The rules went like this: Janice cooked and Steve cleaned. Janice shopped and Steve paid. Steve punished Patrick and Janice tended to his wounds.
They weren’t his birth parents, he was sure of that. Yet it seemed perfectly natural to live with them as he had no memory of anyone else. No memory he could trust, that is. He called them “Steve” and “Janice” even to his teachers. They were both too young to be his parents, anyway.
When Patrick was eight Steve broke his collarbone.
Janice kept him home from school, paging through old medical textbooks with her tongue in the corner of her mouth. They didn’t have medical insurance, she explained to him, and therefore couldn’t go to a hospital.
Patrick had never lived anywhere more than two years at a time. Sometimes on a whim, because Janice wanted to sleep somewhere warm, they piled a few essential belongings into the Explorer and just left. Steve did it for her. He would do anything for Janice. His rages were terrible, but he never aimed at her.
He saved that for Patrick.
Janice got good at bandaging, if a little excessive. Patrick’s kettle burn got several thin bandages instead of one big elbow patch. She’d cluck and coo over his wounds, sometimes babytalking a little, petting them gently.
It wasn’t until he turned ten that he realized she never asked Steve to stop.
He didn’t ask her why, curiosity had been culled from him through his entire childhood. But last night’s scenario came to him suddenly during a cold spaghetti lunch: an overturned chair, a hair curler, Janice with her fingers pressed to her mouth, eyes bright with… something.
It was another year before he realized the rules weren’t rules. One day, he might not be allowed in the kitchen. The next he’d get in trouble for not putting the dish towels away. The arbitrary nature of the house edicts, coupled with Steve’s overwhelming zeal in enforcing them, percolated in Patrick’s preadolescent brain.
He watched Janice the next chance he got.
Four broken dishes. Lap. Belt. A classic.
Janice sat small in her seat, as if trying to disappear into it. She held her fingers to her mouth, jammed her knees together. Her breath came fast and heavy.
Steve stood, letting Patrick fall off his lap, and paced to the next room as if he were now forgotten.
Janice leapt into animation, making soothing hush noises, leading Patrick into the bathroom. Her hands were warm and damp. He found it oddly disgusting and tried to twist out of her grasp. She fought him gently but persistently until she wore him down. The strop-marks got a quadruple-thick layer of gauze, an ocean of antibiotic ointment. No peroxide, she hated it because it stung. When finished, she gave his back a little pat and admired her handiwork.
Patrick felt sick and removed it as soon as he could. Steve noticed, one way or another, and made sure he needed it again.
Patrick lay awake that night and listened to them have loud sex in the next room. This had been a natural facet of his life, just as much as the moving, and the beating, and the bandaging. Now he wondered. Now he thought.
Janice never had anything but love in her eyes for Steve. No disgust when he hit a child, nothing but mild pity when examining his wounds. The bandages. Always in excess.
He didn’t purposefully let the P.E. teacher see his back the next day. Or maybe he did.
That night Janice gave him a big hug and a long talk about foster hells and what a terrible place it was to go when you had two wonderful people to look after you and how outsiders didn’t understand their family. She looked at herself in the closet mirror while speaking, cheeks flushed, eyes lowered, smiling demurely.
He cut himself and put a single bandaid over it. Janice grabbed him and began to lead him back to the bathroom, but he twisted out of her grasp. It didn’t hurt. He didn’t hurt. When they thought he wasn’t looking, Steve and Janice exchanged glances.
The next day in the principle’s office there was a nice lady in a gray suit to talk to him. She didn’t even have to bust out the dolls. He told about his unparents and their lives, the moving, the hurt. He talked on in a steady stream until the woman stopped him and he realized his voice had gone to a scream.
The police kicked down the front door to find a house empty of people. Evidently they’d started off right after putting him on the bus to school, taking even less than normal. No note. Not even a threat.
Patrick was in legal limbo for a while, and counseling. The man with the gray sweater told him in hushed tones that it wasn’t his fault.
He’d known that. He’d known it all along. He’d never even figured into the equation.