Rough Around the Edges
Climbing up six flights of stairs was a pain.
Climbing up six flights of stairs after driving what felt like thousands of miles without stopping for anything but gas and coffee wasn’t much better.
But climbing up six flights of stairs with a bad knee, three exhausted bundles of living ink clinging to you like a lifeline, and going on nothing—no real food or water or even a bathroom break—but sheer grit? Downright impossible.
Henry Ross cleared it in half his usual time.
He didn’t care how late it was, how much he ached or how much he wanted to just curl up next to the chipped floor molding and become comatose, he was not in the mood for any of his neighbors catching him as he was. He just thanks god his doorman, a short ruddy-faced man named Patrick, had fallen asleep at his desk before he’d snuck in, like old Patty always did after 11:00 PM.
“644, 645—646,” said Henry, stopping to catch his breath. “Here. This is it.”
He could feel Boris, Alice, and Bendy collectively sigh in relief, wilting like lilies in the hot summer sun.
Boris was fairing what seemed like the best of them; hand on Henry’s shoulder for balance, but with enough of his druthers to stand upright without help. Alice clung to Henry’s left pant leg, leaning heavily, her black eyes barely open, and not at all complaining when Henry used his free arm to help keep her steady. Bendy, for all his intents and purposes, hadn’t left Henry’s grasp since the studio, tucked against his left side with his face half buried in the old animator’s collar. Henry was pretty sure he’d fallen asleep at least 3 times on the way—he had one hell of a loud snore for a shorty. He hadn’t asked to be put down once, but Henry did not complain. It had been a long day for all of them, but Bendy had had it the roughest—which was saying something, as Henry had learnt that hard way that being turned into a living cartoon was no picnic.
“What’s the plan, Henry?” said Boris, catching Henry off guard.
“Plan is, uh,” Henry mumbled, fumbling with keeping Bendy and Alice from toppling over while he fished for his keys. They weren’t in either of his pockets… where were they?
“Get inside, go to bed. Try to sleep and…” He sighed, “I don’t know, come up with a better plan in the morning.”
“Works fer me,” Bendy muttered, not even opening his eyes.
It was then Henry noticed a small shimmer along the door’s upper frame. Bracing Alice as best he could, he reached up and ran a hand along the top of the door molding and caught something metal on the far corner. Of course. Right where he left it.
“Henr—ry?” said Boris, muffling a yawn behind the back of his hand. “That, uh, don’t seem particularly safe there, leaving yer key where someone can find it. What if someone tries breakin’ in?”
“Not to worry Boris,” said Henry, smirking to himself sardonically, “I doubt anyone would find anything of mine worth stealing…”
The lock gave a rusty clunk, and Henry shouldered it open.
The sound of a rickety radiator and the smell of old newsprint, a faint burnt wood-like scent, and cardboard greeted them along with the faint sting of old alcohol. The light of the hallway cast a thin orange glow into the otherwise pitch-black apartment. Henry couldn’t remember feeling so relieved to see color, faded and muted as it was. He ushered everyone in and quickly shut the door behind them before trying a light switch. It flickered twice before dimly glowing weakly, barely any better than the hallway light. With a small fzzt!, it went right back out.
“Great,” Henry grumbled. It took a bit of blind stumbling, but he managed to reach a tall lamp next to the couch and switched that on instead. The bedroom was cast a pale light, giving everything a pale bluish tint. “Gonna need to replace that.”
Alice and Boris blinked in the sudden light, Bendy preferring to just keep his face buried under Henry’s chin.
“Well, uh,” Henry said, eyebrows creasing as it seemed something very apparent dawned on him. He tried his best to smile, but only managed a wince and he half-heartedly motioned to the living room. “Here we are. Home sweet home.”
The light made it easier to take stock of just how messy the man’s apartment really was. A quintessential bachelor pad, with bare walls, sealed and opened boxes alike strewn everywhere, bookshelves decorated with everything from empty whiskey and beer bottles to unfinished model ships—and pretty much everything except for books. Dirty laundry littered the floor, waste bins sat overturned in the corner. The kitchen looked almost unused, save for the stacks of pots and pans stuck to the grimy stone tops, and piles of unread junk mail and bills sat on the kitchen counter, unsorted. The couch looked about as comfortable as a sack of potatoes, the green fabric a shade greyer than when it was first bought. One of its legs was held up by an old phone book.
A thick, sturdy easel and stool sat out of place in the corner, next to a far window, unmistakable in spite of a tarp covered it. Stacks upon stacks of blank newspaper leaned against the corner behind it, book-ended by empty sketchbooks that looked hardly handled. A stray sheet of sketch paper poked out from under the tarp, the off-white paper marred with frustrated, uninspired scribbles of charcoal.
Henry was suddenly acutely aware of Alice and Boris’s stares. He coughed.
“Sorry about the mess,” said Henry, rubbing the back of his neck and looking down, “I don’t, uh, get guests all that often.”
“S’alright Henry,” said Boris, voice no longer tired. His ears had pulled back, eyes downcast as well. “We don’t mind it.”
“S’not like we got anywhere else to be,” Bendy mumbled, peaking up. “Even if it is a pig’s sty.”
“Bendy,” said Alice, sharply.
“Any port in a storm, huh?” Henry shrugged, smirking ruefully. “Alright, alright, everybody to bed. We can worry about this mess in the morning.”
He didn’t need to tell the Toons twice. Henry herded them into the next room, which was surprisingly less musty than the den. There were still more piles of boxes strewn about, sure, but the desk next to his bed was only slightly disheveled, and bed looked well made. Almost as if Henry never really slept in it… or used his bedroom at all.
He led Boris to one end and helped him strip the covers to climb in. Afterwards, he lifted Alice up onto the mattress. Up next was Bendy.
“Alright, short stuff, time to get down,” said Henry, leaning down for Bendy to easily fall onto the mattress. Which he did not. “C’mon, I need my arm back at some point.”
“Can’t here yah, I’m asleep,” said Bendy, pretending to snore, clinging all the tighter.
It took a couple of attempts, but he finally managed to pry Bendy free from his side, his arm practically all pins and needles from the tight hold the little demon had on him. In spite of the little devil’s petulance, Henry gently set him down next to Alice and gave his arm a slow pinwheel stretch. He ignored Bendy’s pointed, pouting glare, clearly not liking being rudely stripped from his warm perch. The fact that a draft ran along Henry’s apartment didn’t improve things much either.
“It’s cold,” said Bendy.
“I know. Sorry,” said Henry. He shouldn’t feel this guilty. “It’s all we got for now.”
The apartment was small, the circumstances messy, the bed a single, and tomorrow looked big and uncertain… but it was all Henry had on such short notice. He only got color back a day ago; he could worry about living conditions later.
Tomorrow. He could worry about it tomorrow.
He motioned to tuck them in and—stopped himself when Bendy gave him a look.
Why had he moved to do that?
He rubbed his neck and stifled a yawn with his knuckles.
“I’ll be in the den if you need me,” he mumbled, suddenly feeling very foolish.
“You’re not staying here?” Alice asked. Boris looked surprised as well, but Bendy ignored all of them and crawled under the sheets, pointedly looking away from Henry. Something about that stung, just a little.
“Not enough room for all of us on there, Angel,” said Henry. The stinging didn’t go away. He’d gotten them all out, hadn’t he? He brushed it off. “But, uh, I’ll leave the door open. You can bug me for anything.”
Alice nodded, but she looked like she wanted to say something else. Henry waited… and she just followed Bendy, tucking herself between the demon and the wolf without another word. Boris gave Henry a little wave, but didn’t say much more before his head fell back on the pillows. Within seconds, he was snoring up a storm along with Bendy, Alice silently snoozing between them.
“Thing’s’ll be better in the morning,” he said, half heartedly. He wasn’t sure if he was talking more to them or himself. “Promise.”
The Toons said nothing.
Henry trudged to the couch, every inch of him feeling almost as heavy and war-beaten as when he returned to the States from the Front. As he turned off the lamplight, he only hoped sleep would come to him as easily as it had the Toons.
In spite of a million thoughts churned in his mind, clicking like giant cogs. The studio, Bendy, Boris, Alice, Sammy, Joey, their escape, the look on Bendy’s face and the strange ache it left in his gut. Or maybe he was just tired from all the running and the fear and the coffee. Henry pushed it all down, too tired to think, and fell face first onto the lumpy, familiar couch. His arm was left dangling over the side.
Sleep fell over him like a thick, lead curtain. Like a flood of inky black.
Henry awoke from a nightmare, and for a moment he thought he was still dreaming it.
He couldn’t remember much, except there had been whites and grays and something about sheep—or was it the 3 little pigs and the big bad wolf?— and a big, empty black void collapsing on top of him. A faint whine broke through the void, someone’s whine—was it his? When his eyes snapped open, all he saw was black, and his heart wouldn’t stop pounding.
He was back. He was there. Back in the studio. Escaping had just been a wonderful, hopeful dream and he was still there he was going to die there and the Toons Were In Trouble—!
But when Henry bolted upright, he felt the familiar lump fabric of his couch, heard the familiar sound of taxi’s speeding by his building in the horrible early hours following midnight. He even welcomed the musty smell of newsprint and old beer. He wasn’t in the studio. He was safe.
And the Toons—
Henry leapt to his feet and bolted for his room in two easy strides. The door was open. And in the bed.
They were there. Safe and sound. Their silhouettes were easily recognizable, even in the faint moonlight and the faraway streetlamp light
Boris was leaning halfway out of the bed, tongue poking out and lolling to the side as he snored, his feet jutting out comically from under the covers over the end board. The blanket looks uncomfortable small on him. Alice was breathing deeply, her face twitching occasionally from deep REM, but otherwise looking peacefully saint-like. Her halo was crooked and looked dangerously close to falling on her face, disturbing her sleep. Bendy was silent, facing away from Alice and…
He softly whined.
Henry was at his side in a second. Had he woken Bendy up with his frantic flailing in the next room?
No, Bendy was still fast asleep, his face scrunched up tight, hands balling up the blanket and comforter in bunches, hogging it and pulling it away from Boris. A droplet of ink dribbled from his temple, staining the large pillow they shared.
Bendy was having a nightmare.
Without thinking, Henry reached for his pocket and pulled out a grey-stained handkerchief. Praying he didn’t startle the Toon awake, he gingerly mopped the loose ink from Bendy’s forehead. Bendy flinched away, curling tighter into himself. The little devil suddenly seemed very small.
Henry quietly shushed him and continued mopping up his clammy forehead, swiping it in long, gentle strokes. Slowly but surely, Bendy’s hands began to unclench, his brow starting to dry. His face refused to give an inch, his whines only becoming more anguished.
“….mmm…jo….ey?” Bendy breathed.
Henry’s chest seized. He lost his voice, but only for a moment.
“Nah… no, half pint,” said Henry, all the gruff and bite leaving it as he spoke softly to the little devil. “S’just me.”
A pause. Bendy shifted, shut eyes seeming to relax a fraction. “….old m’n?” he muttered.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s old grouchy me,” said Henry, wanting to laugh. “Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep.”
“…stay’ere th’s time… kay?” said Bendy. His face finally relaxed.
Henry stopped mopping.
All at once, Henry faintly remembered something very striking. Something very specific. When he was a young lad, he’d become sick with pneumonia, and despite all his aching and griping and being a pain, his mother had dropped everything— work, her book club, volunteering at the library— to sit at his bedside for almost a whole three-day weekend. It had almost made up for being sick while school was out. And while he was sick, she read him stories. Treasure Island and Huck Finn. He never remembered thanking her for it, but he did remember drawing James Hawkins fighting Captain Long John Silver. She’d tacked up his drawing on the fridge with a green magnet and never took it down. She smiled for weeks on end after getting that gift.
He thought about that memory— that old smile she had where the edges of her eyes crinkled at the edges, and her teeth shown and she wheezed out a quiet laugh.
Seeing Bendy go back to slumbering peacefully, he could only wonder… Had this been how she felt while he was growing up?
A tightness settled in Henry’s chest and a whole different ache fell over on him. It wasn’t an entirely new realization, one he’d been grappling with ever since Boris had shakily asked Henry if he really meant they’d all escape with the animator. Ever since he’d found Bendy blindly running from his own solemn doppleganger. Ever since He’d told Bendy that he was his own story’s protagonist.
He was responsible for these three now.
Now, that wasn’t to say that Henry was irresponsible. He was a hard working, a dependable man of routine, and could even come handy in a pinch.
But this was different. This was new. This was terrifying.
He was an old, bitter man. No living family left to speak of. Well on his way over the hill. Never had a thought in his mind about marriage or kids of his own, often only keeping his focus on staying alive, both during and after the war. Hell, he never even thought he’d set foot near an animation desk again before heading off to see Gabriel’s pearly gates (if he was that lucky). And yet, here he was, with three cartoons dropped in his lap. Who probably wouldn’t be able to handle living in the real world yet. Who probably shouldn’t be sharing a tiny bed in the middle of a run down apartment on the ass-end of a filthy city.
What could an angry old man with a tiny apartment and hardly anything to his name do for them?
“mmm… h’nry?” Bendy whined. Henry snapped out of his quiet, rising panic, stifling a yelp.
“S-still here,” he managed, feeling his voice crack.
“good…” Bendy relaxed against the pillow, completely at ease. Completely trusting.
The tightness in Henry’s chest finally unfurled, and his eyes felt a slight sting. He covered his mouth to muffle a deep, shaky sigh. Bendy had complete and utter trust in him. Was that a good thing? Did Henry deserve it? In spite of all that had happened these past few days, he suddenly didn’t feel so sure.
But… this was his chance right? He was supposed to figure things out now, wasn’t he? He felt so unprepared, like he’d been thrown out in No Man’s Land all over again.
But then again… this wasn’t like the war. Or the studio. Things were on his turf. If anyone should’ve felt like fish out of water, it was the Toons. He was the one with the knowledge of how the real world worked, how colors looked and how real sunlight felt on your skin.
He had to be there for them. He was going to be there for them.
They were all he had now.
Feeling more tired than ever, Henry stood from his seat as quietly as he could. He quickly grabbed Alice’s halo, just before it could teeter another centimeter and drop onto her nose, and after giving it a quick polish with his handkerchief, he set it on top of the bedside lamp, perfectly centered. He set to work on the blankets, adjusting it to be spread out evenly between the three of them— he left Boris’s feet sticking out, finding the silly sleeping position suited the wolf— and tucked them all in. It wasn’t the best, rough around the edges, and the blanket was lopsided. But Bendy re-curled around, snoring softly and facing Alice. Her head lolled, and she in turn nestled comfortably atop Bendy’s horns. Boris snuffled and licked his snout before settling more deeply against the pillow. They all seemed to just… fit together. Like puzzle pieces.
Henry felt that unfurling feeling return, and he quickly wiped his face.
Despite being exhausted, he hardly felt like returning to the lump couch. He returned to Bendy’s side of the bed, and took a seat. He knew his neck and back were going to kill him tomorrow, but he could worry about that later. He had more important matters to worry about.
Like making sure the other three got the best-damned night’s sleep they ever got. He wasn’t about to let their first night in the real world be a sorry one.
Tomorrow was going to be the roughest day of his life, and yet, somehow, he couldn’t find it in him to mind it.
I AM ACTUALLY SITTING HERE WIPING TEARS FROM MY EYES, GIRL
THIS IS BEAUTIFUL. I LOVE THIS. I LOVE THIS SO, SO MUCH; YOU HAVE A LOVELY WRITING STYLE HOLY SMOKES.