Chapter 1: Adrift
They're at it again, Jax thought. Another fight. Jax touched the screen of iPod, cranking the volume up until the sound of blaring, thrashing metal drowned out his mom and dad fighting. He knew what it would lead to, and he couldn't stand to hear it. Sure enough, even with Amon Amarth as loud as he could stand it, he heard the smack, the shriek, the slammed door. Pulling an earbud out of his ear, Jax listened carefully. His mother sniffled, rummaged in the bathroom, putting makeup over her eye as if Jax was clueless as to what happened in the kitchen every night. As if he'd never seen the drops of blood on the cracked, dirty linoleum, in the corner where his mom had missed it cleaning up afterwards. He swore under his breath, put the earbud back in as his mom started dinner. Back to Nightjohn. He hated that stupid book, but it was better than listening to that.
His mom came in quietly, as she always did, silent as a cat. He never heard her walking, even on the creaky old wooden floors. It was like she floated or something. Her small hand on his shoulder was warm, trembled slightly still.
“Come eat, Jackson.” Her voice was low, musical.
“I have to read this. We have a quiz tomorrow.” He hated that she needed him. She was his mother. But this happened every night, just about. She seemed to need him to eat with her, for some reason he couldn't quite figure out. Something about normality, he figured.
“You can read after. Just come eat with me.”
“Fine.” He couldn't refuse, he knew it. He just wished she would stand up to him more, or something. The one time he'd tried getting in the middle of them, it hadn't gone well. His dad had leveled a look at him that was unmistakable. “Don't, boy,” was all he'd said, in his deep, smoke-scarred growl. Since then, Jax had felt something, deep inside, that was afraid and ashamed. He got mad at his mom for not standing up to him, but Jax knew he was really mad at himself. He'd spent a lot of time thinking about this. He should've stood, taken it, fought back, protected her. But he hadn't. He'd run to his room, put in his earbuds and cranked it up, painfully loud. With a sigh, he turned off the iPod and dropped the book.
Dinner was decent, at least. They got through dinner, which was awkward and difficult. Mom was pretending nothing had happened, and Jax was trying to think of something to say that wouldn't make problems. Trouble started when he came through the door, unsteady and angry. Not again, thought Jax. There was no getting out of this one. He was coming, pointing his finger and slurring, “Havin' dinner withou' me, huh? To good t'wait f'r me? Huh?” He half-fell into a chair and waved vaguely at the table. “Where's mine?”
Jax's mom got up hurriedly, spooned some leftovers from the pan onto a plate and microwaved it. Jax, meanwhile, was sitting paralyzed at the table, staring at his dad, trying to will himself invisible, hoping his dad would just eat and leave Jax alone. When his dad started to talk to him, some slurred nonsense that Jax couldn't make out, he felt his head start to throb, a steady, intense ache at his temples. Whenever he felt especially stressed, he would get these unbearable headaches, migraines almost, that left him dizzy and sick to his stomach. This headache was the worst he'd ever had.
Jax's mom set the plate and a glass of iced tea in front of his dad and sat down.
“Iced tea?” Crap. This is how it starts. “I don' want iced tea. Why would I wan' iced tea? Gimme a beer, if you know what's good for you.” He took a bite, dropped the fork when he burned his lips on the over-heated food. And that was all it took. A swipe of his hand sent the plate flying at Jax's mother, a second sent the glass smashing against the wall. Jax's mother started stammering out an apology, but he wasn't listening. He took a step towards her, stood over her cowering form, fist raised.
Jax shot to his feet, headache gone or forgotten, standing up so fast the chair crashed to floor. His dad cast a glance at Jax.
“No!” Jax shouted. “You won't! No more! Leave her alone!” His dad took a lumbering step away from Jax's mother, towards him. Panic started to boil up in his throat, a hard knot forming in his stomach, a feeling that he'd taken a step over an edge that he couldn't take back. A second stumbled step, creaking heavily on the wooden slats of the floor. Jax couldn't move from the spot, even if he wanted to. He wouldn't run away again. Not again. A third stomped footstep and his dad was there in front of him, sour beer breath and unfocused eyes and hard, raised fist only inches away. Time seemed to slow down for Jax. His mother was watching wide-eyed and fearful, shaking her head, mouthing no no no. Jax's dad was weaving back and forth, his clenched fist was starting its downward arc towards Jax like a falling rock.
Then something seemed to break open inside Jax, like the top of a shaken soda bottle exploding off and upwards and away. Everything stopped. His mother was frozen in place on her chair, her black hair curling in tendrils, sweeping across her face as she turned her face away from the imminent impact. His dad was leaning slightly away from Jax, trying to keep his balance even as he threw his fist at his son. His face was lined, weathered and scarred, Jax noticed for the first time. In the frozen space between seconds Jax realized his parents weren't as old as he'd always assumed. They probably weren't even older than Mr. Schuman, his geometry teacher. His dad, especially, just looked...so rough, so hard. The lines on his face were deeply etched like gouges in a wooden table, and there were dozens of scars, thin white lines all over his face.
The reality, or unreality, rather, of what was happening struck Jax, forcefully. Everything was stopped, just completely frozen. Jax could see specks of dust floating motionless in the air, a bead of sweat clinging to his dad's chin, about to fall, but not. Jax found himself unable to move, found the fear still crouching inside his chest, found himself angry all of a sudden, really truly angry now, not just pissed off and sullen like usual, but burning with rage at the whole stupid situation that was almost frightening in its intensity. His dad, who never seemed to do or say anything kind, or gentle, who didn't love him, or his mom, it seemed. His mom, who stood by and took the hurt, never saying anything, never stopping it. Jax would go with her, if she left his dad. In a heartbeat, he'd leave. He was so angry. He had to do something. Something. Anything.
He lifted his hand, palm outwards, like a martial artist doing a palm-strike, his hand lifting all on its own. Jax felt the anger and resentment building and coiling in his chest and his head and his arms like a snake about to strike, and then all the pressure from everything just burst out and Jax felt it explode through him, through his up-raised hand.
Time returned with a deafening roar, a sound like a hundred jet engine turbines at full blast layered over the guttural growl of lions and a high-pitched whine like feedback from a speaker. Time returned, and Jax's father flew backwards through the dining room like a thrown doll, crashed into the wall of the living room, not just into it, but through it into the yard beyond. He struck the grass hard enough to dig up a furrow of dirt where he hit, rolled into the street in front of an oncoming car. The vehicle screeched to a stop, swerved and fishtailed, honked its horn furiously, but kept on going. They lived in that kind of neighborhood, where no one interfered in anyone else's household...issues. Jax stared, amazed and horrified. He found his feet taking steps, moving towards the gaping hole in the wall, which he stepped through. He knelt over his dad, in the street. He was breathing, but bloodied and unconscious. Or Jax thought he was, until a hand shot out and grasped Jax around the throat, lifted him up into the air slowly as his father rose to his full height, blood streaming down his face in red ribbons.
“So you opened it up, huh, kid? You found it?” His words made no sense to Jax, but they were sober and steady, forceful and lucid. Jax gasped and gurgled, kicked and thrashed. “I knew you would someday. It was only a matter of time. You didn't belong here, I told them that when they put you with us. You just don't fit. Not with us. Not with me, and certainly not with her.” He set Jax down to his feet and loosened his grip enough so that Jax could breathe, but didn't let go, still gripping hard enough to make Jax squirm and scratch at the hand that held him. His dad thrust a hand into the pocket of his stained jeans, pulled out a wad of cash, stuffed it into Jax's pocket. Completely baffled now, Jax just stared at his dad. “You don't know me, you don't know her, and you really don't know yourself. Get out of here. I have no idea where you'll end up, and I don't care. But I can promise you that you'll find what you're looking for, and who you are, even if you don't know you're looking, or what you're looking for. Wipe that stupid confused look off your face. I know this doesn't make any sense. Look at what you just did. Does that make any sense? Has anything ever really made any sense to you? Gah...I'm still drunk...look, kid, this is simple. Confusing, and complicated, but essentially simple. What just happened means you came of age. And that means, in the heritage that you come from, that you're not gonna fit in the normal, above-everything world. You're going down below it, now, into something...else. Because you are something else. Just go, kid. You'll end up where you gotta be, when you gotta be there, and someone will show up to help everything make sense. This is the only thing I got to give you. Now go.” A necklace, a heavy thick silver chain with a strange rune-shape pendant was laid on Jax's neck. And with that Jax's dad released his grip and went back towards the house, stumbling slightly still, but steady. His mother was standing in the hole in the wall, staring sadly at Jax, but making no move to do anything. Typical. She raised her hand in farewell, and Jax could've sworn he saw her hand glow a little, like a trick of the light or something, but he knew, kind of, that it wasn't a trick, that something was happening. He felt a lightening in his stomach, an easing of the fear and uncertainty that laid there like a load of bricks, a brush of comfort, a sense that everything would work out. His mother kissed her fingertips and blew on them, and Jax felt a warmth infuse him. He took one shaky step down the street, a single footstep on the cracked blacktop, and it felt like he'd taken a step that would change him forever, a step over a line that he couldn't take back. He took a second step towards the pool of light shed by a streetlamp, the sickly orange glow that cast long, loping shadows that chased you, passed you and ran ahead of you as you passed. A dozen steps brought him into the center of the pool of light and Jax looked back at his house, but the hole was gone, the lights were off, except the bathroom light, where Jax could envision his mother brushing her teeth in her thigh-length Florida Keys T-shirt, leaning over the square porcelain white sink, rusted faucet running, the pitted mirror of the medicine cabinet reflecting her tired, delicate, features and sad eyes.
The one last glance ended up being a long lingering moment of temptation to turn back and go in, climb into his bed under the thin cold sheets and watch the shadows move until sleep dragged him down. You're something else, kid, Jax heard again in his head. He took another step, and felt a thread snap inside him, a severing of the hold that the house had on him. It was a strange feeling. It was like that first rush of breath after his father let go of his throat, a relief, exhilarating and wonderful. It was also scary, being cut loose from the only home he'd ever known, all of a sudden, no warning, nothing at all. It was Wednesday, an ordinary day, but here he was, walking away from his parents, his life, and he'd just experienced the strangest sequence of events of his entire life. Time had stopped, actually stopped. He'd done...something...to his father. Something violent and terrifying...and exciting too, in a way that felt...almost wrong. Like the feeling of cutting 6th hour algebra with Danny to get slushies and sneak cigarettes in the cemetery. Fun, but more exciting for the rush of knowing you might get caught. Jax had done something powerful to his big, tough, hardened, alcoholic father...and gotten away with it, sort of.
But now what? Where should he go? No answer presented itself immediately, so he did the only thing he could think of: he turned on his iPod--which he had had in his pocket the entire time-and started walking, trying to put on a tough face, trying to just not think and hope something would happen.
Up until now, Jax had had some vague notion of how life would be: a continuation of the endless process of getting through school, avoiding his parents' fights, and eventually figure out what he wanted to do with himself. Just get through it, one day after another. Get grades good enough to pass through, avoid the bullies and popular kids, and don't get too knocked around by his dad. He spent most days alone, sometimes playing C.O.D. at Danny's, mostly just trying to stay invisible and unnoticed. Now, all that was thrown up in the air. Even his ideas of who he was, and who he would be, was all messed up. The future seemed even more inscrutable than it had before. If he was just sort of vaguely muddling along before, now he was totally adrift and alone.