Fandom: Modern Family
Author: Jen (jazzfic)
Pairing (if there is one): None.
Summary: One last family camp, that's what they were promised. And it will be. Except from the way the sky's turning the wrong color, and from what he finds living in the woods, it might be the last thing they do at all. So Luke pulls it together.
Warnings: Character death.
Disclaimer: Modern Family isn't mine.
Author's Note: New fandom, and goodness knows I didn't set out to write something so bleak, but it was just the way the prompt leapt out. Even so, from me, this is dark. Written for the poetry_fiction challenge for 2013. All my thanks to ishie for the beta.
Word Count: ~2,400
Read it at AO3, or below:
I looked at her
she laughed at me
if trees would talk
wonder what they'd tell me
He doesn't mean for it to happen. It's like that time he found an old chemistry set at a yard sale, paid a dollar for it while no one was looking and snuck it home beneath his sweater (it made him look like he was having a box baby, but as usual everyone was arguing and it went unnoticed). On the floor of his bedroom he dumped all the powders together into a cup of orange soda. He was hoping for at least a medium-sized boom but it all just turned into a brown sludge that did nothing really except fizz a lot and then sort of dribble over the lip. To this day there remains a stain near the edge of the rug that looks a bit like a pterodactyl wing if he squints.
He doesn't mean for it to happen, but it always seems to, because he's Luke and that's what the world has put aside for him. He's not there to be understood. He's not even there to cause trouble for the sake of trouble alone. They don't see, that's the problem.
Once, he can't remember when, maybe he was six, he asked to be taken to the park, and in the fifteen seconds or so while Claire's back was turned he managed to tip himself upside down on the swing set so he was holding on by his knees and convince the nearest strong looking kid to send him flying. At the point where he was about to drop there came a yell from somewhere and the chains were yanked away and the upside-down world he'd been staring at was tipped back to normal. All he wanted was to be a pendulum. He didn't even know what a pendulum was.
It's confusing. Didn't his parents want him to know stuff? Don't they still? Maybe he's not like Alex, or Manny, but what does that matter? He's a free spirit.
He's just Luke.
Mom's face is harder than the tube of frozen cookie dough she's clutching in one hand. "Phil. No."
"One last time? For serious, after this summer they're closing down, shutting up shop, locking away the big set of cabin keys. You remember those keys! To this day I can hear them jangle when I close my eyes. Those are memories, Claire! We have one more opportunity to take part in the great ritual. One more. C'mon."
Luke chews on a dried apricot. It tastes like old ear. He spits it out into his palm, and says, "I'm with Dad."
Down goes the cookie dough, followed by a sigh. Some things you can't fight.
Haley tilts her phone, eyes narrowed at the screen. Outside the car trees flash past in a soft green blur. There's a bump as the asphalt ends and gravel begins to hum beneath the tires. Luke's teeth chatter.
"Here we go..." Phil grins. His fingers do a little dance on the steering wheel.
"God, I hate this road," murmurs Claire.
Meanwhile Alex is staring at Haley. "What is it?"
"My signal dropped out."
"Well, we are in the middle of nowhere."
"Yeah, so? I texted my way through the last three family camps, at least."
Alex folds her arms. "I guess you'll have to suffer like the rest of us, then..."
"Ugh, no way. Dad! Turn round!"
"Sorry, chipmunks. As the Brits might say, we're on a one way motorway."
Haley's mouth drops, Alex laughs manically, and a fresh argument breaks out, filling the car with more and more noise. Luke watches the trees, and his eyes flicker up to the tops and then to the sky.
"The colors are wrong," he says.
No one hears him.
The Gruberfelds are back. So are the Allens and the Mackenzies, and a half dozen other families from previous summers. Nine year old Milton Mackenzie, with his halo of ridiculous orange hair and eight million freckles spots Luke from across the quad and makes a rude gesture with one hand. Luke sighs, hauling his bag from the trunk.
"Sweet...Home Alabama," breathes Phil, gazing in awe at the windscreen. "Did we plough through an insect convention?" He turns around. "Luke, buddy, there's like a thousand science projects for you to unstick here."
Claire's flapping at the edge of her shirt. "It's so hot. I swear those trees trap the damn heat, turn it into humidity soup." She shudders. "And I can smell smoke."
"It's camp," says Alex, rolling her eyes. "What were you expecting?"
Luke watches Milton Mackenzie, or at least, he watches the space where Milton Mackenzie was standing before being dragged away by one of his equally freckled older brothers. The space has turned into a view of the woods. Something cold runs through him, and he shivers.
The first day is always designated free time, so after a soggy hamburger lunch he decides the afternoon will be best spent collecting pinecones. He needs to stockpile ammunition, rival families and rival teams being what they are—ruthless and completely, horribly relentless—so he interrupts a brief argument between his parents by announcing that he's going to trawl the forest. He smooths the way by peppering it with pre-arranged reassurances. Yes, he'll keep to the blue blazes. No, he won't go past the creek. Yes, he'll keep his pants on.
"Okay, see you!" he shouts, not waiting for an answer.
He gallops down the meadow, his feet skimming over the uneven ground. Halfway there he realizes he hasn't brought along anything to carry the pinecones in, so he stops and pulls off his sweatshirt, knotting the sleeves into an impromptu sling. He grins, proud at his invention, and slows to a walk until he reaches the edge of the neat grass, where the woods stop. No, he corrects in his head, imagining an ominous chord playing. They begin.
Stones crunch beneath his sneakers. He makes his way in amongst the trees and tries to scout the highest branches for what he needs, but he's too short and everything's too tall, and his neck aches in protest.
There's a cone. It's dried, greying, loose in his hands like broken teeth. It's also almost bigger than his head. Luke examines it with a frown, then shrugs and tosses it aside. He needs the smaller ones. The green ones. Grenades.
Something hard grazes his shoulder and bounces onto the ground. The voice that accompanies it echoes in the branches, finishing with just the tiniest hint of a giggle. He spins, looking up and around, down to where a small green pinecone is lying next to his left shoe. He picks it up.
"Alex?" He turns again, slowly this time. "Haley, is that you?"
Another giggle. Shhh!
"That isn't funny, you guys." He clasps the pinecone, feeling the neat indentations, the slight stickiness around the base. His fingers seem to have become frozen. "Really not funny..."
There's no answer but the breeze. Luke stands still for a moment before taking in a breath and a step forward, the movement triggering his fist to uncurl and relax. He's about to send the pinecone flying when something makes him pause. He looks at it and tucks it into the folds of his sweater.
"Incoming, huh," he repeats with a sneer. Maybe he trod on a poison puffball in the meadow, inhaled some spores, and those spores have wriggled up through his nose and into his brain and implanted there a voice. That would be kind of neat. He could freak everyone out come talent night with his amazing take on ventriloquism. Except then they'll all want to know why he's suddenly turned into a girl, and Milton Mackenzie will probably crash tackle him off the stage, and then he'll win the marshmallow goblin instead of Luke—
Another pinecone falls. And another, and another. The giggle comes again, closer this time, louder, right by his ear; he raises an arm to protect himself...and that's when he sees it.
Luke stares. "Quit it," he says.
"You're hurting me..."
Then duck, stupid!
"No!" he says, louder.
She giggles but her mouth doesn't move. Luke summons his whole voice and yells into the branches, yells where he can see only black, no girl-shape, no girl.
"QUIT IT!! "
And everything stops.
He knows, somehow he knows, how much trouble he's going to be in. But didn't he know already? That something was wrong? The red clouds through the back seat window while three girl voices and one man voice clashed for the prize of being the shrillest of all. His dad would lose that battle, and so would Luke. But that's what families do, and he has no other but his own to judge. He needs ammunition because the sky is falling, there's no campfire like Alex said, but there is a fire, and it's big and will swallow up the world. Haley can't get a phone signal, his mom's burning hot, but nobody listens to Luke, oh no.
Maybe now they will.
"Who are you?"
She's dark, like the tree. Green and brown, like the tree. Her eyes are amber, like the sap oozing from beneath the bark.
Again there's no movement to her mouth but he hears the voice, as clear as anything. Though it doesn't really answer his question. He tries again.
"O-kay." Luke shuffles awkwardly, unsure of where to look. He wishes she had more...on. Luckily her hair's very, very long, and it swings and covers nearly everything. Sort of. "Well, I'm Luke."
Luke. Incoming Luke?
He jerks back. "No! No more pinecones! I've got, um. I've got enough. Yeah." He puts on a laugh. It sounds like a goose honking. "One's all I need!"
She moves, shifting her body. She's small, like he is. Maybe he should turn around. He keeps looking at her sideways. He's worried what she will do if he actually meets her eyes. He wonders if he's intruding.
You're not. We are.
A smooth arm snakes out from the curtain of her hair and points to the treetops. Something acrid hits his nostrils, jagging a memory. There's a shriek, another answering. Wings flapping. Luke stares.
"Where are they going?" he asks, as more and more birds fly overhead.
She curls the arm back into her chest. Away, she says. From that. Which is when he sees the sky, and the distant orange glow.
He doesn't mean for it to happen. But it does.
And now the woods are burning.
Calls carry across the meadow.
Across the meadow and into the trees, while red and blue lights from the fire trucks flash over the grass in bright and silent arcs.
In the woods, Luke begins to cry.
"I'm sorry," he sniffs. He doesn't know why he would say that, and he doesn't look at her. He can't.
She cradles his face between her hands. Her skin is cool. He sniffs again, watching her, feeling the tears dry on his cheeks. He hears her ask the question before it's said, and he shakes his head in response. He thinks he has made her mad and that's where the fire has come from; that her throat is burning and has started this fire because he wouldn't play the proper game. He's intruded; he doesn't know the rules. "I want to go now."
It's too dangerous. Can't you smell the smoke? It's so near.
"Then it's dangerous for you, too."
A smile, small and sad, tugs at the edges of her lips. Not all places. I know places, Luke, where it's safe. He feels something pulling at his shirt. A branch, pulling. No, he's the one pulling, his whole weight pulling back.
He feels the heat, the snap and tremble of the bark and the leaves, and so Luke makes a decision. He can be like her. He can be brave, too.
"Show me," he says.
Nobody knows about the lake. It isn't very pretty, or very large, or good to swim in. The surrounding woods are not cared for like they are around the trails, and the trees there grow tall and shed their limbs to drop into the water, left to float and sink and rot. The water is dark and brackish, home to frogs and quick, hovering insects. But it is deep. Its depth is its safety, and only the girl knows this.
She takes his hand. Now they run.
The fire rushes by and descends like a missile, a hundred missiles. They're under assault and he can't see—he can't see!—there are sounds all around him, black rushing cone sharp danger sounds, danger, smoke in his eyes—we have to run! Luke! Luke, we have to run this is the only safe place—and then the words are running, like he is—there are places I can take you so many the world is amazing you are amazing you're not dumb not at all, you're falling into space
Come on, Luke.
and see, here's the water, no blue blazes here just water. Bubbles of air where your words are. But it's like in the car. Nobody listens to you.
Come on, Luke. Pull it together.
Distantly, he hears his name.
He practises what he will say.
Hey, guys, this sounds weird but I met a girl in the woods and she's a little bit crazy, and the woods are burning and the colors are wrong. It's okay, though, we'll save you. We're coming.
He's apologized before. He's just a kid, he's going to be doing a lot of wrong in his growing up and a lot of saying sorry and sure, he won't always know why.
He's Luke. He just can't help it.
Somewhere his sisters and his parents are searching and calling out his name, but here Luke is running, clasping a hand that isn't his, clasping it with such force that when they arrive at the secret, safe place, their hands are fused. And there's smoke everywhere, they can't see where the edge is so instead of jumping they fall. The fierce cold hits him, shakes as the water takes him, a great slap turning into muffled noise that echoes and fades away. He falls and falls, bubbles exploding all around, and he's sinking into dark dead wood and vines that wrap around his legs, his arms, the pinecone strapped to his chest where his heart is thumping fast. He loses the hand, but there's a whisper, incoming, incoming. It's hers, it turns into a laugh. We're coming. And then it's his own voice in his ears, in the bubbles and dark. Mom, Dad...we're coming.