For the next week, I was in a haze. I didn’t do any of the things I’d planned on restarting. I hadn’t called Eckert yet, either. Dieter was only able to make sure I was still turning up to work by checking the storeroom, although he didn’t speak to me. I just couldn’t shake off what he’d said, even though I knew he was wrong.

He had to be wrong.

I’m not delusional. And even if I am, I wouldn’t become like my dad, would I?

That’s what really scared me about what Dieter had said. If I was having a delusion about 42, I was already in denial about it. My dad would never admit he had a problem, despite everything he went through, despite what the house looked like. He would deny he needed help.

I still have very vivid, frightening memories of my father stomping up and down the main hall of our house, desperately flipping lights on and off and tapping on walls in sequence for hours at a time, convinced that if he did it just right, then myself and the neighbors would stop hearing his thoughts. It was hell for him, but absolutely terrifying for me, a small child at the time. Was that going to be my future? Is 42 really just an animal, and am I seeing coherence where there isn’t any?

It’s a slippery slope into drunken violence from there, isn’t it? I think that scares me more; that instead of seeking help for my delusions, I’ll self-medicate with alcohol, like he did. I’m a socially anxious mess, but I can still force myself to talk to people right now. What if it turns out I do have what he does, and by the time I actually need help, I can’t get myself to talk to a doctor? What if it’s just easier to drink myself into a stupor? Not that I drink at all in the first place, but regardless, between a doctor visit and booze, the booze is what’s more accessible.

I wish I could just turn my brain off. I’ve never been any good at controlling my own thoughts, but this was such an intense fear of mine that all I could do was ruminate. I hated Dieter for saying what he’d said. For causing this week of mental agony. I’d taken to internally counting my steps, and how many times I’d touch the VHS tapes I was digitizing, and and how many times I’d touch the VCR and the computer, and I’d count keystrokes, I was just… counting, counting, counting. That itself was a form of hell, but it would temporarily distract me from thoughts about turning into my father.

… What if this was a symptom of something? Do other people choose their thoughts, or are their brains also just a noisy mess of preoccupations and worries and attempts at coping? What if this is actually completely normal and I’m just… suffering under life, the way my aunt told me I would?

I think Dieter is waiting for me to quit at this point.

I feel like it’s only a matter of time now before I’m let go, anyway.

But right now, I need to see 42.

It’s after midnight.

I can’t sleep.

I make my way through security. They shuffle through my things as I stand in the body scanner, and trade phones with me on my way out. I walk through the halls. The entire point of going in this late is because I know Dieter won’t be there.

But I need to see 42 again. I need to hear him talk to me.

I enter the observation deck. I go downstairs. I enter the enclosure.

He’s there, in his corner. Asleep.

“H…Hey, kiddo,” I say softly.

He perks up and looks at me. He looks confused to see me there.

“‘Jay,” he says sleepily, rubbing his eyes.

It was relieving to hear him try and say my name.

I sit down next to him, and he reaches one of his little hands out toward me. I take it gingerly in my palm, and rub the back of it with my thumb. His fur is soft, and his hand feels fragile. He stares at me sleepily before leaning against me and closing his eyes again.

We sit with each other for a while, both of us nodding in and out of sleep.

For the first time since Dieter made me doubt myself, my brain is quiet.

I thought back to our first encounter, when he immediately attacked Dale and I. I couldn’t believe this was already half a year ago.

42 just needed someone to listen.

I needed someone who needed me.

I pull the yellow flip phone from my pocket, and dial Eckert’s office. It rings a few times, and then goes to voicemail, as expected.

I wait for the tone that signaled I could leave a message.

Beep.

“H… Hi, this is… Eric Collins. I work in the X. lux department, w-with Robert Dieter. Several months ago, one of the two Xs here died of a heart defect? I… I think I might… have evidence of that not quite being accurate. If you could find time to talk to me, that would be great. Thank you.”

I hang up, and return it to my pocket.

I look down at 42.

… He really needs a name.

“Do you like being called ’42’?” I ask him.

“42?” he says. I don’t think he understood my question.

I stare at him. He looks a little bit like a cat to me. Sort of. If I squint.

“What d’you think of the name ‘Leon’?” I ask him.

He’s quiet for a moment.

And then he snuggles up to me, hugging onto my arm. I pet his head gently with my free hand. The name ‘Leon’ means ‘king’. After what he’s been through, the poor little guy deserves to be treated like one. I wasn’t sure if he understood I was trying to name him, but I certainly wasn’t going to pass up the attention.

After another hour of cuddling, I need to get up and go home. This upsets him greatly. He cries and clings to my leg.

I think he was tired of being alone. The last time he had someone to cuddle with was when 47 was still alive, before I was here. I myself couldn’t remember the last time somebody hugged me, so I understood. I assure him that I’ll be back, which seems to calm him down some, and I take my leave.

It hurts that I can’t be with him as much as he wants me to be.

I accept what seeing him at midnight does to my sleep schedule not with ease, but willingly. Seeing him every night motivates me to start taking care of myself again–three meals a day, exercise after work. It’s harder than it sounds to keep up with that–if I wasn’t nauseous, I was sore. If I wasn’t sore, I was nauseous. But I was determined. I wanted to be healthy for this little kid that I now felt I needed to protect and be there for.

I placed an order for a children’s book to read to him. The more time I spend with him and talk to him, the more he seems able to puzzle together how words and sentences work. He’s still far from fluent, but I figure introducing him to a story might be nice. I’m sure nobody’s ever read to him before.

Nobody’s ever read to me before, either.

It took two weeks for Eckert to finally get back to me, and it was only to schedule a meeting time a month in the future. He seemed mildly disinterested in what I had to say, though I was sure to insist to him that 42 could talk, that he wasn’t just parroting words he’d heard, and that he saw what happened.

I feel like some of his disinterest probably stems from the things Dieter had to say about me. I hope not. I hope he wasn’t planning on transferring me, or worse. Maybe discovering something about this kid that nobody else had been able to pick up on would be enough for me to solidify myself as an asset to the project.

Maybe I just wasn’t good at reading his tone, and the disinterest I thought I heard was just him being too busy.

I genuinely feel like, without me, Leon didn’t have a chance. How could he when up to this point, everyone with power over him treated him like an animal? Discounted him as nothing more than an expensive lab rat?

The nightmares I usually had about my father or my aunt were being replaced with what-ifs about what would happen to Leon if I ever had to leave. I didn’t know which topic was worse.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The anxiety was eating me–it was enough to relapse, but I didn’t. If I did, and Dieter found out, I didn’t want to hear what he’d have to say. Scars were one thing; fresh cuts were something else. I felt a discovery like that would definitely lose me my job, and lose me Leon.

We needed each other too much for me to let that happen. It was almost surreal, having at least one real reason not to hurt myself for once.

Speaking of hurting myself…

I stare at my phone, at the caller ID, as it buzzes in my hand.

My aunt is calling me.

I hesitate. What could she possibly want? Surely she wasn’t calling to see how I was doing? What could I have done all the way over here that would warrant a phone call? Or is she calling to yell at me because I haven’t called her?

Is my cat okay?

That last thought makes me answer.

“H-Hi, Lori,” I say nervously.

“Eric, hi! How’re you doing over there?”

“Um.” The cheeriness of her tone surprises me, but the use of a name she knows I hate does not. “P-Pretty good, actually,” I lie. She doesn’t need to know what’s going on at the moment. “How’s it going over there?”

“Oh, you know, same old, same old,” she says. “I just got off a long shift, thought I’d give my favorite nephew a call.”

“Heh.” I’m not really sure what else to say.

“So this new job of yours, are you really hanging in there alright? You don’t wanna come back home at all? Luci and Pepper both miss you.”

“Y-Yeah, I’m… I’m good here.”

“You don’t sound good.”

“I promise I am.”

“It’s just I know you had so much trouble keeping up with your other jobs, and–”

“What… what do you want?” I say, beginning to lose patience.

“You think I want something?”

“You normally do.”

“I just wanna make sure you’re doing okay,” she repeats. “It’s been six months since I’ve heard anything from you, for all I know, you’ve died and no one’s said anything.”

“I think they would’ve contacted you if something happened to me,” I say flatly.

“I mean, they might not–”

“They would. You’re the only person I have for my emergency contact.”

“Ah.” There’s a brief pause, and then, “Well, since you mention it, there is one thing I’ve been thinking about.”

There it is.

“It’s really a lot of work taking care of Luci for you while you’re all the way out there. There’s feeding her, playing with her, cleaning the litter box, I just had to take her for her shots this week… I really wish you would’ve rehomed her before leaving, honestly, especially since I just don’t know when you’ll be coming home to visit. Pepper is a handful, too, but Tim would roll over in his grave if I gave her up.”

My brows furrow. “Are… are you saying you want to get rid of my cat?”

“No, nothing like that,” she replies. “I’m just saying it would be nice if you gave me a little money every month for the trouble.

“…How much?”

“$500 sounds fair to me,” she says. “That covers vet, food, any new toys–”

“Are you fucking serious?” I ask, dumbfounded.

“Watch your language. Yes, I’m serious,” she snaps. “I mean, unless you do want me to take her to the shelter–”

“No, I mean. I-I don’t mind giving you a little money to take care of my cat, but half a grand? Every month?”

“If anything ever happens to her, I just want to be prepared. Animals are a big commitment, and even if you’re all the way out there, I want her to be cared f–”

“She’s an indoor cat, nothing’s going to happen to her.”

“You don’t know. She might end up with a tumor one day, or an intestinal blockage, or God knows what, and where is the money going to come from to take care of that? Would you rather I just put her down?”

“No, I–”

“Then what’s the problem? I thought you loved this cat.”

I stand there, quietly seething at the fact her guilt tripping was working. It always worked on me. “Fine. What’s your bank info? I can schedule payments.”

She gives me her info, I set up the bank transfers, and, having gotten what she wanted, we wrap up the conversation shortly after.

I make more money than I’d ever need at this job anyway; despite her wanting a lot out of me, that part’s not the issue. What annoys me is that I know she’s not going to use it for my cat. She never uses the money I give her for what she says she will. She saves it away for herself to use on whatever expensive thing she wants later. This was just more of that, and I knew it.

My income has basically always been hers. Especially when she found out I’d been hired here–she took almost everything from me, and I felt I had no choice but to pay her if I wanted to keep a roof over my head. I was so thin when I got here because she was essentially starving me. I wasn’t allowed to eat her food, but she was hardly leaving me enough money to feed myself.

I always figured she wanted me out of the house as soon as possible what with how much she put me through, but her actions toward the end told me it was the opposite–she had it good, what with my income and the additional work around the house I’d do for her. She didn’t want to lose me. She was squeezing me for everything she could while she still had me there to do it, and she was squeezing me some more now.

It made a little more sense now, why she’d always tell me I wasn’t ready for the world. She made me drop out of high school so I could start working full time. My grades were never bad, but she made me think that I had no future other than being at home with her, using the fact I had trouble making friends as the main reason.

“If you can’t make friends, how can you expect an employer at a real job to want anything to do with you?” she’d said.

Holding onto this job had become the most important thing in the world to me, not just for Leon, but for myself. At this point, I saw suicide in my future if I lost it. It was so hard to find it in the first place that I didn’t see myself finding another, and I refuse to live in her house again.

I can’t hear you say “I told you so” if I’m dead.