Taking Care of the Kids
rating: +35+x

“It's just a little further. You can do it.”

“People always say that. That's what everyone says. I smoke weed. You can't do this to me. Why can't I fly?”

“That would be cheating. And besides, can't they track you by the things you do? Or something?”

“I'm sure they always know where I am. Also, you're a bitch.”

Faeowynn was truly in her element. The smell of pine. There was something about it better than anything else. Something more fantastically real and clearing. It curled through her nostrils and into her brain cavity, like a trepanation. Sharp. So sharp.

On the other hand, Jude looked like he was going to die. Truthfully, she wasn't sure if he actually could fly, and she figured if he figured out how he'd definitely fuck it up something fierce.

“When I was young, I used to go on hikes with my dad all the time.” She paused. “We still do sometimes. He's spry, for an old guy. But he's still old.” Well, he liked to think he was spry. But she wasn't going to ruin Jude's image of the guy.

“My dad drank a lot.”

“What did your dad do?”

“Electrician.”

“Huh.”

“On the nose, I know.” He coughed. “I always liked your dad.”

“You haven't known him for long.”

“It's the sort of thing you just feel, Fae.” Jude had stopped. His face was red. Sweat poured from his dark hair. Somehow, a good amount of dirt had gotten on his face (lord, she had no idea how that idiot could survive on his own), and the trails of sweat cut rivulets down his forehead, dripping down his chin.

A vape pen was in his mouth, and he took a long suck. Face pulling inward. She could practically see the liquid dropping. Something poetic about it. She couldn't figure out what about it was, however. And then a second intake of breath. He held it for an uncomfortably long amount of time, making a face that could make anyone swear off drugs entirely. Just in pain. And the exhale was even messier. He hacked and coughed, hawkered and spat repeatedly.

Jude held it out to her in offering. Faeowynn shook her head.

“Why would I want to do that after seeing you cough out a lung?”

“We're all fucking dying, dog.”

“It's really close. It's just the top of this hill.”

“It's a mountain.”

“It doesn't meet any of the standards.”

“You don't know that.”

The air was crisp, cool. It reminded her of the falls with her mother. This was different, though. Pine trees didn't drop their needles, and she always had been impressed by that, in a weird way. She could smell the cold with the pine. A tin kind of smell. Something high up, in her nose.

“What was your dad like, Jude?”

They were getting closer, truthfully. Not just hot air.

“Not much to say. Good guy, I think. Never really got me. We had the same sense of humor, though. Laughed a lot. My mom and I, we fought more.”

“How was coming out to them?”

“I didn't.” Jude had caught up to her. Still stumbling and bumbling through the underbrush like a wounded animal. Something tragic in his movements and just as clumsy. “They died before I died.”

“What?”

“I mean, they died before I could tell them.” Jude almost tripped over something that Faeowynn couldn't see. Probably because the thing he had tripped on didn't exist. God, he really was something special.

“How did that work?”

“I'm constantly expending just a little bit of energy to make myself, like, everyday. And I've been doing it since I was a teen.”

“And don't we all?”

“I can make it so I always was a dude, a cis dude, but it's not like a one and done. It's a constant effort, you know, to do it like this.”

“You became a reality changer to avoid coming out to your parents?”

“Yes.”

“That's valid. You can see where we're going. Look, just up there.” She pointed. Jude looked from her finger to the spot, like a dog would. “On top of the hill. The place is funky, geographically. My dad and I found it, you know.”

“Your dad sounds so fun, fuck.” And he had to stop for a second, holding his hand against a tree, almost slipping and falling face first from the barest incline.

“He's not perfect, you know.” She wasn't exactly a superwoman, but walking with Jude made her feel genuinely fit. It was like spending long periods of time with her father. It was easy to think of one's self as the height of vigor when compared to someone so horribly out of shape. “He still calls me Felix sometimes.”

“Jesus.”

“Yeah, he apologizes. It's clear he's more comfortable using they for me, you know.”

Jude didn't say anything. He had either gotten too stoned, or he was thinking. She couldn't tell. The amount he had sweat had mostly cleaned away the grime. Maybe she should have let him fly. If he could fly.

“It's not bad, I mean. He's way better than most dads, I can't lie. He tries. But sometimes, it really isn't enough. Am I a bitch for not thinking it's enough.”

“No.” Immediate response. The ground was leveling up. The peak was more of a plateau. It overlooked the valley as though it was much taller. There was cotton candy mist looped through the treetops, pink from the heavily hanging sun, like an apple dipped in caramel. Just perfect for a cool, autumnal night at the circus. He had never taken her to the circus, the old man. Never anything that wasn't something he wanted to do.

“Jude, I want you to try something.”

He yawned and fell to the ground in a marionette sort of way. Boneless limbs, like noodles taken out after being boiled too long and too thoroughly, tortured by the bubbling heat. He took the vape pen out of his pocket and took another long hit. His brain was probably boiling, in there. He was sweating enough. “Don't tell anyone I vape.”

“Why?”

“Vaping absolutely isn't cool.”

“We're not cool anymore. We're old.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Try to make a spark.”

“I just did.”

“I mean, with your magic.”

Jude held his hand in front of him. He waved it. Twice. Nothing. “Holy shit.”

“It's a blank spot. My dad and I found it, and we kept it a secret. It was obvious, you know. This invisible hamster suddenly became really visible.”

“So nothing works here?”

“Yeah. It's a good place to have the serious talk time.”

“I'm still very much in this same body, though.”

“I'm not a scientist.” She shrugged. “They won't be able to hear you here, if you're anxious about that. But honestly, they're not as omnipotent as you think. They're really not.”

“You haven't seen the things they can handwave away.”

“You haven't seen the animals they need to put down when they're too tough for both of us to take care of.”

“Do they?”

“They don't hide it.”

“Jesus.”

“Not even the dignity of a farm upstate.”

“You're the farm upstate.”

Faeowynn sunk to the ground. He was still sweating, even sitting. She wondered if it could have been the concentration to keep the body, the past and present. The sheer grit needed to exist. But that was impossible. Maybe the place wasn't a no-spot, but a dampener? Like molecules growing colder, moving more and more slowly, almost to the point of inaction but still buzzing, buzzing with the vibrations of their true natures.

“Are you okay, Jude?”

“Listen, this is something I've been thinking about for a while.”

“Okay.”

“This isn't some bullshit I just came up with when I got high yesterday.” Jude looked at the vape pen in his hand. The liquid within was yellow, with hints of burnt umber. The liquid was roughly two thirds gone. He held it up to the sun and squinted. He put the vape pen back down and said, “I'm gonna work against them. I'm going to destroy them. I'm going to put in motion the end of capitalism. Fuck them. Fuck the treaty.”

“How do you think you're going to do that? Shitpost them to death, Jude? Be serious.”

Jude laid on his back, closing his eyes. He held the vape pen on his chest, pointing upward.

Faeowynn didn't exactly like them. She hadn't been too long, really, enmeshed in this world behind the real world. But the Foundation's reputation preceded them. Working with her dad, she got a hold on the kind of men they were really quickly. The things they thought were abnormal. The things they thought people could never come to understand.

They were hard where her father was gentle. Bitter where her father was forgetful. They seemed to hold long memories. She heard of entire families, entire cultures, being swallowed up. She imagined them as a leviathan, only drifting to the warmer surface when hungry, when a ship with a sufficiently tasty-looking crew came by.

“You don't have to know the methods. It's better if you don't know, actually. This isn't something that's good to know.”

“Isn't telling me you have a plan, in and of itself, kind of dangerous information to hold?”

“Shut up. Listen, okay. I'm going to make a project. I'm going to put a lot of energy into it. I don't know, truthfully, how it'll work out. I might have to put a couple more years of my life into it, I don't know. You know JJ?”

“The one you think is hot?”

“Shut up. I'm going to make this thing with, like, his frequencies. I got another friend. You know Esther. She's gonna, I don't know. Kabbalah it. She's got this energy. And you have to listen. And it's just, you know. A little bit of this and that. It's genius.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I'm going to make a guided missile. A person who sees the pathway to the kind of world I know we can have.”

“You're making a person?”

“I've got three spirits lined up. Older things, clinging to earth. Ghosts, I guess.”

“And what do you need me for?”

Jude sat up, opening his eyes. He took another deep hit from the vape pen, holding it into until his eyes bulged just a little. He didn't cough this time.

“When the time comes, I'd like Wilson's to stand by us. Legitimacy, you guys got it. Everyone, everyone loves you guys. It's hard not to. You're the Old Friends' Senior Dog Sanctuary of the anomalous world. We haven't even made this thing yet, and I know that your help will be, like, a fucking—”

“I'm not going to be your fucking Pravda, Jude.” She bit her lip. Jude was a good friend. Not the best friend. But he was a good guy. Mostly. “What you're asking for me is to be your propaganda wing. In open defiance of the people who fund our entire operation. You think the donations are what keep us going? You know damn well we get our facilities from them.You're asking me to die for you.”

“No, no. When, when it looks like we're winning, I guess. I can't ask you to put the animals on the line. I don't want war dogs. Just, just when things are looking like I'll think they'll go. I'd like you to help.”

“With what?”

“The aftermath. In the remapping.”

“You're willing to put your kids on the line?”

“The longer I can make it look like a militant wing, the more the kids will still get the benefit of the doubt. And besides, most of them know how to backdate. Throw old memes into a joke, so I can tell the janitors that it was made pre-treaty and just got big now. Stupid shit like that protects us more than you think.”

“That didn't answer my question.”

“I won't have anyone stand with me who doesn't understand what I'm asking, what they'll be giving up. I got irons in the fire, pigeons coming home to roost. We'll have places to keep them. The safest places I know.”

“You're asking for a lot of people to die.”

“It won't be in vain, if it happens. I think. Think about the animals. Think about the ones you can save.”

“Jude, I'm not my father. I'm here because I love him. Sure, I love animals. But I love my father. And I love what he built. This isn't my calling like you think it is. I can't put my father's legacy on the line for a revolution. I said they're not omnipotent, but they don't need to be to beat us. You don't have an army, Jude. You're asking me to risk everything the old man built. I don't, I don't know.”

“Your father's legacy will only be stronger if you use his influence for something like this. They're holding everything back. We can fix this.”

“You don't know that.”

Jude didn't say anything. Faeowynn didn't either.

Her dad was cool. Not as cool as people thought, really. Not as much as a hippie as people assumed on Void. Just, a dad. He was a normal dad who liked animals and had a knack for taking care of the problem ones. The special ones. He wasn't old. Only in his sixties. He wasn't perfect. Dropped the ball when mom was sick. Just a man. But, when he died, all he'd be was Wilson's Wildlife Solutions. That place was more his baby than she was sometimes. The place was his image but strained, only the good, only the positive.

“I know they're not good. I see the things they do. I hear about it.”

“Yeah.”

“I can't promise you anything, Jude. I won't compromise what he's built for you, for any revolution. But my dad tries to do the right thing. So do I.”

“I get it.”

Faeowynn stood up. She stretched her arms to the air. Jude did the same, cracking his neck, his jaw, his knees, and then his fingers in a weird unfurling gesture.

“We can't talk about this again, Jude.”

“I know.”

“I do believe in what you're doing.”

“Thanks.”

“You're a good guy. The old man likes you, you know.” Truthfully, she doubted he had any idea who Jude Kriyot was.

“Does he?” Beaming. He held out the vape pen to Faeowynn.

She took it, fumbled with the button release, and took a long hit. It was formless, strange. She had smoked when she was younger. Obviously. She was the cool kind of mathlete. But this was something else. It tasted like pine needles and turned fruit. It barely felt like anything was creeping to her lungs, but when she exhaled, the plume of smoke was gigantic. She hacked and spat.

“That's horrible.”

“Hits hard, doesn't it? I just charged it. Let's go.”

She started her way down the mountain. Most people found it easier. Jude, however, was struggling. He ping-ponged from tree to tree, half-throwing himself, half-falling down the hill as a means of transportation. An extremely sad game of pinball. The trees strained against his weight. He was covered in sap.

Faeowynn wondered if Jude's father would've been proud of the man he had become, the man he had made himself. Despite everything, Fae knew that her dad was proud. He may not always see her as she wanted him to see her, but he loved her. He understood her more than he would realize.

She wondered if he would stand with Jude, were he alive when the time came. She thought he would. She thought he would if she explained it all to him. Slowly, repeatedly, the way he had to have things explained to him.

A little like Jude sometimes, really.

The sun wasn't setting, but the sky was streaked with pink. Like the clothes in a washer, faded and mixed. Jude didn't look up to see it, but Faeowynn did, avoiding the roots and bushes down the path.

“Do you wanna get a coffee after this?” Faeowynn caught up with Jude. The ground was slightly more level.

“Trying to cut back on caffeine.” He yawned. There was a slight limp in his right leg. How had he hurt himself? “I think I might get going. I'm sorry. I got a lot of stuff to do. Stuff with the kids.”

“If you see Esther, ask her how Darius is doing.”

“Will do, buddy.” Jude smiled and slapped Faeowynn on the back. He hopped into the air and kept going. When he was above the trees, he faded slowly into nothing, becoming transparent until there was nothing else. He hadn't made a single noise when rising or disturbed a single needle.

She continued the hike back alone. When she reached her car, she found a text from her dad on her phone.

How R U?

Good, she texted back. I'm coming home.

Bring Food For Lizard If Can, Got New Boy. Eats More Than We Thought. Thnx XOXO.

Faeowynn leaned back in the driver chair. Nothing would be open. The old man never understood people didn't operate on his hours. She'd still check, of course. She always checked, when he asked. She snapped it back up. She started the car, put it in reverse, and left.

She drove without the radio on. Faeowynn wondered if she didn't inhale the vape pen correctly. Didn't really feel much different. Next time, she vowed to ask Jude how to do it. Even if it sounded stupid.

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