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Gasping for Air (On Hiatus)

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At no point in his life would anyone use the word “subdued” to describe Shouyou Hinata. Such a description would be implausible. Everything was all or nothing with him -- enough energy and stamina to play volleyball late into the night, enough fierceness to take on opponents taller and stronger than him and tell them that he will win. Shouyou was laughs and smiles and jumps, he was summer and light and a vast blue sky. Never in his life had he ever stopped trying to soar to be the best version of himself he could be.

Even when he learned to walk, Shouyou thought he could fly. He would race through his house, naked with only a towel around his shoulders like a cape, his toddler body pent up with energy after being forced to sit in a bath for so long. Jumping off whatever furniture he could climb, Shouyou would yell “bwaah!” and “gwaah!” and overall simply amuse his parents. His mother would sigh and shake her head, his father chuckling under his breath while he pretended to chase the young boy, letting him keep ahead until the older Hinata was exhausted by his son.

Even to Shouyou himself, a softened or solemn attitude would feel uncharacteristic. It would be as if he were looking into a mirror, and simply not recognizing himself -- a version of himself he discarded before it even began to develop, a part of his psyche he disowned and wished never to meet. What would that feel like? To be confronted with a part of yourself that you did not even recognize?

It would feel like a weight in the stomach, pulling your insides down until you feel sick enough to throw up even the most delicious food, the most necessary water. It would feel like a sledgehammer weighing heavily over your chest, leaving you just enough room to wheeze and whine and feel the need for air but never gasp enough. It would feel like that juggernaut of hysteria confronting you in the only places you feel safe, as if everyday was just another trip to the abattoir.

It would be --

It could be --

It was --

The worst thing Shouyou had ever felt.

***

The first time he felt this way, he was only nine, and he didn’t yet understand why he felt such a crushing weight of emotions. He didn’t understand this feeling of self-disconnection. He did understand that he felt like crying all the time, and he hated crying. He liked to smile, he liked to run around and laugh (his mother always smiled when he smiled, his father looked less tired when Shouyou laughed for him), but he didn’t feel like doing any of these things anymore. He wanted to sleep. He always felt tired, even when he napped all throughout the day and slept through the night. Sometimes, he even got mad over the tiniest of things.

He knew he shouldn’t have, but the other night at dinner he threw his plate to the floor when his mom said he had to finish his vegetables. The greens on his plate that he usually merely grumbled over, now stared at him like little veggie monsters, prompting a spike of rage. And the week before, when his mother took him along to shop in the market, he stomped his feet the whole way, whining and complaining and even screaming that he didn’t want to go -- when usually a trip to the market was a fun outing for the young boy.

His parents, at first preoccupied by the upcoming birth of their daughter, hesitated to call young Shouyou out for his overall mood swings. As the situation persisted, however, they called his teacher, trying to find out if anything had happened at school. No, Shouyou’s teacher said, the young boy was popular among his classmates, and no quarrels had occurred -- the only things that had seemed different in the past few weeks had been Shouyou’s slowly growing quick trigger to become frustrated and his academic performance falling slightly. The teacher, knowing that Shouyou was expecting a sister soon, had assumed the boy was receiving less attention at home than usual, and was acting out as a result.

Lost as to what was wrong with their son, what could be happening right before their eyes that they were missing, the Hinata parents tried to confront him about it. They couldn’t wait any longer -- Shouyou only grew worse, looking miserable when he joined his parents for mealtimes, neglecting his health and only bathing when his mother absolutely forced him to, spending nights with his arms wrapped securely around his knees, legs pulled up to his chest, staring at programs on the television rather than read or run around like he used to. Shouyou was obviously not going to confront his parents with what was bothering him -- and the more they watched their bright sunshine fade, the more anxious they became.

His parents approached him one night, before Shouyou was to go to bed.

“Shouyou, honey,” his mother began, sitting beside Shouyou on his bed as he grasped a stuffed bear tightly in his thin arms. His father sat on his other side, holding Shouyou’s stuffed dog in his large palm, fingering the ears and the frayed tail absently while he stared down at his son, eyes softening as he watched his son fidget.

“Mama, I wanna sleep,” Shouyou whined, interrupting his mother before she could even begin to question him. His mother’s brows furrowed, her hands clasped pale in her lap as she bit on her lower lip.

“Just wait a little bit, Shouyou. We need to talk with you, okay? Everything’s okay… We want to know why you’ve been acting out lately, honey. You’ve been sleeping so much… You don’t want to play with papa outside anymore. Your teacher says you’ve been doing worse in school. Your papa and I aren’t mad, we just want to know what’s going on, honey. Please tell us.” Shouyou’s mouth fell open, but no words came out.

Shouyou could feel it, again, curdling in his stomach -- that feeling he hated. He wanted to cry again, and he didn’t even know why. He could feel it, clawing up his insides and trying to escape his throat, threatening to choke him and take away all the air in his lungs. Please, he just wanted it to end. He wanted to feel happy again. He didn’t want to make his parents sad or mad or worried -- and, and, he was trying really hard, he just -- he just couldn’t…

“I… I, I… I can’t say! Please don’t ask, mama, papa! I can’t, I just can’t!” Shouyou threw his head back, squeezing his eyes shut as tightly as he could, yet he could still feel the pull of tears. His teeth bit down on his bottom lip as he tried to both hold in his sobs as well as take a breath of air to fill his aching lungs. He couldn’t do both, and he struggled in that state in between, feeling worse than ever because he couldn’t choose between his two salvations.

I’ve come this far, thought Shouyou. Why does one question make me this sad? I thought I was okay! I thought everything is okay! Everything’s supposed to be okay! Everything needs to be okay! It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay…

Then why do I feel this way?

“Shouyou,” his dad tried, “You can tell us anything. Why can’t you say? Is someone else telling you that? It’s okay Shouyou, you can tell us anything. We love you so, so much.” His dad snuggled the stuffed puppy he was holding into Shouyou’s lap, at the same time raising his palm and threading his long fingers through Shouyou’s bright hair, pulling his son closer to him and engulfing the younger Hinata in his own warmth.

The young Hinata child shook his head fiercely, over and over, as if trying to deny something to himself. His hands grasped the stuffed animals tighter as he snuggled closer to his father, continuously throwing his head back and forth, making small high pitched noises at the back of his throat.

“Papa, papa…! I don’t understand! Everything’s supposed to be okay! And, and… I -- I’m not supposed to bother you mama, papa… You’re so busy with my sister coming soon, and, and… everything’s supposed to be okay! She said it was okay! But, but… Please papa, I just wanted everything to be okay! Please papa, I don’t understand!” The tears finally came, Shouyou’s big brown eyes swelling up as salty tracks trailed down his face, landing in his open mouth or dribbling off his chin. His tiny hands curled into fists, fingernails digging into his palm as he furiously tried to wipe the water off his face; at the same time, he gasped, ugly sobs leaving his mouth as his tongue tasted the saltiness his tears left.

His parents were left agape at the sight of their son. Never before had they seen him in such a state. Shouyou giggled, he snickered, he smirked, he beamed… Never had they seen their little bird so unable to fly, so broken and forced to the ground. The Hinata parents felt their stomachs drop, the anticipation of what to come haunting their maternal and paternal instincts. They recovered quickly, however, both engulfing Shouyou in their arms, his mother’s round belly pressing against his side, his father’s fingers grasping his hair lightly, as if to grasp for older, simpler times.

A parent’s simplest wish is for their child to be happy.

They just wanted Shouyou to smile for them again.

“Who, honey?,” his mother started, gently inquiring as to who was manipulating Shouyou into keeping everything to himself. “Who is she? What happened? Please, Shouyou… Papa and I still love you so much, and even with your little sister is coming, we still care about everything in your life. Please, Shouyou, just tell us. We can help you…” His mother pleaded with her son, tears welling up in her eyes as she watched her son’s body shake itself with sobs, watched her husband’s fists clenching tightly as he himself let tears slip from his eyes. Both looked physically pained over their son’s hurt, wishing they could have prevented it from ever happening in the first place. Why did their son have to suffer?

“Please,” gasped Shouyou, wiping the mucus from his nose with his shirt, finally finding the tiniest pocket of air to breathe in. “Please, please, I -- I just wanted everything to be okay! She said you -- you would hate me if I told! She -- I -- I, I just, I just don’t wanna be a bad boy! Please mama! Please papa!” The young boy threw his arms around his dad, wrapping them as tightly as he could, pulling himself close so there was no space between him and his father. His bony knees dug into his father’s thighs, his face pressed against his father’s shoulder, tears soaking his father’s white dress shirt. After a moment’s pause, the elder Hinata grasped his son just as tightly, pulling his son impossibly closer, feeling the warmth of his son’s body and tears, trying to engulf Shouyou with his own larger body, trying to let his son know that he was not alone, that he had shelter in his parents.

“I -- I wanted to say something at first, but then I didn’t know how -- and she said, she said, said that you would hate me. And I didn’t want you to hate me! I didn’t want you to get mad because my baby sister is coming, and she said if you got mad my baby sister might die -- and I just -- I just wanted everything to be okay! And, and, she said it was okay! I didn’t think so, but she said -- and she said -- I didn’t want to but she said it was okay! Please mom, please dad! I don’t want you to get mad, I don’t want the baby to die!”

Little Shouyou didn’t understand yet -- would always, probably, reject the idea -- that some people in the world were truly bad people. Shouyou liked people -- he liked meeting new friends and playing with them, and he liked talking a lot. He didn’t want to be scared of people. But he was scared, and he didn’t know why, because she was nice, and he liked her, but he didn’t… he didn’t like the things she did. She made him laugh, but she also made him sick to his stomach. She gave him candy, and helped him with his homework, and let him stay up late… But she made him -- she made him -- do things, do things he didn’t want to do. And she -- she did things to him. She always said it was okay, it was okay, it was okay, but Shouyou didn’t think so anymore. Not when he was scared of her.

Shouyou’s mother wrapped her arms around her stomach, dread creeping up. This woman that Shouyou was talking about manipulated him with such horrible lies. Stress like this wasn’t good, but it would not kill the baby. But little Shouyou didn’t know that. He only knew that his mother and father told him to behave well for his mother, so that the baby could be as happy and healthy as she was. Such words coupled with such lies...

“Shouyou, it’s okay… Mama is going to be fine, okay? Your baby sister isn’t going to die. Even if papa and I were mad -- which we’re not, we love you so much honey. Even if papa and I were mad, that wouldn’t make your sister die, okay? And we’ll never hate you, never, we love you so much, forever and ever and ever… You know that, right? We love you so much, Shouyou, nothing could ever change that. Please, we just want to help you, honey. Tell us what happened,” his mother pleaded, running her hand up and down her son’s back in an effort to calm the boy down. It seemed to help little -- the boy still clung to his father, still sniffled quiet sobs, still shook despite his parents’ reassurances.

“I -- I -- you always told me, you always told me, that no one should ever -- should ever touch me there. And -- and -- I swear -- I was going to tell you, because you said it wasn’t right, because you said to tell you -- but, but, she told me it was okay, she told me it was okay, I swear, I swear, please mom, please dad, don’t -- don’t hate me!” Shouyou gasped his last words out, finally relaxing his grip on his father and dropping his body back onto his bed. He pressed his face into his sheets, not wanting to look at his parents -- not wanting to see what a horrible child they thought he was. His hands grasped the sheets repeatedly, his legs squirming as if to remove some sort of internal pain -- yet his tics did nothing to ease the anguish the young boy’s body was exuding as an extension of his emotional trauma.

At the same moment, time seemed to stop for the Hinata parents. As soon as the words left Shouyou’s mouth, touch me, the parents felt their whole world shatter.

I’ve… Failed my son. I should have been there to protect him -- and yet -- he still -- he had to suffer when neither his mom or I even noticed! Shouyou’s father sat unmoving at the side of Shouyou’s bed. His head dropped, his arms hung uselessly by his sides. Tears flowed unhindered from his eyes, and he felt it -- that sledgehammer, weighing down on his chest, making it impossible to breathe. I can’t… I can’t cry like this. Why can I feel like this when Shouyou went through so much worse? I have to… I have to be strong for him. It’s so hard. How am I supposed to remove his sledgehammer when I can’t even remove my own? The father turned towards his son, knowing he had to at least try -- he would do anything, even take on more pain himself, if it meant helping his Shouyou.

As Shouyou had talked, his mother experienced that feeling a person gets when they know they’re about to read something horrible -- the blood leaving her stomach, that stomach drop feeling again. It did nothing to prepare her for the realization of what happened to her son. It felt almost surreal -- this was the type of thing you read about, it never actually happened to your own family. But this is happening, Shouyou’s mother thought. This is real, and someone hurt my little boy. Someone made him think it was okay to -- to -- molest him! And now he can’t even look at us… My poor boy, my poor boy… As thoughts raced through her head, the Hinata matriarch put her hand slowly on Shouyou’s shoulder, using her other hand to push away the tears on her face. She couldn’t help him before, but she had to now. That was the only thing she could do.

“Shouyou, Shouyou, Shouyou… It’s okay, please, just look at us… We love you so much, we could never hate you. Please Shouyou, we love you so much, just sit up please. I want to hug you, okay? Can you do that for me? Sit up and give your mom and sister a hug, please Shouyou.” Was she saying the right things? What was she even supposed to say in a time like this? Was she supposed to demand revenge, was she supposed to break down crying? Shouyou’s mother could do anything, but all she could remember was her son’s words, repeatedly -- don’t hate me, don’t hate me. The best she could do right now was give Shouyou all the love he needed -- give him all the love she could give.

That was what being a parent meant. Sacrificing everything to make your child happy.

***

The Hinata family fell asleep that night, wrapped together in the child’s bed, child stealing warmth and comfort from his parents, parents drowning in the pain their son experienced.

Hisa, Shouyou’s babysitter, would never face repercussions for what she did.

Shouyou would be feeling the effects for years to come.