Disclaimer: Not mine.
Summary: Everyone loves family vacations.
Rating: T for content. And character-death, if you squint.
A/N: This is meant to be the basis for a doujinshi that may or may not have fallen by the wayside. In a sneaky attempt to look productive, I'm posting it now for your viewing abhorrence. The plot is inspired by a mix of several true stories. Read on, and you'll see what I mean.
The final chapter of A Lesser Beauty, Ch 18: Fireworks, has a tentative street date of this month (September). Don't stress; I'll make it happen.
The electric whir and spin of his alarm churning to life, the tuning of strings stretching—alert, aware—and Roxas' eyes flutter open to stare at the glaring red numbers of his clock, the first humming strains of music seeking purchase against his rising consciousness. 4:00 a.m., the hurried drag of luggage across the living room floor, drawers opening and shutting in the kitchen, clinking silverware.
"Up, up, up!" his mother calls to him from the kitchen, slow tendrils of brewed coffee pushing open his eyes, his father brushing his teeth in the bathroom. He'd never, ever, get used to the early morning rush to the airport. Family vacations, a small luxury, but didn't his parents ever think to arrive at a sane hour? Would it always be the same bloodshot 8:01 a.m. flight, skin numb with sleeplessness? Relishing one last stretch—toes pointed, fingertips touching the cool surface of his window—Roxas rolls from his bed, staggering around like a man blind, and begins to dress.
The shuttle arrives fifteen minutes behind schedule, the driver offering no apologies as he hoists their luggage into the back, his father helping his mother to her seat, muttering under his breath. They have to return twice—once to lock the doors and set the alarm, again for Roxas' headphones. Plugged in, tuned out, Roxas stares at the haze that sits over the city, early morning wash of blue painting the streets, the glitter of lights as they take an onramp at 70. A few lonely cars on the freeway, music pumping into his body as they merge, no signal, into the fast lane. Cancun had been last on all their lists, no one fans of the rough surf, picturesque though it was, but the trip was more of an afterthought, a chance to get away, an early birthday gift for him. Dozing, Roxas doesn't feel any closer to adulthood than he had when he turned sixteen, the promise of seventeen little more than a reminder of the upcoming SATs, the threat of college looming on the horizon. Dialing the volume louder, he closes his eyes, wonders if his room will have a minibar.
He can remember a time when the airport was a thrilling place, accents from all corners of the world, luxury items well-lit and duty free on the impeccably stocked shelves, his mother picking up a bottle of Chanel at what she promises is a steal, his father surveying the impressive bottles of whiskey. The slightly frozen waffle sits heavily in his stomach, pre-flight jitters still bothering him after years and years of family trips. An over active imagination, his mother said, and didn't he know that you had more of a chance getting struck by lightning than dying in a plane crash? But reason had never held much sway over Roxas, more prone to quiet worry than rationalizing away his fears.
The seats at the gate are at an impossible 100 degree angle, slouched back enough to look sloppy, but not far enough to look relaxed, and Roxas hasn't heard a word of conversation since his father grudgingly tipped the driver, a whispered thanks before Roxas had his headphones on again, backpack heavy on his shoulders. Two seats down, three rows over, a tiny boy jabs away at Nintendo DS, small eyes narrowed with focus, mouth slightly ajar. At the counter a blonde in a sarong waves her hand with entitled fury, some demand or another not being met by the attendant just barely concealing her grimace. He wishes he'd thought to load a couple movies on his laptop, anything to fill the sleepy, gaping space between his eyes.
Roxas closes his eyes to blink, the scrape of staring too long dragging against his eyelids. He opens them fifteen minutes later and notices a group of boys has taken seats directly across from him. One of them has a staring problem. Turning inconspicuously to his left, he realizes his parents are no longer sitting with him, left their carry-ons to be ransacked by terrorists while he napped. Reaching nonchalantly into his mother's purse, he roots around until he feels the crinkle of plastic against his fingers. His mother likes to bring hard candy on every flight they've ever taken, something he remembers about warding off air sickness, and Roxas tries very hard not to raise his eyes to the group of boys across from him.
After a while of staring at his knees, he risks a glance and finds one of them, the one with the staring problem, is talking at him, the rest of his group off somewhere. Pulling his headphones from his ears, Roxas clears his throat quietly.
"Were you talking?"
The redhead looks horribly affronted, lifts a hand to his chest and says, "What? You mean you weren't listening?" The awkward pause that follows threatens to disable reality, then the other boy grins. "That was a joke."
As far as Roxas can tell, the other boy is three things: 1) a drug addict, 2) a college drop out, and 3) the kind of person that has the ability to talk for an inordinate amount of time before pausing to take a breath. He hadn't offered his name though he'd asked for Roxas', rolled it around in his mouth like an exotic delicacy, and seemed unperturbed by Roxas' brief, slightly confused responses. The boy's older brother and his friends were either 1) running drugs or 2) on summer break, and had kindly invited the boy along to sample the ample pleasures of tequila and hookers Mexico had to offer. He spoke with a slight manic gleam, couldn't keep his hands still, and offered Roxas a piece of gum roughly twenty five times in the hour they talked before the gate opened, Roxas' parents returning with a newspaper, a novel, and a box of shell-shaped hazelnut chocolates for him.
"Tuesday!" the boy says enthusiastically, a reminder of his hasty suggestion that they meet on the beach for some beer and some "culture." As luck would have it, the boy is staying two hotels down from Roxas, something about having to rob a bank and steal a firstborn for it. Though Roxas isn't sure what sort of things "culture" actually entails, and can't tell which of things the boy says are jokes and which aren't, he agrees to hang out with the boy on Tuesday.
Settling into seat G23, slightly fogged window to his right, Roxas feels the swell of a smile creep along his jaw. He'll probably have to negotiate his way out of a trip to explore ancient ruins with his parents, but the prospect of hanging out with the strange, nameless boy is exciting, makes him nervous for reasons he can't identify. Hoisting his backpack into the overhead compartment above seat C16, the boy winks in Roxas' direction, Roxas wincing through a nod as his parents raise their eyebrows at him.
Four hours into the six hour flight, it is quickly apparent that something is wrong, the please fasten your safety belts sign illuminating after a minute of turbulence. Roxas switches his iPod off and cranes his neck forward. The redheaded boy is looking over his shoulder. A quick grin and a thumbs up, then the boy looks away, Roxas settling back into his seat. A flight attendant's voice comes over the intercom—something about ladies and gentlemen, the captain has—when the plane takes a sudden drop, Roxas' stomach heaving into his mouth.
"Mom?" His father is patting his mother's hand as they both stare toward the cockpit. There is another sudden drop, Roxas staring at the window at the right wing of the plane… when it suddenly disintegrates, the plane diving to the right, a green blur of Mexican desolation replacing the blue of the sky before the plane starts to spiral, oxygen masks dropping from overhead as one continuous scream pummels his ear drums. Roxas flicks his eyes over to his parents only to find empty sky, the plane breaking apart mid-air. Roxas wonders how he can hear the screaming over the noise of the freefall when he realizes it's his own voice tearing out of him, vocal cords straining, vision blurring, lungs aching. Roxas attempts to reach for the oxygen mask, but it's no longer above him, eyes shooting upward to a rapidly approaching expanse of green. The seats in front of him are shooting upward one by one as they detach from the plummeting wreckage, blood streaming. Roxas sees a flash of red, fear searing his veins, before a piece of debris sails straight toward him. Then there is darkness.
He is conscious of the pain before he opens his eyes, body rebelling against its involuntary desire to inhale, each breath a burst of fire below his neck. His epidermis feels like it has been peeled away, every parched movement of leathery skin amplified, and his leg. Roxas didn't know heaven hurt, thought it would be open arms and the bright of pearly gates. But when he opens his eyes, there is just the sun, blinding pale gold and the smell of burning. One hand drags its way across the armrest, up over his stomach, brushes something sticky over his neck. The place below his throat feels wrong, screams when he breathes too deeply. A crushed breastbone or a broken collarbone or a collapsed windpipe. Roxas doesn't know, Biology was too many years ago, a different lifetime where he woke up in his bed before his alarm went off, where his mother cooked coffee and his father brushed his teeth and planes didn't fall out of the sky.
When his head stops spinning long enough to keep his eyes open, Roxas realizes he's still strapped into his seat, suspended a good twenty feet above the ground, stuck securely in the branches of a large tree. His right leg is either broken or crushed, each attempt to move it met with bouts of gagging from the nausea the pain causes. The sheer helplessness, the heat, the sticky smear of dried blood—only some of it his own—and Roxas feels the angry tide rise to his eyes. What the fuck was this? Just what the fuck was this? He cries with his eyes closed, nose slowly clogging with snot that he can't work up the stamina to wipe away. He strains his ears for cries beyond his own but can only hear his own pathetic wail and the wild noises of the jungle.
A splatter of something hits his lips while his head is reclined against the seat. Staring up through the canopy, trying to work out the shapes with the light of the sun shining through, Roxas freezes, another splatter against his cheek. There, in the branches above him, is a body. The head is at an impossible angle, turned too far to the left, limbs an unstructured, boneless mess. The blood from the shard of debris in the body's chest—indistinguishable as a man or a woman—continues to drip all over Roxas. Summoning the strength to raise a hand to his hair, Roxas finds he is covered in it, explaining the near constant buzz of insects. Beating down the hopelessness, Roxas replaces the feeling with rage. As if it wasn't enough. Couldn't he be left to die in peace? He had to wait until the insects laid eggs under his skin? Had to wait until his body became a birthing ground?
"Fuck this." Gritting his teeth against the pain in his leg, Roxas sits up. He can't risk the jump from the seat, but if he throws his body hard enough toward the trunk of the tree, he might be able to catch it in time to avoid the fall. "Fuck." His voice sounds strange, broken, and before he can give it a second thought, Roxas lunges for the trunk.
The impact is horrific, useless leg refusing to wrap around the tree, hands scraped raw as he slides down, down, down until he meets the ground, a lick of fire that shoots up his leg and into his eyes, blinding him with pain. Chest heaving, Roxas grabs fistfuls of the ground, drags himself onto a patch of something soft and green moments before his seat dislodges from the branch, crashes against the exact same spot he'd just been occupying. Falling backward, he exhales, eyes closing.
The burning has taken on a congealed tang, a cloud of insects swarming over Roxas every moment he stops waving them away. He's resigned to dying where he lays, mossy bed as good a place as any to find his way to death, when his fingers—rubbing against the moss below him—light on something that feels like uncooked meat. (If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? If a plane crashes in the Mexican jungle, does it make a sound? And what sound does it make? A cacophony of boiling blood and buckling metal? The single, sustained note of a boy crying in the midst of hell?) A sprinkling of human debris litters the ground around him, pulverized flesh and bone crawling with ants and mosquitoes, a veritable raining down of human substance—clothing, skin, blood. Roxas identifies a finger, a mandible, the hewn torso of a female. A Nintendo DS, still on as far as Roxas can tell, a small character standing in the middle of a town, backlit and ready to be played. Roxas doesn't see the little boy the game belongs to. Sitting up farther, Roxas spots pieces of luggage, some aflame. Pieces of plane, columns of smoke rising from jagged fragments. And the bodies. So very many bodies, all of them tossed aside like tired toys, no longer of interest to a bored deity. Which among them is his father? His mother? Roxas can't remember what the redheaded boy wore, has no way to discern which body is his, if his body is intact at all. What had set the boy apart before—hair the color of blood—is what makes him faceless now.
Every inch of his body screaming in protest, Roxas sits on the floor and watches as the insects descend.
The smell wakes him up. More than the putrefying bodies around him, it's his own wounds that have begun to fester, itching constantly. And there is the thirst.
Before the day is half out, Roxas closes his eyes and begins walking. The cry of a bird there, a rustle of wind here. Something lurking in the deep, yellow cat eyes watching patiently, and there, faint in the distance, the sound of running water. He follows the sound, blind, until he steps into it, all but dropping face first into the stream. The water is cool to the touch, tastes slightly of plants and dirt, but Roxas drinks anyway, scrubs at the blood caked over his hair and clothes.
When he can no longer stand to imagine what it must look like, Roxas peels off his soaked jeans, gingerly pulls them away from his leg. It's better than he'd hoped, no breakage of skin, but his foot is turned unnaturally. He contemplates turning it so that it faces the right way again, bracing it with something, isn't that what they did in the movies, and hoping for the best, but he's vomiting at just the sight of it, stream water coming up again and again until he crumples on the bank. Why is he so weak? So stupid? (Why are humans made this way? So easily destroyed?)
Refusing to talk to himself, Roxas struggles to his feet and approaches the nearest tree. The branch is tough to tear down, but he manages it, tearing off a strip off the bottom of his shirt and glaring at his leg. "Worthless," he hisses, lining the branch up with his leg and securing them together with strips of cloth. It is the worst splint-crutch combo he imagines has ever been made, but what can he do? He's clearly not dying, not close enough to death to wait to die, so he's got to do something. Swallowing the grit of dirt, stomach rumbling in distress, Roxas wades back into the stream and begins to follow the direction it flows in. People need water, they congregate around it just as naturally as he did, blind and alone in a jungle. If he needs to find people, he figures—hopes—the stream will take him to them.
Three days with no food, slow going in the stream with his leg, and the constant throb of pain numbing his mind, muting his memory. By the third day Roxas doesn't know what he's doing, just that he has to continue walking, that he must follow the river's run. (If a boy dies in the middle of a jungle, does he make a sound?) He tries eating some plants that grow by the bank, but they turn his stomach, make him ravenous. He worries about needing to sleep, having stopped only once and waking up without knowing how long he'd been out and smelling strongly of urine. The thought that something large and alive had come and pissed on him while he slept was enough to keep Roxas awake. That and the pain, and the hunger, and the shock, and God why me why me why me.
On the fourth day Roxas finds a tent. It is crudely constructed, more of a shanty than a tent, but there is a blanket inside. Roxas pulls up the blanket to wrap around himself and uncovers a bushel of bananas. He is so overcome with joy that he passes out with the bananas cradled to his chest, the smell reminding him strongly of his mother—in the kitchen, asking him to chop walnuts for the banana bread.
The world is dizzy and his mouth tastes like bananas. There's Spanish floating in the air above him, a bottle of water held to his lips by someone with kind eyes. Before Roxas can drink, he passes out again.
The systematic pulse of an EKG fishes him from slumber, the beep beep beep of his own steady, alive, heart.
"What is your name?" The English is heavily-accented, a light shined into his eyes. Roxas can hardly focus on the blur of the man in front of him. "You are American, yes?" Something wiped across his lips, a straw in his mouth and something in Spanish, someone petting his hair. "She says to drink. It is the water." Roxas tries to swallow, tries to find the words to asks where he is, where's his mom, his dad. Fingers close over his nose until he gasps, water squirting down into his throat. "What is your name? I am your doctor."
"Wh-where," Roxas rasps, squinting into the light. "Where's my—"
"You have been in a plane crash. You are the only survivor. What is your name?" The doctor repeats the question over and over again, spiraling away as he fuzzes out into darkness.
Roxas dreams that he's crying.
It's almost a month before they can locate his uncle, stomping around in Portugal on a job, almost resentful at the fact that he has to watch Roxas until he's of age. It's almost as if it's Roxas fault, that his needing to be watched for preceded his entire family dying in a plane crash. Almost a month, but the media outlets can't get enough of little blonde-haired Roxas, only survivor of Mexicana Airways Flight 504. How had this small sixteen year old boy trudged through the Mexican jungle for four days with a fractured leg, cracked collarbone, and surface wounds infected with parasites? 102 dead, one survivor. How? Roxas doesn't know. He remembers the doctor pulling maggot after maggot from beneath his skin. He remembers being rushed through a rabid swarm of reporters, cameras flashing. The hunters who found him, feverish and stinking, caught a puma that had been waiting for his collapse, stalking him through the jungle until he was weak enough for it to strike. Headlines read: "The Luckiest Boy in the World."
How lucky. To have his entire family stripped from him in five minutes of absolute terror. To walk with a limp for the rest of his life, four days trudging through the jungle taking an irreparable toll on his body. How lucky. Potential torn away from him, a boy whose name he'll never know. A promise of Tuesday sun he'll never see.
He lies awake at night and wonders if God is real, wonders if there's a reason it was him that was saved. He's not a particularly good person, has rarely gone out of his way to help others. The few friends that he has wouldn't miss him if he'd gone, could hardly bring themselves to call him, standing at the foot of his bed while he stares at his sheets.
"Want to catch a movie?" His cast is uncomfortable, started to smell after he got it wet in the shower. His uncle caught him in the kitchen with a knife, trying to hack it off.
"I can't." The cadences have left his voice. Roxas was never much for laughter, some internal blockage, but now he can't smile. He can't, he can't. His friends don't understand that it's not because he doesn't want to. It's because he can't, he physically can't go out, can't smile, laugh. He doesn't have the ability, not anymore.
In the hours that he's supposed to be asleep he waits for the answer to come to him. Divine purpose, fate, a Reason Why. No answers come, and when sleep finally does, he dreams of a sunlit beach that crumbles away beneath him into darkness.