Family Portrait

by Dira Sudis

Notes:

Enormous thanks to Q for handholding above and beyond the call, and beta thanks to Q and to Iulia.

Sarah seemed amused by the thought of all of them shopping together without her. Johnny smiled gamely when she said, "You love shopping for school supplies!" Behind her back, the coordinated rolls of Walt and JJ's eyes reminded Johnny that JJ didn't just call Walt "Dad" out of habit.

Apart from a brief scuffle over who got to push the cart (JJ won handily), the Bannerman-Smith shopping expedition had been mostly uneventful. Johnny had managed to restrain himself from being too enthusiastically helpful when it was time for JJ to choose his very first compass and protractor, and they'd made it all the way down the list to art supplies.

JJ and Walt were involved in a complex negotiation regarding markers, and Johnny stood a few feet away, eyeing the paints. JJ's school-issued list didn't call for watercolors this year, but there was a nice set on the top shelf. Johnny had wanted to be an artist when he grew up, when he was JJ's age. His mom had gotten him some fancy set of watercolors--tubes of paint and a palette, art student stuff for a kid with delusions of grandeur--and he'd dabbled with them on and off for maybe a month before he realized he was more interested in trees and clouds than in making pictures of trees and clouds, and that had been that.

This was just an ordinary little kit--dusty, actually, from sitting on the shelf, and the paints inside were a little dry. But the smell of watercolors always reminded him of that July at the kitchen table, and he was suddenly starved for it. He glanced sideways to see that Walt and JJ were still engrossed in the markers and then opened the case and inhaled--

She's sitting at the kitchen table, finger-painting with her sister's watercolors. Her sister's half-finished painting is lying at a right angle to her own paper. She drags her finger in a broad curve over a stick-figure family, the red top line of a rainbow, and her hair falls forward as she leans over her painting.

Her mama calls out, "Jamie!" and she looks up quickly, pushing her hair back.

Johnny smiled and set the box back up on the shelf. It looked like Jamie would enjoy the paints a lot more than JJ would: Johnny looked down just as JJ slam-dunked two packages of markers into the cart, grinning. Johnny glanced up at Walt, who was looking at him more intently. Walt raised an eyebrow, jerking his chin toward the paints in silent inquiry, and Johnny shook his head quickly, tucking his hands back into the safe territory of his pockets. JJ looked up, just about to notice the byplay, and Johnny pulled out the list and looked down at it as Walt grabbed the end of the cart and started pulling it down the aisle.

 


She's sitting at the kitchen table, finger-painting with her sister's watercolors. Her sister's half-finished painting is lying at a right angle to her own paper. She drags her finger in a broad curve over a stick-figure family, the red top line of a rainbow, and her hair falls forward as she leans over her painting.

Her mama calls out, "Jamie!" and she looks up quickly, pushing her hair back.

Johnny shook his head and he was back in the checkout line, staring down at his debit card. The cashier reached down, took it from his hand, flipped it around, and skillfully swiped it backward and upside-down. "There you go, sir."

"Yeah," he said, forcing a smile. "Thanks." Walt was staring at him. JJ, thank God, was near the door, eyeing the gumball machines.

Johnny picked up a couple of bags of stuff and Walt grabbed the rest, leaning toward him as he did, close enough to whisper without quite risking an accidental touch. They'd gotten good at this. "John--"

Johnny shook his head as they stepped toward JJ. "It's nothing. Just got a look at my statement for this month." Walt grinned, disarmed, and shifted his attention back to JJ. Yeah, he'd gotten good at this.

 


He had exactly the same vision again on the way to JJ's favorite pizza place for lunch. When he came back to himself in the passenger seat of Walt's truck his first thought was to add having a vision while driving JJ somewhere to his list of things that terrified him about his brain. His second thought was okay, what the hell?

What was that saying? Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is--something bad, he couldn't remember what now. His life was full of accidents and coincidences and, come to that, bad things of all descriptions. It was past time to start paying attention.

"Johnny?"

Time to start paying attention. Right. He looked over his shoulder at JJ, looking expectantly back at him. JJ heaved a dramatic sigh and said--repeated, obviously--"Do we really dissect a frog this year?"

Johnny glanced sideways at the slight teasing smile on Walt's face. "Nah," he said, settling back into his own seat, aiming for a tone of worldly nonchalance instead of pure relief that they were on a topic he knew. "Fifth graders start off with earthworms. You'll get to frogs in eighth grade, maybe."

"Worms?" JJ said. "Gross!" He sounded delighted.

They made it to the restaurant and to a table without further incident, but Walt didn't even let JJ sit down before offering him a handful of quarters. JJ took off for the arcade games, and Walt motioned Johnny to have a seat, peremptory as if this were his interrogation room and Johnny was in cuffs. "You wanna tell me what's going on? And don't tell me you're foreseeing my next oil change."

Walt, Johnny happened to know, changed his own oil. "No," he said. "I thought it was nothing, but the vision keeps coming back, but it's--"

She's sitting at the kitchen table, finger-painting with her sister's watercolors. Her sister's half-finished painting is lying at a right angle to her own paper, the blue of the sky shading from dark to light, a delicate bird flying across. Her sister's brushes are in a cup of water, waiting for her to return and finish. The kitchen still smells like spaghetti sauce and dish soap. She drags her finger in a broad curve over a stick-figure family, the red top line of a rainbow, and her hair falls forward as she leans over her painting.

Her mama calls out, "Jamie!" and she looks up quickly toward the door, pushing her hair back. "Jamie!" her mama calls again.

Jamie wriggles out of her seat and calls back, "Coming, mama!"

Johnny blinked and Walt was watching him, patient. Worried. "John, what is this? What are you seeing?"

Johnny shook his head. "A little girl. Painting. She's maybe five, her name is Jamie. She has dark hair. I don't think she knows how to read. She has an older sister, but her sister's not there. Her mom calls to her. That's it."

Walt was frowning, trying to make it make sense of it from only Johnny's description, which couldn't be easy. "Is there some kind of danger? Something happening to her?"

"No, that's the thing," Johnny said, staring down at the table, idly tracing that same rainbow arc across its surface. "If something's going to happen to her--she's five, she doesn't see it coming."

Walt was looking past Johnny, to the arcade games. Tracking JJ's movements. "You said she was painting, right? Can you describe the painting?"

Johnny didn't see where that was going to help, but he closed his eyes and called up the image. "It's just your basic family portrait by a five-year-old. Dad, mom, two kids and... maybe a baby? Mom's holding something. Stick figures. In front of a house. There are some trees, some clouds..."

"Yeah, okay." Walt was leaning in, by the sound of his voice. "What color is the house?"

"Yellow," Johnny said, opening his eyes on Walt's steady gaze. "Blue sky, green grass. Red and purple triangles for clothes on the girl stick figures."

Walt frowned. "Pretty normal, then. She's probably not suffering ongoing abuse or recent serious trauma, so she's not likely to be in the system. Can't find her that way."

Johnny nodded, picking up a menu even though they always ordered exactly the same things here, by JJ's demand.

"You don't think..." Walt said, and trailed off. It wasn't like him to be that hesitant. Johnny looked up. This was gonna be interesting. "I mean, if the vision keeps coming back for no apparent reason," Walt explained. "Maybe it's not her, maybe it's your brain. Maybe you should get--"

Johnny buried his face in his hands. "Yeah, great. Gosh, it's been weeks now since anyone shot my brain full of radioactive isotopes and poked at it."

There was a peculiar quality to the silence following Johnny's words. He looked up and found a waitress--not more than seventeen years old--standing there staring at him while Walt took cover behind a menu. Johnny smiled gamely. "Uh, we're gonna need a minute."

Their wide-eyed waitress nodded and fled.

 


The rest of the meal went so well Johnny was reminded of the first time he'd ever had lunch with Walt, minus the merciful interruption for serial-killer-hunting. The vision came and went another half-dozen times, sometimes starting a few seconds later, sometimes running a few seconds longer, enough to get Jamie to the hallway but not enough to tell Johnny anything useful. JJ perceived enough of Johnny's preoccupation to become mutinous and irritable with both of his dads, and Walt was obviously thrilled about the whole situation, juggling one case of psychic hiccups and one increasingly grouchy ten-year-old.

It wasn't until he'd been dropped off at his own front door that Johnny realized he'd driven to Walt and Sarah's. He could go inside and call Walt, but it wasn't as if Johnny could safely drive anywhere anyway, at this point. Johnny glanced down the road in the direction Walt had driven off, and realized he'd probably done that on purpose.

Johnny got the door unlocked before the next one hit. She's sitting at the kitchen table, finger-painting with her sister's watercolors. Her sister's half-finished painting is lying at a right angle to her own paper. She drags her finger in a broad curve over a stick-figure family, the red top line of a rainbow, and her hair falls forward as she leans over her painting.

Her mama calls out, "Jamie!" and she looks up quickly, pushing her hair back.

It was like watching home movies, and who actually watched home movies, anyway?--and he'd never been so glad that vision-time and real-time tended to run out of synch as when he made it to the alarm panel to punch his code in time. The last thing his day needed was a visit from Roscoe.

"Okay," he said in the silence of the foyer, because one of the perks of living alone was that he got to talk to himself whenever he wanted to. If you could call that a perk, and not a sign that he was going crazy. Of course, if he managed to confine his creeping insanity to the privacy of his own home, he was by definition not totally out of his mind just yet. "Yeah. Just halfway out of my mind. And halfway into somebody else's."

There had to be something there. Jamie had to be telling him something, his dead zone had to be telling him something. He closed his eyes and thought again, seeing all the things he'd described to Walt: Jamie's painting. Jamie's sister's painting--also not done all in black or filled with bloodstained corpses, though it did show some sign of artistic skill, he thought. Definitely better than his own work at age ten. "So she's the next Bob Ross," Johnny muttered. "And someday I can say I knew her when. Psychically."

There was a kitchen window, but nothing visible through it, just the reflection of the kitchen light: so it was dusk or later, or the window faced east or north, or there was a tree there, or... whatever. Back to Jamie and her mother.

Johnny opened his eyes just as he ran his hand over his own hair, as if he could tuck it behind his ear, and then held out his hands in front of him. Jamie had had paint on her fingers. She'd gotten it in her hair. Had he picked up some paint--or dust from the paint box, maybe?--that had stuck to his hands and kept the vision coming back? He couldn't see anything, but it was worth a shot. He went into his own kitchen and scrubbed his hands, dried them and then scrubbed them again, and--

She dips her finger into the red paint and drags her finger in a broad curve over a stick-figure family. She's making a rainbow and rainbows start with red. Her hair falls forward as she leans over her painting.

Her mama calls out, "Jamie!" and she looks up quickly, pushing her hair back. She thinks briefly of her barrettes, and then her mama calls again, "Jamie!"

Johnny slapped the taps off. "God damn it."

There was just nothing there, nothing, no sense from Jamie, no sense from the vision, that there was anything he needed to see. Just the endless repetition, round and round and round in circles, like a skip in a record. Johnny dried his hands again and then stared out his own kitchen window into the late-afternoon sunshine, trying to think of something to do. He was always at loose ends after he spent time with JJ: in his mind that was a whole day, right there, always, and it rarely worked out that way. He couldn't do much of anything if he couldn't get rid of this vision, and he glanced involuntarily toward the basement.

He'd moved the Bible they'd left him down there, with the rest of his Stillson paraphernalia. If he went and touched that he could guarantee himself an entirely different vision, with plenty of menace in tow, but he'd been doing a pretty good job so far of not thinking about their offer, or what it might mean. Like if he ignored it, it'd go away.

She's sitting at the kitchen table, finger-painting with her sister's watercolors. Her sister's half-finished painting is lying at a right angle to her own paper. She drags her finger in a broad curve over a stick-figure family, the red top line of a rainbow, and her hair falls forward.

"Yes," Johnny said. Out loud again, because why not? "Thank you, Jamie, for making my point for me." Or someone's point, anyway. Ignoring it wouldn't make anything go away.

He opened the basement door and walked down. Both boards were covered--out of sight, out of mind, and if you translated that phrase twice it turned into blind insanity. Which reminded him of his future self more than he'd like: his future self accompanied by that future, rifle-toting JJ, who couldn't have been more than eighteen years old but wasn't--wouldn't be--a kid at all. Armageddon was no place for children. You'll have plenty of time with JJ if it comes to that, he thought, and it was the furthest thing in the world from consolation. Ignoring this wouldn't keep Walt and Sarah and Bruce safe from whatever would happen to them--whatever he would do to them--whatever would happen.

He flipped one cloth up, throwing a cloud of dust straight into his own face, and turned his head aside to sneeze. He glanced around, but he already knew there was nothing as civilized and sane as Kleenex in his basement, nor anyone watching--probably, right? And maybe the Illuminati wouldn't want him if they knew he had poor hygiene--so he wiped his nose on the back of his hand, glanced at it, and froze.

"Oh, you're fucking kidding me."

The wet trail on the back of his hand was ever so faintly blue. Not just dust on his hands--no, he'd managed to snort paint right up his nose in his stupid moment of nostalgia. "This is why we don't do drugs, kids," Johnny muttered, wiping his hand on his pants in utter disgust. He flipped the cover back down over the boards and walked up to the kitchen to wash his hands again: for all the good it would do when he doubtless had some fleck of blue paint in his sinuses or his lungs, maybe even some microscopic particle in his bloodstream. It'd be Revenge of the Blood Donors all over again.

Johnny dried his hands and hit the fridge, already trying to calculate how far past his usual sensible limits he'd have to push to drown one microscopic paint chip in alcohol. It was definitely a matter for empirical testing. "All hail the scientific method," he said, and reached for the bottle-opener.

 


There were, Johnny would be the first to admit, a few flaws in his experimental design. He lacked a control group, for one thing. He had briefly considered calling Bruce, but Bruce was working today--eighty-five-year-old hips were, according to Bruce, no respecters of weekends--and tended to get annoyed, in a low-key, zen way, when Johnny lost track of the fact that he was working when Johnny wanted his help to do something else, like save the world or get drunk. Walt might have appreciated the invitation, but Johnny doubted Sarah would be best pleased by it. Sarah might have appreciated the invitation, but Walt would definitely not have been pleased about it at all.

Johnny spent a few minutes rolling the rim of his current beer bottle against his lower lip, considering who he could get into worse trouble getting drunk with--Walt, because he might say things, or Sarah, because he might do things--but the two had a disconcerting tendency to blur--doing things with Walt, saying things to Sarah--and then the whole tangled mental image slid (at a ninety-degree angle to everything) into a vision.

Her sister's paints are on the kitchen table, which is covered neatly with newsprint. There's extra paper, too, so Jamie climbs into her own chair and begins to paint, dabbing one finger delicately into the paint trays. Yellow, first, for the house, and then brown for a roof and brown for her family--they all have brown hair, even the baby, and Jamie has brown eyes, too. Her daddy sings her a song about brown eyes sometimes, when he's home. She hums the bit of the song that she remembers, smiling at the cool smooth feel of the paint on her finger and the fun of rinsing it along with her sister's brushes in the cup of water that's neatly set out. Green next, for grass, and then blue for the sky. Red for a rainbow. Daddy says there's treasure at the end of rainbows, and that's why--

"Jamie!" her mama calls. Jamie looks up quickly, and swipes her hair out of her face, thinking of her barrettes. Mama will ask where she left them and she can never remember. "Jamie!"

Jamie slides out of her chair. "Coming, Mama!" she shouts back, running from the kitchen to the hallway.

Johnny was humming "Brown-Eyed Girl" and kneeling in front of his CD rack, trying to remember if he had that one, before he realized that he'd just had that same damn vision, yet again. "Beer goggles," he informed himself, pleased. Nothing like it to make a boring vision sort of entertaining and sweet. That was what everybody thought watching home movies was supposed to be like--make you feel happy like that, remembering something cute that you'd seen before. It was nothing like the way you actually felt when you watched home movies. Then you saw your own little boy, birth to age five, calling someone else Dad, calling someone you thought you knew Mom, doing all kinds of things you'd barely had time to imagine doing with some hypothetical future child before you were in a stupid fucking car accident--

Johnny twisted over to sit on the floor, turning his back on his possibly nonexistent Van Morrison CD. He scrubbed one hand over his face, rubbing roughly at his eyes. He wasn't going to do this, he wasn't going to be this drunk, crying alone on his living room floor on a Saturday afternoon. He pushed to his feet, picked up the first two empty bottles he could locate, and headed to the kitchen, dropping them into the recycling bin before he went to the fridge to get another.

It was only comfortably warm sitting on the back step in the shadow of the house, the light slanting toward sunset across his backyard. He leaned in the doorframe and had a flash of Bruce sitting in the same spot, back when he'd first been home, doing PT. He smiled for no particular reason--the phone had rung, a girl had been dead, but at least it was a different damn vision--and sipped his beer.

The newsprint is spread neatly across the table, but the little hands are different. Different but not unfamiliar; he knows those little hands. They're JJ's hands. JJ is painting, dipping his finger in yellow paint to make a house, then brown for a roof. Johnny can feel his own body outside the vision, feel himself stiffen with anxiety at what he's seeing as JJ--but Jamie's age, barely five, JJ was still called Johnny himself then--begins to add a family in the yard of his house. He paints four figures, just like Jamie's family, but three of JJ's are adults, and there is only one child. The child and one of the men get the same daub of yellow for hair, and it can't be right: when JJ was five Johnny was "that man," not one of his dads.

But the vision is there, and he sees it.

A voice calls, and it says "Jamie!" or "JJ!" but Johnny can't quite tell which. JJ brushes his hand over his hair and it feels like Jamie's hair, tucked back--the child slides out of the seat, and when JJ calls out, "Coming, mom!" Johnny can hear the echo of Jamie's "Coming, mama!" Johnny feels himself resting heavily against the doorframe, feels himself turning his face away, eyes shut tight against vertigo or dread, because JJ and Jamie are running down different hallways as one, and JJ stops at the foot of the stairs while Jamie is barely out of her mother's reach, but it's Sarah, Sarah reaching out her hand and smiling.

She says, "Come here, honey," and JJ and Jamie see something dark and wet on her hand and think it's paint, like the red paint on their own fingers, but it's--oh, it's not paint, it's not paint at all--

Johnny opened his eyes in time to watch himself puke on the deck, already thinking, It's not Sarah, that's not Sarah, it wasn't Sarah. He staggered inside to rinse his mouth, and wash his hands again. His mouth was moving around the shape of not Sarah, not Sarah even as the vision replayed in his mind. But it couldn't be Sarah, smiling like that. Johnny scrubbed fiercely at his own hands, trying to wash off the damn paint, and something didn't add up, something beyond the fact that Sarah would never--

Sarah's hands. That was it. Sarah hated to wear too much jewelry; her hands had always been bare when he knew her, before the accident. He hadn't even given her a ring yet. And since, she wore Walt's rings, but nothing else: but in the vision there had been two rings on that right hand--Sarah's hand--spattered with--with something red. He shut his eyes and tried to think; JJ had been looking up a long way, but Jamie had been closer. Jamie knew those rings. The one on her ring finger had three stones, each one a different color, and the ring she wore on her middle finger was a gold band, thick, like a man's ring, with designs he couldn't make out.

He shut off the water. "Okay," he whispered. Okay. Two rings, two daughters, brown hair, and blood on her hands. They had to be able to do something with that, he would call Walt and--

He didn't actually have to be psychic to know that he was only going to manage to sound like a drunken lunatic at this point on the phone. And if he did get Walt to come over here it would leave Sarah alone with JJ, and it wasn't Sarah, it couldn't have been Sarah, but he'd seen her and he had to--he had to just see. That it wasn't her, that her hands were clean. That JJ was safe (safe with Sarah: in a few years he'd be Johnny's, and the blood would be on Johnny's hands, and no one would be safe at all).

Johnny couldn't help that right now. But he could get to Sarah. No Jeep, too much to drink--he'd have to walk, but he could walk. Bruce had given him the legs to walk anywhere he had to. One foot in front of the other.

As long as no one insisted on a straight line.

 


Johnny had a key to Sarah and Walt's house, but he knew--from the many, many times he'd touched the doorknob--that locking up was the last thing Walt did before he went to bed, or before he left. It was barely dusk, and Walt's truck was parked behind Johnny's Jeep; the door opened under Johnny's hand, more clumsy from exhaustion than beer. It was kind of a really long walk, and he'd sobered up pretty well on the way.

He let himself in silently, looking around. Johnny could hear someone upstairs. He knew it was Sarah. His stomach turned a little at the sound of her familiar footsteps. He should have called up to her, but what could he say? He stepped inside instead, walking cautiously down the hall to the kitchen.

JJ was at the kitchen table, and the kitchen table was covered with newsprint. Johnny put his hand on the wall--JJ running, laughing, on his way between his bedroom and the basement, spins out on the turn and bounces off the wall without breaking stride--

JJ looked up with a puzzled smile and said, "Hey, Johnny!"

Johnny summoned up a smile and said, "Hey, JJ." He was trying to keep his voice down, but heard it come out barely more than a whisper, and faked a cough as JJ frowned. Okay, maybe not as completely sobered up as he thought, but he could make Walt understand, just as soon as he checked that JJ was safe. He took one step into the kitchen, and then another. "What are you working on, there?"

JJ was still half-frowning at him, but smiled a little at the question and leaned over the table again--and it wasn't, Johnny realized, that the table was covered with newsprint, but that JJ was reading the newspaper, spread over the kitchen table. "I was looking for the soccer news," JJ explained. "It's always way back on page six if they have it at all. It's the most popular sport in the world," he added importantly, and Johnny had to smile as he came all the way to the table to look down at the international soccer scores. At this rate, neither he nor Walt was going to win the sports battle--JJ would grow up to be a soccer star, and baffle both his fathers.

Johnny raised his hand thoughtlessly, about to run it over JJ's hair and see for sure, when Sarah called out, "JJ!"

Johnny froze, jerked his hand away and closed it into a fist. JJ had opened his mouth to call back to his mother, moving to get down from his seat, and Johnny said, "Hey, you know what, stay here a sec. I need to talk to your mom, okay?"

"Okay," JJ said blithely, and turned back to the soccer scores as Johnny took a final long look at him and turned away. He walked quickly to the foot of the stairs, just as Sarah called out, "J--" she stopped, looking puzzled but smiling when she saw Johnny. "Johnny, what are you doing here? I didn't hear the door."

"Yeah," Johnny said, holding firmly to the railing as he walked up the stairs to Sarah, smiling back at her awkwardly. "I just stopped by for a minute, I have to--"

Sarah frowned, easing back a half-step as Johnny reached her. "Johnny, have you--"

"Sarah, I just need to see your hand for a second," he said, and she frowned, and he wasn't saying it right, but he had to see.

He reached for her hands and she pulled them away, whispering furiously, "Johnny, you're drunk."

"No," Johnny said, and he wasn't, he was just tired from walking, and worried, and not explaining himself right. He reached for her hands. "I just--just let me look at your hands, I know you don't wear rings, I just--" He caught her hands, and there was no blood--there are the rings, one thick gold in strange designs, the other with three stones, each a different color, and Sarah says, "They're beautiful."

"--you're hurting me!" He didn't hear Sarah's voice until it was almost a scream, and she broke his grip and pushed. He hit the stairs stumbling and lost his feet, catching himself on the railing halfway down, just in time to look and see JJ, standing wide-eyed at the foot of the stairs.

Johnny opened his mouth to speak, but JJ turned and ran before he could say a word. Johnny leaned his head against the wall, shutting his eyes to keep from looking up at Sarah, shifting his weight from his grip on the railing to his knees. He started to stand, but his legs wouldn't hold him, and all of a sudden Walt was there, hard hands shoving him against the wall. "You can just stay right there," Walt growled. Johnny opened his eyes, meeting Walt's furious glare, and Johnny looked away first, dropping his gaze. He felt Walt's attention leave him, though he didn't loosen his grip. "Honey, you all right?"

"I'm fine," Sarah said, but she didn't sound fine. She sounded shaken. Scared. Of him.

"Why don't you go--"

"No," Johnny said sharply, and Walt shoved him harder against the wall, giving Johnny a weird brief flash of Walt's body alongside his, kneeling over--something. He had Walt's attention again, and he had to shut his eyes to concentrate under that gaze. "No, don't," Johnny repeated. "You know, Sarah, you know--the rings, you don't wear them but you know them, you know the woman I saw. She has blood on her hands. It's not you, I know it's not you, I knew, I just had to see--"

"You're not making any sense," Walt snapped, shaking him a little.

"I'm sorry," Johnny snapped back. He opened his eyes and looked up at Sarah, enunciating carefully. "I had a vision. I saw a woman. She has brown hair, and she wears two rings on her right hand. Beautiful rings, you said." Sarah didn't look like it was making any sense, and he had to have more details than that, he knew he did. Details Sarah would remember. People. Kids. "She has two daughters, the younger one is named Jamie. I think the older one is good at art."

Sarah was shaking her head, mouth open helplessly, still not registering anything, and then JJ's voice said, "Anna's little sister's name is Jamie."

Johnny squirmed, trying to look down past Walt to see where JJ was--God, had he heard all of that?--but Walt was keeping himself between Johnny and their son.

"And Anna's good at art," JJ said, in a small voice.

"I told you to stay in the basement, JJ," Walt said, and apparently JJ's response was nonverbal, because Walt just sighed. "Sarah?" Walt said.

"Anna," Sarah repeated. "Anna on your soccer team, JJ?"

"Yeah," JJ said. His voice had dwindled to a whisper, and Johnny could imagine the look on his face more clearly than he wanted to.

"Anna Paquette," Sarah said. "Her mother's name is Georgia. I haven't seen her since before the baby was born. She was due at the end of June."

There had been a baby in Jamie's painting, and three stones in the ring. Three children, three different birthstones.

Walt said, "Soccer roster is in the drawer by the phone, right?"

Johnny glanced up the stairs to see Sarah nod, and below them JJ said, "Dad?"

Johnny shut his eyes again as Walt turned his head to look down the stairs.

"Anna's gonna be okay, isn't she?"

Anna had been gone long enough for her little sister to paint nearly an entire picture with her paints. There was already blood on her mother's hands when she called Jamie to the bedroom, and that house where Jamie and her sister and the baby lived had been as quiet as the one where JJ was an only child.

Walt didn't know any of that, so none of it showed in his voice when he spoke to JJ. "Johnny and I are going to go take care of it, JJ. You go upstairs with your mom for now, okay? It's almost bedtime anyway."

Johnny kept his eyes closed and let Walt keep him pinned against the wall as JJ scrambled up the stairs past them. When he opened his eyes Walt was gazing up the stairs, engaged in some silent communication with Sarah. He nodded, and his attention returned to Johnny, hustling him down the stairs. Johnny didn't look back.

Walt didn't let go of Johnny's shirt until they were in the kitchen, letting Johnny stumble to the counter while he yanked the drawer open.

"You said it was nothing," Walt remarked, his voice oddly even.

"It was nothing until I had a few drinks," Johnny said, staring down at the counter. "Then it was something."

"Something about Sarah and JJ," Walt said, his voice still perfectly neutral, and Johnny looked up at him. He knew Walt was furious with him--rightfully so, God, he'd hurt Sarah, he'd scared JJ--but he couldn't actually see it. Because there was a case, Johnny realized. Because Walt was being a professional about this, which made Johnny dread the moment Walt went off-duty almost more than he dreaded finding Georgia Paquette and her daughters.

Walt yanked a bright green sheet out of the drawer and slapped it down on the counter. "Anna Paquette. Jim and Georgia. Laurel Drive. Let's go."

 


Walt was wearing his Sheriff's jacket, but he didn't call anyone or turn on his sirens. There was no traffic anyway. It was a twenty-minute drive to the other side of town, and halfway there Walt heaved a sigh. Johnny looked over for the first time, and Walt said, "Okay, tell me what you think we're heading into, exactly."

Johnny opened and closed his mouth. "I saw--"

"Skip it," Walt said flatly. "Give me the bottom line here. You think she's going to hurt Anna? Jamie? The baby?"

"I think she's going to kill them," Johnny said, and he hadn't really let the words into his mind before he spoke them. They hung in the air for nearly a minute, and Johnny watched Walt's face turn grimmer. He didn't ask why: despite everything, Walt didn't actually doubt him.

"Right now?" Walt said finally.

"It was after dinner," Johnny said. "I don't know how long, I--I'm sorry."

"Yeah," Walt said. "We're gonna have a talk about that sometime."

Johnny didn't know what Walt thought he'd been apologizing for--or what he had been apologizing for, actually: not seeing it sooner, or not seeing it better, or everything that had just happened at the house. It didn't matter right now nearly as much as getting to Laurel Drive did.

Walt parked the car across the street from a house that looked like every other house on the block, and Johnny had to scramble to catch up to him as they headed up to the door. Walt didn't look back to see if he was keeping up and didn't stop until he was knocking on the door, calling out, "Mrs. Paquette?" in his best authoritative answer-the-door-now voice. There was no answer, and he knocked again even as Johnny reached out and touched the door. She unlocks the door and leans out just far enough to pick up the Saturday paper, early light shining on the two rings on her right hand, glances around and closes the door.

"They're home," Johnny said. "Walt, they're in there."

Walt grimaced. "John, there's no probable cause, I can't just--"

Johnny didn't let himself stop to think, and definitely didn't let himself stop to argue. He stepped in, past Walt, opening the door. "You're pursuing a suspect. Home invasion," he whispered as he stepped across the threshold.

Walt glared at him, and it was a weird kind of relief to see plain, familiar exasperation on Walt's face in the warm light from the Paquettes' kitchen. Johnny smiled. Then a child--Jamie--let out a scream of pure terror, and Walt lunged inside, shoving past Johnny as he ran down the hallway toward the bedrooms.

Johnny was a couple of steps behind; by the time he crossed the threshold of the bedroom at the end of the hall, Walt had already pulled Georgia away, and Johnny didn't have time to so much as break stride before Walt shouted, "Pressure on the wound!"

Jamie was lying face-up on the bed, blood spraying from a cut on her throat, and Johnny hit his knees and slapped his hands down over it before he'd taken in more than a glimpse of the two other children lying in the bed, the pools of blood--

Jamie's blood is spurting against the palm of his hand in time to the frantic beating of her tiny heart, and he follows it back through the nick in the artery--small, which explains the horrifying high-pressure spray--small, which means the paramedics he can faintly hear Walt calling for might not be too late--back to her heart, small enough to hold in his hand--

Johnny tried to focus, blinking frantically to clear his vision, to keep his eyes on Jamie's eyes, staring up at him in glazed terror. They were brown, and he wanted nothing more right then than to be able to sing to her--hey, brown-eyed girl--but the best he could manage was a shaky, "Stay with me, honey."

He could hear Walt yelling--into a phone, he hoped, or Roscoe was never going to hear--but the sound fuzzed out like Johnny was on the other end of a bad connection, and it was Johnny who wasn't staying.

Jamie's mother smiles and says, "Come here, honey," and there's something red on her hand like paint. Jamie closes the distance and her mother picks her up; Jamie is confused for a dizzy instant--Mama never picks her up anymore, since the new baby--and then Mama's hand clamps over her mouth and Jamie smells something, not paint, like metal, and it's scary. She tries to struggle, but Mama won't let her down. Mama carries her into the bedroom, and she sees Anna and Joey on the bed and red--blood--and they're not moving. Jamie struggles harder, but Mama lays her down on the bed with them--it's wet--Mama keeps her hand hard over Jamie's mouth--

And then there's a sound, someone knocking at the door, calling out, "Mrs. Paquette?" and Mama freezes for a second. Jamie freezes too. They knock again, and then nothing, and Mama moves, picking something up from the bed. Jamie sees the knife and fights harder, fights for life, gets almost free and screams, and the knife swings down--

The vision jumps, and Johnny looks up into his own face out of Jamie's eyes, hears the distant rumble of Walt's voice over the thunder of her heart. He can feel the pressure of his hand on her throat, sees his own eyes lose focus. He feels his hand slip from underneath, and tries to jam it down harder, but it's like watching someone else play video games with a controller in his hands. He feels Jamie's hands twitch, but the others don't obey--and then Walt is there, kneeling beside Johnny, covering his hands and holding them down and saying, "Okay, you're doing good, stay with me here--" and he's looking at Jamie but he's pressed up against Johnny's side, holding Johnny's hands--

And Johnny feels his own body gasp and jerk, because Walt's hands pin his to Jamie's throat and he can almost feel his dead zone crackling with the input--visions of Jamie flicker past, and Johnny feels Walt tense, realizes Walt is seeing Anna and Jamie sitting side by side for a picture, Georgia laying Joey into Anna's arms at the last moment--seeing Jamie's father hug her good-bye and tell her to be good for her mama--

And Walt is thinking what the fuck what the fuck John what the fuck and trying to hold his hands down on top of John's the best he can, and it's like double vision. He's seeing this little girl, these--visions, Christ, he's having John's visions somehow--and he's seeing the room. He can look over his shoulder and see Georgia Paquette still huddled in the corner handcuffed and terrorized, look forward and see the girl who must be Anna with the baby--Joey, he knows the kid's name is Joey because--because he can see Jamie peering through the bars of his crib, whispering, "Hi, Joey," and wondering if Joey's eyes will turn brown like hers or stay blue like Anna's--Anna's lying there with Joey in her arms, and there's blood all over both of them, and they're not moving.

Walt wrenches one hand free of his grip on John's hands, reaches out, because he has to check, and he can't see where the baby is cut under all the blood. The kid is warm under his hand--and there's a crackling alive sensation and John jumps like a high-voltage line and Walt can kind of feel it himself, feel Johnny feeling it, not just John pressing his face against Walt's shoulder and gasping stopstopohgodstopstop because four is too many and it's Anna's blood but Joey's skin and Walt sees--Johnny sees--Jamie sees--Joey sees a blur of light when he opens his eyes, and begins to wail.

Zoom and swoop and most of the blood is Anna's, the cut on Joey's shoulder is superficial--Anna is holding him for her mother but jerks him away when she sees the knife, and Georgia slashes at Anna as she opens her mouth to scream, one cut and done as Anna falls to the bed. Georgia presses a hand over the baby's mouth to keep him quiet, and when he doesn't cry she decides to call for Jamie. She's got to be quick, there isn't time, it's got to be done soon or her babies will--

Johnny is shaking, and Walt grimly holds his right hand down. The pulse of Jamie's blood against Johnny's palm is a counterpart to Joey's siren-screaming under Walt's left hand, to Georgia's muffled weeping, and real sirens, real sirens in the distance. Thank God, they're coming, and Johnny is shaking apart under the strain, and the blur of light isn't just Joey's infant vision, it's--

A dark corridor, bright at the end, and Jamie's halfway down it, silhouetted against the glare: Anna's there, she can hear Anna. It's nice there, not scary. It's the end of the rainbow there, everything will be all right, and Walt says, "No, honey, no, don't--"

But it's Johnny who's there, Johnny who reaches for her and says, "Hey, brown-eyed girl."

She looks up and up and up at him, and he says, "Your dad will miss you. Joey needs you. Come on. Stay." She's hesitating, and Johnny crouches down to her height and reaches out his hand and says, "My name is Johnny. I'm kind of scared right now. Could you hold my hand?"

Walt is holding his breath and holding John's hand and he can hear the sirens peaking outside, the clatter of the EMTs, and they're gonna be too late if she won't--

But she nods and puts her hand in Johnny's, and Johnny gives her a wobbly smile and holds on tight. There are pounding footsteps on the stairs and Walt yells, "In here!"

Walt has to pry John's hands away for the EMT to take over, and the EMT's litany of "Okay, okay, okay, okay," blends right in with everyone else's noises as he presses gauze to Jamie's throat and reaches for an IV pack. Somebody else comes and takes Joey, and that leaves Walt kneeling next to Johnny, holding Johnny's hands, both of them bloodied to the wrist. He can still see the other images--John's dead zone is still leaking all over both of them, and he knows it would stop if he could let go of John's hand, but he can't seem to let go, and John is leaning on him like Walt's shoulder is the only thing between him and lying down and never getting up.

Walt pushes to his feet, hauling John up after him, getting an arm around him, and Roscoe and yet another EMT are eyeing them both. Walt manages to nod toward Georgia and say, "Murder one. Suicide watch. I gotta--" And Roscoe nods. The EMT doesn't seem to understand the John Smith rules but Walt can't be bothered to explain them right now, just shakes his head and pushes on by. It's not until they're outside that Walt realizes Johnny is still whispering, "Stop stop stop oh god stop stop it."

"I'm trying, buddy," Walt says, and steers them around to the garage, and sure enough there's a hose hooked up. He drops to his knees and lets Johnny collapse along with him, turns on the hose and starts spraying him off, and it's cold but he can feel the relief as the blood washes away, nothing else is quite like blood. The sense of John's body starts to fuzz out like a bad connection and then--

Johnny was kneeling in the darkness at the side of the house, soaking wet but clean and blessedly alone in his head. He could hear himself saying, "Stop, stop, stop," but this time when he thought, Really, stop, his mouth listened, and he fell silent.

He looked up and Walt was staring at him. The distant light from the patrol cars and ambulances flashed red and white on his face, his wide eyes. Brown eyes. "John..."

"Sorry," Johnny whispered, turning his face away. Walt reached for him and Johnny flinched from the contact--not again, not yet--and Walt stopped short.

Johnny set both hands flat on the grass--cold and wet from the hose; Walt hadn't turned it off yet. Walt turned it off, and then there was just the sound of both of them breathing, fast and harsh, and Johnny had to say something to bridge the gap. It felt cold and strange and unprotected, like the skin under a Band-Aid when it's ripped off. "She thought she was protecting them," he whispered, because he'd picked that much out of the deluge when Walt touched Joey. "She thought the world was such an awful place that she could only protect them by taking them out of it."

"Yeah, I know," Walt said, and Johnny winced. Walt had been there, after all. Very much exactly where Johnny was.

"I'm glad you were there, when--" Johnny looked up quickly, meeting Walt's eyes, because he didn't think he'd ever said this before, or anything like it. "I'm glad you were there for Sarah, when JJ was born. I'm glad she wasn't alone."

Because Georgia Paquette had been alone, and knew she couldn't protect her children alone any other way than this. That blood wasn't on Sarah's hands, and maybe it never could have been. Still and all, Johnny was glad she hadn't been alone, suddenly viscerally glad, for the first time without the least shadow of jealousy to darken the flood of relief.

"Yeah," Walt said, holding Johnny's gaze. "Well, Sarah's not the only other parent my kid has, is she."

Johnny opened his mouth and closed it and opened it again. "I would never--"

"I know," Walt said, shaking his head slightly. "And I think I've got an idea how bad the world looks to you. And I don't think you know you're not facing it alone."

Johnny opened his mouth again, but he had nothing in the face of that, not even the will to move away as Walt leaned in and in. He closed his eyes when Walt's hand caught the back of his neck, and when Walt's forehead touched his he could see in the darkness--warm and dry and he is not alone.

Walt's lips brushed across his and then Walt broke the contact, letting go but not moving away. "Come on," he said quietly. "Let's get you home."

 


Johnny slumped in the passenger seat, bare feet propped on the dash. Walt had had dry sweatpants and a t-shirt in his truck, and Johnny had changed out of his wet stuff in the darkness, dumping his own sodden, bloodstained clothes into a trash bag while Walt held it for him. Now Walt was driving, and Johnny was letting the cool breeze from the open window play over his face and not worrying too much about where they were going. His brain felt fried, and kept throwing off sparks, flashes of Walt or Jamie or Joey flaring and disappearing against the backs of his eyelids before he could identify more than who, never mind what or where or any of those other details. But it was all right now, he thought. They'd done the job. Roscoe could handle the cleanup.

The car stopped. The breeze stopped. Johnny opened his eyes when the door opened, and Walt was standing there. "Almost there, John. Come on."

Johnny nodded and unfastened his seatbelt, and walked at Walt's side up the driveway and up the walk to the house. Walt's hand floated just behind the small of his back: not touching, but so close Johnny could feel the crackle of awareness, of almost-connection.

Walt let Johnny precede him into the house, and steered Johnny up the stairs with that same almost-touch, all the way to their bedroom, halting in the doorway. Sarah was sitting up in bed in her pajamas. JJ lay curled up beside her, his head in her lap--motionless, and Walt's hand landed on his back suddenly, catching a fistful of Walt's own t-shirt against Johnny's skin, and Johnny touched his arm, bare skin to skin, and Sarah's wide blue eyes disappeared into--darkness and certainty and touch and it's all all right.

"It's all right," Johnny said, stepping inside, and Walt let go at the same time he did. Sarah was looking from one of them to the other, searching their faces. Johnny ran one hand over his hair, watching Walt go to the bed. He kissed Sarah and leaned past her, scooping JJ up into his arms with a small startled grunt of effort. Johnny smiled slightly, and Walt saw it on him as he turned and smiled back, hefting JJ in his arms. JJ had been a lot smaller the last time Walt carried him to bed, Johnny would bet. Johnny took a step closer as Walt stepped toward the door, reaching out just to touch the edge of the warmth radiating from one sleep-flushed cheek.

Johnny dropped his hand, and Walt shifted his grip on JJ as their eyes met. Walt nodded slightly toward the bed, and Johnny nodded back, but even after everything, he waited until Walt was decently out of the room before he went and sat down on the edge of the bed next to Sarah. She was still staring at him. "Johnny," she said softly, "What--are you--"

"We saved two of the kids," Johnny said to her knee, keeping his hands carefully in his own lap. If he touched her now, he thought, he would know exactly what the things he'd seen had meant when Walt touched him. When he touched Walt. But then Walt had brought him here, and that seemed to make it clear enough, except that he didn't know what Sarah thought of it, and he couldn't think how to ask. He didn't dare grab her hand, not tonight. "But not--" he took a deep breath, remembered the light, remembered pulling Jamie back from Anna's waiting presence. "Not Anna." Johnny looked toward the doorway. "We'll have to tell JJ in the morning."

"Oh, Johnny," she said, and her arms closed around him, and Johnny closed his eyes and Sarah is in his arms and Walt's hand is on the back of his neck and it's crazy but it's better than anything else they've tried--

Johnny gasped and opened his eyes and Sarah let go, sitting back quickly, and said, "Sorry, sorry--"

"No," Johnny said, and he didn't have to force the smile, meeting her eyes as Walt's footsteps stopped at the doorway. "No, it's--you're--it's all right."

Sarah was frowning. Sarah didn't see how anything could be all right now, and maybe it couldn't, but together was so much better than the alternative. She looked past him to Walt, and Johnny followed her gaze. Walt was leaning against the doorframe and shrugged one shoulder. He'd lost his jacket somewhere, and his boots. "I didn't think he should be alone," Walt said. He ducked his head as he said it, rubbing the back of his neck and looking up at Sarah through his eyelashes, suddenly tentative and he followed me home, can we keep him?

Johnny sat very still as Sarah's gaze came back to rest on him, and tried not to look like he'd be wagging his tail if he had one.

Sarah covered her face with both hands, and Johnny looked to Walt, but Walt was watching Sarah intently, reading her--it was that married thing, that psychic thing, and it struck Johnny suddenly that they'd been married ten years. He and Sarah had barely been dating for one before the accident, for all they'd known each other their whole lives; they'd never been that kind of psychic together.

Sarah took a deep breath, and her fingers spread, so that she was looking at Walt through them. "Well," she said, and there was a bubble of laughter, almost but not quite hysterical, behind her words. "I've been saying that for years."