Casper didn’t know exactly what he had been expecting. But it hadn’t been silence.
They’d agreed to meet up at a bowling alley, the idea spurred along by some bitter recollection of a happy family moment. Something they both enjoyed. That was the idea, at least.
For the moment, they were seated in the alley’s diner, a partially walled off space within the rest of the larger complex, differentiated only by a slightly stronger smell of grease. Plastic tables, plastic tablecloths; some acne covered teenager manning the snack counter, looking just as enthused as Casper felt; most of his attention focused on his iPod, earphones in.
His father had ordered a serving of fries. Those fries now sat between them, untouched. Neither had spoken in half an hour. Casper sat there, arms crossed, and gazed evenly into his dad’s face, counting the minutes until Ray made eye contact.
He hadn’t wanted this. James had talked him into it. The boy told him he was dumb for hanging out with a pedo just because he was angry with his folks. He’d tried to disagree. Tried to explain why it was more complicated than that. He hadn’t managed to come up with an argument.
Ray opened his mouth. Casper raised an eyebrow. Ray closed his mouth. Casper rolled his eyes.
“It saved my life, you know,” he muttered. His dad finally looked up at him as he spoke. “What you did. It helped me move when the elves attacked. It helped me stay myself when Father tried to take me. It even let me help a friend when she got herself in trouble. What you did to me helped. It sucked; but it helped.” He picked up a french fry. It hung, limp and cold between his fingers. He dropped it back in the basket. “So why am I still so angry.”
His father didn’t answer. As much as Casper tried not to care, he couldn’t help but notice how bad he looked. His hair was matted, his skin grey; a day or more of stubble sitting along his jaw. For the moment, he was glad he’d sat far enough away to avoid his father’s emotions. He didn’t want to know how the man felt right now.
Ray Sullivan gazed blankly at his son for a while, then began to speak.
“I think your mom and I are splitting up,” he murmured. There was nothing there inside his voice. “We had a fight last night. We’ve been fighting a lot lately.”
Casper opened his mouth, his intent to say something cold. The words didn’t come.
“… I’m sorry to hear that.” He was surprised to find he actually meant it. “Is it because of me?”
“Of course it is,” came the reply. “She still thinks what we did to you was worth it.” Ray shifted his gaze up to the ceiling. “… I can’t anymore.”
Casper raised an eyebrow at that, curious in spite of himself.
“Peter told us what’s been going on,” Ray droned. “Nearly getting taken by the elves. Nearly getting taken by Father. Your mother thinks it’s like you said. Your powers kept you safe. Maybe she needs to think that. I don’t know. I tried to agree with her. Wanted to be on the same side. But every time I try to think that way, I remember how it felt to see you crying, and my head starts screaming that all the danger you were in was on a path we chased you into.” He let out a single, listless chuckle. “It reminds me how badly we failed you.”
Casper scowled. It was odd to hear a thing like that from his dad. Satisfying wasn’t the right word. Somewhere between that and aggravating.
“If you could go back,” he asked. “Back to when I was nine, and do it all right the first time; scare me so much that you wouldn’t have to do it again. Would you do it?”
“I don’t know. Two weeks ago, I’d have said yes, but-” he shook his head. “God, I don’t think I have the energy anymore. It sounds awful of me to say, but you have no idea how much it hurt to see you sca-.”
“Scared?” Casper snapped, suddenly incensed. “Oh, I know. That’s the thing you don’t get. You wanna know what my power is?” he tapped his head. “I’m an empath. Every single time you hit me after I manifested, I could tell exactly how bad you felt. I knew how empty Mom felt when you hit her.” He laughed, high and angry. “That’s the only reason I stayed with you as long as I did. Because I couldn’t get my head around why you’d be doing it if you felt that way. Then, one night, I come home, and I hear you fighting, and I figure it out. And all I can say about it is fuck you.” He watched as his father buried his head in his hands. “Fuck everything about you.”
When he’d finished saying his piece, Casper was fuming; emotion feeding on itself like a fire inside his skull. He watched his dad sit there, hands still pressed against his face, and wished he could tell if he was crying. Just to see if it made a difference. Ray’s breaths were heavy, slow. Not quite tears, if he had to guess. Too tired. Just Processing.
It was like that for a minute, at least.
When Ray finally spoke, there was nothing left in his tone. Not even exhaustion. He was just flat.
“Are you ever coming home?” he asked.
“What home?” Casper spat. His dad flinched. He sighed. “… Is there even anything for me to come back to now?”
After a long pause, Ray shook his head. It was that moment, in the end, when his father finally cried. He rested his elbows against the table, smushed his palms against his eyes, and began to moan; just these, low, wracking sobs. It was pathetic. It was gross. Casper couldn’t bring himself to look at it.
He pushed himself up out of his chair, rubberized feet skidding along oily tiles, and walked away.
“I can’t watch this,” he said behind himself. “I’m going bowling. Come find me when you pull it together.”
He stepped out past the plastic wall, and into the main area. It was almost empty, just three or four groups scattered amongst the lanes. A pair of teenagers were on an obvious date about a third of the way down, a cluster of kids and adults that bore the look of some kind of school group gathered at the opposite end, and in the middle, James and Sarah, here to supervise, just in case.
Neither of them commented as he placed himself on one of the seats, waiting to join the next game. James cocked an eyebrow at him, his expression curious. Casper shook his head. No further conversation needed.
They were partway into the next game when Ray finally re-emerged, his eyes dry, if a little puffy. Casper paid him no real heed. It was his turn. He just focused on lining up his shot.
“Hey,” Ray murmured quietly as he closed in.
“Hey,” Casper replied, uncaring.
“Sorry about that,” his father murmured. “Just-” he let out a humorless chuckle. “Just dealing with the fact that the people I love most in this world both hate me and want me to find somewhere quiet to die.”
Casper frowned. That… That stung.
“Not funny, Dad,” he muttered reproachfully.
Ray shook his head.
“Look,” he sighed. “I’m trying my hardest here, okay?”
Casper bit back the instinct to say something snide.
“Yeah,” he muttered. “Okay.” He went back to lining up his shot, tuning out the sounds of Ray and Sarah’s perfunctory exchange of greetings. He took his go and watched, uncaring, as the ball rolled true, straight for the centre of the pins. This was followed by a momentary annoyance as the ball swerved off the track at the last second, one pin falling over, seemingly of its own accord. He shot a suspicious glance at James. The younger boy stuck out his tongue. He chuckled.
He sat down beside the other boy, eyes forward. He felt James’ hand give his own a squeeze, an unspoken care echoing silently through his friend’s head. Then James got up to take his shot, followed only a second or so later by Ray taking his place on the bench, a tired malaise radiating from his surface thoughts like an armor made of sad. Casper tried to block it out and, for a moment, was surprised that it seemed to work, the feeling fading fractionally inside his head, second by second. Then he realised. His dad was simply comforted, just by sitting there beside him.
“Look,” he muttered. “I don’t know if I’ll ever want to come back yet. I still get angry when I think of you. I don’t know if that will go away.” He braced himself for another wave of sadness from his dad, but it never came. Ray just nodded quietly, accepting it. Casper shook his head. “But even if I forgave you, It’s not like I’d want to come back if I know you’re both like this,” he gestured broadly at his father’s dishevelled state. “Seriously, Dad. You look like crap.”
“I haven’t slept in three days.”
Casper rolled his eyes.
“The point,” he continued. “Is that there has to be a home for me to come back to. You’ve gotta be worth it, you know?”
In spite of himself, Ray snickered.
“And here I was thinking we could just offer to buy you a playstation.”
“Well. I mean. That wouldn’t hurt.”
Once again, they sat quietly. It was Casper’s turn to bowl. He didn’t move.
“So,” he said eventually. “You heard about my stuff with Father?”
A quiet dread rose up inside Ray’s skull.
“Yeah. I heard.”
“So, what do you think?”
His dad let out a dry laugh.
“Am I even allowed to have an opinion on that right now?”
“No,” Casper admitted. “So… What do you think?”
“Honestly?” Ray shook his head. “It scares the shit out of me.”