every time they went on hunting trips). She doesn't like that either. They’re not normal games that Casey plays at school with her friends, in fact, Casey’s never heard of anyone playing games like the ones he wants to play with her… But… usually after (Casey just shuts her eyes tight and counts to the highest she can which is 23 and then back down again until it’s over), Uncle John is nice again. He lets her watch cartoons and sometimes he’ll get her a Happy Meal from McDonalds AND let her keep the toy inside!!

Casey wants to miss her father, but has a strange feeling he wouldn't like her anymore.

When the Bad Times come and Uncle John gets very angry at Casey (she’s starting to learn what sorts of things make him angry) or wants to Play Games, Casey knows she just has to wait a little bit and it will get better, the Good Days will come back and Casey won't have to worry so much. Sometimes, after he’s drank a lot of the ‘Adult Soda’ he’ll get very sad and Uncle John even promises her that he’ll start getting help and start being better. Even though her Dad didn't get angry or sad like Uncle John, Casey knows that he would be proud of her for being patient. She prays to him at night, asking him to please, please, please show her how to not upset Uncle John so much, and tells him that she really is trying so hard to be good and that she misses him.

She misses him…

 

***

Casey is twelve years old and hates John.

John is outside on the porch (before they moved to the inner city) and she can hear him talking on the phone and laughing.

And Casey thinks she just might do it this time- she’s going to kill him. She’ll grab the only knife in the kitchen or a pair of scissors and go out and stab him square between the shoulders. He’ll turn around or fall to his knees in shock and then she’ll pull out the knife and plunge it into his skull… Hot blood will pour out like it does on a deer or a rabbit, but just darker and there’ll be more of it… she imagines his blood being so dark it’s black.

She doesn't know what she’ll do after that but… she’ll figure it out.

He’s still fucking laughing and looks like he actually means it- she can see him from her bedroom window. He’s on the phone with her ballet teacher, he’s telling her that Casey won't be attending the class anymore. She’s not sure what excuse he came up- that she badly hurt her ankle and the doctor said it’ll never heal properly or some other bullshit.
In some ways, she knows this is her own fault… Maybe if she hadn't been so oblivious, she wouldn't have this one thing… the One Thing that's HERS being taken away.

Sylvia was a plump middle-aged woman with big, red, hair that was always teased and styled to ‘perfection’ and she had been John’s girlfriend for 4 months. It was really strange to Casey that suddenly there was this Woman walking around their house and kissing John and asking Casey how her day went and driving her to school sometimes. It was just… strange.

She didn’t understand how someone like Sylvia could like someone like John.

But… it was nice sometimes. She was kind and cooked good dinners that weren't heated up in the microwave but actually Made from Scratch! She even started showing Casey how to cook a few things, and even though she was kind of loud and sang a lot, she was kind. And it kept John from getting so pissed all the time.
He would still get annoyed at Casey for little things like her room being messy or a dish being left in the sink but he would just ASK her to clean it up instead of yelling at or hitting her when it wasn't immediately they way he wanted it.

Casey didn't love Sylvia, but she liked her.

One morning while she was eating her cereal and Sylvia was just getting up to make coffee, she asked Casey a question she wasn't expecting.

“Hey hon, what’d you get that from?”

She briefly points a red fingernail at the space between Casey’s armpit and her shoulder. It’s a red, ugly scar that she should not be able to see but Casey forgot to put on her sweater!!!!

How did she just forget??? HOW?

“I-I uh.. I- I-.. I was-”

‘THINK OF SOMETHING THINK OF SOMETHING!’

“Your Uncle didn't do that to you, did he?”

Casey just looks at Sylvia a long moment before trying to explain… Did he? Yes. Casey had accidentally knocked over his ashtray and John thought she should know the feel of hot ash if she was going to be knocking it over so carelessly.

But should Sylvia know that? …. Casey knows what John has threatened to do if she ever tells anyone what she thinks he does to her. Because John doesn't *actually* ‘abuse’ Casey- she doesn't know what *actual* abuse is.

“Honey… You can tell me if there’s something-”

“No, he didn't. It’s just a scar, I don't know where it came from.”

It’s Sylvia’s turn to look at her a long moment, and she does. The morning light in winter time is harsh through the windows and Casey can see that the kind woman in front of her is struggling with many things. She knows Casey is lying and she doesn't know what to do about it.

When Casey gets home from school, John is there and he’s whacking her over the head with something that stings more than usual (later Casey finds out it's Sylvia’s antique wooden hairbrush she left behind) and it’s so sudden that Casey is crying from the shock more than anything. He asks her repeatedly what she said/did that made Sylvia ‘run off’ like that and accuse him of things that ‘no good man’ should be accused of. The irony of the moment was clearly, completely lost on him. At the time, Casey didn't think it’d be a good idea to actually tell him because she thought that he’d just get more angry and she just wanted him to stop.

So now, here she sits. Watching John take away one of the only things she actually likes doing and is good at.

 

From then on, Casey makes sure to wear at least one undershirt and a sweater at all times.

 

***

The air is brisk and Casey can see the beginnings of a rain cloud starting to form above her- she should get back to John’s soon.

Memories had followed her all last night and into the morning and even through the front door and out into the city. It wasn't often she thought of the early years with John, but when she did it had a sort of domino effect on her mind. One memory and then another and another and another would recite themselves on the stage that was her consciousness. It didn't leave her catatonic, but it would make her depressed, a little debilitated and sometimes unaware of what she was doing.

Like now, Casey knew she had walked to the Library and dropped off a few books she’d read and was on her way back but… she had no real memory of doing any of it. Sure she remembers what the inside of the Library looks like but she can't remember who was at the front desk that morning or what books she’d checked out. She knew she’d done these things, but just now it felt as if she was finally waking up.
This wasn't anything new, but it was still frustrating when it happened. At least once every few months something would ‘trigger’ (Casey hates that word) this onslaught of intrusive memories and thoughts. Sometimes she wouldn't even realize it but days would go by and she would sort of ‘wake up’ and have little to no memory of the events that had taken place.

Casey was then deliberating whether or not she should go home… John was there, it was a Saturday. He had been in a pretty shitty mood (from what Casey could remember) since he barged into her room and she had no desire to be around him now. As thunder announced it’s presence with a low roar, Casey pulled on her hood and headed towards a coffee shop she knew was cheap and quiet enough for her to wait out the storm and read one of the books she’d checked out.

It was a little busier than usual, but Casey didn't mind so much. She just ordered the coffee and paid with what little money she had (what money she was making was all going into her savings account, one that John still had no idea about) and sat in a booth towards the back.

While she waited for her coffee, she went to use the bathroom and when she turned on the nauseating greenish light, she was a little surprised at what she saw in the mirror- a small, but deep purple bruise was bulging slightly on her cheek. John must’ve hit her harder than she thought. God, she hated when she couldn't remember things… at least it didn't hurt that much. Hopefully it would clear up a bit before work on Monday- she might have to use some of her old concealer…

The book she’d checked out was called ‘Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio’ and was a memoir about the author when (you guessed it) she got polio. It was a quick read and pretty sad but hopeful despite everything. Towards the last few chapters, Casey decided it was probably best she start heading back. Although he had eased up on where Casey went and why he was still John. And that meant he would still bombard her with texts if she was gone for too long and that was the last thing she needed right now.
She started to stand and was about to drink the last of her coffee when she looked up. There was Kevin! What was he doing here? He dressed a lot more… comfortably outside of work. For a while she just stared at him from her vantage point across the small cafe (she sat back down, trying to look inconspicuous). He was sitting at one of the smaller tables near the front window and was scrolling through something on his phone. There was a small cap on his head that looked kind of funny to Casey and she knew she would have to tease him about it the next time she saw him but… What was different? There was something… off about him.
Sure he looked different in the clothes he was wearing- a large maroon sweater and tight, black jeans and some almost fancy looking black shoes. There was an attitude of laziness around him, of relaxed that she didn't see him have at work- in fact, now his posture was sort of horrific. He was slouched over so dramatically, one hand cradling his chin while he seemed bored with whatever was one his phone. Casey wasn't sure if she should go up and say hello. It was definitely Kevin, she knew his face and his body and just how he was but if someone told her that man was her brother she’d believe them.
Then he was sitting up straight and waving out the window, an excited expression passed over his features. He stood up and then there was another man walking up and they were hugging and Kevin was pecking him on the cheek and running a hand over His Chest and through His Hair and brushing raindrops off His Jacket and they were laughing? And Casey was VERY confused. And weirdly hurt.

She waited a few moments for the other man to sit down and then she was quickly and discreetly leaving the cafe.

The walk home was cold and exhuasting and wet. Strange anger flooded her. At Kevin(?). At herself for believing… What exactly? That there was a chance for them to…. Be what? She knew ‘what’ but her pride and trust felt so damaged she didn't even want to implore that train of thought… So Kevin was… gay? And what did that mean? Casey didn't know, she didn't know anything, suddenly.

She didn't understand why she was so angry- he was obviously gonna have a life outside of the Zoo, and just because they talked sometimes at lunch that doesn't… mean anything! It didn't mean a single thing and Casey felt so stupid for believing that Kevin might want… anything to do with Casey. He saw her for what she was and felt sorry for her so he pretended to be friends with the poor little sad girl and he was really good at it. She had to give him that, she thought bitterly. He was kind and let her ask her stupid little questions and joke around and outside of that she was nothing but a small fraction of his day. Twice a week.

 

***

 

Casey still feels half asleep pulling into the Zoo’s parking lot Monday morning. After she’d parked, she sits in the car for a few minutes, trying to get some amount of energy to work with for the day ahead.
She unfolds the sun flap and looks at herself in the small mirror, at the bruise on her cheek. It’s lightened, for sure, and with the concealer it’s hardly there.

Casey wonders about Kevin- if she’ll see him today at all… What she would do or how she should act if he walks into the administration building. Will she smile at him and ask him how he’s doing? Pretend she didn't see him on what was probably a date? Will she ignore him? It would be so much easier to just cut him out of any part of her life, like she’s always done when people disappoint her…

She’s already bored at the route this inner turmoil is taking- it’s juvenile, she can practically feel the preteen hormones start to cloud her thoughts. She asks herself for the upteenth time if it matters? This weird practically nothing friendship space between her and Kevin, does it matter?

Casey opens the car door and heads to work.

 

***

“So you just, what, walked away?”

“Yeah, I left, I didn't really know what else I was supposed to… What?”

Emily shrugs and pulls at a loose thread from her khakis.

“Honestly, I would have done the same thing, probably. I just had no idea that Kevin was gay.”

“Yeah, me neither… But he might not be I mean, I don't wanna… I guess just base the whole thing off stereotypes.”

Emily gives Casey a blank ‘are-you-kidding-me’ look.

“Casey. Honey. Come on. No straight guy wears what you said he was wearing, kisses another guy on the cheek and runs his fingers through his hair- you did say he ran his fingers through his hair, correct?”

Casey’s anxiety that had sort of subsided came back again. She should not have brought this up to Emily- she lives for this kind of… whatever it is (Casey doesn't want to call it ‘drama’ because that just affirms her growing fear that she’s taking this way too seriously).

“Yeah, yeah… Whatever, it’s not a big deal. I was reading into it way too much-”

“Shut up.”

The sound of the door opening behind them alarms Casey to (speak of the devil) Kevin walking in.

Before anyone can say anything, Emily is standing and walking away,
“Hey Kevin, sorry I have to go make a phone call.”

Well, at least Casey knows now to never count on Emily for support ever again.

“O-okay… Hey Casey.”
He looks tired, there are clear bags under his eyes as he smiles wearily at her.

“Hey.” She says.

He sets a clipboard on the counter and yawns, trying to cover it with his mouth.

“Long weekend?” She knows it was obvious… Was it obvious?

“Uh, no not really. You?” His eyes rest on her face for a long moment- a small frown forms on his.

“No, me either.” She has to resist the urge to look down or away or do anything to cover up the bruise he has just confirmed has started to reveal itself under her cheap concealer. The look she knows she’s giving him is daring him to say something about it. She knows he knows not to.

He looks like he’s about to say something when he stops, clears his throat and proceeds to dig through his pocket- he’s handing her a folded piece of paper.

“Just in case you ever wanted to uh, y’know, hang out outside of work ever.”

267-223-0124

Casey is… confused? Happy? Elated?

“Oh cool, yeah, I’ll uh…”

She pulls her phone out (not before carefully placing the note in a little pocket in her bag) and texts the number quickly, she isn't sure what to say so she just sends a smiley face.

“Now you have mine, too.”

Kevin seems to be hiding relief (Casey notices he’s not very skilled at hiding how he’s feeling at any given moment).

“G-great, that’s cool. Thanks.”

“Yeah. Cool.”

“Cool.”

An awkward semi relief filled moment passes while they are just smiling at each other, nodding. Kevin finally breaks it.

“Well, I guess my shifts almost over so I should go-”

“Oh yeah, right, you should-”

“I’ll see you at lunch tomor-”

“I’ll text you later-”

“Yeah.”

“Right.”

Casey wants to disappear. Kevin is scratching the back of his neck and then they’re both saying goodbye.

“See ya.”

“Bye.”

As soon as the door closes, Casey drops her head against her hands and sort of convulses as a full body cringe over takes her.

‘What the fuck was that?”

Emily’s seemingly rushing out from nowhere and squealing,

“What happened?”

Casey only momentarily lifts her head and tries to speak but no words come out.

Chapter Text

Kevin wants to sit next to Casey. He does.

But… does Casey want to sit next to him? It’s no secret that Casey tenses up at any physical affection. Not that Kevin has been the one to give it, but he’s seen how her whole being just freezes up anytime Emily even just touches her on the shoulder or even worse, when she tries to give Casey hugs.

Apparently it's taking her a bit longer to see that Casey isn't the physical affection type.

Through it all, Casey seems to just take it in stride. She doesn't like it, that much is clear, but she doesn't lash out or slap Eli whenever he happens to pat Casey on the back.

So, he doesn't want to be another one of those people who can't read when someone needs their personal space. Hell, he’s someone who needs his personal space.

Yet, he doesn't want Casey to think he doesn't like her.

He’s not sure what he could’ve done (or not done, if it was one of the others) between Thursday afternoon and Monday morning, but when Casey sees him she’s acting different. If he didn't know better, he might even say accusatory or upset, but… That’s not Casey, right? He’d worried at the time, wondering what went wrong.
And then he sees the small, poorly concealed welt on her cheek and he knows it's not him but something that happened to her.
The way she avoids talking about her Uncle (James? John?) has been enough for him to gather he’s a lot like Kevin’s mother was… he thinks. Casey’s never mentioned any other family.

Kevin simultaneously hopes and fears that’s why they seem to get along so well. He wants it to be for other reasons, like how he can make her laugh and she pretends not to notice when his stammer convaludes his words (some days are better than others). But the more secluded, lonely part of him almost needs it to be for all those dark reasons.
Barry reassures him it’s probably a mix of the two and his ‘irresistible charm’.

 

***

“How did she react?”

“She seemed happy. I don't know, I really hope I didn't creep her out or anything…”

“Kevin, you said yourself that Casey has never given you any reason to believe she doesn't like you or is uncomfortable by you.”

Dr. Fletcher tries reaching his gaze and smiling, he smiles back too, if not a little nervously. His arm moves away from his lips without his consent and Barry is in his ear suddenly,

‘Stop bitin’ your nails.’

Kevin ignores the alter and opts to clasp his hands together tightly.

“I just d-don't want to mess this up… I really like her.”

“I know you do.”

“How do I… I can't not tell her… right?”

Dr. Fletcher smiles softly again, a knowing look in her eye.

“If you want to pursue this friendship further, I highly recommend you do. She’ll likely find out one way or another- wouldn't you prefer it came from you?”

Kevin nods quickly. She’s absolutely right and he knows it, the fear of Casey somehow hearing it from Barry or (god forbid) Patricia was almost too much to handle.

“As far as actually telling her goes, I recommend you do it in small increments- pieces. You don't want to overwhelm her and people usually take it better when it’s broken down. It’s easier to explain that way and easier for the respective party to mentally digest.”

Someone in Kevin’s head doesn't like the idea of sharing at all and someone else does very much. He stops, counts down from 10 and breathes deeply.

“Someone has something to say?”

“A few of them do.”

“Hmm. Best you let Barry know and he can explain it to them. Speaking of, what do the others think of Casey? Has Barry told them yet?”

Kevin shrugs. He hates that. Sometimes it’s so frustrating when he can’t just have his own stuff. Not like Casey belongs to him but… Their friendship- he wants it to just be his.

The material stuff is… whatever. Kevin has learned to cope with the fact that his home life isn't just his. There are objects, like Dennis’ cleaning supplies, that he is specifically not to touch or Hedwigs’ coloring box. He can deal with Orwell’s crazy amount of history books and Patricia’s weird sympathy card collection. Whatever.
It’s not as if he even really wants to touch any of it- it mostly just freaks him out if he looks at that stuff too long.
But there’s some stuff that Kevin just wished belonged to him solely- friendships and a social life.

Dr. Fletcher has reassured Kevin that these feelings he has are normal and that some of the alters (Jade) feel this way as well, but that they were all created for a purpose (Kevin always has to look back at alters like Mr. Pritchard and wonder what purpose he serves besides Bird Watching and why his psyche found that a necessary add on).

“Honestly, I know that Barry knows about her but I’ve asked him to not give the others too much information about it.”

The Doctor sighs and removes her glasses- a tell that she doesn't approve of what he’d just said.

“Kevin, we’ve talked about this. If you want to have a more cohesive relationship with the alters, you need to be open and communicate fully. There’s no way to create a more stable environment unless you begin trusting them.”

“But why? Why do I have to let them in on every detail of my life when half the time, I have no idea what they’re doing during their time in the light? How’s that fair? How do I have any clue that Jade or Hedwig can be trusted?”

Dr. Fletcher opens her hand, seeming to implore him. To echo what she’d just said.

“That’s exactly my point, Kevin. The more you practice being open with each other, the easier it will become to trust. I know this concept is… somewhat unfamiliar to you. And you’re right, you don't have a whole lot of reasons to trust that you can be open with them. But… that’s the first step- the leap of faith you have to take if you wish to move forward in being able to communicate outside Barry, Patricia or Luke- you can still communicate with Luke, right?”

Kevin nods, her words clearly taking some root but a frown still on his worried face.

“Yeah.”

“That’s good. Now, there are a few steps you can take in helping this process- do you wish to discuss them now, or save them for next week?”

“No, no, we can talk about them now.”

There’s a beat, and Dr. Fletcher gives him a skeptical look,
“Are you sure? Remember, you don't have to say ‘yes’ just because you feel you have to. I won't be offended or disappointed.”

That’s another exercise they’ve been working on- Kevin being honest with others and saying what he really feels rather than what others expect or ask of him.

However Kevin really does want to continue, even though it’s hard, he feels that if he can take on these challenges- he’s making progress. And isn't that what all this is about? Progress? Barry would say so.

“Yes, I really want to. I promise.”

“Great, now, there are a few ways you can assert your dominance as the primary that shouldn’t be perceived as hostile. One of those is personal grooming. At the end of the day, all the alters I’ve met with agree that you have bodily autonomy (‘Except’, Kevin thinks ‘when Barry decides I shouldn’t bite my nails’)- that as the primary, it is your body, and they all refer to it as such.”

Kevin has a feeling where she’s going with this.

“I know that for some time, you specifically have wanted to change the way you do your hair- you don't like that Dennis shaves it so short. Dennis respects you, he cares for you, so, there shouldn’t really be an issue if you assert to stop shaving it.”

Kevin has to cringe at that- the mention of the rather stiff and obtuse alter makes Kevin’s stomach tighten.

“Yeah, I guess I’ve kinda wanted to grow it out for a while. He can't exactly just stop me f-from growing it, can he?”

“Exactly. By trusting that he won't just shave it off whenever he stops being comfortable with it, you're saying you trust his respect over your choices and therefore you can start to trust each other with bigger things, like maybe one day introducing him to Casey, or any of the others. Baby steps, Kevin.”

Blowing out air like one might on a birthday cake, Kevin agrees,

“Right, baby steps.”

 

***

Arms, itching. Legs, itching… It feels like a million insects crawling on his skin, biting, pinching and then they’re on his head, in his ears and…

Kevin sits up and turns on the bedside lamp with a desperate intensity that leaves him gasping.

The itching eventually subsides and he’s able to slow his breathing. He can sense Barry near the light, and a darker cloud of emotion that he’s slowly come to identify as Dennis, though he can't talk to or see him like he can Barry.

He waits, calms and gets up to walk around his small one bedroom apartment. He finds himself in the living room and quickly turns on the tv- Barry and Dennis are still close by, he can feel. Usually if he watches something droning one or both of them will leave. He only needs to talk to Barry, and hopes Dennis will eventually sense this. He is never really sure if Dennis (or any of the other alters besides Patricia or Luke for that matter) can sense his emotions and thoughts the way Barry can. To be honest he’s never asked Barry because he’s a little nervous to know to answer.
PBS plays quietly and he can feel both Dennis and Barry begin to leave the outer edges of the light. At the last moment, his eyes glaze over as he reaches out to the latter.

‘Barry?’
There’s a fogged film of glass around them, and it takes a moment for Kevin to clearly see Barry.

‘What’s up?’ He answers immediately.

‘I have a favor to ask of you.’

Their voices are muffled and yet echoe at the same time- the little enclosure in which they stand is completely closed off, and in the center, the spotlight they currently share. If Kevin tried, he could see through the glass faintly, distorted shapes of people (?) or sometimes just colors. He can never really make too much out. Apparently, he’s on the other side of the glass sleeping in a chair when he’s not in the light- a phenomenon he has no memory of.

‘Anything, Kev. Shoot.’

Barry’s expression is sincere and kind- there’s never a hint of anger or uncomfortability about Barry. He looks a lot like Kevin, but he’s thinner. His features not so masculine- sort of androgonous. His smile is wider than Kevin’s and sometimes a little too perfect. But he’s always friendly and encouraging. Most of the time he’s very fashionably dressed- like he’s about to walk a runway or be in some photoshoot.

‘Could you… M-maybe ask D-Dennis to stop shaving my hair for a while?’

Barry sighs and chuckles lightly,

‘He ain’t gonna be too happy ‘bout that but, yeah, I’ll let him know.’

‘I… you think he’ll be that mad?’

Barry shrugs lightly and shakes his head,
‘Dennis… he might be a little pissed for a few days but, he’ll get over it.’

‘... Okay.’

Barry steps closer and places a hand on Kevin’s shoulder and rubs lightly, a touch that Kevin can't really feel but that sort of tingles as if he’s only brushing his skin.
‘Hey, don't worry about it, seriously. His bark is worse than his bite.’

‘Okay…’ Kevin wants to leave then- he doesn't like being in this weird limbo space between consciousness and the recesses of his mind. It’s always uncomfortable and hard to hold. To stay.

Barry must sense this because he starts to turn and walk away (he can always walk through the glass as if it isn't even there and Kevin knows that for him, it isn't), but Kevin stops him.

‘Barry?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Thanks.’

Barry waves a hand and smiles softly,

‘It’s not even a thought, Kev. Sleep well.’

Kevin watches him leave once more and then steps directly under the spotlight, closes his eyes, and focuses (it gets easier and easier every time he does it, but still makes him a little dizzy).

There are wet tracks on his cheeks, and he has to blink a few times while grounding himself.

On the tv, a colony of ants carry a dead snake onto their hill.

 

***

‘All I’m saying is that it requires a depth and delicacy that I don't know Kevin has.’

Luke rolls his eyes at Barry,

‘Well that’s not really up for you to decide, now is it? Kevin told ME that he’s the one who wants to explain it to her and so that’s how it’s gonna go.’

‘I don't know why neither of you asked me to do it. I’m the female, obviously I’m the one who should do it-’

Barry swats at the teen, physically dismissing her with a flick of his wrist,

‘Jade if you knew how dumb that sounded you wouldn't have said a word- also, I don't recall asking you to be here, Kevin doesn't even want you to know about Casey, let alone have any sort of opinion about talking to her. Scram.’

Jade flips him off and walks away, leaving Luke and Barry to both sigh.

‘She’s gonna tell everyone, now, isn't she?’

Barry puts a palm to his forehead- he can feel a migraine coming on,

‘Dammit that little asshole, she’s… UGH I had ONE job.’

 

***

 

Thankfully, the next time they have lunch, neither mentions their last rather awkward interaction. They’ve been talking about the newest installment in the Star Wars franchise and Casey’s favorite YouTube channels and other mundane things. It’s nice and normal, and Kevin is relieved there doesn't seem to be any estrangement between them.
Casey asks Kevin what he plans to do over the coming weekend since the holidays are approaching.

“Oh, I d-don't know I d-don't really do much f-for the holidays. You?”

Casey seems to think on this a moment before shrugging,

“Yeah, I guess I don't really do much either. Usually, my uncle will go away from a few days on a hunting trip with his friends.”

Kevin wants to say that sounds nice, but it really doesn't. Casey continues, however,

“He used to make me go with him, but a few years ago I kinda… put my foot down I guess and now I don't have to go anymore.”

“You don't like hunting?”

“I don't know, I used to, but that was when my dad was still alive and after that, I never really learned how to shoot all that well so it was usually just me sitting around a campfire freezing my ass off.”

She laughs a bit and Kevin does too, still distracted that she mentioned her father. A first.

“I can imagine. W-where w-w-would, w-w-where w-w-would you guys go, anyway?” He tries to clear his throat and pretend he didn't notice the stammer, and Casey doesn't make any move to signal she notices it either. He’s immensely thankful for this, and likes her a little too much, he thinks.

“We’d go to Allegheny usually… Um, read any good books lately?”

Kevin gets the hint she doesn't want to talk about this any longer and accepts her redirection.

“Yeah, I f-finally got around to r-reading ‘Carrie’ like you said- you’re right, it’s probably in my top five of his now- k-kinda kinda sad, though, huh?”
Kevin guesses today will be one of those days when his stammer is a bit more prominent. He tries to dispel the wave of dark thoughts that follow the acknowledgment of the disability. When he was younger, it used to be much more impeding. He couldn't even get whole sentences out or would need several deep breaths or gulps to even start one. Speech therapy helped a lot, but some days were still harder to get out words than others. Phone calls made him practically mute.

“Definitely. When I was in high school, I used to think I was like her. I wanted to have telekinesis and bad ass powers, but I guess after I graduated and I re-read it, it just made me sad.”

“R-really? What did your f-friends think about that?”

“I didn't really have friends in high school, actually.” Casey laughs when she says it but it’s dry and she clearly doesn't think it’s funny.

“Well, that’s j-j-just another thing we have in common I guess.”

Casey seems a bit surprised at this but smiles nonetheless and the silence that follows is one filled with understanding.

Kevin breaks it, however, to ask Casey what he’s been wanting to for the past twenty minutes,

“Hey, uh, I know I mentioned it before, and I d-don't mean to make you uncomfortable, but I w-was w-w-w-wondering if maybe you’d wanna go for coffee this w-weekend?” Kevin tries clearing his throat again, the nervousness encroaching and folding in on him.

Casey looks away from him, but he can see she’s smiling. She nods before speaking, finally looking back at him.

“That sounds really nice, I’d like that.”

 

***

 

It was a busy Saturday, people weaving in and out of the crowd that bustled down the busy mainstreet left Barry mesmerized- there were so many of them! No matter how many times he’d spend people watching, Barry was never not amazed at how… intricate it all was. They all were. All these people had lives and problems and spouses and children and job and hobbies… it was sort of beautiful to him. He wished he could peak inside their minds, and see what they were thinking- what sort of silly nonsense or sad secrets were hidden in plain sight?

‘Wash your hands when you get there, you’ve been touching way too many unsanitary things. It’s disgusting.’

Barry was broken from his reverie by the voice of Dennis- he honestly hadn’t realized they’d been sharing the light.

‘Dennis, you can take as many showers as you want when we get home, but this is my time in the light and if I wanna lick a subway pole, I’m gonna lick a subway pole.’

The other alter didn't laugh at this, but Barry snickered, thinking it was pretty funny.

‘I’m joking, sheesh. I’m just walking Kevin to the cafe ‘cause he didn't know where it was.’

There was silence, but Barry knew Dennis was still there.

‘Do you need somethin’?’

‘... Is he meetin’ that girl? From work?’

Barry tensed a bit at the question, but another part of him asked why he was even surprised that’s what he wanted to know.

‘Not that it’s really any of your business, but yes, he is.’

‘He shouldn’t just be goin’ off meetin’ random people like this. It’s… irresponsible.’

‘For who?’

Barry knew it was a cheap remark, but it was also true. Dennis said nothing to this but Barry could feel him begin to move away from the light.

‘Hey, I’m sorry, I didn't mean-’

‘Didn’t mean what?’ His voice was deep and cutting. Barry began to feel the guilt more heavily. He also knew that the best thing to do was to simply deflect.

‘Hey, I wanted to ask you somethin’, or I guess, Kevin does.’

Dennis pauses at this, and somewhat relaxes (Not that he was ever really relaxed. That wasn't a state for Dennis to be in at all).

‘What is it?’

‘He was sorta wonderin’ if you could lay off the whole ‘shaved head’ thing for a while? Kid wants to try somethin’ differen’.’

Barry is still weaving through the crowd, and finally at the crosswalk right before the cafe. Dennis is still quiet and Barry wonders if he actually left the light- he has a tendency to do that. He knows he doesn't exactly… like Barry. He actually isn't sure Dennis likes anyone for that matter. Dennis surprises Barry when he finally responds,

‘If that’s what he wants.’

‘Thanks, Dennis.’

He’s already gone, though, by the time Barry mentally says the words.

***

Kevin comes to outside of the cafe and he enters. He checks his phone to see a text from Casey.

Casey Cooke (1:32) : hey, i'm on my way i'm just running a few minutes late. sorry b there soon. :)

Kevin quickly types out a response,

Me (1:33) : Hey no worries, I just got here myself. See u soon.

By the time Kevin orders himself a latte (Barry drinks them all the time, so they must be good, right?) his nerves are back in full force.
The night before, he’d nearly had a panic attack when Casey confirmed a place and time for them to meet. He had been so excited but… the sudden prospect of having to confide in her was too much. A part of him whispered he didn’t have to confide in her… But he did want to confide in her so why was it suddenly so fucking scary? Casey was kind and understanding and totally non-judgemental but Kevin knew it wasn't about her it was about him. The only person who knew about his disorder besides Dr. Fletcher was Eli from work and he had to know for legal reasons.

There was the fear of rejection, of disbelief. He’d read many stories of other people with DID who couldn't have friendships or relationships simply because the other person didn't believe them. ‘Multiple Personality Disorder’? No, you’re simply an attention seeker. He liked Casey (he liked Casey A LOT), but how was he supposed to know if she’d actually be okay with any of this? If she’d believe him? He knew he wouldn't really blame her if she didn't. But he so, so wanted her to. He almost needed this. And that exact need was what was driving him crazy. He’d talked to Barry the night before, and he assured and reminded him that he wasn't telling her everything all at once, that they were explaining things in increments, periods. So as not to overwhelm either one of them. Right? Right. And if at any point he felt she wasn't responding to what he was telling her in a receptive way, he could stop. Right? Right. No harm done. She might walk away with the knowledge that he has a mental disorder, but she doesn't need to know what that is exactly. It could be anything.
Luke had reminded Kevin of the first time he’d come into existence- at the gym.

‘Remember how you couldn't do hardly nothin’? And I showed you which weights to start with and how to hold ‘em and such? I was slow and I took my time, right?’

‘Yeah, I remember.’

‘Tha’s all you have to do with this chick, huh? Jus’ let her know the basic stuff, the nitty gritty details you can reveal later- for now, stick with tha’ basics, huh?’

Kevin kept those words in mind while he sits down at a table near the front (a strange feeling of deja vu occurs but he shrugs it off, it happens often enough he’s usually able to ignore it), and sipps the latte. Just the basics. No need to give out the nitty gritty. Right.

Casey is beautiful, he thinks, when he sees her. She’s not dressed too differently than she normally is at work, sans the dark green hoodies and khakis. Lots of layers on top, and some thin looking leggings… not that he’s looking down there.

“Hey, sorry I’m late.” She stands a few inches shorter than him, and her posture is always one of frailty- like she wants to be unseen. Yet, her eyes dart around them, always aware of her surroundings.

“No, it’s all good. You walk here?” It’s a little strange, he has to admit to himself, the act of hanging out somewhere that’s not the breakroom at work or the admin building.

“Nah, I parked a block down from here.”

She orders a coffee and when it’s ready they change the original seating position to one of a booth towards the back. Since Kevin’s never been here he lets her lead the way. It’s sort of dark and moody, he thinks. The kind of place Barry would frequent and by his way of getting here he knows he probably does. There’s a few ammature paintings on the wall that are for sale but by the amount of dust collected on them, he doubts anyone has made any offers since their appearance.

“I like it here, it’s cozy.” He says, still taking in the art and sort of dilapidated architecture. If he didn't know better, he would say she gave him a rather odd look, but she only nods in agreement.

“Yeah, it’s nice. I come here to read sometimes.”

“Hmm, read anything good lately?”

“Actually,” She turns to pull something out of her bag, and reveals a small hardcover book which she slides across the table towards him.

“Just finished it.”

He inspects the white and blue printed cover,

“‘Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio’, wow, really going for the fun stuff, huh?”
They share a laugh before she shakes her head,

“It was actually pretty interesting, and yeah, it was sad at a lot of points but… hopeful. And good.”

He takes note of that and briefly reads the synopsis on the back.

“W-What made you want to read it?”

“To be honest? I was having kind of an off day, I don't remember why I picked it, I just did. But I’m glad I did, it made me… grateful for modern medicine and stuff now. And I felt like I could relate to the idea of being helpless to a situation that you just kind of have to… ride out.”

“That makes sense. I mean, I can kind of relate to that, too.”

She shifts in her seat at that, leans forwards a bit.

“You can?”
Her voice is softer then, like she’s telling a secret.

“Definitely, I can… Actually, Casey, there’s somethin’ I wanted to talk to you about, if that’s okay?”

Besides her eyebrows rising a bit, she doesn't seem put off by this.

“What is it?”

Kevin can't help the shuddering breath that rakes through him, his heart rate noticeably quickens. He wasn't planning on bringing it up this early into their conversation, but no time like the present, right? The thought doesn't bring him much comfort.

“W-well, I guess… W-we’re f-f-friends, right?”

“I thought so- I mean, I like hanging out with you. At work. And talking to you. You’re like, the easiest person to talk to.”

At her own revelation, she looks abashed, staring at him through her eyelashes. Something in his chest loosens, and he manages a smile.

“You too, which is w-why I feel like it’s only fair if you… know some stuff about me. I’m sure you’ve probably seen me zone out sometimes or act weird.”

She doesn't allude truth to any of this but is silent, encouraging him to go on.

“I… Sorry, I haven't really told a lot of people about this, and I’m trying to say it in a… understandable way.”

‘You’re doing great, Kev. No need to get overwhelmed.’ Barry’s soft voice somehow gives Kevin some of the courage he needs. Casey is still looking at him patiently, like he can take all the time in the world and it wouldn't bother her.

“W-what I’m trying to tell you is that I have a mental disorder. God, I hate the w-way that sounds. I promise, I’m not like, psychopath crazy or anything. I can hold a job and drive and do all the normal stuff, but, uh, sometimes… Sometimes I just kinda ‘leave’, if that makes sense.”

Casey seems to be understanding what he’s saying, empathizing with it even, but she’s still quiet, willing him to keep talking.

“So, uh, when I was younger, my mom, she wasn’t… right up here,” He taps his temple, smiling briefly and sadly like he’s sure how she'll react to that. She doesn't besides nodding.

“When my dad left, it was just me ‘n her, and she wasn't exactly fit to be a mother, so, I went through a lot. I mean, I actually don't remember a lot of it, but from what I can, I know she w-wasn't very nice. And that affected me, pretty deeply. It changed how my brain works.”

Casey looks away suddenly, and seems to withdraw for a moment- Kevin tries to stop the small amount of panic building up inside before she licks her lips and starts talking,

“Um, my mom died when I was born so I don’t remember her at all. But, my dad, he was around until I was about 5. He died of a heart attack, and so I had to go live with my uncle…. He um, he wasn't really… He um… He was a lot like your mother, it sounds like. I mean, he’s still alive, I still live with him… Sorry, I’m rambling, I’m just trying to say that I understand. Like, I went through some similar stuff.”

When she finally looks up at him her expression is almost blank except for the small amount of tears in her eyes which she quickly wipes away. Kevin is relieved and then guilted by the relief and surprised but not really all at once.

“I don't mean to be disrespectful or anything, but I uh, I kinda thought maybe that was the case. W-what I mean is, you probably understand it when I say the brain does funny things to uh, cope with a-a-a-...” He has to stop himself, will his mouth to close and take a deep breath, “Abuse.”

She’s tentatively reaching across the table then, and taking his hand in hers- it’s warm and soft. Her face is gentle, he’s always thought that about her from the first time they met. Her eyes are big and enveloping, if not a little wide set. She’s beautiful in a unique way where her features are highlighted by whatever emotion she displays. And she’s good at hiding them, he finds, so when they are obvious, she glows.

They decide to take a walk- it was getting too stuffy in the small cafe and they were both content to walk around a park nearby that was for the most part empty.

“Do you wanna know something weird?” Casey asks,

“Of course I wanna know something weird.” He smiles.

“You know ‘The Andy Griffith Show’?”

“Yeah, I mean, I can't recall watching it all that much, but yeah.”

“Well, when I was little, my uncle used to drink a lot and he’d pass out or whatever, so when it was late I’d sneak into the living room and watch tv. I’d watch that show a lot of the time, and I used to pretend he was my dad- Andy Griffith. Like, my uncle was so shitty I had to resort to a fictional character from a tv show that’s been over for like, what? 50 years? Just to get a sense of paternal guidance… Ridiculous, huh?”

Kevin doesn't think it’s ridiculous, he does think her uncle is shitty though.

“I used to pretend I had a brother growing up.” It’s not a lie, he tells himself. From what he can remember of Hedwig, they used to play a lot. He really did think he was just pretend at the time.

“What was he like?”

“He was… silly. He always wanted to play hide and seek, or tag- games where I would hide and he could come find me, I guess.”

They walk a while longer, talking about everything and nothing and just enjoying the fading afternoon. Together.
When they decide to head back towards the cafe, Casey gets a phone call. She is upset by whoever is calling but answers anyway, and excuses herself a few feet away. Kevin tries not eavesdrop, but he can hear fragments of a distressed conversation.

“... told you I was going out… I’ll be… soon… no… Emily from work… Fine.”

She looks angry by the time she’s turned around and walking back towards him.

“You okay?”

She shrugs, “Yeah, just my uncle.”

“Do you need to be heading back now?”

“Kind of. Walk me to my car?”

She drives a small civic that looks pretty beat up, but Kevin knows his own Subaru isn't much better (Barry says it’s a “lesbian” car, whatever that means).

“Trust me, I know it’s a piece of crap.” She struggles to unlock with the key while shaking her head, “piece of shit car..”

“Hey, I don't judge. Apparently I drive a lesbian car, so I’m no better.”

She gives him a funny look before a realized one replaces it.

“Subaru Outback?”

Kevin has no idea how to reply,
“How’d you..? Never mind, I don't even wanna know.”

She laughs and finally opens the car door, the mutual agreement that she has to leave clear now. He really doesn't want her to, he feels that he still has so much to tell her. He does have so much to tell her still. And… he wants to. She hadn't treated him like he was a freak, in fact, she opened up and showed her own scars as well.

“Hey Kevin?” She gently stirs him from his thoughts,

“Yeah?”

“I had a really nice time.”

“Me too.”

“Maybe next time, you can tell me a little more about… how you cope?”

She must be a mind reader, he thinks. The best kind.

“Yeah, I think I will.”

She seems to pause, hesitate, and then reach up to plant a small kiss near the corner of his mouth.
His hand flies up to the spot, and she smiles before getting her car, and driving away.

‘Well, that went better than expected!’

Kevin isn't even annoyed that Barry was watching.

Chapter Text

Kevin is 12 years older than Casey Cooke.

Dennis is… concerned.

Of course, Barry doesn't see this as a problem, the only time Dennis brought it up, he shook his head and swatted the air, ‘Age is just a number, Dennis. They’re both adults, so what’s the issue?’

But it’s not just a number, and Barry knows that. Dennis knows he knows that- and he can only figure that he’s setting aside any of his own concerns in favor of the idea that Kevin needs a social life. Even if it happens to be a few years over half Kevin’s age.
It would be easier to simply concede with Barry, and give in to the situation. But Dennis didn't concede- ever. To ignore it would be irresponsible. It was a problem, and he would see to it that it got addressed. Even if it took time.

Jade interjected that the only reason Dennis cared was because he was a ‘perv’. Although it shocked him at first, he was easily able to ignore her and even Barry told her to go away. It’s easy to ignore Jade when she says things like that. She doesn't know what she’s talking about half the time, anyway and he’s learned it’s not worth it to hold it against her.
Barry however, Barry was older and more experienced. He knew better, he was just being stubborn.

It wasn't as if Dennis didn't want Kevin to have a social life, he just knew he deserved better. He deserved a chance to be with people his own age- he should not have to become friends with the first person who happens to give him the time of day. He was more than that.

Although he’d only actually talked to her once (did it count as talking if you only say three sentences?), Dennis had to wonder at what Kevin and the others saw in her. Then again, he had only actually talked to her… once… He wasn't dense, he could see she was… attractive. Pretty, in a unique way. Her hair was dark and sweeping like walnut or mahogany, rich and full. Her eyes had been full, too. A different shade of brown, but no less alluring. Her skin had been pale and rosy. Soft looking… He wondered if she would flinch away at his touch or lean into it? Did she smell like something flowery?

She’s young. Too young, a rabbit hole he cannot afford to even look down. No. He’s better. He’s fine.
He wonders at what exactly she wants from Kevin? She may look innocent, but Dennis knows that’s rarely the case. People aren't that simple.

They need to be more careful. He needs to be more in control.

He IS in control. He’ll get this situation under control.

Dennis scrubs a little harder at the stove top at these pattern of thoughts. He pours more cleaner on the stove top and cleans it off once. Twice. Three times. He then gets a razor blade (which he keeps hidden from everyone, especially Hedwig) and goes between the surface of the stovetop and countertop and removes all the little bits of dirt and crumbs that have fallen there. After which he doesn't sweep into his hand then into the trash can (no, that would be unsanitary and risk even more crumbs falling on the floor) but gets out the portable vacuum and removes them that way. THEN he dumps the remains into the trash can. After, he cleans out the vacuum.

Just like he does every Friday night at 5:30 - 7:00, which is his scheduled time in the light (outside of work). His cleaning time. He knows Jade is annoyed by this because she says that’s when ‘The Bachelor’ is on- he still records it for her but she complains it’s ‘not the same as watching it live’.

***

 

She had said ‘next time’.

Barry was replaying the moment over and over again in his head. He actually couldn't help it- this was too exciting!

He had secretly been worried about how the date would go- it had been a date… right? Actually, he wasn't sure, when he really thought about it. Where Kevin’s feelings of platonic interest had started and ones of romantic obsession began he actually couldn't tell. He never asked or pressed Kevin about this, though, careful not to overwhelm him.

Casey herself was a bit of a puzzle to Barry- shy and demure (not unlike Kevin in those ways) but she had potential for growth and stability in her life. That much Barry could see. What exactly that potential growth would accumulate into was, again, a bit of a mystery. But not one that Barry shied away from (Barry never shied away from anything).

He was going to understand Casey Cooke.

 

***

It wasn’t often Barry or Luke talked to Kevin when he was busy with his rounds at work. And when they did, they always asked him if it was okay. Patricia… she never talked to Kevin at work. Ever. To be truthful, she hardly talked to him at all. Yet, here she was in his ear, slight whisper he was sure he could actually feel. Cool breath.

‘And how are we, Kevin dear?’

It would have been shocking if her voice wasn't so soft.

‘Fine, Patricia, how are you?’

‘Well, I suppose I’m well enough…’

Kevin was never really sure how to have a normal conversation with Patricia. That’s probably because they never had normal conversations. She was never there to just ‘chat’. She always wanted some information from Kevin or to remind him of certain things. Well, that wasn’t completely true. When he was younger Patricia used to tell him stories about Knights in shining armour slaying great Dragons or benevolent Kings on important journeys and Wizards who prophesized important events, that sort of thing. But sometimes, when he was just falling asleep she would tell him horrible, horrible things. About what would happen if he disobeyed mother, or how upset everyone would be at him if he wasn't a good boy. She was never specific in which actions might incite such atrocities, but she did go into much detail about what would happen to him if he did.
Once, he’d asked her to stop telling such frightful things to him, because they gave him terrible nightmares. She only replied that she didn't know what he was talking about. She only told him good stories.

‘Well, that’s good-’

‘I would be better, but… I’m concerned for you, Kevin.’

‘W-what about?’

That was another thing, Patricia was always worried about something. It was almost always oddly specific trivial things, like, she was worried about how he sometimes forgets to lock his car doors as soon as he gets in and out of it. Or how he sometimes listens to music while walking to Dr. Fletchers, and how anyone could mug him or attack him from behind (she seems less inclined to point out music or no music this could still happen, but he understood what she meant). He tried telling her that it was highly unlikely that anyone would try that- he wasn’t a huge guy but he liked to think working out had helped his physique well enough. Patricia, however, was still very very upset about all this and wouldn't seem to stop worrying until Kevin promised her he wouldn't listen to music while out in public anymore.
Still, the woman unnerved him and anytime she talked with him was a reason to feel a little nervous.

‘I’m just concerned about this new friendship you have with, what’s her name, Callie?’

‘Casey…’

‘Right, Casey, the girl- and I suppose that’s the whole point, dear. She’s… much, much younger than you… It’s, I’m afraid to say, rather inappropriate. Don’t you agree?’

‘W-well, we’re just friends, I don’t really-’

‘Oh don’t pretend to be so naive, my little dove. You don’t really expect people to believe your motives are purely platonic, do you?’

Kevin isn’t really sure what to say to this- he’s not… stupid. He knows Casey is younger than him, but… It’s not like he really feels that much older than her. Yeah sure, there are some things that have sort of solidified their age gap like her music tastes compared to his but, what did he know about music? He NEVER planned on doing or being anything with her that she didn't want to be… And didn’t she kiss him last week? And not even on the mouth- it was a friendly kiss (there was such a thing as a friendly kiss… right?)! Didn’t that happen? Right? He knows this so why can't he stop the panic building in his stomach? That familiar cauldron of anxiety and anger bubbling up into his chest?

‘Look, Patricia-’

‘Just something to consider, my dear…’

Then, she was gone.

….

Kevin was gonna have to speak with Barry.

 

***

 

Casey hates John’s living room. The windows were always closed and the shades drawn- in fact, Casey isn't sure she’s actually seen the living room in natural light since they’d first moved in and that was… six years ago? She actually can’t remember. It had been small but clean and she thought she could imagine herself sprawled out on the carpet drawing or doing homework whenever John was at work.

Yeah. That never happened.

The couch is ugly and plain. There are many stains across the tacky cream colored leather. It’s worn in, too, so some spots are balding or completely bare where you can see the little bits of styrofoam underneath.
The loveseat isn't much better, and it doesn't match the couch. It’s a dark blue suede that also has many stains. The small coffee table has a crack on the side and a few of John’s beer cans are always present like trophies to signify that yes, he did indeed get drunk every night this week, thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
Not for the first time, looking upon the sight makes Casey want to light it all on fire.

“Casey! Casey!”

She realizes she’d just been staring in the living room in contempt since she got home a few minutes ago, and now John was calling her into the kitchen. She sighs and sets her bag down by the ugly furnishing and makes the short trek from the living room into the kitchen (past the kitchen is the hallway where Casey’s room, the bathroom and John’s room reside).
He’s leaning against the counter and texting someone on his phone.

“What’s up.”

“I’m leaving in about half an hour. I’ll leave you a fifty for food but then you’re on your own. Don’t spend it on dumb shit.”

“Okay.”

“I won't be back till Monday night and there’s hardly any cell service up there, thank god, so if it’s a real emergency call 911.”

Casey was again met the fact that John still saw her as 12 years old. She wasn’t an adult in his eyes, and he liked it that way.

“Okay.”

“What just ‘okay’ not ‘thank you Uncle John for giving me money and making sure I’m taken care of while you’re away’?”

His tone of lightheartedness could not disguise the fact that Casey knew he actually wanted to hear her say the words. What he would do if she didn't say them. It was a test. Casey chewed on her lip a moment, his incredulous look only growing- a staring contest ensued.

“Hmm?”

The temptation to flip him off was strong, but she knew nothing gratifying would come of that. She didn't have any pride to swallow, so the words come easy enough,
“Thank you Uncle John for-”

He was walking out of the kitchen by that time, and he smacks the side of her head as he leaves.

“Is it so hard to get some fucking respect around here?”

By the time John is greeting his hunting buddy Mike at the door, Casey is anxious for him to leave. They chat a while and John actually slips up and asks Mike if he’d like a ‘road beer’. Mike was a parole officer for 15 years and Casey has a deep satisfaction watching John guffaw and chuckle his way through an explanation (‘Heh, not for the drive of course, but for when we get there… when we’re settled in- God I have a kid to raise, you think I drink around her?’). The beer cans on the coffee table and sprawled throughout the kitchen spoke for themselves and so far it has been the highlight of Casey’s evening.

“Alright, well it’s already almost 5, we should get a move on if we wanna beat traffic.”

“Right, hey, Casey it was good seeing you. Glad to hear about your new job.”

Casey smiles at Mike, the joy of seeing him skeptical towards John erases all indifference she might've had.
“Thanks, it was good to see you, too.” She means it.

Instant relief washes over Casey when the door closes and she can practically feel the space around her grow lighter. John’s presence is a heavy one that impedes and blocks. A tense presence like his is only good for conducting anger and impatience.

Casey wonders about the next three days- three perfect, John free days. What more could she ask for? Her phone buzzes on the counter, distracting any plans.

 

K. Crumb (4:59) : Hey are you busy tonight?

It seemed to Casey that this might be the best friday night of her adulthood thus far.

Me (4:59) : hey no i'm not. actually, i have the apartment to myself tonight. would u wanna come over?

In retrospect, Casey had to ask herself why she invited him over when she had just been loathing the state of the living room and in fact the whole apartment all together- so, why, oh why, did she invite the only friend (?) she’s had over? Before she had anytime to delete the text or consider these things, her phone buzzed once more.

K. Crumb (5:00) : Yeah that sounds great- Is it alright if I bring pizza?

“What?” Casey had to re-read the short text a few times… Is that something that people did? Do they bring over pizza? She rolled her eyes at herself,

“Yes, dumbass, people bring over pizza… what kind of…”

She typed out a response,

Me (5:01) : yeah that’s great! thanks!

K. Crumb (5:02) : Cool- any requests?

K. Crumb (5:02): Oh and your address?

 

Casey felt strange- she shouldn’t feel this weirdly excited over Kevin coming over- should she? She guessed this was… what people did. They hung out. And ate pizza apparently.

Me (5:03) : i'm not picky, whatever you want.

Me (5:03) : Location Sent

It all felt so juvenile and yet adult and unfamiliar. She never had people over… Casey began the only way she knew how to and started to clean the apartment once Kevin texted her saying he’d be over in about 20 minutes. It was a flurry of trashbags, paper towels and various (mostly untouched) cleaners while also throwing different blankets over the ugly parts of the couch and loveseat.
Casey turned on the tv and then turned it off, dispersed and lit 5 tea light candles that she’d found in the bathroom, and then blew out two of them, still contemplating behind her own meaning of the candles, if they even had one and if it was weird she had them out at all. Finally she settled for the 3 candles and an old CD that had belonged to her father. She spent a good 6 minutes in the bathroom contemplating her hair before once again rolling her eyes at herself and leaving it the way it was.
While she did these things, Casey couldn't help but feel part of the nervousness came from their last conversation- she didn't want to admit it to herself but the prospect of having Kevin over after he’d admitted to her that he had a mental disorder (what exactly that was, she was still unclear) felt a little… scary.

Should she feel scared? Things had been normal at work, they’d talked and joked or just ate in silence like usual and she hadn’t really felt scared then? Knowing it was probably the aspect of having him in a confined space alone helped her rationalize the situation. She knew Kevin pretty well at this point and only twice had she ever felt… unsure about him. And that was all. Unsure.
Tonight was probably the best time to ask about the cafe incident anyway, and for all she knew he’d have a perfectly rational explanation.

She’d never felt blatantly unsafe around Kevin and she was good about… knowing that kind of stuff (she had kissed him on the cheek). He was like her, he’d never hurt her…. Right?
A small part of her asked if she was only letting all this happen because she was so pathetically lonely… Was she really willing to risk her safety because some guy from work was being nice to her? She’d went around this block of thoughts many, many times over the past week… No conclusion had ever made itself apparent because there just wasn't that much evidence to suggest either way…

There was a knock and Casey didn’t have time to do a once over of the place before she undid the locks and opened the door.

“Hi.”

“Hey, come in.”

He looked nice, outside of work clothes again. He wore a grayish blue jacket and a plain white t-shirt underneath a plaid button up and dark jeans. Average. Comfortable. He carried a box of pizza and Casey tried to direct him to the kitchen before he could even peak into the living room.

“I got pepperoni, I hope that’s okay.”

She smiled and took the box from him and set it on the counter.

“Oh yeah, that’s great.”

“Your apartment,” He paused, and Casey felt her motions slow while she grabbed two paper plates from the pantry,

“It smells like ours.”

Casey laughed, oddy relieved,

“‘Ours’? I didn't know you had roommates.”

It was his turn to look shocked and shook his head while he took a seat at the counter.

“Sorry, I don't know w-why I said that, I meant mine.”

She still looks at him funny, and shrugs,

“Well, how does it smell?”

He looks thoughtful,

“Like cleaner.”

Casey laughs.

***

Most of the pizza is gone, and Casey wonders if it would have been ruder to finish what she had or to leave more for Kevin to take home with him. As comfortable as she’s grown around Kevin she still has little anxieties like that. He doesn't seem to have one preference or another because he had more than her.
They talked about work for a while before Casey feels that they are running out of things to talk about… She can sense they both know what the other wants to say.

“I like this music, what is it?”

He’s stalling.

“It’s a CD that belonged to my dad- he used to play it for me in the car. It’s uh, Eva Cassidy.”

But so is she.

“Hmm. This song is sad, kinda. But I like it.”

“Me too, it’s my favorite off the album… But I kinda hate it, too. It reminds me of my dad a lot.”
“Too much?”

“Yeah.”

“I get that.”

….

“So… I’m guessing you wanna know a little more about my um, my mental disorder?”

Casey nods- she has to swallow the strange lump in her throat.

“Yeah, if you want to talk about it.”

He toys with the edge of the paper plate nervously. The last time they’d hung out and he told her about it, he’d visibly shrunk in his seat. His voice had gotten deeper, too. More quiet. He seems less anxious than he had last time, but still a little.

“S-so uh… Basically, there are times when I kinda… leave. Like, I’ll get really nervous or confused or…” He’s struggling to find the right words, and Casey is hanging onto every one that he’s said so far.

“What do you mean, ‘leave’? Like, you black out?”

“Kinda… You know bi polar disorder?”

Casey can feel her eyebrows raise of their own volition at this and immediately corrects it.

“Yeah, I know it.”

“Well… What I have… at first, when I was younger, like maybe 16? That’s what everyone thought I had. But, with bi polar disorder, you don't just black out. You have really good days and really bad days. But sometimes I had no days at all. Sometimes weeks.”

“That sounds… scary.”

“I-it was.”

“So… what were you doing when you were blacked out?”

Kevin licks his lips and struggles a bit, he knows what he wants to say, that much is clear, he just doesn't know how to say it.

“I… Remember when I said the brain does funny things to cope when you’ve gone through something… tough?”

“Yeah.”

“Well… Mine did something a little… not normal. I mean, other people have this disorder just, not many. W-when things got hard? My brain kinda… fragmented itself. Dr. Fletcher, my therapist says it’s a protective sort of damage control measure. My conscious, it divided itself.”

“What do you mean, ‘divided’? How does your consciousness divide itself?”

They are both silent while Kevin is clearly trying to formulate some better way of explaining himself. Casey doesn't want to rush or embarrass him, but she knows there’s some clear way to say what he wants, he’s simply choosing not to.

“... I’m sorry, Casey, I haven't ever had to… explain this. To anyone before. The only other people w-who are aware of it know for legal reasons. Like, Eli from work? He had to know because he’s HR. And my therapist, and she’s the first one who diagnosed me… So, I just… I don't know exactly how to say this.”

This bit of information gives Casey pride and a distinct feeling of embarrassment. For herself or him she isn't sure.

“I-it’s okay… Look, Kevin, I can tell you wanna just tell me whatever it is, and you can. Just tell me.”

He blows through his mouth and rubs his palms against his jeans, Casey has leaned forwards against the countertop, seeking his confession.

“Okay… I have. DID.”

This reveals nothing to her, and Kevin must see that by the lack of reaction on her face.

“Right, you don't… Okay, most people know it as M-m-multiple Personality Disorder.”

Casey feels… nothing. At first. She just… her brain can’t exactly process what he’s said. She really isn't sure how she’s supposed to feel? Scared? Disgusted? Confused? She does feel that last one but… What? What is she supposed to feel?

“Um… What?”

“It’s actually called Dissociative Identity Disorder…”

“O-okay.”

The feelings start to catch up. Shock. Disbelief, and yes, Fear. Was she right earlier? Was this unsafe? Should she tell him to leave? No… He looks so sad, sitting there. So afraid. About afraid as she feels… But is he? Is this a trick? Some sort of… coup? To get her to do… What?

“Shit, I’m sorry, Casey… Do you want me to go? I can go.”

For all the fear and confusion filling her chest she decides she doesn't want that. No. She doesn't want him to leave. She wants answers.

“No, don't go.”

He still looks unsure, but stays seated at the counter. His hands are folded together.

“Okay.”

Casey finally looks at Kevin. He has a strong nose, she thinks. Baby blue eyes that hold just a little too much sadness in them- wells of a universe too old and scarred. His hair is longer than she’s ever seen it in the three short months she’s known him but still close to being shaved entirely. She wonders if he’s growing it out. He’s earnest and kind, and something about him has always told Casey that despite the mystery around him, she can trust. Trust that he’s not a monster or someone of ill intent. She’d know, she’s seen monsters her whole life. Can recall the scent and feel of those monsters and their hot breath on her skin. She knows. Kevin is not that.
She’s still wary and confused, but pushes through and with those things in mind.

“I guess. I guess I probably don’t have a very good idea about what that means entirely… Can you explain it more?”

The relief that coats him is undeniable and makes Casey feel a bit guilty.

He begins by telling her what the different personalities are or ‘alters’ as he calls them. That they are all created for a purpose because it’s hard for Kevin to handle certain aspects of reality. His brain found it necessary if he was to survive the abuse his mother inflicted on him as a child, though he sort of rushes past that part. Casey asks how many alters there are- 23, but that can change and they’re not all strictly personalities. Some are just emotions or memories. Others are fully developed people with different ages (or no age at all) and even different genders (or again, some don't have a gender), but have likes and dislikes and psyches as complex as Kevin’s. Casey doesn't think that’s a good comparison because, well, obviously. But she doesn't say that to him.
She asks if he can talk to them and what they talk about, he explains he can only (at this time) speak with three of them- Barry, Luke and Patricia (the last name shocks her a bit- again, there are women living in Kevin’s body?). He says he mostly just talks to Barry, who handles the day to day and organizational aspects of the personalities- who gets the light (Kevin’s consciousness) at what time and for how long and what they get it for, if they are strictly task oriented alters.
They go on like this for an hour or so, Casey asking questions about it, calmly and respectfully. Kevin answering, slowly and deliberately. Sometimes, he doesn't have answers to her questions and if he does they’re short and sort of open ended.

“What’s Barry like?”

“Um, he’s kind. He’s… thoughtful. Creative. Very… flamboyant is a good way to describe him. Extroverted and social, god, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out just… getting the mail or walking around at work and someone comes up to me asking how I am and talking to me like they know me and I know it’s ‘cause they know Barry but it always throws me off. Like, I’ve gotten better at hiding the fact I’m not him but it’s still kind of… annoying.”

The word ‘flamboyant’ sticks in Casey’s mind and she pauses. Her mind takes her back to that day in the cafe… Could that have been…?

“Wait… I actually… I think I may have seen you like that I mean- Barry, before. Like out. It was the weekend before last, I… god I was SO confused…”

Though he looks a little concerned, Casey can see slight humor in his expression.

“Oh really?”

“Yeah… That’s why I was weirded out when… Oh god… Oh… Okay.”

It was all making sense finally… The time at the cafe- of course that hadn’t been him! Kevin doesn't dress like that, and (she thinks) he’s not attracted to men… Is Barry even attracted to men? Had that been Barry? She had no idea when she really thought about it.

“I saw you at the cafe and… Of course… Is Barry… Gay?”

Kevin frowns and then looks like he’s trying to recall,

“I’m… I actually don't know. I mean, I know he’s had boyfriends and girlfriends before so I guess he's bi? I don't really know, to be honest, we never talk about that stuff.”

“Does that mean that you’re bi?”

“No. I mean, I don't think I’ve ever been attracted to men.”

Casey takes pause at all of this… it’s a lot.

“Do… do you have relationships- or, do the alters have relationships that you’re not a part of ever?”

Kevin doesn't seem uncomfortable but he doesn't seem at ease either.

“Um… I don't think so? At least, not for a long time. Jade and Barry used to. But, not for a while… Not since… Not since I met you, actually.”

Ah, there it is. The smaller, less obvious elephant in the room.

“Oh…”

“That’s not because- because I expect us to be in a relationship or anything. It might just be a coincidence. I don't know. Sorry, I think that came out wrong.”

Casey is quick to shake her head,

“No, it’s okay. I mean… I don't ‘expect’ anything of you or us or this… friendship. I mean. I don't know.”

This was getting weird fast. Casey shifts from her position against the counter- she’s been standing for a long time. She looks at the clock on the microwave- 7:30. It had felt much longer.

“Do you want some tea?”

“Sure.”

Casey turns to put on the hardly used kettle, somehow though there are stains and dents in it. She isn’t exactly surprised, but annoyed still. How many things in her life end up that way, and yet hardly touched? Broken?

She’s hardly known Kevin at all and yet here he is before her. Broken, too. Is that all she deserves? Brokenness? She knows it’s dramatic, but this is a dramatic situation… God, she thinks, she was probably never meant to have anything normal.

“... Look, Casey, I get it. Okay? I’m… I get if you just don't understand. Or believe me. I know how it sounds. Just, please don't tell anyone at work? It’s pretty embarrassing to be that guy with the fake sounding mental disorder.”

Casey is surprised at his tired tone, his begging, almost.

Does she believe him? She’s not sure… she doesn't not believe him…

“You must have a pretty low opinion of me to believe I’d go tell people at work about this.”

They meet gazes and it’s quiet, then. Just them and the stillness of the evening around them. The sounds of cars and the city and there only as a background noise. It’s… soothing. Casey wonders why she didn’t end up like Kevin… fractured. Would it have been better? Someone else taking over for you- enduring what you shouldn’t have had to endure in the first place? Or is the confusion, the lost time just not worth it? The mistaken identity and mixups? She’ll have to ask him sometime.
She’s a mixture of curiosity and ashamed doubt. It’s a nasty feeling- she doesn't like feeling like she isn't sure about him. She definitely wants to believe him.

“I might need some… time. To process all of this. I don't want to stop being friends. Or hanging out. I like you, Kevin.”

He smiles sheepishly,

“I like you, too Casey. And I understand.”

The kettle is whistling for her attention and she takes it off the burner. While pouring the hot water into two cups and selecting the only tea John has (green tea, she hopes Kevin isn't caffeine sensitive), Casey turns to see Kevin seemingly in deep thought. His eyes look focused but vacant. She cautiously sets his mug down on the counter and slides it to him. She just looks at him, concerned. Was he… dissociating? He’d mentioned that’s what happens when another alter takes over…. Was she about to meet an alter? Did she want to? Should she be afraid?

“Kevin?”

He was pulled from his thoughts quickly, blinking a few times.

“Huh? Oh thanks. For the tea.”

She’s still just looking at him… He must’ve just spaced out.

“Were you… Are you okay? You seemed pretty out of it there for a minute.”

He looks surprised and embarrassed.

“Oh, yeah, sorry. Just, Barry. He’s being… well. Barry.”

“What does that mean?”

“Eh, he just… He wants to talk to you, but I told him not now. He can be pretty insistent when he wants, though.”

Casey has a thousand more questions suddenly bursting at the seams of her brain.

“Barry knows about me?”

“Yeah… I mean, I’ve told him about you and he… He’s good at social situations, like I told you. It’s sort of his thing. So, me finding a friend is like the biggest deal in the world for him… God sorry, I know it must all sounds so weird to you. Like, me talking about myself, I know how bizarre it probably sounds.”

She’d be lying to herself if she’d said it wasn't slightly off putting.

“It’s um…”

“No, it’s okay. You don't have to make me feel better or whatever.”

“But… what if I wanted to meet Barry?”

They are equally surprised at her question. She meant to pose it more hypothetical, but it came out quite the opposite. She quickly corrected herself,

“I meant like, if I ever wanted to meet any of the alters, would you be okay with that?”

Kevin sipped the tea, slightly flinching at the heat and the words ‘it’s hot’ ghosted Casey’s lips.

“Well… I mean… If you wanted to. Barry would be okay, but like… I don't know if I’d want you to meet like Jade or Patricia. They can be a bit much.”

“Hmm. Okay.”

Casey wasn’t sure she wanted to meet Jade or Patricia either.

“Hey, it’s getting late,” it wasn't, “I should probably start heading out… Thanks. For being cool about all this, I know it’s a lot.”

Strange disappointment etched at Casey’s mind- he wanted to leave. She should want him to, also, right? Yes, she needed time to think on these things…

“Yeah, thanks for telling me, I know it wasn't easy. Thanks for letting me ask all those questions.”

She walked him to the door and they shared a hug- Casey didn't do hugs but this one was soft and light. If she wanted to leave his grasp she could. He thanked her again and left.

Casey walked back into the kitchen and sighed.

On the counter, Kevin had left the rest of the pizza.

 

***

 

The landscape was barren and chilled. All but the trainyard in the distance was empty. Little bits of dead grass and weeds sprouted from the ground and Patricia walked barefoot across the expanse. It wasn't cold, but it was windy. And deathly quiet.
As the train yard came more and more into view, the ashen sky seemed to turn a rusted orange. Peculiar.

She walked a while between the rocky tracks and the empty train cars, she felt that she was being watched. At this, she did not let fear overtake her but rather let down any defenses she might’ve had. Eventually, she came to rest near a familiar train, her hand grasping the cold metal of stair banister… this was a Holy Place.
Time wasn’t linear or even existed here, so waiting was an eternity and only 3 seconds. The frozen barrier which had prevented Patricia from entering the train car was now gone. Though, she wouldn’t have tried to enter anyway, she knew better.
The train car was silent except for the small mewling of a creature down further. Patricia drifted towards it, careful of her feet touching the little bits of black inky substance that seemed to get thicker the further down the aisle she went. The substance veered right and Patricia paused before taking the final step that would reveal all truths to her.
She was the Priestess, it was clear now. If she’d had any doubts in the past, they were wiped clear away. They did not- Could Not exist in this Sanctuary.

When she took the final step, she gasped. It was beautiful, the Thing. Inky Black and Spewing the substance all over itself. The poor dear, she thought, how it cried hungrily. It’s changing limbs would reach out and then curl in, disappear and then come out again a different shape or length. It was small and spiny, and had no discernible face, or features other than the mouth that continued to spit out the Inky Saliva.

“You will feed, soon, my dear. Your purpose is clear.”

With a shaky hand, she reached out to the Thing in hopes of petting it- the mouth was around her finger before she could take it back, biting. Chewing. She wanted to scream, but dared not. It crunched and gnawed on her flesh before biting it off entirely. Tears of pain and exquisite pride coursed down the Priestess's face. When she finally adducted her hand back, the blood ran down her wrist and seeped into the white sleeve of he shirt, a sign that It was real, He was Real.
He was still chewing her finger thoroughly, hungry but for now, sustained.

Oh, how He would grow.

The future was so possible.

Chapter Text

The weekend had been spent slow and thoughtful. Casey’s head was filled with many things, most all of them circled back to Kevin and everything he had told her.

She wondered on her friendship with Kevin- how it had gotten to this point. When had they decided to be so honest with one another? Why had Kevin decided she “deserved to know”. She didn't deserve to know anything if he didn't want her to.

The honesty of it all was what was confused her- Casey never had to be honest with anyone. It was second nature to lie, to conceal, to deceive. No one had ever had to be honest with Casey, and so she never had to be honest with anyone else. Casey was pretty sure no one wanted her honesty in the first place. She saw how foster kids were treated- the looks of pity and even exhaustion people would give them. She didn't want that.
The few times she’d tried to be honest with people it never ended up how Casey had hoped.
John had ingrained into Casey that if she even thought about telling someone what he did (not that it was actually abuse) she would be in a world of hurt. Nothing like what she’d ever known. And no one would believe her, anyway. Good ol’ Uncle John would never hurt his precious niece- he was too good a man. Uncle John gave canned food to the Salvation Army every Christmas and Thanksgiving, Uncle John came to all the student teacher conferences- he was sorry he couldn't take a more active roll at the Bake Sale and School Dances, it was exhausting being a ‘single dad’ and working 40+ hours a week and all the teachers understood. He was just a big teddy bear! He was a sweet man! There was nothing suspicious about him.
Except maybe that little girl of his… now she was a troublemaker, all right. She was too quiet- she didn't speak up enough during class. She does well in art class, but she really needs to step it up in math and science. Is she reading her history book at home? What about her family tree project, has she started that yet? Casey needs to make friends this year, she really needs to try and find a good group of girlfriends. Why doesn't she? I know she’s a sweet girl, she needs to try and be a little more outgoing…. Does she need to speak to the school counselor? No… She doesn't want that… Well, Casey, you’re going to have to do something. Middle School will be here before you know it. They don't just let that sort of thing slide.

Casey, at this Middle School we don't tolerate the kind of disrespect you’ve displayed towards the teachers, your peers and even yourself. Do you even want to succeed? Are you even listening to me? You’re gonna flunk out if you don't pull it together.
Now Casey, this is the third time we’ve met this semester. Do you want to be expelled? It’s surprising, for a girl whose so outspoken in class you sure don't say a whole lot when it’s time to be disciplined. You don't have anything to say for yourself? I’m out of ideas, Casey, I don't know what you want me to say.
What’s going on… Is there something at home..?

I’ve met your Uncle, Casey, he’s a good man. I pride myself on reading people and I know he’s a good man. You know a lot of kids don't have the family that you have- they get sent straight into foster care. You should consider yourself lucky.

You know I’ve heard she cuts herself… Attention whore. She’s such a freak. She smells. I’m pretty sure she’s gay… That’s why she hangs out in the locker room all the time, she wants to check out all the girls, she’s such a dyke. She yells at the teachers, she’s SUCH an attention whore. I heard her dad died a long time ago and she just uses that as an excuse to be a bitch. She’s SUCH a bitch! She was in our group for English and yeah she wrote her paper or whatever but she had such an attitude about it. God… I swear to god she wears the same clothes everyday. And I’ve MET her uncle, he’s SO nice. What the hell is her problem? I heard she like, ran away or something. I’ve never met anyone so pathetic. Someone should teach her a lesson… Someone should fucking fight her.
Did you hear she and Samantha Beck got in a fight? Bitch didn't do anything at first, she just let her smack her around until she like freaked out and fucking decked her across the jaw… Samantha literally had to get stitches! She’s like, an actual danger… I feel so unsafe around her. She’s gonna snap one day, I swear to god, and I do not want to be around when That happens. They both got detention but I think Casey got it worse… serves her right. Fucking bitch. Finally got what was coming to her. Pathetic.

….

Casey never had any reason to be honest. She never had any reason to believe it was safe to be real with someone and in turn let them be real with her. She was afraid of how comfortable it was. How safe it felt.
So yes, it was frightening. Casey was afraid.

But, she decided, she wasn't afraid of Kevin or his disorder. She was afraid of his already magnetic pull on her. How he seemed to draw out the truth from her like a bad infection. Only, he wasn't really afraid of her wounds because he had the same ones. Did she do that same for him?

God, Middle School, High School… it all seemed so far away now. She wondered if her time away from those places had made her soft. More agreeable. Kinder.

She simultaneously hoped it had and hoped it hadn't. Sometimes, all the memories spent eating in the locker room felt like a bad dream instead of her very real past. The glaring eyes and disgusted remarks, they didn't echo as loud as they used to.
Casey found herself even forgiving the teachers. Not so much her peers or the few adults she had almost confided in, but the tired looking ones who were just trying to make it through the day. She didn't mean to make it harder for them. She’d only wanted to escape. And who was she to deny their rightful anger and disgust towards her when that was all she ever gave to start with? Maybe hindsight had made her soft.

Maybe she was okay with that.

She had a surprising amount of acceptance when she thought about it… She wanted to be soft. To be innocent. She’d never really thought of herself like that.

Casey three years ago would’ve scoffed, said it was a waste of time. Why even consider those things? Why even pretend? You’re none of those things and you’ll never be any of those things so don't pretend. It’s pathetic…

She didn't want to be ignorant. She didn't think she could be ignorant. But she could maybe be kind and the type of person that smiles at strangers on the subway or goes on walks through the park not because she’s avoiding anything at home but simply because it’s a beautiful day, and she wants to be outside. Feel the sun on her skin a little. Not flinch away anytime someone touched her.
She could want those things maybe.

Kevin made her forget that she wasn’t those things already.

And wasn’t it so much easier to just accept him? The same way he’d already accepted her? Didn’t she owe him that much? If this was what friendship meant. If everything in the movies and tv shows had any amount of truth to them, she had a feeling this was it.

“Okay.”

Casey took a deep breath- she had at least two more hours until John got home…

“Okay.”

Casey opened a private browser on her phone and typed into the search bar…. Deleted what she’d typed and started again.

What is D.I.D?

 

***

 

Luke didn’t mind Dennis.

Luke was pretty sure Dennis didn't like Luke, but he was also pretty sure Dennis didn’t ‘like’ things in general. Maybe cleaning… But, Luke suspected that was just something he did and not really something he did because it was fun for him. Luke doesn't think Dennis is capable of having fun.

Luke is tall. But not as tall as Dennis. He has a more athletic body type, where Dennis just looks like someone you don't want to run into at a bar. Tall and broad. Sometimes, Luke wonders if he’ll ever be as tall as Dennis or as broad. He spends most of his time at the gym and a lot of time shopping for protein powders and watches a lot of workout videos on Youtube. Does Dennis do that? Dennis used to have weights, but since they joined the gym Luke is pretty sure he hasn't used them in a long time. Kevin started to complain of intense muscle aches soon after Luke came into existence and they all figured (well, Barry, himself and Jade) that Dennis must’ve also been working out at home. Barry asked Luke to ask Dennis to stop. That was not a fun conversation. He’d crossed his arms and looked down at him like he was an annoyance and Luke didn't like that. He wanted Dennis to like him. He wanted everyone to like him, and why shouldn’t they? He was a nice guy…
Barry explained to him that as much as he was helping Kevin feel confident, he was hurting Dennis’ feelings in the process- Dennis had feelings? That didn't make sense… whatever. He’d stopped using the weights and that was really all that mattered to him.

Besides that one time, Luke didn't really see why Dennis and he couldn't just move past it, converse normally. In Luke’s eyes, it seemed they had a lot in common. They both liked to work out and take care of themselves (or Kevin or whatever) and be healthy. Dennis seemed like a man’s man, so why did he always avoid talking to him? What was his deal? Oh, was he not Man enough for him? Jeez, that guy needed to loosen up…

But Luke didn't mind him. He kept to himself, and if that’s what he wanted then fine. Luke wasn't going to lose any sleep over it. He could always hang out with Orwell, who, although he didn't have a lot in common with, knew a lot about ancient Rome and apparently those guys really knew how to work out n shit. They had whole days dedicated to fighting and battling and being like these really intense warriors or something… That was pretty cool.

Orwell tells him they were called ‘Roman Gladiators’.

Luke thinks he could’ve totally been a Roman Gladiator.

 

***

 

Kevin remembers the only time he was ever alone.

He was very little, it’s his earliest memory… He must have been around three years old, no older.

It was hot out so it must have been summer and he had been sitting in the front yard (when Kevin’s father was still around and it was kept up to an extent). All he can really remember was Kevin’s mother sitting a few feet away in a lawn chair, reading something. And Kevin’s father just walking out of the garage with paint on his hands. He said something to Kevin’s mother, and then the memory fades. He can remember being very, very nervous and afraid (he thinks of his mother) until Kevin’s father came out of the garage.

The nervousness went away when his father was there.

 

***

‘So… Casey. That was an interesting conversation. Huh?’

‘Yep.’

‘You know what I found most interesting?’

‘What?’

‘The part when she said she wanted to meet us.’

‘Okay, she never said she wanted to meet-’

‘Well, she certainly implied she would be willing to… someday.’

‘She certainly did.’

‘You also implied she should meet me…’

‘Right. Can we not talk about this right now?’

‘Okay.’

Kevin waited for Barry to leave the light while he sat in his living room- shrouded in darkness except for the blue tv light that painted the sparse furniture a neon cobalt. He could still feel Barry at the edge of the light and and decided he probably wouldn't leave unless he asked him to and Kevin really didn't feel like exerting the energy required to do so.
He was almost surprised that Barry hadn't asked about Casey earlier, but sometimes Barry surprised him.

Then again, he had been the one to suggest he leave when he did while he was at Casey’s. He wondered if she regretted being friends with him, doubts of her mild acceptance still tugged at his heart, but Barry constantly reassured him that she was a nice girl, that she hadn't been lying or anything like that. Kevin was comforted by these things to an extent, but had only really been able to cease being anxious when she texted him this afternoon. Right as his shift ended, he’d found a text from her with a link to a YouTube video with one sentence: ‘is this accurate?’

The video was about DID and although the video seemed to present the mental disorder like it was some kind of explanation for all things mystical, it was for the most part factual and Kevin told her so. They’d been texting for the better part of the day about DID until he sort of shifted the conversation and asked her how she felt about all of it. She basically said she believed him and she wasn't scared or freaked out. She’d been a little unsure at first, but that went away pretty quickly. She still wanted to be friends and hang out… He was calmed by this.

Walking into the breakroom on Tuesday, he was a little nervous. However his heart rate spiked when he saw Casey sitting at his table instead of the one across from his. He didn't say anything about this, though, and just sat down where he usually did. It was strange. And nice. And so, so surprising and it felt like that was her way of saying ‘It’s okay, I still like you. I still want to be friends.’
If she was nervous about this she didn't show it.

“Are any of the alters animals?”

“Animals? No, not that I’m aware of.”

He laughed a bit at this and although her cheeks tinted to a pinkish color she didn't falter in her line of questioning.

“No, no, really some people say their alters are animals or even inanimate objects.”

“Like a lamp?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

He just looked at her and that’s when she finally broke, and they laughed a good while before she lightly pushed at his chair with her foot,

“Don't laugh, it’s true!”

He pointed at her incredulously,

“You’re laughing, too!”

“Whatever, I just think it’s funny that for someone with this rare disorder you don't seem to know like, anything about it.” She was still laughing and he couldn't help but laugh at her explanation.

“Hey, I can't help it, okay. I am way too busy trying to make sense of anything up here to go see how other people deal with it.” He tapped the side of his head and Casey just shrugged,

“Whatever, dude, it’s your loss. There are some really interesting videos out there.”

“I’m sure there are.”

He watched her with gentle eyes and they ate in silence for a few more minutes until he broke it,

“So, you’re really not doing anything for Thanksgiving?”

Casey shrugged,

“I’ll probably just pretend I’m sick or something so I don't have to go with my Uncle to his friends house- they always get really drunk and watch football. Very boring stuff.”

Kevin notices the hint of malice that makes it's way into her voice and expression whenever she talks about her uncle, which isn't often. He noted the many pictures of a big burly man who he could only assume was her uncle in front of many a dead animal, when he had been at her apartment. He looked like a cheery sort of guy, big smile, big beard, big everything. He seemed boisterous, loud. Things that Casey was not- it was no wonder (besides the obvious fact that Kevin knew he had been, and possibly still was, abusive towards her) she didn't like him.

“Well, if you can get out of that, let me know. Maybe we could do something?”

The words were his, but not all his. He could feel Barry towards the edge of the light and internally rolled his eyes.

‘Really, Barry?’

‘Whaaat? It’s not like we have anything better to do… no offense.’

“Really? Oh my god, Kevin, that would be amazing.”

“O-okay, j-just let me know.”

“I will.”

***

There was something almost disturbing about walking down the empty streets of the city this early in the afternoon. Casey knew almost everyone was at home with their families, but the lack of traffic and of other people around while she made her way to the cafe surprised her.
It made her realize that despite how she didn't necessarily like talking to other people or socializing, she appreciated the shroud they provided on normally busy streets. It normally distracted from the fact that she was alone.

John had in fact went over to his friends house, unusually concerned about her when she told him she wasn't feeling well. He offered to go get some medicine from the nearest pharmacy but she was able to excuse this away with ‘food poisoning’. He was slipping, she noticed. He had become more and more trusting of her than usual and she couldn't help but feel more paranoid because of it. However, she was thankful in this case, as it provided her with an escape as she and Kevin had agreed to meet at the same cafe they’d met at before. She had to check online twice to make sure it was open and finally called just to confirm- the owners were a Korean couple who didn't celebrate thanksgiving and kept it open during the holiday.
Casey wondered what they would talk about and wondered if she looked okay (not that she was really wearing anything different than usual) and other things as she approached the cafe. She was standing at a crosswalk just adjacent to small building when she saw Kevin (?) standing outside of it. He was slouching against the wall and had his arms crossed- a worried expression on his face. Casey was suddenly hesitant to approach… Something wasn't right.
But then, he turned and he saw her- he waved. It wasn't a short wave, either, it was prolonged and just a little too…. Excited.

Casey waved back and crossed the street and started to get nervous as she approached. He stood a little taller then and his feet were crossed like fourth position in ballet. This was Not Kevin.

“Hiiii.” the man who was Not Kevin gave her a light squeeze, a hint of something high in his voice. Lighter.

“Hi… Kevin?”

The Not Kevin man shrugged a bit and made a teeth baring grimace before licking his lips and speaking,

“Um, right, about that… Kevin sorta freaked on the train over here so uh, I had to take the light… I’m Barry.”

Casey could hear her heartbeat in her ears. This Was Not Kevin this Was Barry.

Oh.

“Oh. Uh. Nice. To. Meet. You.”

Barry seemed to sense her discomfort and tugged at his sleeves,

“Right, I thought you might be totally… Right. We can just… I can go. We don't have to hang out but I thought it would be rude to just not show, obviously, and I thought it would be weird to call so… I showed up anyway. I mean, it was sorta inevitable our ‘meeting’, but still, I’m sorry it had to be like this, I know it’s totally… weird.”

He spoke quickly and with an empathetic energy. Lots of hand motions and Casey was caught by the words ‘I thought’ and the fact that this Was Not Kevin but Was Barry. Barry. This was Barry. She was even more floored by the fact that she didn't see any trace of Kevin in this man- No, this Was Barry. She couldn't miss it.

“No, it’s okay. I mean, this is weird. Not you, just this… situation.” Casey chose her words carefully, and she had a feeling that it would be even weirder if they didn't hang out now that she was here. That they both were. A little voice in her head whispered ‘what’s the harm? He seems nice… give him a chance.’

“We can still… hang out.”
He didn't seem too convinced by her words as he bit his lower lip slightly,

“Are you sure? We really don't have to if you're uncomfortable.”

“No, no it's okay. I want to.”

She decided she wanted to. Where was the harm? Right..? They were in a public place. Granted, it was mostly empty, but public still. And she was now insanely curious.

They ordered their drinks and Barry paid for Casey’s. She accepted, but with a little hesitancy. He shooed at her when she tried to apologize and thank him in the same breath.

“Oh don't even, doll, I really don't mind. What kind of gentleman would I be if I didn't?”

Casey thought that Barry didn't exactly bring to mind the word ‘gentleman’ but smiled even so. He seemed kind and considerate. And so… different from Kevin. Reading about DID was one thing but… experiencing an alter? Totally different. Much more dramatic and obvious than she’d been led to believe.

“So, I gotta be honest with you, I’ve been wanting to meet you for a while now.”

Casey wasn't exactly surprised, she recalled when Kevin came over and briefly mentioned Barry wanting to talk with her,

“Well, I was kinda wanting to meet you too, when he first mentioned you. How long have you known about me? Since Kevin and I met?”

“Yeah, I think so. At least, since you started having lunch together.”

“Oh wow.”

“Kevin… didn't want us to know about you at first but, I guess it was kinda like tryna’ hide that you're bald- the wig is eventually gonna come off at some point, right? I’m just glad you were so cool about it all. He was so worried, but I don't know, I guess I could kinda tell you’d be alright about it, you seem like a very non judgmental person.”

Casey shrugged,

“I try to be. I mean, that doesn't mean I wasn't like, freaked out at first but-”

“But you didn't stay freaked out, right? Like, duh, yeah, this sorta thing usually makes people pretty uncomfortable but… You understood. Moved on. It’s cool.”

She wasn't sure if he had some sort of perception of her that she did have herself, or if he was just guessing… Had she really been ‘cool’ about all of it? He seemed to think so, and so had Kevin… Kevin. Why wasn't he here? In all her gawking at Barry she forgot to ask about him (strangeness of having to ask where someone was in their own body was not lost on her),

“Hey, what happened to Kevin… Like, is he okay?”

Barry swatted the air around him and made a face,

“He’s fine, just… freaked a little. Sometimes, weird things, random things can just make him kinda freeze up and pass out and usually I can sense it before it happens so I can take over- or Dennis. He ALWAYS knows when it's about to happen, the guy has a nose for it like a hound. I tell ya. So I took over and… here we are.” He gestured around them and gave her a charismatic smile. Full of bright teeth. Casey didn't think she’d ever seen Kevin smile like that. Ever. Breezy, unbothered.

“Oh… Is he okay though?”

“Oh yeah, he’s fine. He’s just asleep right now. You know, he used to be like that pretty much all the time. Took everything in me to get the kid to get out once in a while, y’know? Even then, we were seeing Dr. Fletcher, but that just seemed to make him wanna stay asleep even more. Poor thing.”

“What changed?”

“Honestly? I’m not really sure. All I know is one day I couldn't even talk to him and then all the sudden I could. An’ he was askin’ me all these questions about himself an’ us an’ it was like he was… born again, or some crazy shit. It was pretty amazing.”

Casey felt a little odd then, like she was asking private questions about Kevin that maybe he didn't want her to know the answers to. Maybe he could sense the same thing because he changed the topic,

“So, what do you do outside a’ work?”

Casey was surprised to find that Barry was just as easy to talk to as Kevin was. He was a good listener, and a good talker, too. He filled in the spaces that might have otherwise been awkward and seemed to finish her sentences in a way that couldn't even be perceived as interrupting. It was like he knew she was okay with it, liked it even. He laughed a lot and seemed intrigued even if whatever she was talking about wasn't that interesting. He made her feel that way- interesting. She noticed the differences between he and Kevin (they were hard to miss). The way he smiled with his eyes more and wrinkled his nose when he thought something was funny but not enough to outright laugh at- and that laugh. So physical, the way he would lean back in his chair and lightly touch his chest. Overall, he was a lot more expressive than Kevin. His accent deeper.
Everything was so dramatic to Barry. Maybe in someone else, she would have found it a flaw, annoying. But Barry was so sweet.
Kevin had been right, Barry had a lot of friends. He knew two people who walked into the cafe separately and Casey was surprised when he only waved at them instead of getting up to say hello like she presumed he might. All his attentions, affections seemed focused on her.

And for all their differences, Casey also noticed all the ways Kevin and he were similar as well. They both had a similar way of drawing out the honesty in her, so much so that before she knew it, she was telling Barry about her father and mother. How she missed her father a lot and although he couldn't relate in the same way Kevin could, he was clearly hearing her and understanding what she was saying. He chose his words carefully in response, caring and kind. He didn't make her feel awkward or ashamed for sharing it with him. Maybe not in the quiet unsaid style of Kevin, but in an encouraging and perceptive way of his own.
It didn't take long at all for Casey to decide she liked Barry.

“Y’know, I knew there was no reason to be freaked about any a’ this. Dennis’ll be pissed he doesn't have another thing to worry about but that’ll just be one less thing I have to worry about.” He seemed pleased with himself while he said this, and had Casey’s interest piqued.

“Who is Dennis, anyway? I heard you say his name earlier.”

Barry picked at a loose thread on Kevin’s shirt- these were clearly not clothes that Barry would have worn as they seemed much to restrictive for his comfortable posture.

“Dennis… He’s… Well, Dr. Fletcher says he’s the ‘shield’ personality- the one that came out to protect Kevin when his mother would do horrible things to him. God. Sometimes, I’ll get really annoyed at him, like, for stupid things? Like, stop touching my stuff, just leave it and I’ll get it later or something but then I’ll remember, just, everything he’s been through and I can't stay mad. Plus, I'm not the type to hold a grudge. Especially over something small.”

Casey nodded thoughtfully, she’d remembered from her small amount of research that there are always Protector or Shield personalities that helped block out traumatic events, though most simply fade away once the dangerous environment wasn't around.

“Do you guys argue a lot? Like, does that happen between the alters?”

“Eh, occasionally, but it's sorta my job to break that stuff up and it usually isn't anything serious. Hedwig is pretty much the only one who has temper tantrums, well, except for Jade. And even she is pretty chill most of the time.”

All the names were only intriguing Casey further, and though she could feel a million questions on the tip of her tongue, she stopped herself. Would that be insensitive? She didn't want to treat him like a carnival act or something else crude.

“You can ask me things, y’know? I won't bite your head off.”

Casey wondered then if Barry was a mind reader.

“How did you-”

“I'm just good at reading people. That’s the whole point of me, right? Like, to be good in social situations. Y’know at first, I was just like Kevin. Like, indistinguishable. Couldn't tell us apart if you tried but, then as he got older, and got outta high school there wasn't a need for me to be… just like him.”

“But now…?”

“I'm… my own person. I have my likes and dislikes outside of Kevin. Of course, my primary role is still to be there for him in social environments, but he's really come a long way. Does me proud.”

Casey can see that Barry is amazingly perceptive. She remembers her first thought she’d had about the Shield personality.

“Can I ask you something? About Dennis?”

“Sure.”

“I read that alters like him, they usually go away after the threat of violence isn't there anymore… Is there a reason that you know of as to why he’s still...” Casey almost says ‘alive’ but catches herself, is that the right word to use? “... there?”

“Oh honey, you could not make Dennis disappear if you wanted to. He… I don't think Dennis needs a ‘reason’ or a ‘threat of violence’ to be part of the group. Don't get me wrong, I really appreciate everything he’s done for Kevin, for us. He’s smart and measured. Calculated. He’s just a little rough around the edges, and he’s… damaged. Sometimes I wish I could talk some sense into that man, but that's not really what he needs. What he needs isn't something someone could provide, I don't think. And that's the trouble with him,” Barry’s expression is soft and sad,

“Dennis exists because of his pain, and so without it he wouldn't be there. We wouldn't be here, and he knows that at some level. If you ever happen to run into him, keep that in mind. He’s a rough guy, but underneath it all he means well. Always has.”

The rest of their conversation is lighter and Casey is able to connect with Barry on their shared love of art. It had been him here at this cafe that one time- he’d been meeting a friend (Casey ignores the levity she feels when he says ‘friend’ instead of ‘boyfriend’... a whole other bucket load of questions pop into Casey’s head at that). He loves fashion and wants to have his own studio someday to create, and he muses that Casey could come share it with him so she could have a place of her own to paint. She admits she hasn't painted since high school and Barry just shrugs and tells her ‘So what? Do it now, there's nothing stopping you but yourself.’. Casey is inspired by his enthusiasm, and coming from anyone else she’s sure she would've been put off by it. But it's Barry. So she doesn't mind at all.

 

***

Patricia is missing a finger.

Dennis thought it was odd that she had been sitting with her hands so tightly knit within themselves- Patricia never sat like that. Like she was worried about something. So at first, he didn't notice it, but the more he realized she was sitting oddly, behaving oddly (muttering to herself, looking concerned off into the distance or smiling suddenly and then frowning in the next instant), the more he began to notice the wringing her hands. It shocked him, almost. The strange sight of her once perfectly manicured (but not polish, that was too much and she wasn't that type of woman) finger reduced to an ugly nub. Scarred and clearly still healing… How did this happen? He was gravely concerned.

Dennis got the feeling that if he were to ask about the finger she would evade the question or tell him to not be so nosey, that it was impolite… But she was missing a finger.
Would it be more rude to not ask? Sometimes, he couldn't tell with her. And if she was already upset about it he didn't want to bring more attention to it, but he also didn't want to appear negligent, unintelligent… He was sure that Patricia already thought him dull, not that he could hide much from her anyways. Sometimes, she knew things about him before he knew himself. It didn't scare him (Dennis didn't get scared) but it did make him… Slightly uncomfortable. Not that he would EVER tell her that. Or anyone (who would he have to tell anyway?).
Times like this Dennis felt jealousy towards Barry- he always knew how to handle things like this. But he knew he couldn't go to Barry about this, it would only worry him more, and Dennis knew that would subsequently worry Kevin.
And Dennis would NOT let Kevin be worried.

Hedwig had noticed pretty soon after Dennis did, and it took him a lot of bribing to keep the kid quiet. He swore, that kid noticed everything… How could someone be so attentive and still so blissfully ignorant? He also got the feeling that Patricia would not appreciate this information being spread. He wasn't sure how he knew that, but he just did.

Dennis was sitting next to an unconscious Kevin in his chair, keeping watch while Barry held the light during what he had ‘referenced as a date with Casey’... That was just another thing that he had started to worry more and more about… He was supposed to get control of that situation but it had escalated much quicker than he had expected and then suddenly she apparently knew about Kevin’s condition? About them? It aggravated and worried him to no end…
He was supposed to get rid of her…. He was supposed to eliminate that problem… And with her came another array of problems that Dennis knew he would have to face eventually… Again. Again. Dammit.

No. No, this was fine. He was fine.

He would get this all under control, he just needed to handle each problem one at a time.

‘Dennis.’

Patricia stood there above him, a placid smile on her lips,

‘Ms. Patricia.’

‘I’ve been meaning to speak with you about something.’

He was both relieved and very worried- she looked better than she had since he noticed the missing finger- notably she had her hands behind her back. But what did she need to speak with him about? Did she know about Casey? Was she upset he hadn't eliminated that problem yet?

‘What about?’

Dennis didn't mean to, but crossed his arms anyway, an unconscious defensive action.

‘Well, we shouldn’t talk here… come this way.’

Dennis stood and they walked a few feet away from the circle where the light began to fade and a curling of mist started around their feet.

‘If this is about the girl, I can tell you I will-’

‘The girl?’

‘... Casey?’

Patricia shook her head and laughed- a rare sight.

‘No, no, I’m not worried about her.’

‘So…?’

‘Have I ever told you the tale of the Beast, Dennis?’

Dennis didn't show it, but a chill ran up his spine at her words.

Chapter Text

“Have you ever thought about cutting it?”

“My hair?”

“No, your left leg, I wanna see what you look like with a peg leg- Yes your hair, silly girl.”

Casey ducked away from Barry’s hand as it brushed across the back of her neck sending a chill across her shoulders and down her back.

“Stop-”

“I wasn't gonna pull it-”

“I know you weren't gonna pull it I just don't want you to mess it up-”

“I'm not gonna mess it up!”

Casey frowned at him and stuck out her tongue- a childish gesture, she knew, but Barry just seemed to bring out a playfully sassy side to Casey that she didn't realise she’d had. In turn he crossed his arms and left the dressing room they had briefly shared while he tried on at least 10 different scarves. Casey had told him it was ridiculous to take up a whole dressing room when there were mirrors out in the main part of the store but he’d only told her that he liked to pose and didn't want anyone ‘getting a free show’, whatever that meant.

Reluctantly following him, out, her feet screamed at her she needed to sit down because shopping for 4+ hours was not agreeing with them.

“Barry, can we please go to the food court or something, I'm so tired…”

Barry gave her a once over and squinted as he raked relentlessly through a stack of gray t shirts.

“Ugh, you’re so fragile, I swear, I can't take you anywhere.”

She took the t shirt he’d finally selected out of his hands quickly and held it back as he attempted to take it from her.

“I’m not giving it back till you say we can go sit down!”

He attempted to take it from her once more before relenting and throwing his hands on his hips,

“You suck. Fine.”

While she waited for him to pay, Casey observed several employees taking down christmas decorations- she couldn't believe it had been almost a month since she and Barry had first met…. He’d been so foreign at the time, unbelievable and yet evident.
Now, she was afraid to say, she couldn't imagine going two days without a text or a call from him- checking in on her, asking if she was doing okay, or if she wanted to hang out; So far, they’d gone out a lot except for a few times they’d hung out at Kevin’s- their apartment. The first time had been due to bad weather and Barry suggested they stay in rather than go to the movies like they’d planned. Casey had worried that maybe Kevin wouldn't be totally okay with that but he assured her it was no big deal.
It was tidy and smelled distinctly of cleaner (just like Kevin had said). There was hardly anything to show that someone actually lived there except for the two bedrooms (well, really one the other one was an office) and one bathroom. Barry’s bedroom had been an absolute mess (not that she was too surprised about that) with black out shades and a small lamp. There were colored pencils, fabrics, and sketchbooks strewn about the place. Pieces of artwork that filled up the walls or were sitting against them were the only splashes of color (Barry liked abstract and pop art with bright colors, except for the few dark impressionist paintings) against dark gray walls, sheets and a bedspread.
Barry had been proud to show her his room, despite it’s disarray. He seemed to revel in showing her all the different types of art he liked and his sketches, though he was more selective with those. Privacy around his own work seemed to be the only kind he possessed.
Casey noted a small bin of toys that peaked out from the slightly ajar closet- Hedwig. She’d only heard about him a few times, she could tell Barry was protective of him. Casey didn't ask to meet him (the thought honestly freaked her out more than she would ever let on) but felt biting curiosity about a child alter.

There was another smaller bedroom down the hall with a twin bed and a side table with a lamp. Gray still clung to the walls but no works of art adorned them. The bedspread was the same and there was a single pillow with a yellow microfiber cloth on top. Casey thought that looked familiar, but couldn't place where she’d seen it before… The bathroom had been clean as well and she counted the different toothbrushes in the holders while she washed her hands. There were 16, yet none of them were labeled. How often were they used, she wondered?

“Ready?”

Barry took her arm and lead her through the sale bins and towards the doors to the rest of the mall.

***

Her lips were incredibly soft, Kevin faintly observed.

He hadn't planned on kissing her… he should have asked, he knew, but she had just looked so pretty with the afternoon light casting them in an orange/yellow wonderland in the parking lot. He stopped when he realized she hadn’t kissed back and immediately apologized.

Dammit, he should have asked… Dammit.

“Casey, I’m sorry.”

She didn't look afraid, but she looked shocked. A bright blush ran high on her cheeks and she surprised him when she smiled, sparkles in her eyes. He’d never seen her smile like that, like a girl. A girl who’d been kissed- of course he’d never seen her smile like that. He hoped to see that smile again. Her expression was softer and more open than he’d ever seen it.

“That’s okay…” A giggle.

She just kept staring at him, another bubble of laughter escaped her lips (such soft lips) before she kissed him back(!).

They loosely held each other’s forearms before Kevin tentatively deepened the kiss and held her closer around the shoulders. She responded, if not a little sloppily, but he didn't mind. He couldn't remember the last time he’d kissed someone… he knew he’d never kissed someone this soft before…
They parted and she giggled (!) again. He laughed, too.

He realized he was shaking- so was she. The energy required to kiss rendered them both feeble and yet buzzing with a comfort and abandon that could only be described as Love, though neither were able to consciously digest or understand this.

So there they stood, shaking and holding one another and laughing in the Zoo parking lot.

The light around them had turned red.

***

Emily’s mouth hung open, gaping with speechlessness, something Casey hadn't thought possible in her.

“You’re joking? He’s not gay?! I thought we said he was gay!”

The pretty woman leaned against the low desktop and the way she was nearly flinging her arms around, Casey was afraid she would spill the coffee in her mug everywhere.

“I… totally mistook him for someone else.” It wasn't a complete lie.

Emily still seemed dumbfounded and blinked a few times, physically processing the information (‘tea’ as Emily would say) Casey had just revealed to her. She figured it was best to tell Emily rather than have her still think Kevin was gay… She hadn't said they were dating… but they were… right? Friends don't kiss like that. Casey knew that much.

“Wow… Okay. Wow. So… are you guys just hooking up? Dating? What’s the deal?”

“I think… I think we’re just seeing where it goes for now- but please don't tell anyone.”

“Yeah, yeah of course.”

Casey’s head still felt light from the kiss… an hour ago. Was that weird? She felt like that must be weird… but the butterflies that flooded her stomach, lungs and head weren't relenting in their lovesick business.

“Oh! Speaking of sex,” (were they speaking of sex?)

“Guess who FINALLY hooked up with Eli..?”

Casey questioned the working conditions of her ears- her brain attempted to keep up and then understand anything that Emily had just said.

“You WHAT.”

“Look- I know, I know, he’s married- but he said they’re probably gonna get a divorce anyway so it’s not like I’m a homewrecker or anything.”

Casey covered her face in her hands and sighed deeply.

“Oh, Emily…”

She faintly heard the door open behind her.

“What’d she do now?”

She looked up to find Eli leaning against the desk, his smile bright as ever.

 

***

 

‘There’s no reason to freak out… there’s no reason to freak out…. FUCK this is making me so freaked out!’

‘Mr. Dennis says tha’s not a nith word Jade! I’m SO gonna tell on you!’

Jade ignored the child’s non lethal words- Shit this was SO Fucked.

Patricia was literally missing a finger?! What the fuck?!

That bitch freaked her the fuck out- but was no one concerned she was literally missing a goddamned finger?!

Everyone was all ‘Casey this and Casey that’ but literally no one was freaked out that the crazy old bat was missing a finger and when she tried to talk to Dennis about it he’d basically ignored her (nothing new there- except that she was pretty sure he and Patricia had a weird Harold/Maude thing going on so why wasn't he freaking out also??), and whenever Barry wasn't in the light he was asleep and so he’d been totally unavailable… Luke had been kinda concerned, but not enough to DO anything about it… If there was anything to be done about it…

What the fuck!

As for The Bitch herself… She seemed… normal? Sort of? Not that there was really any scale or reference for Patricia’s moods/entire being. She was… weird. But she was always weird. And then there was the one time when she was just gone??? She hadn't been in the light or anywhere in the room… Beyond the mist, maybe? But there was nothing beyond the mist… Right? Actually, Jade had never even thought to walk beyond the mist- she didn't ever consider there Could be anything out there. And if there was, what was it?

She really wanted to know, suddenly… Should she go… ?

No… Hedwig.

It was her job to watch the little goblin when Dennis and Barry were busy.

Ugh.

Being the babysitter SUCKED ASS- there was a Nancy Drew Type Situation with her name on it and here she was playing nanny.

‘Jade, are you alright?’

She was more than a little surprised to see Orwell in front of her, a delicate concern on his face. His glasses were big and ugly and made his eyes seem three times larger than they really were adding a cartoonish amount of sincerity to his expression.

‘Yeah I'm- not fine.’

‘What’s wrong?’

Jade didn't talk to the brainiac alter too often, and when she did, it was always in passing- him asking her to keep an eye on Hedwig if he had to leave the light for a moment or simply saying hello- their respective times in the light seemed to always be right beside each other as Barry scheduled it that way. Jade didn't dislike Orwell- instead she found his presence rather calming and neutral.

‘Patricia- she’s like, totally missing a finger? And no one seems to notice? I get that everyone is suddenly so wrapped up in Casey or whatever but like, she’s missing a goddamn finger for crying out loud!’

‘Patricia is missing a finger? Which finger- when you say missing, what do you mean?’

Jade sighed,

‘Ugh, I don't know, her pointer finger- that’s why I’m so freaked out, I don't know where the fu- where it went.’

As frustrated as she was (why again did she care so much about this?), she managed to catch herself from cursing too much in front of Orwell- he’d never said he didn't want her to but she had a feeling it would offend him… Something about him always made Jade temper her language.

‘Hmm… That’s very strange. Have you told Barry?’

‘I’ve tried, but literally every time I go to talk to him he’s passed out or in the light and he’s like always with Casey so I can't just- talk to him like normal.’

This gave Orwell pause, and he seemed to be considering what exactly to do.

‘Maybe I should go ask Patricia-’

‘No!’

Orwell’s buggish eyes widened.

‘Sorry, I just meant… Maybe we should just… wait to tell Barry. I don't want her to… I just don't think she’ll-’

‘Take it well. I understand.’

Jade was grateful for Orwell in that moment- he understood. Jade couldn't talk to Orwell about much, but he knew just as well as her that Patricia was not someone you could just… ask things. Especially about herself. He had seemed hesitant to do so anyway.
Orwell gave a small, awkward pat to her shoulder and started to turn to walk back to his chair a few feet away- Hedwig had fallen asleep on the floor again and he had to step over the sleeping child’s figure.

‘Orwell?’

He turned around to face her again,

‘Yes?’

‘Thanks.’

‘Of course, Jade.’

Jade bent down and picked up Hedwig and placed him back into his chair, still asleep. After she made sure he was comfortable, she looked off into the distance… The mist.

For the first time, she felt cold looking at it.

 

***

John’s face was an ugly, bright red.

He’d spent himself yelling at Casey and drinking a 6 pack.

Today, Casey’s rage felt like glass in her palms- if she squeezed them, hot blood would drip out and become sticky- real. She would wipe her hands against his already scarred and pore filled face, maybe he would scream, maybe she wouldn't. Pain wasn't something John understood; It was simply a tool in his muddled, washed up head. He could twist it and break it to his will and then inflict it on others, but it wasn't something he himself really knew.

Not in the way Casey knew pain. It was a friend to her at times, but mostly a familiar habit. Over the years, she had been forced to look at it in the face and see the marred reflection it provided. She’d learned to trust it- respect it even. Maybe that was cliche, and tired… But it was also true.

That was another truth she’d forgotten- to respect the fear that came with pain. It served as a reminder to the practiced relationship with John’s voice and hands. In all her romantics and busied butterflies, she’d become lazy, forgetful.

The bruise forming on her upper arm was a testament to this. She’d gotten home a few minutes later (she had to stay a few minutes after since she went overtime on her lunch… with Kevin) and John noticed. He’d seen her smiling and noticed. He demanded an explanation, Casey had none that pleased him.

The screaming match that followed was a reminder.

Bruises faded, and words were said but the silence afterwards was the most evident- No Tv or Radio played in the background to drown out any afterthoughts of remorse or hatred. They were loud as bees buzzing through her mind, all whispering different bloody thoughts. Those were a familiar aspect, too.

She didn't know how long she’d stood in front of John while he slept in his chair… Her hands twitched with the anticipation to Kill.

Casey took her time in the shower. The steam was nice, and so was the hot water.

Kevin entered her mind and she wondered if he would have come to her rescue had he been there to witness John’s abuse. Sadly, she doubted it. Casey knew of his past, it’s similarities to her own… How would she react if their situations had been reversed? Could she come to the defense of him if need be? Somehow, she knew she wasn't being fair to herself by asking such a ridiculous question. It wasn't a matter of want or even need- it was about wounds and trauma. She couldn't bring it within her heart to be the least bit disappointed…

Barry?

She couldn't even place him in the vicinity of John, her mind refused them like two positive sided magnets.

He would be there for her during the aftermath, and it was a comfort to think of him like that, but she was also angry at herself for slipping. A month ago, she had been vigilant. What had happened over the past few weeks that she’d become so obtuse?

Kevin had happened.

And Barry.

A lot of honesty and a little bit of time had fused them together. She’d felt things for Kevin she hadn't realized she was capable of feeling- Casey thought for the longest time that emotions were like batteries that only had so long a shelf life and once they were used up, they were gone. How could you be compassionate to someone else’s plights when it had all been used up for yourself? This fallacy had been so deeply knit into her being she hadn't known it was there.
It was a wonder she hadn't figured that out sooner, her self loathing had seemed to be in endless supply…

Casey thought of the many romance movies- the hardened guy fell for the quirky girl and then he realizes that life isn't about money! What a concept! And then they were really in love and they taught each other about what's important in life and how to feel again and crap.

Kevin didn't ‘teach’ her how to feel… Instead, they had both lit the candle within themselves by giving each other the match.

A lot of the time she forgot Kevin was that much older than her, she felt they were beyond those barriers and even the saying ‘age is just a number’ didn't fit right with her- it felt like an excuse, and Casey knew inside she didn't need an excuse to begin with. How strange it was to sit across from someone and not fear that they might Do Something to you- Something Bad.

The shower may have washed away most of the butterflies, but with it the doubt and fear she’d initially had over whether or not she could trust Kevin.

A new question however, remained: Could she trust herself to leave this place, and fast?

 

***

 

“And how did she react to that?”

“She um, she kissed me back.”

Dr. Fletcher’s eyebrows raised and she smiled pleasantly at him.

“That’s wonderful, Kevin. I’m glad you took that step. So, you’re dating now?”

Kevin felt hot- he needed to take off this jacket…

“I… I think so? I don't know, w-we didn't really discuss it. I haven't seen her since then.”

“Right, how long ago was this?”

“Two days ago.”

Dr. Fletcher nodded,

“Well, I highly recommend you have that conversation with her- intentionally. You both should voice and understand what each other expects out of this relationship, your boundaries and so forth.”

“She met Barry.”

This surprised the Dr. most of all, and was evident on her face.

“Really?”

“Mhmm.”

“How did that go?”

Kevin was annoyed to say that he hadn't been present for that first interaction and told her as much.

“But, from her reaction, you can guess it went okay?”

“W-w-well, she said he was really nice and that she likes him a lot- I know they h-hang out a lot and he texts her at least a few times a w-week.”

“My, well, Kevin, I have to be honest with you it’s very rare that I hear of my client’s relationships moving forwards so quickly. I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised- Barry could make friends with a brick wall, but, I am still very surprised that she seems so willing to accept all the complications and facets of your life that you’ve revealed so far. That’s not to say you aren't of course worthy of these things- of course you are. I’m simply impressed.”

“Casey is… a lot like me. She’s been through a lot of the stuff I h-have and… She was still y’know a little freaked out at first. I mean, she reacted a lot better than I thought she w-would have but she w-was still, y’know, cautious and stuff.”

“You mean to say she’s been through abuse and trauma?”

“Mhmm.”


“Kevin,” she smiled a bit, “I think this is a good thing. For you. And for your interrelationships with the alters- you yourself said this has forced you to speak with Barry and Luke more often and in doing so, you’re exercising those communication muscles you need to have more cohesive relationships with them.”

Kevin finally tugs off his jacket- did she always keep this room so warm? He felt like he was sweating out of his skin.

“Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Hmm.”

She thought for a moment, her finger propped against her lower lip- a sign she was going to ‘propose’ something- Kevin just knew it.

“Kevin, how do you think Casey would feel about possibly meeting me?”

 

***

 

Casey’s grasp loosened from Kevin’s hand as they entered the small chinese restaurant. She knew she’d been too quiet all afternoon, but she had much on her mind.

“Sorry, I know I’m being really quiet I just…I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.”

Kevin nodded solemnly, as soon as the waiter left she’d begun talking.

“I know I need to move out soon. I can't keep living there.”

“Are you afraid of what John’ll do if he finds out?”

“Yes.”

Casey watched a familiar expression of concern and patience paint him.

“Do… do you think we should go to the Police?”

Casey shook her head,

“I don't want to involve the Police.”

“Okay. Is there anything I can do?”

Her heart warmed- maybe she’d be wrong- maybe Kevin would come to her rescue, just in his own way.

“I might need a place to crash for a few days, but I don't want to put you out.”

He straightened in his chair, and Casey felt regret at her own words, and was already trying to take them back,

“I can just ask Emily and I’m sure she’d let me-”

“No, Casey,” He broke the distance of the table and gently grasped her wrist,
“I would be more than happy for you to stay over. I mean it, it just surprised me at first.”

She wasn't totally convinced.

“You don't have to say yes just because I asked.”

“I know.” The determination and confidence in his voice wasn't something Casey heard often. Resounding and yet quiet.

“Okay… Like I said, it’d just be for a few days. I promise, I already have a place picked out and the landlord said she could hold it for me- I already paid half the deposit-”

“I'm really happy for you.” He smiled sincerely, letting her know she didn't have to explain herself.

“What day can w-we expect you?”

Tea came and went and when they finally dug into the hot food Casey felt that maybe Kevin was still in deep thought about her staying over for a few days. Should she ask him if he was sure again? She didn't want him to say no… But… It was his place. She shouldn’t feel ownership over it and she didn't… she just… really needed a place to lay low.

“Hey, Casey?”

Here it comes.

“Yeah…”

“I… Are w-w-we dating? Like… Are w-we a couple?”

Her mouth smiled on its own accord, the question eliciting a happy feeling in her chest.

“Um… Yes? I mean. I kinda hoped that we would. Were. Are.”

He smiled back.

“Okay. Good.”

There were more things to be said, more in depth conversations to be had between the newfound couple, but none of the topics seemed particularly interesting or worthwhile then. The rest of the evening was spent in light conversation and knowing smiles.

 

***

“You’re… Are you Dennis?”

Casey didn't really feel afraid like she thought she might- the guarded words and hinted, shielded stories she’d heard from Kevin and Barry had lead her to believe she should be much, much more cautious than she was being now.
She hadn't moved any closer, in fact she was frozen to where she stood.

The new alter before her was straightened like a piece of steel wall, and lines across his face replaced the relaxed ones of Kevin.

“Yes.” Was all he said, watching her warily- he stood the fill the space of the doorframe like he wasn't sure he wanted to let her in.

Deja vu slowly overtook Casey and she was whisked back to the first time she went to the Zoo for her interview.

‘It’s him.’

The realization that he had been there, in Kevin’s body, in the light the first time she’d met any of them, it hit her in a different way. Not painful or frightening, just… strange. A small part of her wondered what he’d thought of her the first time they’d met.

“Could you- your shoes, they’re dirty, please-” Casey hadn't realised he was looking at her feet now, winter’s mud tracked lightly around the edges of her black sneakers.

“Oh, yes, sorry.” Quick to remove them, Casey became very mindful of a few things very suddenly.

Her coat- did it have crumbs or stains on it? Her pants? Her shirt? She couldn't remember but tried to look inconspicuously at herself while she removed her shoes, careful to line them up evenly. She was surprised she’d remembered his ‘neatness’ as Barry had put it, as quickly as she did. She felt a little proud of herself in an odd way.
By the time she’d removed her first hoodie, and hung it up on the furthest hanger on the coat rack, Dennis was still standing where he had been, looking unfamiliar to Casey yet comfortable among his surroundings. His stance was wide like the first time she’d met him, along with crossed arms that flexed hard muscle under a seemingly strained gray button up. He wore dark pants and shoes, clearly polished and possibly never worn outside the apartment. He seemed to fit in this space, and Casey was beginning to understand how. The cleanliness and the strong smell of bleach had always been there, but he had been the reason for all of it and it felt oddly correct to see him standing so… Protective of it all. He was the owner, the alpha. This was his space.
Casey realised they were still standing there in the tv room, not really doing anything. She knew she’d been staring, but he was too. The look he was giving her was not a cold one, no. It wasn't really warm like Barry’s and Kevin’s. It was… hard. A hard stare.
There was a pained expression lain about his features that bothered Casey immediately.

“I know I didn't um, I didn't tell Kevin I was coming over. I can leave if you need me to… ”

She half expected him to cut her off, the end of her sentence falling flat and she felt like a girl in a romance movie- quirky and awkward and not in a cute way. In an annoying one. That’s what he looked at her like, anyway.

“Why didn't you tell Kevin you were coming over?”

His arms were still crossed, his voice slow and deep, a sort of demanding edge to it- like she’d done something wrong by just being there- maybe she had.

Casey struggled to find the words to explain her actions, the unexpected question leaving her mind suddenly very blank and full all at once,

“I- he-... He said something about not feeling well earlier and I wanted to make sure he was okay but my phone died as I was leaving the house, cause I must’ve forgotten to plug it in last night and my uncle he- well, I didn't want to- I just didn't want to go up there again and when I got off work I didn't want to drive all the way across town ‘cause it was rush hour and I didn't wanna do that just for a charger- and, I just, I didn't think he’d mind, I'm sorry.”

The heat was already high on her cheeks by the time her strange ranting monologue was over, the silence between them heavy. His brows knit together tighter and tighter the longer her words went on and by the end of it he looked at her like she was speaking some other language. She might as well have. She’d never spoken it before, so she was just as perplexed as he.

‘What. The. Hell. Was. That.’

“A-alright…” Confusion slight in his voice, he seemed to still be processing what she said.

Dennis removed his glasses and silently cleaned them with a yellow rag (that was familiar too) from his pocket. While he cleaned, he looked everywhere but her.

“Do you- should I- I’ll just go.”

Casey moved to put her shoes back on, when Dennis spoke.

“You don't have to leave.”
It wasn't urgent or desperate, but quiet. Small, and a little unsure. Almost as if he regretted saying it, and Casey thought he might’ve by the time she saw his face, glasses once more secure and seemingly fitting.

“I just, I have some things,” He nodded lightly behind him and then once to the kitchen beside him, “I would like to finish. I can get Kevin for you when I’m done.”

He still wasn't really meeting her eyes, looking down and around. Casey felt the surge of uncomfortable guilt that popped up every now and again around Kevin, when he mentioned some of the alters.
This was different however, Dennis had an air around him, a new unfamiliar and slightly dangerous Aura. Not like Barry.

Casey could now see some of the furniture had been rearranged to accommodate a vacuum. The scent of bleach was strong and it didn't take long for Casey to realize he’d been cleaning.

‘“Dennis likes thing… neat, and he usually takes an evening every week to just clean everything. Like, everything.”

She nodded and asked if it would be alright if she hung out in Barry’s room.

“Yeah, that would be alright.”

Casey quietly thanked him and made her way down the skinny hallway. She turned around once to see Dennis walking into the kitchen, the hard look still on his face. She felt bad for coming uninvited despite Barry’s many warm insistences that she do, whenever.
But Barry wasn't here now, Dennis was. She closed the door quietly behind her, more guilt beginning to fill her stomach in a queasy manner- she’d probably interrupted him- his time in the light.
Casey noted that Barry’s room was still the same way he’d left it- unkempt and dark. Casey wondered if Dennis ever cleaned here, but doubted it. Even if he did, she had a feeling that Barry wouldn’t really appreciate it, in fact, she was sure he would messy it again in no time and on purpose.

Casey wondered what Dennis did during his time in the light when he wasn't at work and wasn't cleaning. Did he sleep? What did he eat? Did he eat?

Picking up a stray sketch that had made it's way onto a pile by the foot of the bed, she ran her fingers across the fine lines Barry had made. She didn't know much about fashion herself, but she could see the artistic finery Barry had crafted on page after page- he was really good!
Casey started to realise the models in the sketches looked… strangely similar to herself.

“Barry would have a fit if he knew you were looking at those.”
Casey’s eyes darted up to see Dennis standing in the doorway, a glass of water in his hand.

“Right, yeah, you're probably right.” Her voice shook a little, and she tried to neatly place the many sketches where they had lain. Dennis held out the glass of water towards her.

“I brought you some water.”

She stood quickly, and took it from him.

“Thank you.”

He looked around the room with unease. She could have sworn she saw him turn a little green, when he finally rested his eyes on her.

“I should be done soon, and I’ll get Kevin.”

He was closing the door, then, clearly trying to get away from the pigsty, but Casey had a strange urge to keep talking to the man.

“Wait, hold on, I need to ask you, um…” Casey set the glass of water on Barry’s crowded nightstand and stood.

“We can stand in the living room, if it’s better for you?”

He nodded once, and stepped away to let her through, she brushed past him. He didn't seem overly relieved but he didn't seem bothered either, he just was.
What he ‘was’, was so much warmer than Kevin or Barry, his body heat seemed to slip through his (too thin) shirts and into Casey’s space (was he somehow taller than Kevin? He seemed taller). She can't tell if she likes it or not.

“I was just wondering if you, if you knew whether or not Kevin was okay, I know he said he wasn't feeling that great earlier, but I didn't really know what that… meant.”

Dennis seemed a bit thrown by this question, his arms tightening around themselves, and Casey hated that she couldn't stop staring at him when he did that. The hallway seemed much smaller.

“I wasn't made aware he wasn't feeling well. He doesn't speak to me.”

The way in which he said it made it seem like Kevin didn't want to talk to Dennis, not that he was unable to like Kevin had told Casey.

“Oh. Alright… ” The last word is croaked out and she tugs at her sleeve, awkwardly. Dennis simply looks at her, those arms still crossed, ‘Like a statue.’ Casey thinks, slightly bemused.

Casey feels that maybe the time has come for her to leave, maybe she should just come back tomorrow and let things be for now. If Kevin didn't want to hang out, who was she to make him? Let the alters work things out between them, as Barry had told her they need to do sometimes.

“Y-y’know what, Dennis, I know Barry had told me that you like to- that you like to take your time when you clean, I don't wanna…mess that up. I can just come back tomorrow.”

If it were possible, his frown deepened and his looked away from her again, standing a little taller.
“I uh… I… Okay.”

 

***

Dennis was still standing at the door minutes after she left.

His heart wouldn't stop racing and his hands were flexing and unflexing themselves over and over again.

Had he scared her off?

She’d left so suddenly, like she was afraid… A small part of him was glad.

Good. She should be afraid. It would make it easier to avoid her.
He was a monster and she saw right through him like most girls did… They could smell it a mile away. He was a threat.

No.

NO.

He was better now, and he had been for a long time. He was GOOD.

There was no reason to be concerned. About THAT.

He was safe. And safe to be around…

As much as her new presence in Kevin’s life definitely bothered him at first, caused him to be on edge, he had backed off. Patricia explained she wasn't a threat (Patricia… maybe she hadn't been the most reliable source of opinions. He worried about her, especially after that odd story she told him for seemingly no reason) and that there was no reason to be so… she had said ‘afraid’ but he wasn't afraid. He was never afraid.

He had been concerned, and rightfully so. But Barry didn't seem to have a problem with her- in fact, he was sure Barry was infatuated with her just as Kevin was. Whether this was a coincidence or simply their undeniable emotional tether, he wasn't sure. It had provided a distraction and no one (besides Jade and Hedwig) had noticed Patricia’s problem and that was, he supposed, one good thing to come out of all this.
She had been so… kind. Much kinder than he suspected. A little wounded, too. Cautious. Smart. Things that didn't just happen but were made into a person when there were reasons for such armor to be equipped on them. He would know.

She talked quickly and nervously, and usually Dennis made people quiet and they made an effort to avoid him (and he liked it that way) but instead she had talked to him and asked him things and he brought her that water because… what? He thought it was the polite thing to do. Right? You were supposed to offer people beverages when they came over… Dennis never had anyone over before… But she hadn't been there for him, she’d been there for Kevin and it was just a mishap of communication she hadn't purposefully been there to talk to him. And she left anyway, behind the pretense of letting him finish his cleaning… Barry had told her about that, which strangely made him feel ashamed (it shouldn’t bother him that she knows he has this problem but it does. He should not care but he does).

She was much prettier than memory served… Softer looking.

Was she soft?

Pretty girls like her always looked so soft, like porcelain dolls…

Dennis finally moved from his spot in front of the door and though it took him a second to remember what he was doing before… He remembered.

He used the spray bottle of bleach to spray down every surface of the kitchen: Once, Twice, Three times.

Chapter Text

Dennis can clearly recall the smell of human feces in the air. It was potent and too strong to ignore. The back of his throat ached as he tried to withhold the urge to puke- the bathroom was a few feet away from where he sat but he refused to move. He would not subject himself to such uncleanly horrors.

She was weakly propped up a few feet away, the little wispy sounds that left her open mouth were signals that she was still alive- the telebox that sat loosely on her chest in the pocket of the too loose (and very unclean) dressing gown barely lifted with each pathetic breath.
Dennis knew that somewhere in the hospital, someone was monitoring her breaths and heart rate- how soon would they notice if he pulled the sticky monitors from her chest and turned off her oxygen?
Dennis had many terrible thoughts like that. There was nothing to distract him in the silence of her room only broken every few hours by a CNA or Nurse coming in to check on her. They didn't pay him much notice, which was a relief. He didn't want them to. Anytime they came in to help Kevin’s mother do unmentionable things in the bedpan or take her vitals he didn't leave, but didn't make any move to help the weak woman. He didn't care that they looked at him with curious or even angry eyes- the fact that they volunteered to help her in such disgusting tasks was enough for him to stay clear away from them. He didn't care that they wore gloves or used copious amounts of hand sanitizer- it would never be enough…. It disgusted him.

She herself had barely enough energy for anything at that point. She would cough and he would attempt to look at her skeletal frame, but it was too much. The guilt. The anger. The enjoyment and the pain he felt all at once whenever he laid steel eyes on her was overwhelming, always. Her skin was as thin as tissue paper or so it looked. It was like he could see every vein in her face and her breath stunk of something dying and awful. It was her, she was dying and awful. Her once sharp looking features had been reduced to fragile looking pieces of bone that Dennis thought would soon poke through her skin in a bloody and painful way. A very sharp discomfort would flare up in his shoulder if he did look at her, and if it wasn't searing hot it was a dull ache that lasted for hours, so he tried not to very often.

Those last few weeks had been the worst- every exhale she made he prayed would be her last. At the same time, he hoped a miracle would occur- she would go into remission by some fate higher than himself and she would be alright… Maybe she would get better… Maybe the cancer would go away and she would be alright… Maybe she would die tonight and Dennis might feel some sort of peace.

Barry had tried many times to take over during that time- to sneak into the light when he thought Dennis was too tired, but he never relented. Even when his eyelids felt so heavy that blinking was dangerous, he never gave up.

Visiting hours were only so long, and they hadn't had the means for Hospice so… Dennis stayed from 9am to 6pm and then went home. He slept and then came back and did it all over again.

The morning Kevin’s mother died, he had been wondering how much longer this could drag on. It wasn't a slow process anymore suddenly, she was just dead.

When the nurses came in to clean her body, he left.

***

Polly was afraid.

There was nothing around… anywhere!

By god, there was nothing…

Darkness and darkness and black as black as black was all around and there was nothing but it!

By god!

She tried to call out…

“Hello?”

Nothing.

How long had she been there? It sure felt like a long time… and yet, she knew that time wasn't a measurable…. Thing. Not here. Was she even alive? It didn't seem like it… this didn't feel like existence… God was punishing her for something, she suspected, but for what she couldn't tell.

How long had she been here?

“...sun… we… ion… ss.”

“Hello?”

“In… sun… we find… our p...pos.”
“HELLO!”

It was someone!! Someone illuminated… A light! Saying something!

They were coming more and more into view and she could see a distinct fog parting and becoming less as the person was… It was…

“In the sun we find our passion, in the sun we find ourrr… purpose.”

It was Ms. Patricia…

“Patricia?”

“Hello.”

She held a handle between two hands, and it was so very hard to miss that one of them was missing a pointer finger… How… Odd…

“Where are we? I must… be lost! I’ve no idea how I got stuck out here, won't you lead me back?”

“Come with me, dear.”

Polly grabbed a light hold of Patricia’s arm- she had come to find her! She would be alright!

They walked through the fog for sometime before things started to… somehow come into view? Like she was wiping tears away and every time things became more distinct and featured.

They were somewhere windy and desolate… The sky was orange and the place was a field where nothing grew… Why had she been here before? No she hadn't…. Where was everyone?

“... Where are we?”

“Shh, my dear, this way.”

Polly didn't want to be with her anymore… This felt wrong. No… this was wrong.
But she couldn't go back into the fog! No! No! She’d be alone!

“Patricia- please, let’s go back home… please…”

Patricia suddenly didn't have the candle anymore (where did it go?) and was grabbing Polly on the arm and it hurt! She tried to move away, but Patricia slapped her!

“Stop it.”

Polly stopped and cried. Why was this happening? What WAS happening?! She was leading her towards something in the distance and it was a town? No, there were trains everywhere? Empty, dead looking trains… (how could a train look dead?).

Patrcia clearly knew where she was leading her, quickly pulling her through the empty trainyard that wasn't empty(?). They were being watched and Polly tried to scream but Patricia turned around and slapped her again!

“Stop it. Shut up.”

Polly was blubbering and gasping through the tears as she pushed her up a small staircase into one of the train cars and she was all alone again and… it was so dark again… The sky outside was red. She wasn't sure how long she stood there shaking and gasping, and everytime she tried to turn around she simply couldn't! Her body was anchored to it’s spot! The fear that had taken root in her was astounding… She was going to die. Polly was going to die and there was nothing she could do about it, she just knew. She was going to die…

Something was moving ahead of her and she shut her eyes so quickly, more tears streamed down her cheeks and it was not comforting to hear something other than her own sobs… When she felt something warm on her face she only had a second to open her eyes and see it was going to eat and kill her.

It’s black gaping mouth was open and latched onto her shoulder- she was still frozen- now in fear more than the unexplainable force that had held her there. The Thing was Consuming her- it’s mouth was wet and Polly was so sad to understand that this was the most she’d ever felt in her strange, small life. With fleshy bites, the pain was fire and such agony that Polly had never believed possible to experience. She could feel her own bones (she had bones? She had flesh? In this space? All of her life she didn't know she possessed was being ripped from her so quickly… ) creaking and finally splintering off into dissected parts as The Thing ate her alive… Until she was alive, no longer.

 

***

Casey was awake.

Though her eyes were closed and she was laying under warm covers in her too small bed, she was awake.

It was five am, and she was listening for the sounds of John walking around the apartment- she heard him a few minutes later stepping into the hall, the familiar creak of the floor signified that he had entered the bathroom.

The rattling of pipes and the sound of the shower starting caused Casey’s heart to suddenly speed up- in half an hour, John would be gone and Casey would be gone, too.

The two duffle bags she’d packed a few hours earlier were hidden in her closet, along with one smaller satchel that she’d reserved for toiletries and things in the bathroom that would surely be seen as ‘missing’ had she packed them prematurely.
At five thirty five, Casey would get out of bed, pack the rest of her toiletries into the satchel in her closet, grab the other two, and leave John’s apartment for the last time in her life. Her sneakers felt strange and extra rubbery against the itchy sheets that she would leave behind. The only things she was taking with her were important documents like her birth certificate, social security card, and passport. Everything else was clothes, a pair of boots and a few momentos (the shoe box) and one small stuffed elephant (she couldn't sleep without it). She had been shocked to find that besides her clothes, her room looked no different than it had before she started packing. There was a distinct calm that washed over her at this- it felt good to know her life had not been so much here that it could all fit into two duffle bags and one satchel.
At five twenty seven, the front door slammed shut- John would be gone to a workman’s mandatory seminar in New York for the weekend- it was always held, every five years to update the company’s construction workers on new safety standards. John usually used it as an excuse to get hammered and bar hop with his work buddies.

It was the perfect excuse, the perfect weekend. Casey would be long gone before he got back, he would have no more contact with her. She would block his number and every form of communication with him tonight, she’d decided. If he wanted to get in contact with her before, she could respond. It wouldn't be suspicious. And with all the drinking he was sure to do, he wouldn't even be concerned about her… He’d be too drunk, too hungover to even think consider she was leaving him forever. He would have no idea that she was gone… And the next day, he would already be at the seminar so if he left to come back, there would be no trace of Casey… No way for him to find her.

Casey had gone over this plan and it’s details over and over again in her head until she cried because she was so afraid and overjoyed and paranoid. Her face was sweaty against the pillowcase by the time she finally got out of bed.

Gathering her things in the cool apartment air was quick and only the sounds of her own feet shuffling on the apartment carpet and bathroom floor echoed quietly throughout the dank space.

Casey set the apartment key on the counter, took one look back at the space and frowned. She wouldn't miss it here, she decided.

“Goodbye.”

The soft words felt like a spell as she said them, a ‘so mote it be’ resounding and affirming that she would never return. Casey stepped out in the hall, closed the door, and didn't turn back as she walked quickly to the elevator.

Kevin’s apartment key felt heavy in her jacket pocket.

 

***

 

Kevin feels the ants on his skin again- crawling, biting. Picking. He tries to do deep breaths. He tries…

He’s up, and walking into the living room. He passes his own room and is suddenly aware of her- he KNOWS she’s in there and the temptation to go in there is very strong. What would his excuse be? He forgot his phone charger… No, his is in Barry’s room…. He needs…. Socks? No, he rolls his eyes at himself, why the hell would he need…

‘Do you really need an excuse?’

Barry’s voice is soft and Kevin stills- he hadn't realized Barry was there- that happens sometimes.

‘I… Don't want to weird her out. She’s probably asleep.’

‘Just go in quietly, and if she’s asleep then you leave, and if she’s not… stay. Just tell her the truth.’

‘What’s the truth?’

‘You miss her.’

Kevin wondered, how could you miss someone when they were right across the hall from you? It wasn't untrue… Still, he felt clingy and… young. They’d spent the whole afternoon and evening together- it was the first time Kevin had seen Casey cry. He suspected she didn't cry often- it was short and silent. He let her cry into his shoulder when she got back from work, her bags around her feet- hazards in the doorway. She was afraid and happy, he thought. A day full of emotion and he understood. He felt what she felt.
She had kept checking her phone, both of them waiting for some alarm that her uncle was back and on a mad rampage looking for her… none came. At 7:32, he texted, reminding her to empty the trash. She quickly texted back, waited, and after 20 more minutes, he gently coaxed her to do it, block his number. She was quiet and hunched over her phone while she digitally undid him from her life.

After, she cried a little more, neither needing to say anything.

They understood.

Now, Kevin, felt a lightness in his step as he approached his door. He hesitated- should he? Before he was able to debate again, his hand moved of Barry’s volition, and gently knocked at the door. Well, less gently than Kevin would have, but what's done was done….

‘Smooth.’

‘Don't thank me.’

“Come in.”

It was muffled, but Kevin felt a little shocked when he heard it, still. He felt the urge to run back into his room, strangely, but was able to stifle it before entering the dark room. It was weird, definitely, stepping into so familiar a place somehow feeling as though he was intruding.

Casey was illuminated only by the faint light of her phone enrapturing her in a blue/white light.

“Hey.”

“Did I wake you up?”

“No, I haven't been able to go to sleep.”

It was sort of unsaid earlier, but Kevin basically forced (forced wasn’t a good word… Kevin didn’t ‘force’ anything.) her to sleep in here when he carried her bags in and automatically placed them in the nearly empty room. She didn't ask and neither did he, so he just assumed he would sleep in Barry’s more… eclectic space. It wasn't the first time he’d slept in there, but it was harder to fall asleep for sure.

“Me either.”

“You okay?”

He hugged himself and gulped when he could just see Casey’s bare shoulder when she fumbled for the bedside lamp. The sudden warm light did nothing to ease this naked realization.

“I-I should be the one asking you that.”

She just shrugged and smiled softly. Kevin wondered if he should sit on the bed…

“I’m okay… Still… a little anxious.”

“I understand that.”

Casey said nothing but looked to the corner of the bed he’d been eyeing and raised an eyebrow.

“... You can sit..?”

He laughed lightly and nodded, placing himself a little uncomfortably on the edge. He could already tell he was going to get a cramp sitting in the weird way he was.

“I uh, I just wanted to make sure you didn't need anything.” It wasn't untrue- a lot of his anxiety had stemmed from worrying he hadn't done enough for her in her anxious state. And he missed her.

“No, no I'm okay.” Her response was immediate and he wasn't sure if she’d meant it or not.

“Really?”

She shrugged a little, and looked downwards, trying to decide if she’d meant her answer.

“Um, yeah, that was a little forced…. But, yes, I'm okay.” She laughed dryly and looked away again,

“I guess I'm used to just saying that- even if I don't mean it.”

Kevin understood more than she could know.

“I relate to that on so many levels, it's not even funny.” Kevin would have been embarrassed by his own automatic response had it been in the presence of anyone else.

“I know. We both have to uh, try and be better about that, huh?”

He admired her easy attitude of strength- growth, despite everything she’d been through and had dealt with- was he ever as brave as her? He didn't think so.

“Yeah, I guess we do.”

Chapter Text

Casey has the day off, and spends it waking up in Kevin’s bed- surprised at just how comfortable she feels. Warm and soft- plush. She could stay there forever, she thinks.

She’ll ask him what kind of mattress he has, because she doesn't think she’s slept that well in her life.

She checks her phone briefly, and sits up. The bedroom door is just open enough that the latch is pressed against the door frame but not actually enclosed in it. A shadow passes by underneath and after she flinches, recovers and breathes, she gets up.
The floor creaks underneath her and she makes a point to remember where the creeks are so she can avoid them next time- the sound makes her paranoid.

The kitchen is empty, although she was sure she heard Kevin in there earlier. Strange.

Casey finds her way around and makes a cup of coffee with flavored creamer- Marshmallow Cinnamon is too sweet and yet she knows this is the tastiest coffee she’s ever had. She’s so relaxed in this space, that at first, she doesn't realize it. When she does, a feeling that if she could see, she’s sure would look like glitter, trickles down her chest and a little sigh of Happiness leaves her.
It’s so unfamiliar.

It’s SO nice.

She calls out for Kevin, but hears nothing- where is he?

Casey thinks about going into the living room and drinking her coffee in front of the Tv, but is sure Dennis wouldn't like that. She sits at the counter instead and eyes the stack of mail to her left. It’s all just bills and subscriptions to random things. The front door opens, and Casey turns. Whoever is walking through is NOT Kevin.

They stop at the counter, too far away from her, and remove a pair of gloves- delicately. They eye her once before continuing on down the hallway into Kevin’s bedroom, posture stiff but not like Dennis. It’s… graceful. The door closes. Casey feels cold. And a little afraid.

She feels like she can't move, like anything she does might be wrong. Her throat feels constricted and the urge to run is strong.

Before she can, Kevin’s door opens and out walks the person again- still Not Kevin. They eye her once more- judgement. She feels small.

They walk into the kitchen and sigh at the small amount of dishes in the sink. Casey wonders if she should've done those. The person rolls up their sleeves and begins to load them into the small dishwasher.

“You must be Casey, correct?”

Casey doesn't know whether to be more shocked over the accent and the very female sound of the voice, or the fact they acknowledge her at all.

“Yes.”

It feels like a test, and she fears if she doesn't answer correctly whoever this person (? Lady?) is, will be upset with her.

“Mm. You’re… thinner than I thought you would be.”

Casey has no idea what that means or how she’s supposed to respond to it.

“T-thank you.” She settles for accepting it with grace, albeit uncomfortable grace.

When whoever this is has finished putting the small amount of dishes into the washer, she finally sighs again and turns towards Casey. Her direct and assessing gaze is unnerving.

“Do you know who I am?”

Again, the feeling that this whole conversation is an exam is choking.

“Um. No, I don't.”

The person seems to dislike this answer and sniffs.

“Well, I suppose it’s not really your fault if none of the others spoke of me.”

The pause is awkward. Casey doesn't know if she should ask for her name.

“Aren’t you going to ask who I am?”

Casey wonders if this person read her mind.

“Yes, sorry, what’s your name.”

The person lifts a limp wrist across the counter to Casey as if she was supposed to kiss it.

“I’m Miss. Patricia.”

Casey settles for a delicate handshake.

“N-nice to meet you.”

“Likewise… Now… We have a few things to discuss.”

 

***

 

Things were… muddled. Most things were already that way in Kevin’s head- fogged over and dismantled.

But recently, maybe over the past few days (he couldn't be too sure) something was missing.

It was just vague enough that Kevin didn't know what was missing, just that something was. It took him a while to realize that it wasn't something physical- outside of himself. He was constantly patting himself down, reaching into his pockets to make sure it was all there- phone, keys, wallet, ID badge.
At home, he was distracted with the presence of Casey, but under the shower spray, he was racking his brain, trying to figure out what it was that was just… Gone.

Like a chunk of his brain he didn't know was there in the first place was now absent. A small chunk, but it was there. Or had been. He didn't know. He felt that he never knew.

It was all disconcerting and at the same time he wasn't sure he wanted to tell anyone about it. He knew he should call Dr. Fletcher- explain to her what he was feeling, she might have heard it before. Might have some advice or comfort or…

Or.

This was all brand new to her. He was different, something unexpected. This wasn't normal, even for someone like him. She would be… disappointed in him? Why did he think that? Why would she be… he didn't know. But had a strange inkling that it would upset her.

‘Best keep it to yourself, dear.’

Patricia quietly assured him in his sleepy state, and he thought maybe he imagined it… She sounded much calmer than usual. Or rather, much sweeter.