Jensen frowned furiously as he tried, without much success, to stuff two textbooks, his snow boots and his stupid puffy jacket into his uselessly skinny locker. He wasn’t really great at keeping it clean in the best of times, but the past couple of months of not caring about it at all had basically left it a junk pile that nearly toppled every time he opened the door. He still wasn’t ready to clean it out, though, so he had to find a way to fit more stuff in. It was, annoyingly, more complicated than he’d thought it’d be. After letting his textbooks drop to the bottom of the heap with heavy, muted thuds, undoubtedly crushing papers and binders and all kinds of important stuff in their wake, Jensen stepped back once more to heave himself forward. He put all of his strength into one last series of shoves, getting his boots in one by one. He was so close to getting his jacket stuffed into the tiny square section of his locker that was still visibly empty. So focused was he on his impossible task that he completely missed Danneel’s quick, sharp footsteps, didn’t notice she was even there, until she was right up in his face.
“Hey Jensen,” she said, voice loud and overly cheery in his ear.
He jumped, startled, and dropped his arms, letting all of the stuff he’d just tried to force inside his locker fall back out in an avalanche onto the dirty, checkered, linoleum of the school hallway.
He sighed in frustration, shooting Danny what he knew was not a nice look, and ignored her smile in favor of picking up his stuff and starting the process over again.
“Wow, your locker’s messy,” she said casually, clearly just talking to talk, but Jensen was already annoyed and needlessly angry with her for sneaking up on him, and he just-
“Yeah,” he answered back shortly.
“You should probably clean it soon.”
“Mmhmm,” he grunted out, pushing everything just a little bit harder.
He almost had it.
“I mean, we’ll have midterms soon before break, and you’ll have to know where everything is, and….”
Jensen tuned out her chattering, focusing instead on keeping his balance as he leaned down to pick up the last of the crap that’d fallen out of his locker with one unsteady hand. He was surprised when his fingers caught on something smooth instead of the roughness of paper or the hard front of a book.
He brought his hand up as he pushed everything in and finally shut the locker, having some idea already of what it might be and dreading actually seeing it. Jensen picked up his bag, and slung it over his shoulder, running the pad of his thumb over the dial on the padlock in his hand.
He looked down and saw it was black and silver, utterly ordinary looking and completely worthless now that it was closed. Or it would have been…before.
Jensen swallowed heavily, mind drifting to the moment he’d gotten the stupid thing.
“Jen, you’ll have a real locker now, you need a real lock, dude,” Jared said, bouncing on his toes and tossing his floppy bangs out of his face.
He handed Jensen a lumpy, hastily wrapped package and backed up a little, a small semi-shy smile on his face.
Jensen squinted his eyes, not sure what Jared’s angle was. It’d been a long summer of doing nothing, going nowhere, and eating pretty much everything in the house for Jensen. Jared had come over whenever he could, but his parents didn’t much like Jensen, and he wasn’t allowed to come over at all on family nights or Barbeque Sundays. Jared had gone to day camp some weeks, too, so that left precious little time for them to hang out and well…do nothing.
They had managed okay anyway, but in none of the time they’d gotten together had Jared even slightly mentioned middle school. Jensen had figured they just weren’t gonna talk about it until it happened.
Fine with him. He barely wanted to think about it. A whole year without Jared.
“You can’t let people steal all of your stuff, y’know?” Jared said, looking down at his shoes, and shuffling on Jensen’s front porch. He wouldn’t come in. His mom wouldn’t let him, not this late, but Jared could be super bratty and make pretty much anyone do what he wanted if he really wanted something.
Jensen was sure he’d pulled out the puppy eyes this time. Those babies were weapons, seriously.
There was no other way he could have gotten his mom to bring him to Jensen’s place the night before the first day of school just to hand him a…a what?
Jensen opened the lumpy thing warily, having only half listened to Jared’s rambling, and was surprised when he saw what it was.
“Well duh,” Jared said, rolling his eyes. “What else?”
“Um….thank you?” Jensen said, still thrown off, because why would Jared buy him a padlock?
Jared just shoved him, shaking his head in fake disgust. “Wow, see if I ever get you another gift, Jen.”
“What, dude, I just….I don’t…”
“Just...” Jared interrupted, voice strangely soft. “Just have a good first day yeah? Don’t be dumb, and don’t be all sulky like you get. Make friends, and…stuff.”
Jensen looked at him, at the blush rising on his cheeks and the awkward way he looked everywhere but at him, and felt this weird urge to hug him stupid.
It was dumb, the lock. And he wasn’t even sure he’d need it ‘cause the lockers at school probably had them built in, but he just…
“You’re so stupid,” Jensen said, punching Jared lightly on the shoulder, and shaking off the sudden surge of emotion.
“Whatever,” Jared said, before leaning in quickly and hugging him tight.
It wasn’t a long hug, and he didn’t give Jensen time enough to even return it. He turned as soon as he stepped back, tossing words over his shoulder.
“If anyone talks to you don’t just glare…okay? My mom says I can come over afterschool if I finish my homework before.”
Jensen rubbed a hand over the back of his head, confused and still feeling all warm and mushy from Jared’s hug.
The lock didn’t really come in handy at all. Turns out there were locks built in and after opening it once Jensen closed it by accident and promptly forgot the combination to open it again. He dropped it in the bottom of his locker, unconcerned with where it’d end up, and shuffled his way to his first middle school class.
The padlock had stayed there, unused and forgotten…
“Jens?” Danny asked, touching his arm to get his attention, and Jensen jumped away from her hand.
“Yeah. Yeah, what?” he asked, shaking the memory loose and curling his fingers around the lock.
“You okay? I mean it’s okay if you’re not, y’know. You can tell me.”
Jensen turned away from her concerned frown and started walking down the hall to homeroom.
“No, seriously,” Danneel muttered, stumbling alongside his faster, longer stride. “I mean I know we don’t do the same counseling thing, but like…you are my friend, and I think your guy, Eliot, does a lot of the same stuff my guy does, and I overhear sometimes, just a little bit, and maybe it could help if you just-”
“Danneel!” Jensen snapped, turning to look at her right outside of his homeroom door. He looked down and away, seriously uncomfortable with how closely she was looking at him, and all of the memories and moments crowding around in his brain, still. He didn’t need this. Couldn’t do this with her.
“I’m fine…just…leave me alone, okay?”
She looked hurt for a split second, too short for anyone but him and Sophia to notice, before nodding hurriedly and walking away to her own homeroom.
Jensen just sighed, stepping into his homeroom, finding his usual desk and putting his head down while he waited to hear the loud, obnoxious bell ring for first period.
He spun the lock in dizzying circles in front of his face, and tried to forget he ever existed before.
When lunch came around, and Sophia dove into the fray to get to the front of the line for her pudding, Danny tugged on his hand a little, pulling it into hers and touched their sweaty palms together for a second.
Jensen was a little weirded out at first, but then she said,
“You can talk to me…if you want, y’know. Like…I can’t do anything, but I’ll do this.”
She squeezed his hand in hers, and Jensen looked down at them…her soft, pale hand wrapped around his longer fingers, and rough, bulky knuckles. He knew there was probably dirt in the whirls of his fingertips, and Danny was kind of a clean freak, but when he tried to pull away she just pulled him back and held on tighter.
It felt nothing like when Jared hugged him, but it was still warm. And if her palm got a little sweatier when he gave in and folded his fingers over hers, tucked their hands under the lunch table…he didn’t notice it too much…not enough to ask why.
When Mr. Jake came back Jared cried. It was maybe a little because he was scared (always scared), but also because, now that he was back, Jared had one less thing to worry about.
He hated him so much, hated him for keeping him here, but….he wasn’t alone anymore.
He sobbed, heavy and heartfelt, in Mr. Jake’s arms. He felt disgusting for doing it, but afterwards his chest was lighter. He could breathe a little better.
Mr. Jake didn’t let him see or walk himself out of the dark place where he’d kept him before he came back. He roughly wiped Jared’s face clean with a washcloth that was damp and warm, and gave him a big shirt to wear before tying what felt like soft cotton (a sock maybe) around Jared’s head. The darkness of before was replaced with a new kind of darkness, no shapes hiding in what he couldn’t see. In fact, not even the hint of light made it through the blindfold.
It made him feel even more uncertain, and he didn’t dare move when he couldn’t see what Mr. Jake was doing.
He didn’t have to.
Mr. Jake picked him up and wrapped him in some kind of scratchy blanket. Jared didn’t even try to struggle, knowing no good would come from it. He tried to figure out where he was being taken, not sure why he needed to know, but sure that it would make him feel better if he knew how to get back to the place he’d been stuck for so long.
It was only a few seconds though, going what felt like up, and a few more seconds of cold, whipping air against his face and then Jared was set down on something soft and solid. He reached out his hands and felt around him, palms gliding over the smooth coolness of….sheets?
“Welcome to your new home, Jared.” Mr. Jake said, and Jared wasn’t sure, but it sounded like he was smiling.
“It’s not much, but…it’s surely a step up from where you were. It’s warmer too.”
Mr. Jake reached behind his head then, startling Jared a little. He put a steadying hand on Jared’s shoulder and untied the blindfold.
Jared blinked his eyes, letting them adjust to the dim lighting that came from a small lamp in the corner.
He took in the new place.
There was a bed. Not like the one he had at his real home; it didn’t have a frame or his favorite race car blanket from years ago, but it was big, and way softer than the ground he’d had to lay on before.
There was a small, dusty table next to his bed, and a boxy, old looking TV in the other corner. A small heater was pushed up against the far wall.
His same bucket was set in front of what looked like the door, wooden and scratched and probably padlocked (impossible to move, impossible to break), but there were big jugs of water next to it, and a crate with a bunch of stuff on it. Jared looked up with a question in his eyes and Mr. Jake waved his hand in what Jared had come to know meant “go ahead”.
He walked closer and peered down onto the crate to see a blue toothbrush, toothpaste, a bar of soap, and a small towel on top.
Jared smiled, and then couldn’t help the small laugh that bubbled up in his chest. He felt like he hadn’t gotten clean in ages.
When he turned around to look at Mr. Jake, he was smiling. Jared could see it this time.
He had a nice smile.
“Thank you,” Jared said, still chuckling just a little, not entirely sure why.
“You’re welcome, my sweet boy” he said, laying one heavy hand in Jared’s long, tousled hair. “I’ll come in and make sure everything is as I like it at night. You keep the light on. You get to wash and brush your teeth once a day. You keep this shirt on, unless told to change, and you keep that bed nice and warm for me, okay?”
“Okay,” Jared said, nodding, not sure what else he should do.
Mr. Jake left him to it, that night, to get used to his new space.
Jared thought that it meant things were getting better, somehow, that maybe he’d let Jared go soon. Or maybe he just hoped a whole whole lot that was what it meant.
He really should have known better.
There were movies.
Mr. Jake would come and visit him a lot more now that Jared was in what he called “the shed” in his head, or what Mr. Jake called his “new home”. Sometimes he didn’t do anything but talk about his day, about all of the people he saw, and about how everyone looked at him funny.
He’d say weird things about how somebody was watching him, and how no one understood. Jared never really got what it was that no one understood, but he didn’t really have to get what Mr. Jake talked about to be able to nod along at the right parts.
He’d gotten good at that…nodding along.
But sometimes Mr. Jake came with movies. He called them Jared’s “visual education” and said they were to help him feel good when he came home after a really tough day.
Jared knew enough to know that he shouldn’t have been watching it, and the wrongness of it, the squirmy, badsickwrong-ness of it made him look away the first couple of times, until Mr. Jake had to sit behind him and hold his head in position to make sure he didn’t. Jared wouldn’t (couldn’t?) move his head out of his hands.
A few times he got this odd feeling about the movies, like the kids in it (some of them younger than him, and that made his stomach hurt every time too) were off somehow, a little unreal.
It was weird, and made him uncomfortable, but those times were not the worst times. There were times, like before, like when he’d been in that dark place, that Mr. Jake came for that again, but it was different now.
Sometimes Mr. Jake wanted Jared’s mouth and it was wet, heavy, choking pressure, dizziness, and raw, burning throat. Unable to think, unable to breathe except in between shoves, and his chest tightening in fear that this was how it’d finally stop. That everything would go dark for good.
Sometimes the lack of air, the aching tightness…the looming darkness…was welcome.
But he always woke up afterwards, eyes crusted over from the tears that he hadn’t realized he’d cried and body sore and bruised.
Lately, Mr. Jake wanted Jared more than once. He stayed away for way longer than he used to, but stayed with Jared longer too. And he left suddenly, almost always gone by the time Jared woke, which made him feel a bit better and a bit worse at the same time.
Sometimes Mr. Jake brought gifts; food, or pencils and paper, or books for Jared to read, old and torn and worn looking. Novels and nonfiction, both, that Jared soaked up with an intense curiosity and longing for pretty much anything outside of the four walls of “the shed”.
On days when Jared was very good and Mr. Jake was in a very good mood, he would leave the TV on, taking Jared’s “visual education” with him, and wave his hand in that way that Jared had come to know meant “go ahead” and Jared could watch anything he wanted; shows he’d missed, and shows he’d used to watch with Jensen, and shows his mom would never have let him watch at home.
Jared had forgotten how funny TV could be.
He was glad Mr. Jake had good days, too.
He could forget, on those days, how bad the bad days were.
Jensen was glad when winter break came for more than one reason. He was happy to not be in classes, duh, but he was also pretty stoked about not having to be around Danny and Sophia for a little while. It made him feel like the biggest jerk on the planet, but Danny was acting really strange lately, at least around him; avoiding his eyes when she was talking to him, or making excuses to get away from him in the halls. Danneel acting weird tended to make Sophia all moody and sulky too, so lunch had basically turned into Danny babbling at him nervously while Sophia silently stared down her pudding or whatever. It was awkward, but they were his friends now, sort of, and so he didn’t want to just stop spending time with them. Maybe winter break would give them time to work out whatever it was, or at least time to forget about it. Jensen hoped that was what happened.
Aside from that he was just happy to not have to work so hard pretending to care about things he really couldn’t care less about, like dances, and crushes, and clothes. All of that seemed so far away, now.
Christmas was usually a quiet affair in the Ackles household, and this year was no different. Jensen didn’t have tons of cousins, no nosy Aunts, or crazy Uncles to fill up the house or holiday with noise, hustle and bustle. His mom had one sister, that she didn’t really talk to anymore, and his grandparents lived in a senior home down in Florida, too old and ill to fly up to visit often. His mom didn’t much like to fly, so their once a year trip down there was usually in the summer, when she could get off work for a family “vacation” for a few days in a row, and not have to call in sick days to do it.
So, Christmas meant her, Jensen, and Josh going shopping for the cheapest fake tree, and scrambling to find meaningful gifts for each other that they hadn’t already gotten in past years.
Jensen got a baseball mitt, a bulky black watch, and an ACDC t-shirt from his mom; he got a CD to match, and new socks from Josh. His dad sent him a card in the mail, signed from both him and Mac, that said “Happy Holidays” and nothing more, with a $25 gift card to Chik-Fil-A inside. He threw out the card, but tucked the gift card into his back pocket.
His mom made a turkey casserole and bought their favorite pie for dessert, and they all squished into the couch to watch a Charlie Brown’s Christmas tape that Jensen’d had since he was small.
It was maybe not the Christmas that people usually had, but it was theirs.
Jensen sat down at the foot of the couch with his second piece of pumpkin pie, feeling warm, and full, and comfortable in his new socks. Something in the back of his mind kept niggling at him, though, like the small squeak in a bathroom door, not loud enough for him to do anything about it, but getting more and more annoying the longer he ignored it.
He tried to get really into the movie, to let it go, but he knew the lines of this backwards and forwards by now, and it was easy to zone out to.
So he tried thinking about what it could be that was making him so jumpy, but his mind drew a complete blank. He was walking back to the kitchen for a glass of milk, about to mention to his mom that maybe he should up his dosage of Xanax, when he noticed she was on the phone, fingers twisting in the long cord as she “Uh huh-ed and Okay-ed”.
And it hit him suddenly, solidly, and horrifyingly in the chest what it was he was forgetting.
Jared should’ve been calling right now. Well…Jared would’ve been calling right now, going on excitedly about what he got, asking what Jensen was doing, and keeping him in the dark entirely about what gift he’d bought him. Jared would’ve been laughing, joking about his Uncle Gary’s toupee and Aunt Margaret’s gross irremovable lipstick stains, and how much food he’d put away. Jared would’ve been home, happy and home if he wasn’t….
If he hadn’t…
Jensen felt the chills first, racing along his skin, and inside his veins. There was tingling in his hands and feet, burning along his nerves like acid-tipped pins and needles, and he knew it was coming. He knew it was coming, and his counselor had been telling him about ways to try and stay calm. He was meant to think about good moments with Jared instead, but every thought of him just made his chest tighter and tighter because he was gone and never coming back never ever coming back, he was hurt hurt dead never coming back dead-
Jensen’s heart was beating a rapid, arrhythmic tattoo into his ribcage and no no no no no, please not today of all days.
He gasped in an effort to take in a breath, to get some air deep into his lungs, to slow his breathing like Eliot told him to, but it wasn’t working. This…this was happening.
Jensen waved his hand in his mom’s direction wildly to get her attention. Eliot told him to never try to suffer through an attack alone. If he felt the signs of an oncoming attack, he should get someone just in case things got bad enough to make a call.
So he did his best to continue with his flailing even though moving his arms felt like he was pushing through honey.
When his mom finally noticed and turned to see his face, she dropped the phone suddenly.
“Oh my god, Jensen? Jen, honey, it’s okay. Breathe, you’re going to be alright.”
His mom’s eyes were laser-focused on his, and her voice was steady, but seriously, who was she kidding?
He wasn’t going to be alright. No, he really wasn’t. Why would she say something so stupid?
Jensen just curled himself up against the counter, gripping it tightly just to have something to hold onto. He felt like all of his insides were vibrating, like his skin was gonna turn inside out, or melt off, or something, and then everyone could see how his soft, squishy insides were pounding and pulsing.
His mom didn’t try to touch him, or sit him down or anything, but she kept moving her hands toward and around him in fits and starts. He could see it out of the corner of his eye, and it was making him twitchy.
“Really, baby, everything will be fine,” she said, and kept saying, in lots of different ways. Lots of different ways of saying the same lie, and why wouldn’t she just shut up?!?!? How could she not get that nothing would ever be right again, that nothing would ever be fine again, because-
No, no, no, no, no, and then Josh came in with his stupid laughing face, saying something about a football and a doghouse, and Jensen just couldn’t anymore. He just-he had to get away.
So he ran.
Oh, he ran.
He ran, and ran, and ran, and ran, socked feet snagging against random rocks on the pavement, and arms covered in goosebumps, even though he couldn’t feel the cold, could only feel the hot, painful prick of tears in his eyes, and the blood sizzling in his veins.
He was sure his mom called him, sure Josh tried to chase him, but he heard nothing and saw nothing, but the blur of cars and houses and street signs. He ran until the tight burning in his lungs had gone cold, and his fingers and toes went numb.
He ran until he stumbled, until he fell to his knees in muddy, dirty-snow lined grass that poked icy sharp through his sweats to scratch against his overheated skin.
When he looked up, he was at the park.
And it was weird that no matter how he said it in his head it still didn’t really sound big enough, scary enough. It just didn’t sound like enough to mean everything that a stupid black top, a set of swings, and a box of woodchips had come to mean for Jensen.
How? How had this happened? And how was he supposed to just deal? To go to school and have friends, and walk around like his best friend wasn’t gone?
He stood up, angrily brushing wetness away from his face and made his way over to the swings.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
If he’d never made that bet. If Jared had never taken it. If they’d never gotten on the swings in first place…
Jensen kicked at the swing set, again and again, shook the creaking, loosening pole back and forth wildly before banging his head against it.
God, he hated this, hated everything.
He squeezed his eyes shut tight to stop the flow of useless tears and looked up at the darkening, grey sky before taking a deep breath and leaning back against the pole.
Feeling was coming back into his fingers and toes, he could breathe better now, and he realized, somewhere in the back of his mind, that it was really cold out tonight.
He looked out at the black concrete, empty but for a few pieces of trash littered across it, and made to turn away; if not to head back home, to at least leave this place. But as he went to face the street again, he suddenly saw, out of the corner of his eye, a quick flash of red.
He gasped and jerked his head back to the sight of the blacktop, confused and unsure, and not daring to hope until --
And he saw Jared. Jared, in that faded red t-shirt, running from one end of the black-top to the other. He was laughing, but he was alone.
“What are you doing?” he asked, surprised at the sound of his own voice. It was cracked and low, like he’d been screaming for hours.
Jared stopped running and turned towards him, one eyebrow raised.
“What do ya mean, what am I doing? What are you doing?”
Jensen thought about that for a second, looked around him to the swing set he’d wailed on, and the empty playground, and then just shrugged.
He guessed that was a fair question, but he didn’t really have an answer so…
When Jensen looked back at him, Jared looked smug.
“What are you doing here, Jensen?” he asked, walking closer, but still not close enough for Jensen to reach out and touch.
“You know your mama doesn’t like it when you’re late to dinner,” he said, sounding stern. His eyes were bright and teasing.
Jensen swallowed. “We…we already had dinner,” he croaked out, mind running in circles as to how Jared had gotten here, and why he was alone, and how he could get him back home, safe, and sound, and in one piece.
“Oh,” Jared said, kneeling down and tying the laces on his Converse.
Jared’s shorts rode up slightly, with his one knee bent, and Jensen noticed a bruise on his right thigh that looked strange somehow. It was big, and dark, but yellowing around the edges already. Like it was healing.
He pointed to it, feeling a little freaked out, but not completely sure why.
“Where d-did you get that, Jay?” he asked, finger trembling, mouth going dry.
Jared stood up once more, and frowned down at his own leg like he’d never seen it before.
Then his eyebrows smoothed out, and he smiled a little. “Oh that?” he said, raising his eyebrows again. "I fell.”
He rolled his eyes and stuck out his tongue at Jensen like he was being purposefully stupid, just to rile him up.
But he wasn’t though.
Jensen frowned a little, still feeling kind of weird about it, and not sure why, but he had to double check, because something was telling him that that didn’t make any sense.
“Are you sure?” he asked, bending forward slightly to try and get a closer look.
Jared leaned down, and set his hand against it, fingers directly in line with the shape of the thing, and repeated, “I fell, Jen.”
Jensen looked closer at the way Jared’s hand fit into the bruise, turned his head this way and that, and then saw, really saw what he was looking at all of sudden. Dread trickled cold down the back of his throat and settled heavily in his belly, like iron.
It was a hand.
The bruise was in the shape of a large hand.
Jensen fought back nausea fiercely, and forced himself to ask one last question, even though he was sure he wouldn’t get the answer he was looking for.
“Who did this to you?” Jensen asked intently, eyes never straying from Jared’s face.
Jared bit his lip, frowning a little, and then opened his mouth, and let out a loud horn sound.
“What?” he asked, slapping one hand against his right ear.
Jared opened his mouth again, frowning uncertainly, and just as Jensen thought he’d let out an actual name, he heard another hooooooonk.
“Jared?” he asked. “What did you say?”
What was going on? Why couldn’t Jared talk anymore?
He looked a little angry now, like Jensen was the one not making any sense.
“I said, Hoooooooooooooonk!!!”
Jensen jumped, startled awake by that horrible sound, and looked up to see his mom and Josh in the car, idling on the side of the road, at the top of the hill. He was sitting in the swing, his arms wrapped around himself at the chill in the air, and when he straightened to stand up his back felt sore.
He got into the car carefully and took the fleece that Josh handed back to him with a small nod.
It wasn’t until they’d gotten back home and his mom turned off the car and just sat for a minute in the driveway that he even got up the energy to speak.
“I’m sorry” he croaked out, voice barely a whisper in the silent car.
“I know, Jen,” his mom said softly. “C’mon….” she sighed, popping open her door and looking back at him with an almost smile. “Let’s get you warm, huh?”
Jensen nodded tiredly and slowly made his way inside.