thorns (or the blood that jesus spilt)

Summary: Clay's aim was off that night, of course. But getting a bone-shattering shot to the leg would've been better than this. AU.

a/n: my life was destroyed by a clay puppet. anyway, this is obviously a deviation from the climax in "nature" where things go horribly wrong. short, angst-riddled piece. had a little trouble characterizing clay so bear with me. ahead: blood, gore, death, swearing.

all is quiet on the western front and he—clay puppington—is very, very afraid.

there is a thrumming pain in his gut from where the rifle recoiled and bucked viciously against the soft, vulnerable flesh. with his luck, it'll leave a nice, spangled bruise. and it won't look a thing like christ, that's for sure.

"dad…"

the voice, though mosquito-wing thin and taut with pain, registers hazily with clay. it's orel. but he can't see orel; the stump is vacated. the rifle smolders in his fierce grasp with hot, sulfurous malevolence. the devil sees all of a man's bad deeds.

"orel?" clay is very, very afraid again.

the forest buzzes and writhes and shifts with life; the earth shudders with breath beneath his feet. nature is as reliable a witness as any man.

"dad… y-you shot me."

clay is an excellent shot, after all. he brained that deer with a single bullet. and orel—fucking orel—couldn't stomach putting a single beast out of its misery.

did he say "you"?

he ventures forward with tremulous legs; the bonfire bathes him in an oppressive, volcanic heat that draws a sour sweat to the surface of his skin. then he glances down and it finally occurs to him that yes, he pulled the trigger and the rifle recoiled and he did say "you" because "you" shot him.

orel is sprawled across the ground, braced against an errant log and staring—horrified—at the screaming strawberry starburst blossoming in the center of his chest. his pallid visage contracts with a painful breath, then turns up to clay. tears glimmer like pinprick diamonds in the corners of his eyes. a crimson thread dangles pendulously from his lip. and clay is very, very afraid.

"orel…" he tries to make sense of the scene, of the geyser of lifeblood as unapologetically red as that of any deer or hunting dog, of the fear glowing fever-bright in his son's eyes.

how would like to come on a hunting trip with me son

"dad." there is no admonishment, no anger. just quiet. he's always been a sensitive boy.

"orel… i'll fix it. if y-you hadn't… if you weren't…" clay's vision blurs, but his mind bleeds with a hideous, piercing clarity. there is no one blame. neither god or satan influenced him. no higher deity pulled the trigger. it is just him, just fucked-up clay. clay who pretended to shoot himself in the heart to earn his mother's complete, unfeigned affection. clay who lusted after his father's slaps, if only to be acknowledged for a fleeting moment. clay who longed to obliterate his own son's unfaltering decency just so he wouldn't seem like such a fuck-up in comparison.

"dad… will you pray with me?" orel rasps, looking up at clay like he's jesus incarnate and not the judas responsible for jesus's gory death.

"sure, son." his eyes prickle with whiskey-hot tears. "we'll pray."

dad you need to pray for the food god put on our table

dad you'll go to hell if you don't pray

orel clasps his shaky hands just above the wound, looking for all the world like moses about to part the red sea. "h-hi god, it's orel again. i know, i know, but don't worry—this is my last one. i'm going to die soon and i hope i got enough soul insurance to go to heaven with you. i did my best to never sin and never spit in your face, and i really, really love you, god, so i hope i see you again. while i'm gone, please look after my mom, shapey, block, reverend putty, stephanie, miss sculptham, doughy, christina, coach stopframe, joe, and-and…" he inhales huskily and sneaks a glimpse at clay. "and my dad. please take care of them. i know they'll keep praying—even stephanie."

blood spatters the ground between them, sparkling like firelight embers.

clay wants to be upset. he wants to be furious that orel is doing this to him. he wants to remove his belt and teach orel a lesson.

but he isn't orel. hell, orel isn't even molded with his image in mind. because orel's a good person and he's fucked-up clay and there's no way to beat that out of either of them.

orel even forgave him. only a truly upright person could manage that.

"and…" orel is struggling to encompass everything he wants to say into his last few words. "p-please just keep moralton happy."

clay wants to put a bullet through his brain. bloberta would throw a goddamn parade if he actually went through with it. she'd probably spend three days scrubbing every inch of his dusky study and polishing off the sour trophies lining his bar shelf. he doesn't even know if she'll hate him for what he did. it'll just give her a valid reason to loathe him even more.

"dad…" his expression is yearning, longing. "was-was i a good person?"

this is the shirt i was wearing the day i realized that god doesn't just love me, but my whole family.

"yes, son. you were perfect."

someone will say, after some time passes, that clay was an excellent father to have raised a boy like orel. they'll be wrong.

how would you like to go on a hunting trip with me son

son

he tried so hard to bring orel down to his hellish level. and he failed.

"amen," he says to finish orel's prayer. maybe it'll reach god before orel.

clay looks to the sky. all is quiet on the western front and he is still very, very afraid.