There’s a strange moment of disconnect between one thought and the next. It left him stumbling on numb legs.
He turned his body around and stood there, statuelike.
The world was made of fire.
It raged across the sky in blazing scarlet and gold. Giant wings reaching out to cover everything.
He tipped his head back and stared up at the parachute of light arching above him.
I’m going to die. The thought was spoken in a calm voice that rang through his ears as clearly as if they’d been outside of his own head.
It followed him as he ducked and ran and fought his way out of a city fallen to madness.
He came out of his fire with a starburst scar across the apple of his right cheek and an ankle that liked to pop when he walked. But he was alive and he could move to a suburban area and start a new life as a stay-at-home dad.
The woman he married was a dedicated career woman that had lokked startled by his offered Contract before agreeing.
The relationship wasn’t real, but he knew that he was a catch just on his looks alone.
It was kind of why he dressed as a farmer hipster when he wasn’t working. It was all plaid shirts, unshaven cheeks, and wildly tawsled hair.
He knew he was a hot mess. He could see the eyes that followed him around. It was why he’d switched to wearing glasses.
Add in Chucky, and suddenly he was the single dad that all kinds of women wanted to fix up.
Sometimes it made him laugh, when he was home alone with the sleeping baby. He would be watching TV in the living room, maybe smoking a little Calm and Cool, and he’d have a thought and find himself laughing like a loon.
Once upon a time he’d been a serious bad ass. He’d been a hero from the wars.
Then he was a rich woman’s darling husband and Contracted Trophy Spouse. They’d agreed to have a child that he would raise.
Then he was a widow receiving Survivor’s Benefits from her Memorial Trust. She’d arranged things so that both he and Chucky were taken care of. There was enough money that he didn’t have to work out of the home.
He was grateful to her. She’d been a generous wife when they were married, and she’d been generous in her death.
He made sure that her family saw plenty of Chucky. As much as he could manage anyway, as her family was well-traveled and it took a Google Calendar to follow them and schedule an appointment.
He’d added thousands of miles to his car keeping in contact with her family. It was something that she would have wanted.
Chucky became one of the Patriarch’s favorite grandchildren along with Frankie and the twins. By the time the first granddaughter was born–the apple of everyone’s eye–the gang of children running around was a hoard of well-loved family kids and their friends.
It made him proud to see his child growing up so well.
He could remember the horribleness of his own childhood.
This is why I survived, he thought. This is why that voice spoke to me.
Because if he hadn’t heard that voice ringing through his head, he wouldn’t have run. He would have hesitated. And he would have died with everyone else.
He stared around at the orderliness of his room and pushed away the memories of Before.
He was no kind of hero. He was just a man.
That was the promise he’d made himself and Chucky.
* * *
Charles glared at Nigel. How dare that old coot tell him what to do! But he knew there was no choice but to do as he was told. His parents had told him what to expect.
This was the man that had raised him until he was eight, then given him away. He didn’t see Nigel for fifteen years, then when they met again Nigel was nothing that he remembered.
The anal-retentive asshole took OCD to a whole other level of neurosis, but refused to take medication. He’d made friends with some hippies and followed an organic produce kick that involved aquaponics and hundreds of pounds worth of vegetables.
Yet he was still the man controlling Charles’ life until his twenty-fifth birthday. Which meant the marriage contract was valid and he’d just have to make the best of things, as he usually did.
Charliemehardy was the name he used online. Because he had big plans for what his life was going to be when he reached his Majority.
He’d continue to support Nigel, but he’d get his own place and his own life.
“Who am I marrying?” he asked.
Nigel shrugged elegantly. “That’s going to be up to you. I’ll have some profiles put together and arrange some invitations, but you choose who you like.”
Charles sighed in relief. At least he was going to be allowed a bit of freedom.
He glanced at his watch. “Oop, looks like I’ve gotta run, Daddy. I’ll see you later!”
Nigel tapped his cheek meaningfully. “Kiss.”
It was maybe a bit embarrassing at times, but Charles never refused the request. He pressed a brief kiss against the scar on Nigel’s cheek. “Later, Daddy.”
He hurried out of the study and down the back hall stairs. It took him until he reached the car to put his public mask back in place.
That was the thing about family. They could strip him bare in ways his friends had never managed.