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  1. “Jake, sweetheart, come here for a second.”
  3. Weston dropped the comic book he was reading on to the bed beside him and scooted his way off the mattress to follow his mom’s voice. Down the hallway, down the stairs toward the living room. He froze instantly.
  5. His mom sat on the corner chair, hunched over slightly. Head fallen, her once thick blonde locks now thin, wispy strands hanging in her face. The exposed flesh of her arms and neck was covered in dirt and grime. It was starting to decay and expose the bone beneath in some spots. The odor of death overpowered the room.
  7. “Come here and help mommy with something, Jake. Please.”
  9. Weston’s heart started to pound in his chest as her head rose to look at him. His stomach turned, suddenly feeling like he could lose his lunch on the carpet. Pale, lifeless eyes looked back at him. This time the voice that spoke to him wasn’t the usual, pleasant lilt he recognized as his mom’s. This voice was deeper. Raspier. Bone chilling.
  11. “I asked you to come help me, sweetheart. Don’t you want to come help mommy?”
  13. Weston’s mouth opened and closed, desperately trying to tell himself to wake up. This had to be a nightmare. His mom rose from the chair, each staggered step bringing the stench of death closer and closer.
  15. “I asked you to help me feel better, Jacob. Look what you did instead.”
  17. Before he could blink, she was in front of him now; her pale, nearly bone thin arm raised to show off the drained needle still stuck in what was left of the flesh. Tears welled up in Weston’s eyes as he quickly – furiously – began shaking his head.
  19. “No, mom, I didn’t…” he cut himself off, unable to complete the thought fully. It was a lie. He’d never been able to lie to her. He did do it. He’d filled the needle, just like she showed him. He’d found the vein, just like she told him how and he stuck it into her arm.
  21. He killed her.
  23. “You did this, Jacob. It’s your fault.”
  25. He wanted to argue but it was no use. All he could do was mutter soft apologizes under his breath, mixing the words with his soft cries.
  27. “I didn’t know, mom. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just wanted to help you feel better like you asked.”
  29. “You killed me, Jacob. Murderer!”
  31. Having that word thrown in his face only made him choke out another sob. He stumbled back as she staggered forward until his back hit the wall and he couldn’t get away anymore. She was in his face now. The smell of death and rot, and the look in the lifeless eyes of his mother left him gasping for breath - an anxiety attack.
  33. “Tell me you’re sorry you killed me, Jake. Tell me you didn’t mean to. Murderer.”
  35. ------------------------------------------------
  37. This time as the word left her lips, Weston jolted up in bed. Sweat drenched the collar of his shirt. Tears soaked the pillow beneath him. They were still falling while his breath came in short, ragged spurts. He really was having a panic attack.
  39. “I’m so sorry, mom. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do it. I’m sorry…”
  40. He’d had this nightmare numerous times and it was always the same. Except this time, it had ended slightly differently.
  42. “Tell me you’re sorry you killed me…tell me you didn’t mean to.”
  43. The hellish voice was thrust out of his head by his alarm clock going off beside his bed, followed almost immediately by his dad’s voice yelling out that it was time to get up for school. He ran his fingers through his growing curls and tried to shake off the remnants of sleep and anxiety from his head.
  45. Nightmares are nothing new to you, Junior. You’ll be fine. He thought to himself.
  46. He wasn’t fine. All day he felt like he was stumbling through the day on auto-pilot. Floating from class to class. Muttering replies to everything he was asked. He’d never been particularly attentive in his classes before, but he couldn’t stop his mind from wandering back to the nightmare.
  48. “Tell me you’re sorry you killed me…”
  50. “What’s up with you, Wes?” Luka asked him at lunch, around a bite of the sandwich his mom had packed in his lunch. “You’ve been weirdly quiet all day. You even made it through Duncan’s class without a Uranus joke. What’s the deal?”
  52. “No deal. I just didn’t sleep very well. I’m too tired for school.” He made a show of yawning and dropping his head down to the table, closing his eyes for a brief moment.
  54. “Another nightmare?” Luka was the only one that knew about Weston’s nightmares – he’d woken him up from several of them in the middle of the night – but even he didn’t know the full extent of what the nightmares were about. “Maybe you should talk to someone about that.”
  56. Weston scoffed at the idea, waving him off as the lunch bell rang, telling them to get to their next class. “You know me, I’m more the suffer in silence type!” His tone may have been lighthearted and joking but there was truth in the statement.
  58. By fifth period, he knew what he had to do. It wasn’t enough to say it in a dream. His frantic panic-attack induced whimpers weren’t good enough. He needed to say sorry, but he needed to say it to her. He had to go back to New Orleans.
  60. When he got home from school, the house was empty. His dad didn’t usually get home from the shop until they closed for the evening. He had a few hours at least. Weston knew if Smitty noticed he wasn’t there, he’d more than likely assume he was at Luka’s for the night. It was a common enough occurrence.
  62. He packed lightly. He had no plan in place. He didn’t know how long he’d stay in New Orleans, or if he would ever make it back to Limbo again. The same backpack that he’d haphazardly stuffed his belongings into to get him to Limbo was now accompanying him back out again.
  64. A couple outfits. A hoodie. His cell phone and charger ended up buried beneath the clothes. He had a decent amount of money saved up from summer. He’d spend some time doing random things for people: babysitting, pet sitting, mowing lawns, helping people clean. His intention had been to save up the money and surprise Luka was tickets to Comic-Con for his birthday, but that plan would have to wait for another year. This was something he had to do.
  66. There was a bittersweet irony in his exit from the town.
  68. The morning he’d come into Limbo had been a beautiful, sunny summer morning. There hadn’t been a cloud in the sky. He remembered thinking the town looked like it had been plucked off the front of a postcard and dropped in the middle of the desert. That bright sunshine had set the tone for his months in Limbo.
  70. Meeting his dad had been like finding a part of himself that he’d never realized was missing. In all his life, he’d never thought about his father. Never questioned where he was. Never truly inquired about the man he’d been named after. The few times his mom mentioned him, all that was said was he was a marine she’d spent a night with. She said he was a good man, yet she practically refused to call him Weston, much preferring to address him by his middle name – Jacob, or Jake. And unlike most others, she’d never called him Junior.
  72. It wasn’t until her death and the subsequent horrible treatment at the hands of his foster father that he’d decided to look into who his dad was. It was a necessity, not so much a curiosity or desire. But finding Limbo, and Smitty, was the best thing to happen to him in as long as he could remember.
  74. He’d also found Luka, and the Deschaine family. He’d never been one to make friends in New Orleans. Having friends meant having to let people close to him and with his mom’s problems at home, he didn’t feel comfortable letting people close. Limbo had been the first time in all his life that he’d felt stable enough to open up and let himself make a friend. Not that Luka would have let himself not be Junior’s friend. He was like an earthquake. He knocked down all the walls Junior had built and there was no stopping him from doing so.
  76. Luka’s parents had taken an almost immediate liking to him. Luce had taking a little time to get used to his hyperactivity and often rude sense of humor. But she’d warmed up to him and Luce and Killian had become the extra set of parents that Weston had never known he wanted.
  78. In his months in Limbo, he often overheard people talking about wanting to get out and get away from Limbo, but he couldn’t picture his life anywhere else. He’d found happiness in the small desert town.
  80. The irony in his departure came in the form of an incoming storm.
  82. Weston had had a storm brewing in his mind since the day his mom died. His nightmares were dark clouds looming overhead. Her voice calling out to him – blaming him – was the thunder and lightening heard in the distance.
  84. And just as he boarded the bus to take him away from the home and happiness he’d found, it started to pour.
  86. It was a thirty-two-hour trip by bus from Las Vegas to New Orleans. Weston spent nearly the entire ride staring out the window, lost in his own thoughts. He didn’t want to pull out his cell phone. He knew there were probably already missed texts and calls from Luka wondering if he’d be over that night, and then why he wasn’t answering his phone. Luka would be the first to panic, it was just in his nature. Even if he didn’t say anything right away to try to keep Wes out of trouble if he was off doing something he shouldn’t be.
  88. It was dark when he finally made it into New Orleans.  The cab driver asked him what he was doing out at almost midnight. Another thirty minutes and he was standing in front of what had been his childhood home. The “for rent” sign stuck in the earth out front told him it was empty still.
  90. He’d never been one to lock his windows; even after all the stories he’d heard about people sneaking in windows in the middle of the night or taking kids from their beds. He lived a dangerous “that would never happen to me” lifestyle, but lucky for him now, it had paid off in the long run.
  92. The window that was once his was still unlocked.
  94. His bedroom was empty now. After his moms’ death and him being shipped off to a foster family, their landlord must have come through and cleared everything out. He briefly wondered what he would have done with all their stuff? Did he throw it out? Sell it all? Was it
  95. all locked up in a storage unit somewhere, waiting for Weston to come claim what he wanted from it?
  97. Either way, the room looked bigger with nothing in it.
  99. He dropped his backpack to the floor and stared at the bedroom door. Did he dare leave this room? Could he handle seeing the living room, even if that ugly chair she had died in was tossed out with everything else. Before he could even make a conscious decision, his feet were moving, carrying him from one empty room to the next.
  101. The pictures that had once hung in the hallway were gone now, leaving nothing but plain white wallpaper in their place. They hadn’t had many pictures together, but his mom had always found a way to pay for his school pictures to hang up. But now, any trace that he’d grown from a bright-eyed, eager kindergartener to a weary closed off teenager sporting a huge, fake smile was gone now.
  102. The stairs weren’t quite as steep as Weston remembered. He used to swear it felt like a ninety-degree ascent straight up to get to his bedroom as a kid. But the fourth from the top did still creak and groan under his weight like it would snap if he stood on it for too long.
  104. But it was waited at the bottom of the stairs that terrified him. The living room. The last place he’d seen his mom alive, and the place he’d found her dead.
  106. Sure enough, it had also been emptied. There was no more horrendous off-white reclining chair sitting in the corner. He remembered the day they’d brought that chair home. His mom had seen it sitting out by a dumpster on her way to work and he helped her carry the couple blocks to their house in the middle of the night. It was dirty and gross but she’d loved it for whatever reason.
  108. The image of her sitting hunched over, lifeless, hair falling into her face, flashed before his eyes. He quickly blinked away tears, his throat suddenly burning as he held his emotions at bay for the moment. But his voice was not more than a trembling whisper as he choked out a soft “I’m so sorry, mom...” before scrambling back up the stairs and into the safety of his bedroom.
  110. In the quiet of the empty house, he could hear all the sounds of New Orleans from his window. While his neighborhood certainly wasn’t Bourbon Street, it had its own set of nuances. The street lights had always been way too bright. He used to keep thick curtains on the window to block out the light. Tonight, was thankful for the illumination. The darkness would have driven him crazy.
  112. There was the faint sound of traffic in the distance. A few blocks away was a club closing down for the night. In the still silence of night, the cars leaving sounded like jet engines. Weston laid on the floor, staring up at the ceiling of his old bedroom, taking in all the sounds he’d grown up listening to.
  114. This house may have been home at one point, but it certainly wasn’t anymore. Limbo was home. With Smitty and Holly and the Deschaines.
  116. A small pang of guilt turned his stomach. He knew his dad would be worrying soon, if he already wasn’t. He knew Luka was probably losing his mind alright. He considered grabbing his phone and sending a quick text to let them know he was okay, but before he could do so, he drifted off to sleep.
  118. ------------------------------------------------
  120. This dream was different. It wasn’t his mothers voice that woke him up, but his dad’s instead.
  122. “Junior, time to get up for school!”
  124. He opened his eyes, expecting to be back home in Limbo, but instead of blue walls and band posters, he was met with white walls and one lone framed photo of him and his mom. He was still in New Orleans. But why was Smitty here?
  126. His room was no longer empty. The bed he woke up in was the same bed he’d grown up with. Same black sheets, same black and blue blanket. Same nightstand and dresser. Everything was just as it had been when he left.
  128. His fathers voice was the only thing out of place.
  130. “Seriously, Wes.  Now. You’re gonna be late.”
  132. Weston followed the sound of his father’s voice. The house was just as he remembered. Framed photos of him through the years hung back on the walls. Creaky step on the steep staircase. His eyes immediately flicked over to the corner. The chair was back, but empty this time. The smell of death and rot was replaced with pancakes and bacon.
  134. Weston found his dad moving around the kitchen. There were three places set at the dining table. Who was the third for?
  136. “You’re awake! I was getting ready to come up with some water and wake you up the hard way. You’ve gotta stop staying up so late, the school is already complaining about how often you’re late.”
  138. “Why are you here?” The question wasn’t meant to be spoken aloud. It was more of an internal curiosity than a genuine question. Yet as soon as the words left his lips, his dad turned to look at him, and smiled. His hand reached out, resting on Junior’s shoulder and giving a comforting squeeze.
  140. “I’m here for you, Wes. Someone has to take care of you since you killed your mom.”
  142. Instantly, it was like all the air had been sucked from his lungs. Weston had never told his dad the details of his moms’ death. Smitty knew she was an addict and had overdosed, but that was it. So, hearing the words from him, of all people, was crushing.
  144. “I didn’t…” There was no confidence in his voice. It was barely louder than a whisper, yet his dad had still heard it.
  146. “Don’t lie. She’s already told me everything.”
  148. Weston watched as his dad’s eyes flickered over his shoulder and into the living room. He didn’t need to turn around and look to know exactly what he was looking at. Then her voice broke the silence.
  150. “Come here, Jake. I need your help with something.”
  152. He resisted, his head shaking frantically, his eyes squeezed shut to avoid having to see her.
  154. “No. I won’t do it. I won’t. Not this time.” He could hear her feet shuffling across the hard wood floor of the living room as she came closer. His hands instinctively flew up, covering his eyes as he started to cry.
  156. The smell of death surrounded him. She was right in front of him.
  158. “Don’t say no to me, Jacob. Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
  160. He still didn’t open his eyes. He couldn’t. He couldn’t bare to see the mangled mess of this nightmare version of his mom again.
  162. “No. I won’t…I won’t…” he quietly repeated the words like a life saving mantra.
  164. He was shoved backward, his back painfully hitting the floor. A pained cry pulled from his lips, hands abandoning his eyes as the jolted open. He desperately looked around for his dad, but Smitty was gone now. It was just him and his mom.
  166. “You can’t say no to me, Jake. You never could. That’s why I’m dead, isn’t it? You weren’t brave enough to say no to me.”
  168. “Mom, I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”
  170. The look on his moms face shifted. With every step away from him, her features softened. Another step. Her matter, patchy faded hair was now back in thick blonde curls. Another step. Her skeletal face was now full and beautiful. Her skin was no longer deathly pale but held a healthy, natural glow.
  172. This was the version of his mom he’d known when he was eight years old and she’d managed to stay clean for nearly the entire year. She was healthy, smiling, glowing.
  174. “Say it again, Junior.”
  176. ------------------------------------------------
  178. For the first time in months, Weston didn’t wake from sleep in a panic. There were no tears, his heart beat was steady and his breathing was calm. The sun was streaming through his window. He wasn’t sure what time it was or how long he’d been passed out on the floor.
  180. It was raining, but it was a light mist instead of a downpour.
  182. As fast as he could, Wes pushed himself up from the floor. He didn’t bother changing his clothes, he just flung his backpack onto his shoulders and practically jumped out the window. As soon as his feet hit the ground, he was off as fast as his tired muscles and empty stomach could take him. The cemetery wasn’t far.
  184. His dream had proven to him that coming back to New Orleans had been the right choice. He needed to say sorry for what he’d done if he ever hoped to move past it and have a happy life in Limbo that wasn’t plagued by his mom haunting his dreams.
  186. He pushed the gate out of the way and made a beeline to his mom’s burial spot. Along the right edge of the cemetery, tucked away at the edge along the tree line, right next to someone named Winifred Jones, who had died in 1976. During his own mom’s funeral, he’d focused most of his attention on Winifred’s tombstone, instead of his mom’s name in stone before him. As if by staring at someone else’s grave, he could pretend he was there for her funeral, instead of what was actually happening.
  188. Seeing her name etched in marble made everything real.
  190. Denise Nicole O’Brien
  191. Loving Mother, Daughter and Friend.
  193. “I’m so sorry, mom! I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to say no. I’m sorry if I did it wrong and that’s why you died. I’m sorry that I did this. I know I did it and I’m so sorry!”
  195. His legs gave way beneath him, dropping him to the wet grass that had started growing over the grave in the last few months. The tears rushed down his cheeks now. However, this apology didn’t hold the same instant relief that his dream apology had earned.
  197. “I’m sorry…” He repeated the words softly, a few different times. Then he choked them out again between sobs. He was now desperate to rid himself of the heavy feeling of guilt lingering over him. Why wasn’t it going away?
  199. His eyes raked over the words etched on her stone again.
  201. Loving Mother, Daughter, and Friend.
  203. The image of Luce Deschaine dotting over Luka crossed through his mind. Always waking up to make him breakfast before school, no matter how tired she was from working late. Always making sure he had his lunch or money to buy lunch at least. Doing her best to get him whatever he could possibly want, not that he ever really wanted much. She was a loving mother.
  205. Then Vic Deschaine, raising Sav and Timmy. Every time he’d seen the youngsters, they were always happy, smiling. They idolized their mom in so many ways, and it was so clear to anyone who met them. She was a loving mother.
  207. Even Holly Jane. Despite her and Smitty’s occasional problems, she’d always done her best to treat Junior like a friend and make it clear to him that she was there if he ever needed anything. She was gonna be a great stepmom someday.
  209. Denise O’Brien didn’t deserve to be held in the same regard as any of them.
  211. Loving Mother, Daughter, and Friend.
  213. Her own parents had stopped talking to her years before their own deaths. Weston had only met them once during that year she’d spent clean. They’d give her another chance, if only the be part of Wes’ life but she’d ruined it when she picked a needle back up.
  215. As far as friends, the only people she’d ever brought home were guys. She’d send Weston up to his room, play loud music for hours and told him it was safe to come back down when the music. Most of the time, by the time it was safe to go downstairs again, she was passed out on the couch or dazed and staring off into space for a while before going to bed for the evening. She had dealers, not friends.
  217. The realization hit Weston all at once. This wasn’t guilt he was feeling anymore, it was anger.
  219. “Why am I apologizing, mom? This wasn’t my fault. This was you.” Fresh tears welled up in his eyes again, but this time it wasn’t out of sadness or fear. There was a white-hot rage spreading through his chest as he thought back on all his years with her.
  221. All the names she’d called him.
  222. All the times he was left to fend for himself and scrounge together something to eat when she hadn’t shopped in weeks.
  223. All the holidays she had ruined for him.
  225.  “Loving mother, my ass. You were barely a mother! What kind of mom asks their kid to do something like that? Puts their own kid in that kind of situation? You were supposed to protect me from shit like that, mom, not be the one asking me to fill your syringe! It’s not my fault you’re dead, it’s yours!” His lungs were burning, his eyes stung. The tombstone in front of him was blurred by the tears in his eyes.
  227. “You never should have asked me to that! I’m a kid! Your kid! I’m not one of your drug dealing, so called friends. I’ve spent months blaming myself, not letting myself open up to the only people in my life that ever proven to me that they care about my happiness! It’s your fault!” He was standing again now, not able to look at her on the same level, even if all that was left of her was a name on a stone.
  229. “Did you ever realize how miserable I was? Wonder why I never brought home any friends? It’s because I was ashamed of you! I knew what you were enough to feel shame and close myself off to people, and I still let myself feel guilty when your own disease killed you. And now I’m back here with you instead of at home with the people care actually give a shit about me!”
  231. His mind raced again with thoughts of Smitty and Luka and everyone else worrying about where he was. Smitty nervously pacing while his mind raked with all the possibilities of bad things that could have happened. Exhausting all his options to find Junior and bring him home.
  233. Luka definitely would have cried. Probably more than once. He would have had to go through the school day without Junior there to stand up to the older bullies and their hateful words. If he even went to school at all and didn’t just stay home and worry himself sick. Which he had quite literally done over even smaller things than this in the past.
  235. Weston plopped back down into the grass, this time with his back to the stone slab, unable to even look at his mom’s name while he thought about the pain and worry he’d probably put so many people through. He pulled his backpack from off and set it in front of him, quickly digging through clothes until his fingers brushed against glass. Retrieving the phone from the bottom of his bag, he unlocked the screen and was immediately hit with another wave of guilt.
  237. So many missed calls and texts. His dad, Holly, Luka, Luce and Killian. Even a couple numbers he didn’t recognize. He started with the voicemails. Each familiar voice getting more and more frantic over time.
  239. “Please call…”
  240. “Please come home…”
  241. “Just let us know you’re okay…”
  243. The last voicemail from his dad broke him. He sounded tired, worn out. But his voice was still full of worry, and concern. But it was also laced with defeat. As if he was giving up hope that he’d ever hear back from Wes again. Weston squeezed his eyes closed as he listened to the voicemail, pain flooding over him. This was a tone he’d never once heard with his mom: actual, genuine parental worry for their child.
  245. As the voicemail ended, the phone slipped from his hand, clattering to the grass below. “I hurt my family to be here with you, Denise.” The word mom wasn’t one his tongue could form at that moment. “You were a truly awful parent and I ran away from the only happiness I’ve ever felt to come here because for some weird reason, I felt like I needed to apologize to you. It was always your problem. Not mine. What do I need to apologize for?” His voice was quiet. His throat going hoarse from the emotion that he’d poured out. The fatigue of months of little to no sleep mixed with the fact that he hadn’t eaten anything since he’d gotten into town and the dehydration of what seemed like endless crying since he’d been there, finally settled into bones.
  247. He pulled his legs up to his chest, hugged them tightly as he buried his face into his arms and started to cry. Every emotion he’d hidden over the past few months, coupled with this new sadness of having hurt the people he loved poured out, causing his entire body to shake with each sob.
  249. What if he couldn’t go home? What if they hated him for what he did? Would they ever trust him again? He didn’t even know how long he had sat there and cried.
  251. “Hey kiddo.”
  253. His initial reaction to his dad’s voice was to panic. What was he doing here? How did he find him? Maybe he’d fallen asleep in the middle of the cemetery and this was the beginning of some new twisted nightmare.
  255. “Dad?” His head shot up from his arms. Confusion and worry mixed on his face. He half expected to see that no one was actually there and his mind was playing tricks on him. Or some terrifying nightmare version of his dad. But his eyes landed on Smitty. There, alive and in the flesh. Every worry he had dissipated. His dad looked tired. It was evident he hadn’t slept much. And his hands were tucked down in his pockets. He was nervous. But it was him.
  257. Somehow, someway, he’d shown up to be there for Weston when he’d needed him the most. A feat his mom hadn’t accomplished in her fifteen years with him.
  259. He wiped the tears from his eyes with his sleeve and pushed himself up from the cold ground, practically throwing himself into his dad. Arms wrapped around the older Weston’s torso, clinging to him like he was going to disappear at any given moment. He mumbled apologies into the embrace, hoping like hell that anything he could say would make this better.
  261. “Dad, I’m sorry. I should have called or left a note. I shouldn’t even have come here. I felt like I needed to apologize for killing her but it wasn’t my fault. It was never my fault. I didn’t kill her, dad. I’m so sorry.” He didn’t care if half of his apology wouldn’t make sense to his dad, for lack of information, just saying the words and finally letting go of the guilt that had weighed him down felt great.
  263. “I love you, dad, and I’m so sorry I did this.” It was the first time he’d ever said those words aloud to Smitty, but at that moment, he had no doubt in this mind that they were true.
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