When John was young he found he had a special place in his head that was so special he couldn't talk to others about it.
He could occasionally whisper about it to his great Aunt Marsha, giggling over its special bits and sharing the new places he discovered inside, but if he tried to talk about it to his Mum his tongue twisted and his throat got clogged with a feeling like smoke.
He once got out enough to tell his Da it was a scary place, and he'd laughed, ruffling John's hair. "There's no reason to be afraid! What is it? Dogs? Spiders? The Dark?"
John didn't know how to tell him that he wasn't afraid of the place, or anything therein, only that it was a scary place.
He rather liked it, actually.
His Aunt Marsha didn't think it strange, and gave great laughs that sounded like feral dogs barking when he asked why she didn't think it strange.
"It's because I have a space like that too, Johnny, though I don't visit as often as I should."
John really liked his Aunt Marsha, even if Harry was afraid of her.
(Sometimes he liked her even more because Harry was afraid of her, but that was secret.)
When John was about to start preschool, his Aunt Marsha had a fight with his Da.
He was really excited to go, to meet other kids like Harry had, to show he was all grown up and going to school, and he was sad that his Aunt didn't want him to go.
In the fight his Mum was silent, and his Da shouted a lot, saying words like 'Normal Life' and 'like the other kids' and for a moment John thinks that this is all Harrys doing.
Harry told them he was too young to go, too much of a baby, probably, and that just wasn't fair!
But then he does end up going, and he's too excited about everything to say anything about the possibility of not going.
He's got his new backpack; he's got his very own pack of colored pencils, regular pencils too and erasers! It's awesome, and he's quickly immersed in the experience.
His Teacher is nice even if she is afraid of big dogs, and his classmates are mostly fun and draws weird things like Harry does, but it's all fine. He's made a couple of best friends already, so now Harry can stop bragging about hers.
Everything is fantastic, and his Da gives his Aunt smug looks every time John comes home.
He still talks with his Aunt Marsha, and wonders with her about why someone would want to draw things like flowers that don't bite, of dogs that don't snarl, of people with regular faces.
She always grins extra sharp, and says he'll understand when he's older, but she agrees that it's silly.
She also agrees that his drawing of the monster under Harry's bed is amazing.
Naptime is a strange time for John, and is made even more so by the fact that everyone in his class wakes up crying from nightmares every time. Except John.
(John never gets nightmares, he only ever found out about them when Harry got them.)
Naptime is now a weary point of time, as it doesn't seem like anyone really gets them at home, and John makes up dreams that he supposes would be scary because he doesn't want to be the odd one out.
Things get very quiet at home when he tells his family the oddity.
He doesn't think it strange that no one asks if he'd had nightmares too.
He's only relieved that he doesn't have to lie to anyone at home.
When he's a bit older, he ends up staying at his Aunts place on weekends.
He always gets his homework done, and still goes to friends' houses when invited, inviting those friends over when he felt the urge, but he's happy spending time with his Aunt.
She tells him stories that give him delightful chills, and rents horror films to watch with the lights off right before bed.
He can talk to her for ages about the dreams he gets, about the special place in his head, about the kids he plays with and the new girl at school, Sandy, who's afraid of going into the water, and feels normal in a way that he can't quite get to at school.
He's there for his Aunt on the anniversary of Great Uncle Brody's death, and she tells him that one day he'll find someone like that for himself.
"Someone who will see something strange and laugh," she would say, "someone who will tell you that you make them feel brave." She says this with a voice full of wonder, like this is a strange thing, and it isn't until much later that John understands fully what that means.
It isn't until much later that he understands the difference between making someone feel safe, making someone feel protected, and making someone feel brave.
When parent-teacher conferences happen, his Mum looks worried and his Da looks like he's determined to be calm, and one of the lights in the hallway always stutters into darkness so no one sees John listening at the door.
Mrs. Talbot is worried about him.
John thinks that's rather nice, if unnecessary of her, and then he's more than a bit uncomfortable.
"He gets along very well with all of the other children; I haven't had to sort out any problems with him at all, actually. I'm just worried about his… well, not exactly his mental health, but I'm worried about what his interests seem to be geared towards."
"And what is that?" His Mum asks. Her tone doesn't give anything away, but John knows it's that tone of voice that means she's ready to calm his Da down at a moment's notice.
Which meant his Da was getting antsy.
"He seems to think of rather dark things… his drawings are well done for his age, but are almost always about something rather nightmarish."
"Well boys will be boys, he always liked that sort of thing," his Da says, "the bigger the fangs, the scalier the beast, the more he loves it. What's wrong with that?"
There's a short, strained silence, and a small rustling of paper. "Okay, well here's one of his writing projects. The class was to take one slip of paper each from three hats, one of the hats had a setting, and two hats had characters that the students could choose one to be the hero, and one the villain. They had to write a story about it… and here, John got a Meadow, A Wolf, and A Prince…"
There was a short amount of time where there was only the rustling of paged, and his Mum cleared her throat. He remembered the story; he thought he'd done a good job of it.
"Hardly any spelling mistakes at all. And an interesting twist making the wolf and the prince one in the same."
"That's right. Reads just like one of those Grimm fairytales, and he even used the word 'disquiet' right."
"Ah, yes, I remember him asking me what that meant just last week," confirmed his mother.
"Well, yes, John is remarkably bright, and very creative," agreed Mrs. Talbot, sounding strained. "It's just that not many children would be able to think up something like this—"
"I hope you aren't suggesting that John cheated in any way." His Da had his forbidding tone out, voice low and menacing in a way that always made John smile.
(Forbidding and Menacing were two other words he'd learned recently, and he rather liked them.)
"Oh no, no, no, of course not! It's just not something I would expect from someone his age! It does read a lot like a Grimm tale, I did a project on the original tales when I was in Uni. It's just—well, here, I have a story here about a boy and his step mother living in a castle, and another here about a Woodsman getting lost in a city after being tricked by a witch… This is more of what I was expecting. Very straightforward good and bad."
"Well isn't it good that he's trying to make it a bit more interesting?" asked his Da.
"Yes, it's always good when they use their imagination… I was wondering, what does John do at home? What does he read? What kind of shows does he watch on the weekends?"
"Well he reads normal books around the house, mostly ones he picks up from school," Mum paused for a significant moment, and John could imagine the raised-eyebrow look she was likely giving Mrs. Talbot, "and he doesn't watch much telly. On weekends he usually visits his Great Aunt, and I know she's a big fan of the original fairytales. John's always been a big fan of scary stories, and she's…"
"She's sort of the boogeyman of the family, you could say." His Da sounds like he's smiling, and a part of John relaxes, because it's never pleasant when his Da get's shouty.
"Yes, you could say that." Now his Mum must be giving that look to his Da. "But John adores her."
His teacher hums, and the rest of the conversation goes much smoother, talking about John's grades and what he's been up to in classes, where he's excelling (a word he'll have to look up, but can guess at for the moment), where he needs work (which he honestly doesn't: he has enough homework thanks), and other general and kind of uninteresting things, so John sits down and wonders why Mrs. Talbot doesn't like his story.
Of course, he ends up wishing he'd listened in a bit longer, because it's only a few days after that that, following his mum's van is his Aunt Marsha's tiny old car.
"Your Aunt was just invited to go meet your teacher sweetie, since she's a big part of your life," his Mum assures him, and after a quick hug tells him to bring his Aunt to his homeroom if he didn't mind.
"You know Harry has a dental appointment," she apologizes to his Aunt, and takes a huffing Harry away with her.
(Another thing John doesn't think much of is the fact that he hasn't ever needed to go to the dentists. This is something Harry only catches on to when she's in her teens, and loudly complains about the unfairness of it all. The appointment he goes to less than a week later says that he doesn't have any cavities, and he only grins wider when she says "What big teeth you have, little bro, don't make me punch them out!")
John leads his Aunt through the school, detouring to show her all the other stops and places he goes to, pointing out this and that and out the window to the screaming tree in the yard, and is just finishing telling her all about the wailing noise it makes in high winds when they make it to his homeroom.
Mrs. Talbot is just asking John if he could wait outside again when his Aunt interrupts.
"No Johnny, you stay right here. This meeting is about you and you should be able to hear it."
John gapes slightly at her—she interrupted the teacher! —and she grins at him to tell him she knows he'd just be listening in anyway.
Mrs. Talbot seems thrown by this, but accepts it and John gleefully pulls up a chair next to his Aunts to be a part of the conversation.
"So this is because of the story Johnny wrote, hmm?"
"Well, sort of…" Mrs. Talbot cuts her eyes towards John, and he smiles.
"Can I get my grade then?" he asks as politely as he can.
"Oh, yes, please tell me you have his grade already. He wouldn't let me read his story until he got it back, hmph!" His Aunt shoots him an unimpressed look, face full of shadows and disapproving lines, but he grins back unrepentant. He'd been hoping he could show it to her as a surprise, but this was fine too.
"Oh, well, of course, here it is."
His Aunt gives her such a cool look when she goes to hand his booklet to her, not moving to take it, that John gets goosebumps when he reaches for it instead.
Mrs. Talbot flushes like Riley Jenkins does when she's teased about her extreme dislike of the colour purple (it's one of the strange fears John knows about), and John flips through his journal book to look at corrections. There are a couple of words he misspelled, or forgot to finish with the letter 'e', but on the first page there's a green star sticker and the letter 'A' and he's satisfied that he can show this to his Aunt when he hands it over.
She reads it over silently, eyes as sharp as razor blades and a grin poking around the corners of her mouth, and John waits as patiently as he can for her to finish.
He wrote it for her. He hopes she likes it.
When she reaches the last page, she closes the small booklet and turns to give him a serious look.
"That was wonderful Johnny. I really liked that part where, after the Wolf killed the Prince, he put on his skin and pretended to be human to stop the killing of his pack."
John beams and sits on his hands to keep from fidgeting in his joy.
"I hoped you would! Remember when you told me about hunters smearing animal blood and wearing their skins to hide in a forest? I used that!"
"I thought so. Good job twisting it around like that. Makes it a bit poetic for the Wolf to do that when the humans of the kingdom did it to hunt out all the animals in the forest."
John nods happily, happy that his Aunt liked it.
"Isn't it a bit sad though that the Wolf couldn't go back to his Pack afterwards?"
John frowns in confusion at his teacher.
"Well he couldn't exactly go back to them when he's trapped in the Princes skin, now could he? And he has to be around to make sure they don't try to kill off all his friends again." He tries to explain. He'd thought he'd mad it obvious, but maybe this is why his teacher didn't like his story.
"But it doesn't really leave the ending a happy one, does it?"
John shares a look with his Aunt. "The endings to stories are never entirely happy."
Mrs. Talbot gets a wrinkle between her eyebrows when she frowns. "And why is that? I know you read Justin's story, that had a happy ending."
"What about the witch?" he asks. It was a part he'd tried talking to Justin about, but Justin didn't like redoing work.
"What about the witch? She tricked the huntsman."
"Yes, because he chopped down her house and ate it. It may not be very nice that she tricked him into getting lost in a city, but I don't think I'd be very nice to someone who ate my house either."
"And where would the witch live after that?" His Aunt asks, and John nods. That's true, he hadn't thought of that part of it.
"Okay, I guess that's true… okay, look John, I'm just worried that you seem to be interested in ore… morbid things."
"What does morbid mean?"
"Means you're interested in things most people find unsettling and unpleasant, Johnny dear."
"No! No, John, you're just a bit overly interested in scary things."
"But they aren't scary." Not really, anyway. There were certainly scarier things out there than what he writes about and draws.
Mrs. Talbot sighs and runs her fingers through her bangs in a short, frustrated movement.
"Look—John, what are you afraid of? What's something you find scary?"
John draws up a blank, and has to think on that.
What was he scared of?
Scary movies didn't make him jump or his heart race any more than a jog would, he liked spiders and had always wanted to be friends with the monsters Harry said lived in the shadows of his wardrobe and under every bed.
He shrugs. "I don't know."
He turns to his Aunt. "Do you know what I'm afraid of?"
It doesn't seem strange to ask her this, but apparently Mrs. Talbbot disagrees.
"No, John, why would your Aunt know what you're afraid of if you don't?"
"Well, why wouldn't she? She can tell like I can what other people are afraid of. And she can tell why too."
"Oh really? Then what's your Aunt afraid of?"
John scowls at her, shocked. "That's a personal question, and you're a rude and horrible person to ask that of me." It's word for word what his Mum told him to tell other people if they asked him something like that.
"John!" He frowns harder and crosses his arms.
"I don't tell other people's fears, it's rude."
Mrs. Talbot rolled her eyes, still looking offended, and John decided he perhaps didn't much like her after all. She was rather small-minded.
"Then how about me, hmm? What am I afraid of?"
John scoffs. "You're afraid of big dogs, that's easy."
"It's true, you are," his Aunt agrees, grinning her sharp smile at John, and he relaxed somewhat to give her a small smile back.
"Oh, what, and you're going to tell me why? You are not helping in the least, John has an actual problem with his focus on all this creepy stuff, and you're encouraging him! He could grow up to have issues because of this you know!"
She was doing that talking over his head thing she tended to do when parents were around, and John frowned more. There was nothing wrong with him.
"You're afraid of dogs because of that Newfie from your cottage." His Aunt's voice doesn't cut through the tension in the room so much as it slips through the cracks to stab at the heart of it. Mrs. Talbot's mouth opens, but no words come out, and his Aunt continues.
"It was big, heavy and crushing when it knocked you over, just about squished the air from your lungs, and what air you had left was tangled up and suffocating in the sheer amount of fur there was, and it just wouldn't move no matter how you thrashed. It had a big mouth and a big bark, too, but that doesn't matter because it didn't bite you, but you felt like you were going to die anyway. Just suffocated, and crushed to nothing. Not all dogs bite, you know that, but just about all of them jump up, and it terrifies you that the next dog to knock you down will be a bigger one, heavier, and that's why you're afraid of big dogs."
There's silence, Mrs. Talbot staring at his Aunt, stunned, and John opened his eyes, smiling.
He always closed his eyes when his Aunt told the why's, pictured it like she said it because she was a wonderful story teller, and he was always left with that thrumming through his veins afterwards.
His teacher gasped in a short breath when his Aunt continued, but John didn't need to close his eyes for this.
"You know what else there is that I've noticed about you? You say no a lot. No, No, No, you say, No John this is what I meant even though I said that, No John this is how you should think, No John you should be interested in these things, not those, No John you shouldn't be thinking things like this, No John, you're just worried. No, No, No, and you were hoping that by having me here to talk to, you might be able to see what's going wrong. But the thing is: Johnny here knows what's scary, and isn't scared by it. He likes it like any lesson, and he hasn't figured out himself what he is afraid of because he's been busy figuring out what there is that isn't worth being afraid of."
Aunt Marsha's head tilts, short hair curling about her neck, and the light in the room and the light coming from the multitude of windows makes her skin look grey in a way that isn't.
"Johnny isn't a problem student, do you agree?" Mrs. Talbot nodded jerkily, eyes wide.
"Do you know why? It's because Johnny knows it's okay to be afraid. There's a girl in your class who's afraid of the colour purple, and Johnny doesn't tease. You're afraid of big dogs, and he only mentions that he knows it now. Johnny knows that fear is a good thing, that it makes us cautious when we would be stupid, makes us think about what could be in the darkness. Makes us wonder. And people can be taught not to fear things, taught that purple isn't something to be weary of, that dogs can be trained, but I haven't yet met someone who said they could train a person to accept that they are afraid, and accept fear in others, and not try to change things. So you, Mrs. Talbot, can know that Johnny is fine. Likeminded people look after him, and he'll grow up fine. There is nothing wrong with the things that go bump in the night, and there's nothing wrong with those who embrace the noise. Have a nice day."
John holds his journal book in one hand, and his Aunt's hand in the other, and smiles at the sound of the screaming tree when the wind picks up outside.
There's nothing wrong with him.
If there was, that would mean there was something wrong with his Aunt, too, and that's impossible.
So, sorry for yet another new story, but I was hit by the idea and I had to get it out :) What do you think so far?