Why Can’t I Be Where You Are?
CW: Not much. Just grief, mostly, and only in the second half. If you just don’t read after the time jump it’s like I wrote something happy!
Second half takes place during Chris’s early days at the safehouse
Ronnie likes to sing while she cleans, and the little house is full of music blasting from the computer speakers while she sweeps the living room floor, dust bunnies and the debris of living caught under the broom.
“I’ve been living to see you, dying to see you but it shouldn’t be like this… this was unexpected, what do I do now?” Ronnie’s singing voice is a rasping, deep alto, and the piano and drums seem to drift around it, as though the song were written for her.
Tristan sits on the couch, watching her as she does a little spin and winks at him. His legs are crossed, feet pulled up off the floor so he isn’t in the way. He watches her with bright green eyes in a pale freckled face, smiling with one front tooth slightly crooked.
There’s been talk of braces, but Ronnie just isn’t sure what it would be like, trying to get Tristan through that experience. And he’s only got the little bit of crookedness…
She’s distracted from her thoughts when Tristan sings, too.
“Could we start again, please?” His voice is a soft high tenor, and he sways heavily back and forth, back and forth, moving like a metronome with skin. Ronnie laughs, losing the thread of the song for a second. She’s a bright light, his mother, in ancient blue jeans and a t-shirt knotted at the waist with a hair tie.
She’s not running the vacuum today because he’s home, knowing how he hates the sound of it, the heavy deafening growl overwhelming his thoughts and racing up and down his skin. Instead, she cleans the longer way, by sweeping and sweeping and sweeping until the broom doesn’t pick anything else up, finally, until there’s no more dust left.
She’ll vacuum on days Aimi Nakamura takes Tris to practice, stealing herself a half an hour to use every single item in the house that Tristan can’t stand the sound of.
She’s seen ads in the magazines she reads while she sits in waiting rooms during Tristan’s therapy and doctor appointments for this new generation of Roombas with some kind of weird artificial intelligence, but the price point of those things made her eyes just about pop out of her head. Maybe for their anniversary in a few years. She and Paul will have a big one right after Tris turns sixteen, maybe then.
Four more years isn’t so long to wait. Until then, she can sweep.
“I think you’ve made your point now,” Tris keeps singing, and she slows, watching him. His eyes drift closed, and she watches with joy how he dips his head as he sways, his body moving with perfect freedom here in their house, unfettered by the eyes of anyone who doesn’t understand him. “You’ve even gone a bit too far to get your message home, before it gets too frightening we ought to call a halt-”
“Oh, could we start again, please?” Ronnie picks up the next line, and Tristan bites his lower lip with his top teeth, words dropping into a hum, chin tipped up. Back and forth, back and forth, shoulders-first.
She wonders what air feels like over his bare arms to his brain, as he raises his hands a little, his fingers bending and straightening, again and again. He’s tried to explain it, but her own brain just doesn’t work the same way, and it didn’t make much sense to her.
It makes sense to him, and really that’s what matters most. She doesn’t need to understand it. She just needs to see in his face the serenity of music and movement to know enough. It’s the same look he gets during gymnastics, when she watches with some part of her heart still in her throat at the risks her only child takes as he swings from uneven bar to uneven bar. His body knows how to move in the world in ways her own does not, and his mind thrills at the moments he feels like he’s flying.
Some boys, Ronnie thinks, were born for wings.
Her tree-climbing, backflipping, always-moving child was made for discovering the world through the grip of his fingers and the placement of his feet, and it’s a crime he lives in a time and a place where concrete and broken glass demand he wear shoes and snapping adult voices demand he be still.
“I’ve been living to see you,” Ronnie continues, crouching. Her singing voice thins as she sweeps a little pile of dust into the dustpan, goes strong and solid again as she walks over to the trash can to dump it in.
Tristan jumps in, and he can’t quite harmonize and his voice is sharp and slightly off but fuck it, Ronnie loves his singing voice more than she cares about bullshit like that. They sing together, and Ronnie grins at him, pretending the top of the broom is a microphone. She dips to one side, dramatically cradling it, like she’s Adele at a concert. “Dying to see you but it shouldn’t be like this. This was unexpected, what do I do now? Oh, could we start again, please?”
Tristan doesn’t pick up the rest of the melody - instead, he groans and rolls his eyes, putting his hands over them, still swaying heavily, more than he even was before. “Mom, oh my-my-my-my God.”
Before she had a preteen, she’d had no idea just how much disdain a child could put into three simple syllables. She’s not looking forward to ages thirteen through eighteen, that’s not sure.
That’s a lie.
Yes, she is.
Watching him turn into a grown man is going to be the greatest thing she’s ever seen, and Ronnie Higgs knows it.
“What? You don’t like Mom being a pop star?” She laughs, and the sun behind her baby boy’s head turns his hair into a copper halo around him. Paul’s perfect little clone, her son, except for how tightly he hugs her, how he sings with her and sways to the music where Paul would just be puzzled. As confused about what she gets out of it as she is about what Tristan gets out of swaying.
Between the two of them, though, she has everything she needs.
He peers at her from behind his fingers. “Mother, please,” He says, and she knows he’s picked that tone up from Lisa Huang, who would never dare use it to her own mother’s face. But coming from Tristan, it feels silly, not sarcastic.
She sighs and leans on the broom, resting the side of her face on her hands over the top. “You over this one? Should we do a different musical? A singer or something? I still need to dust the fan blades.”
Tristan’s hands drop and he licks at his lips, eyes moving over the room, up to the ceiling fan, bouncing off his mother’s face and down to the floor. His hands tap over his legs, marking rhythm on his thighs, as pale and freckled as his face where they stick out beneath the loose mesh basketball shorts he wears whenever she doesn’t make him wear something else. “Um, what, what, what what what what about-”
“No Katy Perry,” She says, seeing the look in his eyes.
He groans again and flops over onto his side, with all the drama inherent in his age. He rolls onto his back and turns to look in her general direction, glaring without any real anger. “Mom, you, you, you said, you-you-... you said…”
“I know what I said. I’m also saying no Katy Perry. We had to listen to her for like an hour on our last drive to practice, and another hour back, so think of something else. I’m all Katy Perry’d out, baby boy. Pick a musical.”
He pouts, but it doesn’t last - it never does. Instead, he gets that smile on his face that means he’s thought of something he imagines is very clever as a comeback. She raises her eyebrows, waiting. His hair falls over his eyes. One of Paul’s coworkers used to call them his Irish eyes.
“Um, what, what, what about… wh, what about… um, um…”
She waits - he knows what he’s trying to say, he just needs time to get his tongue and teeth to cooperate with his racing thoughts, for his mind to slow down enough for the words to find their way out.
“What about Backstreet Boys?” His voice is innocent enough.
She bursts out laughing again. “Oh, you know my weakness, huh? Talk 90’s pop to me and I’m weak. Yeah, yeah. Let me switch up the album.”
She knows which one he wants, too - it’s the one she used to play nonstop while pregnant with him, a weeping seventeen-year-old who still had a CD player with bulky headphones listening to the saddest songs she could find over and over and over while inside her, Tristan’s tiny feet pressed all the air from her lungs and kicked so hard and so much she was half-convinced he’d burst out of her like the guy in Alien. She should’ve known back then he was never going to sleep.
When the incredibly of-its-time synthetics and drums kick in, with carefully orchestrated laughter over the introductory melody, she grabs a dust cloth and drags over a chair, clambering up to run the cloth over the blades of the ceiling fan, one by one.
“I may run and hide when you’re screamin’ my name, all right-... but let me tell you now there are prices to fame, all right-...”
She winks down at Tristan.
“All of our time spent in flashes of li-iiiiight…”
Tristan hums more or less with the music and watches her, his fingers dancing over his stomach, the couch around him, the air itself. He grins when she winks, pretends he’s absolutely embarrassed by her dancing where she stands, bouncing on her feet to the beat the same way he does.
“When you were a baby,” Ronnie says cheerfully, sneezing as dust settles in and up her nose, “I used to play this whenever you wouldn’t stop crying. You’d cheer right up. Used to tell your dad I sure you’d heard it when you were still growing, before you were born, that you knew the music as well as you knew my heartbeat.”
“I, I, I like your heartbeat,” Tristan says, slightly distant. He’s listening to the music more than he is her, but the upside to ADHD, Ronnie thinks, is he can half-pay attention to about twelve things at once, even if he can’t put his whole attention on anything unless that little switch in his brain demands it. And then God help anyone who tries to interrupt.
“I like yours, too,” she says, laughter in her voice, climbing back down and dragging the chair back to the computer desk in the corner of the living room. “Your dad absolutely hates Backstreet Boys, though, so that’s why they’re just for us, huh?”
“Just for us,” He echoes happily. The song switches to the next one, a little slower.
Ronnie hums, looking around, hands on her hips. “Shelves, bookshelves and then the kitchen, okay?”
She hums along with the music, and halfway through taking the bookshelves from dusty to slightly shining and smelling of the lemon-scented wood polish she uses - the only one Tristan doesn’t hate - she catches herself singing again, too.
Tris sings with her, standing beside her, bumping her occasionally as he sways. She’s not sure what she did to deserve a perfect kid, but there are days like today where she’s sure no mother on earth has ever had a better son than him.
His fingers, long and elegant as always, hover over the button to change the radio station, but they don’t press it. Jake glances sidelong at him, his eyes wide and slightly lost. The green is soaking in the blue of the sky above and the reflections of houses and trees around them as they move. Chris’s lips move, and Jake realizes after a second that they’re moving along with the song.
“Hey, Chris? You okay, little man?”
Chris’s head dips to one side, followed by his shoulders. His hand pulls back, and it moves through the air, fingers shifting up and down like a bird riding air currents, adjusting with every minute change of sensation.
He doesn’t answer Jake - he’s not even sure the little rescue can hear him over the song and whatever’s happening inside his head.
“So many words for the broken heart,” the harmonized male voices croon out of the radio, some old pop song Jake doesn’t immediately recognize. “It’s hard to see in a crimson love, so hard to breathe - walk with me and maybe-”
“Do you know this song?”
Chris still doesn’t answer, and Jake swallows, impulsively flipping on his turn signal and taking a right, heading briefly the wrong way down a one-way road - and getting lucky that nobody else is on it - before he comes out next to one of the city’s parks. He pulls into the parking lot, sits back, and turns the volume up.
Chris starts to sway, eyes half-closed, humming low in his throat along with the music.
“Eyes of stone observe the trends-... they never say forever gaze, if only-” Jake knows this song, vaguely, the way he knows the voices singing it. Fucking nonsense lyrics, boy bands were all about that shit. He can’t place the band or pop group or whatever, though, not quite. “Guilty roads to an endless love… there’s no control, are you with me now? Your every wish will be done, they tell me…”
It’s not, like, a bad song. But it’s very… of its time, Jake thinks, and that’s when it clicks into place. Suddenly he knows exactly what this is.
“Chris, do you like Backstreet Boys?”
Still no answer.
Chris is too deep in the music to care what he’s saying, or maybe too deep to even hear him. Jake decides to just ride this out and see what he can get out of him when it’s done, and he sits back, pulling out his phone, typing in backstreet boys show me the meaning and looking over what album it’s from, the release date, lyrics, whatever information he can get.
Man, boy bands did not worry much about their songs making sense, did they?
Every clue to who Chris really is is one Jake can’t afford to let slip by. If he has parents out there somewhere, people who miss him, Jake might be able to put these tiny inconsequential moments together to help the little rescue find them.
The ideal is to find them their families, to return them to the people who they’ve been stolen from. Even if it hurts his heart a little to think about Chris disappearing from his life, the idea that some stupid pop song could lead Chris back to them…
That would be pretty great, he thinks. If he could somehow reunite Chris with his parents, that would be like... a culmination of every good thing Jake has ever done in his life, rolled into one great thing.
The song is a clue - the song itself, or something in the lyrics, maybe-
“There’s nowhere to run, I have no place to go-... surrender my heart, body, and soul-... how can it be you’re asking me to feel the things you never show-”
“Fuck,” Jake mumbles. “I didn’t know pop got this dark. Is this about somebody dying?”
Chris slowly folds in half in the seat, pulling his seatbelt strap with him, until his forehead is pressed against his knees. His hands move along the seams on the side of his pants, up and down, up and down along the outside of his thighs. Jake can hear his voice, now - just barely - but he’s singing, not humming, now.
That seems important, too.
“Show me the meaning of being lonely,” Chris is singing in a soft tenor, voice oddly hoarse now, thinned from the position he’s in. “Is this the feeling I need to walk with? Tell me why I can’t be there where you are-”
“There’s something missing in my heart…”
“Hey, buddy, are you okay?”
The song ends, and switches. The next one is upbeat but Chris doesn’t sit up. He just stays there bent in half, and his shoulders start to shake, his arms moving to cover his head as if protecting himself from a blow.
Jake lays a warm hand on his back, feeling the shuddering of his body through his oversized t-shirt. He turns the radio’s volume off entirely and they sit there, in silence but for the sound of Chris hitching in half-hidden sobs.
“Where, where, where, where, where-... where are you, where, where are you, where-... where’d you go-” Chris is whispering, shaking his head now. His fingers tighten, his hair twisted between his fingers until it has to be pulling painfully at his scalp. “Where’d you go, why why, why, why don’t, why can’t, why can’t I-”
“It’s okay, little man, it’s okay-”
“It’s not okay!”
Chris screams the words, loud enough that Jake looks up to see some people sitting at a picnic table glance over at them, startled, hearing right through the closed doors and windows of the car. He gives them a slight, nervous smile and then looks back down at Chris, who unfolds himself only to unbuckle his seatbelt and throw himself over the center console into Jake’s waiting arms.
He wails against Jake’s neck, dampening his shirt with tears, and Jake holds him as tightly as he’ll allow. Chris’s heart races against his, and one of Jake’s hands works up into the hair at the back of his head. Chris’s sobbing is broken and hoarse, it’s barely human-sounding. It’s not sadness, but something far angrier and wilder. It makes Jake think of his mother crying when her best friend died in a car accident right after they left Jake’s dad, when she didn’t feel safe going back to the funeral.
She’d sat up all night listening to the last voicemails she had left on her phone and crying just like this.
“It’s not, you’re right,” Jake says softly. “It’s not. But it’s going to be, buddy, I promise. We’re going to figure it out. We are. We’ll find whoever’s looking for you, I promise we will. I promise.”
Chris is quiet for a long moment, beyond the sniffing.
Then he says, not quite a whisper, “I, I, I like your heartbeat.”
How do you answer something like that?
“I like yours, too.”
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