Caged

Part 1: 8 o'clock

CAGED

PART 1-TEN YEARS OLD (2007)

8 o'clock

I tug on the collar of my polo shirt, fiddling with the necklace chain hanging off my neck. The silver cross gets caught on the shirt buttons, staying on my chest before I pull it away and it swings down to its natural position, jingling merrily.

"Will you quit fidgeting?"

I look up, making eye contact with my dad in the rearview mirror, nodding and sitting still besides the tapping of my finger. My mom is at Lyon and Ultear's school, planning to meet with us for my own parent teacher night.

I clamber from the car as dad stops in the parking lot, the late November frost crunching under my sneakers. I turn when I hear Natsu calling my name and my gaze catches his form just in time to see him running across the parking lot, slipping on the ice, his dad laughing as he followed close behind, holding him by the scarf so he didn't fall.

He skids to a stop beside me, immediately launching into a play-by-play of the Thanksgiving Day game, knowing I wouldn't be watched. I listen to our fathers exchange names as they shake hands.

"Nice to meet you, I'm Igneel Dragneel."

"Jacob Milkovich, the pleasure is mine."

My dad holds back a sheer at my school's interior. It's bright and happy as elementary school should be, unlike Holy Family. He rolls his eyes when he makes eye contact with a drawing with my name on it. Gray F-M

I stand by the cupboards with Natsu as my dad talks to the teacher. He asks how I'm doing in classes. Ms. Smith replies I excel in writing and struggle with math. This is my dad's nightmare. The banker with the son who can barely multiply.

"He's also quite the doodler," she adds with a laugh. My dad blinks at her. "It's quite alright though, he gets the work done regardless. The art teacher tells me he has real potential."

My dad gives a strained smile, moving on to look at our "All About Me" sheets tacked on the wall. I remember mine fully.

FULL NAME? Grayson Lee Fullbuster-Milkovich

NICKNAMES? Gray

AGE? 10

BIRTHDAY? December 24th, 1997

FAVORITE COLOR? Blue

FAVORITE BAND? The Beatles

FAVORITE SONG? Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles

SIBLINGS? Ultear (15), Lyon (13)

FAVORITE MOVIE? The Village (aforementioned brother showed it to me)

DREAM JOB? Artist

Mom walks in now, Ultear close behind, texting, and Lyon walking towards me with a lazy gait. My dad strides over as Ms. Smith introduces herself to Mom, who replies with, "Hi, I'm Ur Milkovich."

"Gray, where's your desk? I want to look at your workbooks."

I lead him to the desk. Earlier in the day I had placed my books in a pile like my peers but moved over my name tag.

He flips through my math books, the accountant shaking his head at my failed attempts to multiply numbers. When he lifts the final book—my reading book—then name tag becomes visible.

He stops.

He freezes.

He turns.

"Gray, what is this?"

"My name tag…"

"And where is my name on this?"

"Nowhere…" I mumble.

Mom joins us, dark hair framing her face. "What's going on?"

"Gray decided he was too good for our name. Is that it, Gray?" Dad's voice is a whisper, trying not draw attention. "Do you hate our family? Do you hate me?"

I feel my limbs stiffen, eyes widening as my muscles get tighter and my finger twitches in fear with jerky shakes. The classroom feels too suffocating, the voices seem too loud and Natsu's gaze in my back feels too hot. The polo is digging into my skin and now I'm painfully aware of the staggering lack of oxygen I've been getting tonight. "What?"

"Jacob, don't do this. Not here." Mom lays a hand on my shoulder and Lyon and Ultear glance at each other, standing so close their shoulders are nearly touching. These seem to be some of the only times when they're not at each other's throats.

My father shakes his head, bright blonde hair quivering with the movement. His coworkers and friends think he's an easy-going, happy, caring man. I wonder just how far off they are. Maybe some of them have caught on. I doubt it. Adults seems to have an astounding amount of ignorance and selective hearing and seeing as my dad often says Lyon has.

"I'm taking Lyon and Ultear home," he says. "You can stay here, Ur, with him." He spits out him like the word is toxic—like the very thought of me is enough to burn a hole through his tongue and mind with its radioactive poisons. If he keeps the word gray in any context dancing in the back of his throat too long, it's painful to him—or so it seems. It's been clear since a young age that I was his least favorite. Ultear smoked both Lyon and I completely. Lyon, however, is only ahead of me on the spectrum because he's good at something my dad actually can acknowledge and appreciate—sports.

The next few moments of shuffling and exiting tick by painfully slow and I watch the hands of the clock move as the thin red line measuring seconds clicks by. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. It's 7:32 as the door shuts. Has it always been that loud? Natsu is beside me, black eyes watching the door as though he's expecting my dad to come in and slap me.

"Gray?"

"Yea?"

"Your dad scares me."

"Yea… Me too…"

My mother sighs as she sits down at my desk, legs crossed as she flips through my books, lounged back in my chair and even balancing slightly on the back legs of the chair. She narrows her gentle dark eyes as she tries to read the jumble of numbers of symbols on the page, dyed dark gray from the remains of failed attempts at solving the problems. My eraser tore a hole on the left-hand side of the page.

"Mom?"

"Yea, Gray?"

"Milkovich wouldn't fit."

"I know, sweetie."

She heads over to Mr. Dragneel and talks to him for a few minutes, discussing times Natsu and I can get together after school. Natsu watches me carefully as I stare at the ground.

"Ready to go, Natsu?" The pinkette smiles at me as he follows his father, grinning up at the ginger haired man as I hear him promise his son soup. Natsu is weird. Mom lays a hand on my shoulder as we follow them a few car lengths behind.

The car roars to life as she turns the key in the ignition, heating system exploding into action as mom puts the car in reverse. The windshield wipers scrape frost off the glass with a crunch, grinding as it squealed across the frozen plain. The air is so cold tonight that even within the car my breath forms a cloud, curling around my face in hazy ribbons.

The streetlights pass overhead, the speedometer set on about 30 MPH. The lights cast an orangey-gold glow against the night sky. The light is completely fake and unnatural, blinding and obvious like the most horrendous of spray tans.

I unbutton the top button of my dark blue polo, relieved as I take my first full breath of air since I put the thing on. "Is Dad going to hate me?"

"Of course not. You know him. He's just going to need time to cool off."

"I could've fit it—if I tried. I didn't want to…" I broke the golden rule of my household.

Milkovich Family Rules #1

The Milkovich family is your family in all ways but blood (for Lyon and Gray). You will not question your parents as though they were someone else's. You will respect the people who clothe you and feed you. It was their choice to take you in and you must show gratitude.

Do not question the family name. Do not question your father's authority.

{What about Mom's authority?}

{That too.}

{Then why isn't it listed?}

{It should go without saying.}

{Why does your authority not go without saying?}

{It does.}

{Then why did you say it?}

{Gray, leave it.}

{Sorry.}

Be proud of those you call family. Wear the name Milkovich with pride and honor or else don't hold onto it at all.

{I thought dropping the name wasn't allowed until we're legal adults…?}

{It's not.}

{Then what was the significance of the last sentence? Why tell us to drop it if you won't let us actually go about the action of removing the name?}

{Gray, it's called an empty threat, get it?}

{Got it.}

{Good.}

My mother turns, taking her eyes off the road for a split second as she ruffles my hair, a smile on her face and eyes filled with compassion and understanding. "That was very brave of you and I don't blame you at all."

Returning to her original position, her pretty, easy smile loses its shape.

Seven seconds. Seven seconds of distraction is all it takes for the world to end. The headlights of a swerving car blind me, my mom turns the wheel fast, car wheels squealing with the harsh force being exerted as the brake pedal gets pushed into the ground quickly. It's too late. The picture moves in slow motion as the other car collides with my mom's side of the vehicle.

The car is rolling. The windows have shattered and glass is spraying like enlarged crystalline snowflakes flying through the air. There's blood dripping into my eyes. I feel the searing pain of glass slicing into my forehead, imbedding itself in my abdomen. My vision is red—whether that's a form of blackout from the crushing hurt or simply blood in front of my pupil I don't know.

The rolling finally stops on my side and my face collides with something cold. The window? No, that's in my face, not on it. The pavement. Tiny rocks are pressed into my cheek, along with little pricks of ice that feel like small blades poking into the scrapes on my alabaster skin.

Red pools around me, gathering on the cross pendant with its slick crimson touch. Black hairs obstruct bits of my vision. The radio's sound is distorted, the voice of some talk show host grinding with a horrifying mix of shrieks, static and broken speech, like something out of a horror movie.

My eyes are sealing shut. The seatbelt is digging into my neck. There's metal everywhere.

The last thing my eyes land on before the vision is too blurry to be useful and the black takes over is the cracked digital clock of the radio. The last two numbers are snubbed out, one flickering and lighting up the spider web crack in the plastic-like glass with an electric blue, getting caught in the edges of the destroyed clock, the lines of the broken car brighter than the rest of it. Like a radioactive web spun by a poison spider.

The fully functioning digit is the hour marker. I look at it just as the seven changes to an eight… 8 o'clock.

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