Chapter

36

The moment John caught a proper glance of (Vriska) and Gamzee going at it in the bushes, he was done. He simply had no further capacity to deal with any of it. He just fucked off.

A few hours of aimless wandering through the sky brought him back here, to his old house. He hasn’t lived here in years, but it feels exactly as it had when he last left it. It’s like no time has passed at all. John leans back in his dad’s desk chair, stares at the ceiling and listens to the war.

The steady drone of weaponized airships up above has become so commonplace in everyday life that he barely even notices it anymore. But now he focuses, trying to pick out the individual sounds. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t tell which ship belongs to which side, or how many there are. He doesn’t know whether they’re coming or going. Rose, Kanaya, and their daughter are probably up there somewhere by now.

The washing machine chugs along in the next room. In John’s experience, troll blood is incredibly difficult to wash out of clothes. His t-shirt is probably going to be Vriska-colored for the rest of its life.

Somehow, no matter what, he always seems to end up back in this house. It’s been through the Medium and two different universes, and come out of it with only a slight warping to the foundations. Everything is coated in dust. He hasn’t bothered to turn any lights on, or change any of the bulbs that have burned out over the past few years. He thought he heard someone moving around upstairs a while ago, but he didn’t get up to check. He hasn’t gotten up for... how long has passed? He has no idea.

Creak. Creaaaak. God, this house is rattly. It could be a wild animal up there. It could be a thief. John doesn’t think he has anything he’d regret losing. At least not anything that he hasn’t already lost.

His dad’s study looks the same as it had the day he moved out. Figurines, jauntily-hung photographs of famous funnymen, even the dent in the floor from the time Rose dropped a safe on a bunch of troublesome imps. He’d always meant to hire someone to fix it, he just... never got around to it. It’s the perfect room for a slow-motion existential crisis.

If that’s what you can even call whatever it is he’s going through. Maybe it’s not so much of a crisis as a critical cessation of his ability to give a shit.

Where an hour ago he’d been feeling blissfully unburdened by his solipsistic revelation, now the significance of everything’s insignificance overwhelms him. He wishes he could find comfort in the frivolity like Rose has, but it’s impossible for him to delude himself. If nothing matters, what is the point of doing anything? Where is he supposed to go from here? How do you figure out how to fill your time when you have all of a meaningless eternity ahead of you?

He’s not sure why his brain thought he’d find an answer in this place. He swivels back and forth in his father’s dusty desk chair, staring listlessly up at the featureless white expanse of the ceiling of the study. His mind runs in exhausting circles until he dozes off to a lullaby of distant sonic booms.

When next he’s jostled awake, it’s by a figure that looks uncomfortably like—

JOHN: dad?

As John blinks away the sleep from his eyes, the man looming over him comes into focus. It’s not his dad—it’s Jake Crocker. Who actually is his dad, but in a far more esoterically bullshit way than the man who used to fill this study with pipes and black licorice. John sits up straight in the chair and rubs at his eyes.

JOHN: jake?

JOHN: what are you doing here?

JOHN: wh–

JOHN: HOW are you here?

JOHN: did something happen with jane?

JAKE: Oh nothing er happened exactly.

JAKE: Just thought we would pop in for a bit of r and r with an old pal isnt that right tav?

Jake scrunches up his face in the same way Harry Anderson does when he’s lying. Across the room, Tavros Crocker fumbles his grasp on a particularly hideous fanciful harlequin. One of its pointy shoes snaps off.

TAVROS: Cripes,,, sorry, uncle john,

TAVROS: I’ll replace it,,,

JOHN: it’s fine. that’s actually just a piece of garbage.

John thinks he might still be dreaming. Though if his subconscious were controlling the scene, there would be a few alterations.

JOHN: aren’t you cold?

JAKE: I am in fact!

JAKE: These old duds...

Jake snaps the elastic on his pair of red underpants. It’s the only thing he’s wearing.

JAKE: Well you see janey bought all my other clothes.

JAKE: She had a certain way she liked me kipped out and well, i didnt want to bring anything that belonged to her when i left. Nothing she er, might miss.

TAVROS: You took me,

Jake winces.

TAVROS: And,,, you took you,

Jake’s wince deepens.

JAKE: Then i daresay i made the right choice not rustling the bushes in the making off with inanimate belongings department.

JAKE: Wouldnt want to give her any more reasons to get all retributive!

JAKE: Shes got a lot to worry about right now! Incredibly busy woman you know.

Over by the desk, Tavros’s eyebrows have disappeared up under his bangs, but he doesn’t say anything. He has the air of a boy who has spent all of his life not saying anything.

JOHN: okay, so, uh...

JOHN: i guess i’m just gonna move past the fact you’re 90% naked in my house.

JOHN: i’m not forgetting about it. we’ve got to address that at some point.

JOHN: but i guess we can put that on the backburner for now.

JOHN: are you trying to tell me that you left jane?

JAKE: Eh heh heh whew when you put it like that it sure sounds erm...

JAKE: Well i suppose that is what it looks like isnt it. Ha ha.

JAKE: What i did that is. Thats the thing thats looking like that. Hoo...

Jake is one whole wince now, and John knows he should invite him to sit down and maybe offer him something to drink. Or at least a pair of pants. But all this is is another reminder of how inescapably preposterous every aspect of this reality has become.

JOHN: so i guess this is the thing that’s currently happening now.

JOHN: what exactly do you want me to do?

JAKE: Well. I suppose i was hoping you might be willing to help me and wee tavvy out a bit here.

JOHN: help you out?

John produces a dry laugh.

JOHN: that’s pretty funny.

JOHN: i remember trying to help you for years, and you never seemed that interested back then.

Jake was apparently not expecting John’s sharp tone. He flinches back like a kicked dog. Or a dog who has been kicked so many times he assumes any helping hand is a slap.

All the same, John finds it hard to feel much sympathy. Who is Jake? The one standing in front of him now, anyway. Has he always been this contemptibly pathetic, or is this too a function of the absurdity of this contorted reality? It’s hard to be sure. Are Jake’s “struggles” worth any more of John’s guilt and emotional energy than a Sim stuck in a pool without a ladder?

JAKE: Look here chap sometimes not everything is so simple!

JAKE: It isnt as if i couldve just walked out the door whenever i wished!

JOHN: i mean... yeah, you kind of could have.

JOHN: not now. but years and years ago.

JOHN: back before everything got so...

JAKE: Warlike and tempestuous?

JOHN: i was gonna say stupid, but yeah.

JAKE: Well its not as if janey got like this overnight.

JAKE: None of this happened overnight john!

JAKE: Its just like you go to take a dip in the water and everything starts out cool and fine...

JAKE: But then it just keeps getting hotter and hotter. Gradually. Degree by degree.

JAKE: So slowly that by the time the waters boiling you dont even realize youre being scalded alive!

John isn’t listening to Jake anymore. He’s looking at Jake’s son, who has returned to going methodically through the stuff on the desk, moving objects around, looking like he wants to shrink down into nothing. Tavros, who looks more like him than even Harry Anderson does.

Something in John’s stomach churns. The ridiculous fate of this facsimile of his friend is one thing, but Tavros...

If things really are the way they seem, isn’t he John’s fault, too? Did his reckless decision really author a child, just for it to suffer?

John finds himself feeling a little sick.

JOHN: are you guys... i don’t know, hungry, or whatever?

JOHN: i think i have a frozen pizza.

He brings them into the kitchen, which still has all of the old appliances from decades ago—the stand mixer, the automatic can opener, the milkshake frother. He never uses any of this junk; it clutters the place up and he should have cleaned it all out years ago. He just kept coming up with excuses for why he had to leave it as it was.

John has never been much of a drinker, but fortunately Jake English is never found without a bottle these days. He’s got a forty-year-old whiskey that he “grabbed on his way out.” Apparently his unwillingness to steal from Jane did not extend to her liquor cabinet. Tavros takes one look at the bottle in his father’s hand and heads upstairs. Maybe that’s for the best—it’s getting hard for John to look straight at him.

JOHN: i’m sorry for being... i don’t know. a bitch.

JOHN: it’s just been kind of a rough forever.

JAKE: No offense taken chap! Whisky?

JAKE: As you may know im not in truth the biggest fan of the stuff but it gets the job done right quick eh.

John accepts the offered glass and takes a sip. Regardless of the existential status of this reality, the alcohol tastes just as harsh and bitter as he remembers it. Jake swirls the rocks in his glass, looking queasy despite his proclamation of tolerance.

JAKE: John.

JAKE: Do you think im a bad person?

That’s certainly not a question John ever expected to hear come out of Jake’s mouth. He hadn’t thought him capable of that degree of introspection.

JOHN: wait. what?

JAKE: Do you think ive ruined my whole entire life and all of my relationships and especially the most important relationship in ones life, the divine and unbreakable bond between a man and his son?

JOHN: haha.

JOHN: um.

JOHN: not sure if i’m the best person to talk to about this, considering i kind of did the same thing?

JOHN: but, no. i don’t really think that.

JOHN: it’s not as if anything that’s happened to you is your fault, like, existentially.

JOHN: or like, even non-existentially. i guess even in straightforward non-metatextual-jerkoff terms it’s also not your fault your wife was treating you like shit?

JOHN: it may be all my fault in both an existential and non-existential capacity, so i wouldn’t sweat it too much either way.

JAKE: Eh? What do you mean?

JOHN: i don’t think you’d really understand.

JOHN: all i’m saying is...

JOHN: you’re alright, i think.

JOHN: i think you’re doing the best you can.

JOHN: i don’t blame you for anything, jake.

Jake grimaces. In the dim kitchen light his five o’clock shadow looks like a bruise.

JAKE: I wish i could tell you hearing that was a load off my mind john.

JAKE: The me of yesteryear probably would have drunk to your health and exclaimed, thats grand ole chap! Now im off to wrestle with a robot and engage in dalliances and whatnot!

JAKE: Except i would have been drinking flat cherry coke back then probably. Gran left an astounding amount of cherry coke behind when she died and it took forever to get through it all.

JOHN: that’s pretty gross.

JAKE: Different strokes for different folks i suppose!

JAKE: Anyway my point is...

JAKE: Maybe you should blame me?

JAKE: Maybe i need someone to blame me. For once.

JOHN: ...huh?

JAKE: I think im starting to realize that ive been going through life with the mindset that nothing has ever really been within my control.

JAKE: Maybe its been the people i surround myself with.

JAKE: Janey always seemed so sure of what was right and what she wanted!

JAKE: And one of those things was me.

JAKE: I dont think i ever really tried to challenge her. Not when it ever mattered.

JAKE: And before her there was dirk.

JAKE: Hoo boy. Dirk would have written me out an annotated schedule for every minute of my day if id asked him to.

JAKE: Or um, especially if i hadnt asked him to.

JAKE: Dirk... he...

JAKE: Ah maybe its best if we dont dwell too much on that...

The two of them share a moment of obligatory silence for someone long dead and gone.

JAKE: In a way i think i found all that comforting.

JAKE: Havent you ever wanted to let someone make the tough choices for you?

John wonders if everything being out of his control would make him feel better. Even if he weren’t presently stuck sucking on this bitter cosmic red pill, he can’t imagine being particularly happy with this worldstate. Maybe it just would’ve made it all the more soul-crushing.

Or maybe he is doing exactly what Jake has always done. In a certain light, isn’t ascribing all this mess to some unconscious influence he might have had over the metaphysical shape of reality just a way to brush off his simpler failures as a man and a father?

JOHN: maybe. yeah. i dunno.

JAKE: Im starting to think ive been a bit of a fool about it all though.

JAKE: Its easy to shrug it all off when its just your own life being jostled about.

JAKE: But this is all something i shouldve been thinking about when ole tavvy was born isnt it?

JAKE: Too little too late.

JAKE: Ive not done right by that boy at all.

JAKE: Even now all im doing is making excuses for myself. Phew!

It’s hard for John to disagree. It probably wouldn’t do much good to say it, though. It’s not like John wants to torture the guy, whatever the status of his realness attribute.

JOHN: jake, i guess i actually don’t know you that well, but i think there’s a difference between making excuses and just giving reasons.

JOHN: there’s reasons for what you did, sure. and i guess you can think of it as an excuse, but that’s only if you don’t make the effort to start trying to fix yourself.

JOHN: and i mean... okay, look. you left. you’re doing it. you’re making it happen!

JOHN: you got your son out of there.

JOHN: better a decade late than never. i guess.

JAKE: You... youre right john!

JAKE: I did do that didnt i.

JAKE: Nobody swooped in through the window and rescued me.

JAKE: I did it myself! I finally stood up for whats right and im going to make way for a new and better me!

JAKE: I have my immortal life ahead of me. Theres no point in sitting around hating myself and regretting the past!

John’s mouth open and closes dumbly. That’s it?

JOHN: i...

JOHN: thought it would be harder to convince you?

Jake grins, and the effect is incendiary. It’s brilliant. His glee is lighting up the room. John blinks. It’s literally lighting up the room. A faint but steady glow pulses from Jake’s body, radiating like heat from a fire. John can’t help but recoil a little, like a vampire in the sunlight.

He wishes bitterly that it could be so easy for him. To just forget all his fears and regrets, and forge forward with the honest, dumb conviction that if he just tries hard enough all his problems can be chased away.

JAKE: Golly john, i–

JAKE: Gee willikers, do you hear that?

Music swells out of nowhere. For a moment John thinks the ridiculous noise is coming from Jake too, but he quickly pieces together that Tavros must’ve found the old record player upstairs. Jake sets his untouched glass of whiskey aside and starts tapping his fingertips on the kitchen countertop, his aura of hope pulsing brighter. Then, with a dignified flourish, he raises an arm.

JAKE: John.

JOHN: yeah?

JAKE: Take my hand.

JOHN: what? why?

Jake snatches John’s hand and pulls him in, catching him off guard. John floats, an instinctive reaction to when he’s knocked off balance.

JAKE: Dance with me!

JOHN: oh, jesus christ.

This is not the sort of jazz you dance to, and it is definitely not the sort of jazz you waltz to. John isn’t sure there is that type of jazz. Jake leads relentlessly, but it’s the glow of his ridiculous god tier magic that brings John down enough for his feet to touch the ground. Whether John wants it or not, there’s something inescapably infectious about Jake’s senselessly optimistic energy. Even if they do end up stepping on each other’s feet, gamboling around like newborn giraffes, who cares? What’s the harm in a little dancing?

JAKE: Im excited, john! I havent been excited in such a long time.

JAKE: Its just so great to be out on my own! Here with you after so long!

JAKE: You and me and tav, gosh were going to make such a team! Two crockers and an egbert!

JAKE: A cracking good comedy to be sure.

JAKE: Heck. Perhaps ill take back my good old name back! Who knows, maybe tav would want to be an english too!

JAKE: This place is a bit smaller than wee tavvy is used to but im sure well make do.

JOHN: you want to move in with me?

JAKE: Oh yes i suppose id ought run the plans by you first before letting my imagination run wild eh.

JAKE: Im sure i could find somewhere else to stay. But i must say i do feel much safer bringing tav up with family!

Jake launches into a real doozy of a spin, which John supposes may well have knocked the last of his sense out of him.

JOHN: sure. why the hell not.

Jake gives John a twirl, which sends him spinning across the floor in his socks. He stumbles and falls over, which is a bit of a comical display with his windy reflexes. It makes Jake laugh uproariously.

Being flung from Jake’s orbit of Hope and Change is a little like being dashed with a bucket of ice water, though. All of John’s gloom and malaise surges back to the fore like air filling a vacuum. He feels hungover.

JOHN: oof...

John lies immobile on the floor tile. Jake draws up to look down at him in confusion, striking a pose that is both dazzlingly modelesque and doubtlessly completely unintentional.

JAKE: Eh? What are you looking so glum for there chap?

JOHN: oh, you know. the usual.

JAKE: Do you need help getting up?

JOHN: nah.

JOHN: i’m cool down here, on the floor.

JAKE: You know john. Maybe wed ought embark upon this journey of self-betterment together!

JAKE: What do you say my boy?

JOHN: what...

JAKE: I got my tavvy out. Have you been thinking about making amends with roxy and such? Maybe give her the push she needs to get out herself?

JOHN: not really.

JAKE: And why in the hell not!!

JOHN: like i said, you wouldn’t really understand.

JOHN: i don’t think there’s really much of a point in me trying to talk to roxy.

JOHN: she’s not...

JAKE: Shes not what?

John hauls himself up to his feet and moves to the living room. Jake follows, but John now ensures that’s there’s a healthy enough physical distance between himself and Jake’s black hole of psychic optimism.

JAKE: You cant rightly go and blame the woman for all your troubles john.

JOHN: i’m not!

JOHN: i’m not blaming her at all.

JAKE: Then what ARE you saying johnnyboy?

John sighs and drops down onto the couch. He stretches out so Jake can’t take the seat beside him.

JOHN: that even if i COULD talk to her and try to set things straight...

JOHN: why bother?

JOHN: she may not even be, like, real. strictly speaking.

JAKE: Eh?!

JOHN: like i said. you wouldn’t understand.

JOHN: trust me. it’s all a whole lot of crazy stuff.

JAKE: Youre right. That is an awfully crazy thing to say!

JAKE: Not real? Why i just saw roxy yesterday!

JOHN: ...

JAKE: Shes as solid and real a person as you or i john.

JAKE: Its hardly becoming of a man to say something so dismissive even if its tough to know what a lady is thinking from time to time.

JOHN: i’m not...

JOHN: ...

JAKE: Whats that now?

JOHN: i fucked up too bad, too long ago.

JOHN: it’s just too late to change anything now.

JAKE: So what?

JOHN: huh?

JAKE: So what if it doesnt change anything? Wont it matter to your family to see you care?

JAKE: Wont it make you feel better to try?

JAKE: To at least be able to say that when the chips were down, you gave it your honest all?

JOHN: ...

JAKE: And what about harry anderson? Do you really want to go the rest of your long life knowing you never tried to be the father your son needed?

Hearing the name is like a blow to the chest. Little Harry Anderson. His son, who he held and fed and taught and raised into a young man. Despite it all, he’s always been so unbelievably proud of that boy.

If Roxy isn’t real, then his son must be even faker.

Something about the thought makes John feel more rotten than anything else. Maybe it’s some aspect of his basic biology, buried down at the core of his lizard brain, that makes him want to reject what he knows is true. The allure of the denial—of the anaesthetic hope radiating from Jake’s epically sculpted body—is difficult to turn away from.

JAKE: My word john. Are you... crying?

JOHN: haha...

JOHN: jake, do you have roxy’s number?

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