Chapter 26: A Painful Rewind, A Strong Mind

Stephen dipped down the meanders of nothingness, mislaid in a warp-like reality that imbibed him inside. His consciousness fluttered in and out, like the flickering light of a dying bulb. With nothing but fleeting thoughts to accompany him in his scrambled journey into the gates of the unknown, his body was shut off from a seamless obstacle, yet his mind seemed to drift through with ease.

Jolting awake, a preteen with unruly raven hair squeezed his eyes, perspiration rolling down his forehead and down onto the blanket. A slew of images and foreign emotions were fast forwardly playing out in his head. Swallowing his sudden startle, his heartbeat slowed down to a steady rhythm as reality settled in, yanking him out of his turmoil once his quivering eyelids cracked open, allowing him to take in the shadowed walls of a dim lit room. His room.

“A dream…” his childish yet still fairly shaken voice sounded out, “Uh…” why did that feel oddly wrong to his ears? It was his every-day vocal timbre, nevertheless, a nagging throb in the back of his head was ever so softly whispering him otherwise.

Something was amiss.

He shuffled himself out of the comfort of his bed, his feet skidding inside his slippers. With memories of his dream still fresh in his mind, getting back to sleep was now an unattainable desire. Stephen had the assurance that he never – in his almost 11 years of life – had such a lifelike and long dream, or better, nightmare.

His throat was dry, his clothes clinging to his frame like a second layer of skin. Rubbing away the last vestiges of a sleep that would not come anymore that night, he tip-toed down the creaking stairs paying surgery-like attention not wake his parents up.

The law of silence was religiously abided by during sleep time. Not an ounce of noise should ever filter into his father’s room and consequently rouse him up. His mother chose the bliss of ignorance, sometimes plainly disregarding her husband’s weird quirks.

His foot finally slid over the last wooden board of the stair. Sighing in relief, he waded for the kitchen with a more normal pace whilst smacking his lips. The window’s binds were parted enough to let the moonshine trickle in and provide a reliable source of light to his endeavors.

Pouring himself a glass of water, he noiselessly sat down on a stool. His hands were busy propping his head up, pinching the uncomfortable zones around his temples; the pangs of pain never lessening despite his efforts. Those evanescent images, pictures, memories or whatever they were, passed through the limbic system of his brain, stalked by feelings that made his chest tighten up.

Nausea whopped in, and with a quick motion, he raised the glass up and gulped down the liquid within as if it would have drowned his problems away the faster he gobbled it.

“Ughh…” he pursed his lips, his stomach rioting against the content streaming down his throat. Gritting his teeth, he slammed the cup back on the table as he stood up teetering, the unsteady motion causing the stool to scrape violently on the floor and bend backward, before flopping down.

The sudden deafening noise in the otherwise silent kitchen was like a shot ringing out beside his ears, and the subsequent distraction due to it led him into emptying out his gut on the porcelain floor tiles. Thankfully, it seemed to have been the switch to solve his sickness for his headache receded and his lungs finally found respite.

Stephen slumped down like a sack of potatoes, a sheen of sweat on his face. However, his delight was short-lived for the lights were abruptly turned on, a shadow burgeoning towards him in a brisk gait.

“What’s going on here?” a voice reeling on the edge between annoyed and furious echoed out, “Stephen! Why are you causing such a ruckus in the middle of the night!?” his adenoidal tone coupled with a barely suppressed snarl sent a shudder down the child’s spine.

“F-Father…” Stephen slurred, almost biting his tongue, “I… I was not feeling well and… and…” when he tilted his head up and met his father’s cold blue eyes, his speech knotted into a mess of sounds that fell into empty ears. The man was having none of it.

“Stephen… ” a smile, “…oh Stephen…” a chuckle, “Ahaha, Stephen… you, haha,” and then a peal of full-blown laughter that did nothing to appease his son’s budding dread, “Somehow it’s always you, right?” his streamlined features slowly stretched into a frown as he eyed the puddle of vomit.

“F-Father… I’m sorry, I’m sorry… I really am…”

“Awh… c’mere Stephen, it’s okay.” his father squatted down near him and patted his shoulder reassuringly, “I’m not angry… really.” his face softened as his lips curled into a thin smile.

Just as Stephen was about to heave a sigh of relief, the crack of a strong clap stunned him. His eyes splayed wide open, his brain quickly registering the burning sting on his cheek before his hand subconsciously sailed up to cover the fire tingling on his face.

“Make sure to clean this mess, okay?” his father’s hand, that was still airborne in a backhanded slap, gently nudged up and down with his fingers the red slit on his son’s smacked area, “Behave,” he said, standing back up and striding for a cupboard where a bottle of bourbon was conspicuously perched on. Stephen watched as his father corkscrewed it and leisurely sauntered out of the ‘crime scene’ with a sip.

Before he knew it, his vision blurred and tears skated down his eyes.

It could have been worse, he quietly reminded himself. It was just a slap, he could live with it. Or maybe it was the unfairness of all? That he had to live in terror of his father manhandling him every time he did something that was less than ‘acceptable’.

He clenched his jaw in anger, but the printed fear his father had many times left on him subsided it into nothing but a wayward spark. It was there, yes, but it was harmless.

A sob slipped past his lips, “I hate him…” he huddled down, his head buried within his crossed arms, “Why does it have to be always me?”

Because you’re weak…

“Who!?” his head shot up, scampering left and right for the source of that buzz.

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… weak…

Stephen clambered back to his feet so hastily that he almost tumbled back down. His chest ballooned and deflated in a hurried tempo. He didn’t give it a second thought and darted out of the kitchen’s threshold and into the living room, where he crashed head-on against a soft texture.

“Stephen, dear? Are you okay?”

His mother’s voice leaked into his ears like the absolute discharge of a judge, “M-mom…” he croaked out, his hands gripping tightly onto her night robe.

“Shhh… shhh… it’s okay honey…” her hands wrapped his head deeper in her embrace, “There there…” she smoothed out his disheveled mop of hair with a tenderness only a mother could muster up.

Stephen sniffed, veering his head up to receive the soft scrutiny of her hazel eyes; her sun-kissed hair freely flowing down her shoulders and back as her smile washed away his sorrow.

“He… hit you again?” her voice rasped out more like a statement than a question, “… I’m so sorry baby…” her lips quivered, puckering up in a futile attempt to restrain the tears that had welled up at the edges of her eyes. But the more she stared at the burning handprint on her son’s cheek, the more it was becoming a vain struggle. It was like the slap had been given to her instead of him, and the pain felt like a stab straight to her heart.

“I-I’m used to it, mom… d-don’t cry…”

“No… it’s my fault… I-I promise you, we’ll get out of here… just hold on a bit more, ‘kay?” she cooed, “This can’t go on anymore!”

“M-mom?” hope tinged his voice, but more than that was trepidation. Fear that his expectations would go down the drains under his father’s crushing feet, “Yes! I’ll do my best to behave and not disappoint you.” he used his sleeve to wipe the snot under his nose.

She nodded before shooing him away, “Now go to sleep,” she eyed the dirtied floor of the kitchen, “I’ll clean it for you.”

“Umh!”

Stephen scuttled upstairs, cautiously maneuvering his way to his room with hushed steps before flopping down on the safety of his mattress, falling asleep not long after.

… you’re weak…


The next day stretched out with the spring’s sun peeking out of the horizon, co-occurring with the lovely chorus of birds merrily singing atop the trees. Stephen grunted, shifting under the blankets whilst making sure the invading sun rays didn’t drap over his face and consequently wake him up.

A loud knocking startled him awake, “Stephen, you better wake up. Father is in a bad mood.” David’s – aka his brother’s – warning had him out of his bed as soon as the word ‘father’ was mentioned. Anything that had ‘him’ and a negative adjective attached, always forebode nothing good.

“David… what happened?” he scrambled to the door and flung it open, coming face to face with his elder’s brother exhausted visage, “You…”

“Just avoid angering him, actually I think it’d be best for you not to utter a word until he goes to work…” David heaved a deep sigh, “Honestly… this is killing me…” he kneaded sleepiness out of his eyes, and then proceeded to head downstairs.

“…” Stephen drooped his gaze for an instant, before following him.

With his hand sliding over the wooden railing, he slowly poked his head out, his feet paddling down as he scanned the situation. He tried molding himself in the shadows, but his stealth was as clear as the bright morning lights shimmering through the windows.

Ambling around the couch his father was parked in whilst watching the news, he quietly trailed the appetizing aroma of breakfast being skillfully made by his mother. The table was already filled with bowls and cups as the family’s matron busied herself serving cereals and pancakes. He quickly skipped to his seat next to his oldest brother, “Hey Carl!”

“Good morning Steph, slept well?”

“I don’t think he has…” David chimed in while spooning a mouthful of cereals into his mouth, “You know… the noises yesterday–“

“Don’t speak with your mouth full!” their mother piped in and chided him. Stephen, however, was well aware that the main reason she promptly cut him off was not to let their father hear them. Some topics were taboo, such as ‘his’ way of ‘loving’ them.

“S-sorry…” David gulped down the food, “So… Carl, your grades… are they up to ‘par’?”

“Yes…” Carl heaved a deep exhausted breath, “I managed to get a perfect score in all of my exams… I just hope father won’t make me skip grades again… I won’t be able to bear the workload…” he stopped eating for a moment, “What about you?”

“I… I’m in the same boat as you bro… I-I just can’t deal with this anymore… I’m having constant headaches and father seems to just wave it off as a minor problem. He thinks that feeding me all these medicines will do the trick…”

“Stephen, what about you? How are you faring?” both of them turned their heads towards their youngest brother, their eyes encased in sadness and hope.

Maybe he had achieved the ‘satisfactory’ results not to be at the other end of the stick of his father’s ‘careness’…

“I… I… sorry…”

… or maybe not.

Stephen wagged his head mournfully, his head dropping down to not let them see his tears. His previous rumbling stomach went silent, his hunger dead and gone.

“… Stephen…” Carl held back the salty grief that threatened to split his eyes and pour down, “Hey… little bro… you know it, right?” he sniffed.

Stephen looked up.

Carl and David smiled plaintively as both of them lifted their fists up and pounded twice on their hearts; two weak but steady beats, before they used said fists to point at him, “You know it.” they chorused.

“Yes… I know…” Stephen smiled back, “Of course I do…” it was a gesture the three of them had made up when they were younger; it served the purpose of encouraging them and not give up despite the circumstances. And as the years lapsed by, it evolved, it grew stronger and became an anchor of motivation that linked them through stormy times, that no matter what happened, they, their hearts were there with each other, ready to face anything thrown at them.

The woman who was close by and perfectly within earshot, gripped tightly onto her knife. She spun around and engrossed her attention upon adding more dishes on the table, but it was just an act to keep her hands occupied. It wouldn’t have been wise to start crying along with them, despite the tingling pleas of her optical organs.

“Finish eating…” she coughed out, “… and then go wash up.”

“Yes, mom.”

“Yup!”

“Umh!”

“Good…” she wiped her hands with a cloth before her sight fell on her husband who had just hustled in, “Ryan? Shouldn’t you go to work?” she asked, her tone making it seem more like a demand than a question.

He promptly ignored her and sidled up to his sons who had stopped eating the moment his presence encroached in their personal space, “Carl, David… Stephen?” he appellate each of them with a hidden inquiry they both were aware of, “I take it you have aced your tests, right?”

“Y-yes!” was the quick and military-like answer.

Stephen’s voice, however, was not among them. Ryan raised an eyebrow, “Stephen? Haven’t you heard what I’ve just asked?”

“I did…”

“Then…?”

“Ryan, it’s getting late, you should really go now–“

“Cecilia…” he cut her off with a glare, “Don’t be rude and just shut up, okay?” he then skimmed his stare back on Stephen, “Your answer?”

“I… I didn’t ace it,” he confessed, “But… but I was really close this time! I promise I will do better!” he considered lying, but it would have just delayed the inevitable. His father had a strong loathing for lies, exclusively the ones used to escape from his ‘righteous’ punishments. If he avoided it now then he would get twice the sanction when his father eventually confirmed the veracity behind his words at school.

His siblings were lucky in this case, or perhaps even more unfortunate? Ryan sidelined this obsessive notion of his when they started showing no deviations in their studies. He also had set up a reward system for those who slogged and sweated blood to not disappoint him. In fact, he would purchase almost anything they wished for as long as their grades didn’t slope.

Too bad that most of their time went wasted overstudying, so there was nigh no time for them to exploit such privilege without repercussions.

“Basement. Now.”

Stephen lurched back at his command, “Please… father… no…” he started trembling as his hand jumped up to cover his mouth.

“Ryan! No! You gotta stop this madness of yours! Y-You aren’t the man I married!” his mother shrieked, her abrupt movement causing cutlery and many other fragile kitchen pieces of furniture to drop down and shatter.

“You ungrateful slut… I married you out convenience, not because there was affection between us. And don’t tell me how to educate my children…” Ryan shot back with venom, “Stephen, don’t make me repeat myself.”

“Please… fa–“

The sound of skin making contact with skin thundered out.

“Last warning….”

… weak…

Cecilia gasped at the red welt on Stephen’s face, “You damn scumbag!” her acrimony bubbled out of the edges of her patience. She charged at Ryan, ready to avenge for her son’s suffering, but her husband was no slouch, his masculine physique overwhelmed her more petite one. He wound up clasping both of her flailing appendages even before she could deliver her wrath upon him.

“MOM!” something inside Stephen’s mind clicked and squirmed.

… weak… weak! weakweakweakweakweakweakWEAK!!…

… YOU ARE WEAK, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!…

A buzzing noise shot through his ears, coupled with memories that were definitely not his. Emotions that were not his, but strangely enough fitted in perfectly.

David and Carl were petrified. The situation had escalated to the point where there was no turning back. It was like choosing a side; either help Cecilia break free from Ryan’s grasp and a forthcoming beating, and ultimately risk his punishment, or… just do nothing and wait…

Stephen wasn’t as indecisive, however. His supposed anamnesis sparked his bottled up frustration and despair into a Molotov ready to wreak havoc. And his target was his father.

“You damn woman!” Ryan hissed and pushed her against the wall, where his elbow wedged her neck, “You need to learn how to be obedient!” with his arm preventing her from breathing, he didn’t get an answer.

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Cecilia’s eyes reddened as she croaked and gasped desperately. Her fingers moved up to extricate herself out of his suffocating clutches, but the discrepancy in strength was not small, and with her back trapped between him and the brick surface, he had a stronger leverage on her.

The noise of glass fracturing blasted in her ears before she was showered in liquor. Rayn’s constraint started slackening, and not long after loosened up completely with his body sagging down.

Oxygen rushed in through her orifices and immediately filled up her lungs, “Ughh!” she burst into a heavy fit of coughs.

“Mom… y-you okay?”

Cecilia forcefully snapped out of her temporary ill-being to look at her son… and then at Ryan, “Ah…” she grimaced, staring at the blooming flower of blood around his head; the offending object – or what was left of it – still in her son’s hand, “Let’s get out of here, c’mon…” she squeezed her eyes to wane the impact the graphic picture had on her mind.

Stephen glimpsed for the last time at the body – or probably corpse – of his father before his forearm was grabbed and dragged by a furiously scampering away Cecilia, his two brothers scurrying alongside them out of the house.


Of course, that was not what truly happened. Stephen remembered that day very well. He had never stood up for his mother, and neither did his brothers. Cecilia wound up surviving and pressed charges against Ryan for children abuse the very next morning. Unfortunately, the latter being a powerful and wealthy man with a web of connections anywhere that it mattered, it was not particularly hard winning the cause, despite the strong shreds of evidence that emerged during the trial.

Maybe it would have been different if that day, when they were brought up to the court, they had confessed… no, if he had confessed…

…all the atrocities that his father, blood of his blood, forced unto him.

Cecilia got sanctioned for calumny, and after that event, they divorced. That was also the last time Stephen ever saw her, she who was in a disheveled heap of sorrow on the floor with tears trickling down her cheeks.

“…”

He hated darkness, but most of all he hated himself. It was foolish entertaining himself in ‘what-ifs and what not’. He knew that there was no time turner, he was stuck in his own timeline, forever unable to redo that episode.

His dip into his own past right now proved that. The outcome was different, he did what he couldn’t bring himself to do back then, yet nothing changed. It was just a dream, a utopia he would never step in.

He looked up, the Red Moon of Doomsday staring back at him.

“It seems you were successful, Stephen…” Roseline’s figure slowly descended, her voice tinkling out in the never-ending expanse of darkness and stars, “You’re not that happy, are you?” her tone softened.

“Why ask when you know the answer…”

“You’re right, I apologize… but it was for your own good.” she closed in, “Do you hate me for it?” her timbre took on a seriousness he had never seen on her, but her eyes betrayed the trepidation of his upcoming answer.

“… kinda hard to hate you with the way you look…” Stephen cackled bitterly, “I’m just hurt by how it was highlighted my failure in doing what was right.”

Roseline’s arms slithered around his neck, her nose nuzzling his cheek, “I couldn’t nor can I see your memories, so I can’t understand… I’m sorry…”

“Stop apologizing for everything… I’m a tad bit upset, yes, but I also know you did it for a reason.”

Her lips curved up into a rueful smile, “Yes… it’s understandable.” she then whispered softly into his earlobe, “Time to go back, we’ve already wasted too much time.”

Stephen nodded, “Umh… send me back,” there was a tinge of nostalgia and unwillingness in his voice, but otherwise he was all steeled up to face head-on his future, wherever that was in. Relictus, Earth, or his past.

- my thoughts:
With this, all of my stocked up chapters are finished. T-T - Also, I'm not quite satisfied with the ending, so I may edit in the future. Thank you for reading thus far. <3
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