Awful Shadow, ch. 2: Hannah Johnson

Monitoring: Hannah Johnson
Arlington, Virginia, USA

4:45 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Thursday, May 8th, 2014
19:45 Coordinated Universal Time
Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Fast forward—

The car rolls to a gentle stop, halting two houses away and on the opposite site of the street from the place she’s come to visit. The neighborhood looks just like she remembers, with tall trees hanging overhead, providing more shade than she’s seen in any other suburb, as though it were brick and asphalt here among a grove, and not trees and grass among a city subdivision.

“They’re okay,” Blank says, and Hannah lets out the breath that she’s been holding.

She reaches for the door, but doesn’t pull on the handle, just wraps her fingers tight around it. “Elliot won’t even know who I am,” she whispers. “I’ve never talked to him, he’s probably heard all sorts of stories, or he maybe he didn’t hear about me at all, and I don’t know which would be worse—”

“I thought you’ve been talking with Julie.”

“A little bit. Facebook messages, you know, just recently. She didn’t have an account before that and, well it always felt wrong to go looking elsewhere, like I’d be stalking her if I did that.” Hannah turns to her window, sees that dark blue house down the road, and lets her gaze settle on the manila envelope in her lap instead. “I…”

“She didn’t hate you, did she?”


“Then I don’t see why Elliot would either.” Bert doesn’t put an encouraging arm around her shoulders. He never has, and he’s never suggested doing it, but Hannah feels like he’d do it here, if she were anyone else, and she doesn’t feel a thing. She appreciates the respect for her personal space.

“Sebastian’s not there, right?”

“Not right now, but he doesn’t spend his whole life taking calls and attending classes. It’s up to you how long you spend in there. But…” Blank trails off long enough that Hannah, curiosity piqued, lifts her gaze to see what’s going on. His mouth is open, just a little bit, and he keeps making little inhalations in this funny sort of way, like he knows what he’s going to say but isn’t sure if he should. “Remember that you have the power here,” he finally tells her. “We set up this meeting for you. They can’t keep you out.”

“Right.” Hannah smiles, and her hands loosen. Her left hand had been on the way to turning into a fist, she realizes after the fact, and she can feel where the handle was digging into her other hand. “Thanks.”

Julie’s the one who really has the power, though. Hannah won’t stay if she isn’t wanted. But Julie was okay with her, Hannah reminds herself, and she tries to keep that reassurance alive as she walks up to the door.

The doorbell is just like she remembers, a dull dong-a-dong melody that’s probably filling the house. Nobody answers immediately, and there’s this space of a couple seconds that drags out for what seems more like a couple of hours, where she fidgets with the edges of her jacket and plays with the envelope in her hands and worries that something’s gone wrong. Then there’s a click and the sound of wood moving against wood, and Kevin standing at the threshold in front of her. He’s not much taller than her, she realizes with surprise. Not anymore.

His face looks, well, “complicated” is the best description that she can come up with. Anger, frustration, confusion, even fucking pity, or maybe Hannah’s just reading too much into his appearance. His wife-beater shirt is just one more contradiction—she’d love to draw conclusions from it, but he’d never hit anyone. Hell, Hannah’s even willing to give him some credit and say that he didn’t hurt her, either. He could have been a lot rougher when he pulled her off Sebastian.

Whatever. He’s probably despicable enough in some other way.

“Hannah,” he says, with a flat tone that doesn’t give her anything more to go on. It could be shock or an attempt to hold back disgust or anything else.

She doesn’t care.

“Hannah!” calls another voice, more emotional, obviously excited. Hannah returns the call, sliding past Kevin and closing her arms around the girl that comes bounding around the corner. “H-Hannah…Too tight…” Julie gasps. Hannah loosens her grip, but doesn’t completely let go.

“Sorry.” Hannah rests her head on Julie’s shoulder. There isn’t much of a height difference between them, which isn’t new and shouldn’t be surprising. Some part of Hannah has taken a few months’ difference in age and decided that Julie ought to be littler, though. Or maybe it’s simply surprised to find that Julie has been growing just as much as Hannah. “You’ve been okay?” she asks.

Julie pauses, then laughs a little. It’s soft, not quite on the edge of mockful. Indulgent, maybe. Behind closed lips, Hannah scrapes the front of her tongue against her teeth and tries to keep calm. It’s all okay. Looked at from an impersonal standpoint, it’s probably crazy to worry that she’s gotten hurt since Hannah last asked two days.

“I’m still okay,” Julie tells her. “Come on.”

Her bedroom is smaller than Hannah remembers, but then, there were two of them using it at that time, and Hannah’s had about six years to get bigger. The bunk bed isn’t gone, exactly, but the bottom section has been converted to a couch. As she makes herself comfortable on it, she looks up and sees Pokemon decals littered on the bottom of the top bed. Most of them are new kinds that she doesn’t recognize at all.

Julie is the first to break the silence. “I’m glad that you found me again. You were my best friend,” she says, and Hannah tries not to get frustrated about the use of “were.” It had only been a few months, really, and it had been so long ago, and it wasn’t about friendship. At the end of it, “friend” might be more justifiably frustrating. Would Julie be saying “sister” if Hannah had stayed longer?

“I’m sorry,” Hannah says. She almost chokes on the words. They’d avoided the topic in all of their Facebook chats, and maybe they could have kept on avoiding it, but Hannah is pretty sure that apologizing is something that she’s supposed to do. And she is sorry, at least about how it hurt Julie, so it’s not completely a lie, right?

Julie shrugs. “I understand. Mom and Dad understand. Even Sebastian understands. And Elliot doesn’t know it happened.”

“H-He doesn’t?”

“I know it must have been hard for you. I’ve read about how bad things can be.”

Hannah tries to relax herself against the couch. “It’s okay. I mean I wouldn’t have been able to take care of anyone else if I’d been here, right? And I’m back here again finally so that’s okay too and you don’t hate me, so it was probably for the best.”

“They put you with other kids still?” Julie asks, with a note of surprise.

“It’s not like they had a choice. They don’t have enough homes as it is. But they never put me in with anyone older than I was, so that was something and I finally figured out that I shouldn’t have attacked Sebastian.”

Or at least that her judgment of the situation had been, factually speaking, incorrect. But on the other hand, Julie had been crying and Hannah had already learned “better safe than sorry.” Fundamentally, though, she might have been incorrect but she wasn’t actually wrong. Sebastian wasn’t trustworthy any more than Kevin and Caitlin were. The fact that he hadn’t actually hurt Julie was just, well…even dog abusers didn’t kick every dog that came within reach.

“So,” Julie says. “How did you do it? I mean, how did you convince my parents? I didn’t even know at first, but then they told me, and they didn’t look happy when they did. What did you do?”

“Secrets,” Hannah says. She smiles, then adds, “I have a job now.”

“Like what sort of job? What does that have to do with it, anyway? Unless you’re working for the Mob, how is having a job the relevant factor? I guess if it convinced them that you were a model citizen, but I said they didn’t seem happy.” Julie raises an eyebrow. “You aren’t working for the Mob, are you?” she asks with the tiniest of smiles.

“Shut your mouth,” Hannah says, playfully. “I am not a criminal. And if I were then you’d have no place to question me about it. You should know that I wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t intended to help my family,” she adds, but that’s apparently the wrong thing to say because Julie’s smirk turns to a larger frown.

“You’re barely older than me. Thinking that you can or have to protect me is what got you in trouble in the first place. Don’t do that to yourself, Hannah. Don’t do it to me, either.” Where Hannah is relaxing against the couch, Julie seems instead to collapse across it.

“It’s been so long, Hannah. I don’t think we’re really friends anymore,” Julie says, and Hannah has to bite the inside of her lip to keep from saying anything, while the envelope starts to bend a little in her hand before she notices and relaxes her grip. “It’s been so long, we’ve become new people. Little Me was friends with Little You, but you can’t say you’re the same Hannah that left.” Julie opens her eyes. “I think we can still be friends, but it won’t be like picking up where we left off. We’ll have to build it new, because we’re new people.”

“Well, I can see what you mean,” Hannah says, choosing her words carefully and laying them out slowly, “but maybe we haven’t changed too much. I mean, your walls are still covered with Pokemon, even if I can’t recognize half of them anymore.” She smiles, weakly, and is gratified to see Julie return it.

“I got Pokemon X for Christmas,” she says. “I started with a Froakie—it’s a frog, basically, nothing to get excited about—and caught a bunch of new Pokemon besides that. But I still caught a Rattata, you know? So if you look at it from that perspective, then maybe we haven’t changed so much as gotten new stuff added on top, and I can’t recognize all of it, but there’s still that Rattata in you.”

Hannah’s smile strengthens a little. “Let me show you something new,” she says, and she hands the manila envelope over to Julie. “Open,” she says, her tone living in a borderland between forcefulness and enthusiasm.

Julie undoes the string around the envelope’s two buttons, lifts the flap, and pulls out a small sheaf of papers. There are crudely-drawn maps, sketches of two-headed owls, orange lizards, and purple rats, short biographies, and random facts. “So I knew still you liked Pokemon, I mean, you said so on your Facebook page, and I like building worlds, so I’m, well, not really, I mean I forgot some and I never knew as much as you but I tried making a new area, and like you said, there are new Pokemon but there are also old Pokemon, and…”

“Hannah, I don’t for sure, I mean, some of these drawings are hard to figure out,” she says slowly, “but I think that some of these are Digimon.”

“Those aren’t the same thing as, wait, what? Fuck. I thought for sure—”

Julie roars with laughter. “It’s fine, Hannah!” She half-drops, half-sets the papers down and wraps her arms around Hannah again. “It’s fine.”


6 thoughts on “Awful Shadow, ch. 2: Hannah Johnson

  1. From inference I’m guessing this was Hannah’s previous foster home? It’s kind of difficult to be sure what’s going on here. What’s even more difficult is figuring out the who’s who. I assume Elliot is the little brother, Kevin and Caitlin the foster parents and Sebastian the big brother who, I don’t know, somehow attacked Julie?
    And then… Hannah was returned to Social Services? Or did she run away first?
    Also, who does Hannah actually consider ‘family’ to be taken care of. In all of the previous chapters I thought she meant all of those siblings in the apartment with the abusive father. But now it turns out she only knew them for a few months. And in this house it only seems to include Julie and maybe Elliot.

    I guess my general point is that I have this vague feeling of not knowing what’s going on even after reading the whole chapter and despite it being obvious to the focus character (who is also a main character) and every single other character in this chapter.
    I never liked that, when mystery is only created through camera angles and then doesn’t get resolved before the end of the reading/watching session.

    But that’s just my subjective opinion. Don’t change anything before you get more opinions, if at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh no! So, I have this tendency to write a little too obscurely, overestimating the reader’s ability to connect the dots, except that some of the dots are invisible and have to be inferred from the positioning of the other dots. One of my beta readers calls it “Sherlockitis.” My betas have done a pretty good job of keeping pointing it out to me, but I guess this one slipped through. On a reread, I can see how there are some invisible dots here.

      Sorry about that.

      Hannah’s bounced around a few homes and collected a number of siblings in different families, most of whom she’s quite dedicated to. You’re correct about the identities of everyone in this home, so at least I did *one* thing right. >:P

      Backstory spoilers below the asterisks. I’ve been trying to slowly shed light on Hannah’s issues, and not all of this was dropped yet, but if I’m clarifying then it might be good to do so with some of the pieces connected together. This isn’t Hannah’s whole backstory, but hopefully it’s enough to fit into a cohesive whole.

      Also, thank you for letting me know that this problem existed.


      In her original home, Hannah was forced to be the adult and take care of her siblings (all younger than her) until CPS took custody of them. She was separated from them because it’s a common practice when one of the kids has, essentially, forgotten how to be a kid, and Hannah latches onto anyone else that she gets put with as a way of dealing with this. So long as they’re younger than her, at least: Hannah’s first real foster home included an older, physically abusive kid. Between this and her experiences with CPS (who made a *great* first impression by taking her first siblings away and only got made it better from there), her own parents, and other crappy parents that she’s been put up with, she distrusts adults who have anything to do with kids, and thanks to the abusive kid that she encountered early on, that distrust is extended to anyone older than her, who have anything to do with kids.

      Kevin and Caitlin were Hannah’s second real foster home (as opposed to the “emergency shelter” that she spent a few months in). She was placed here directly after she was removed from the home with the abusive older kid, so when Hannah came across Sebastian and Julie and saw that the latter was hurt, she assumed the worst and went after him.

      Hannah was seven when she was first introduced to Child Protective Services, and eight when she attacked Sebastian and was moved to her next home. Foster children last an average of less than a year per home, and Hannah has racked up about fifteen siblings in that time. I don’t think that we’re going to be seeing more of them in the immediate future, although Hannah will probably tell us a little more at times (as she did in her encounter with James Randi), but this seemed like an appropriate point to introduce at least one of them, so that the people that Hannah is so attached to are not completely faceless to us.


  2. You have Kevin as “Kaven” when he first appears. Also, what I assume was meant to be an italicized “pity” still has asterisks around it.


    • Thanks for the typo check. I don’t know how “Kaven” got past me. O.O At least “Unsong” has an official typo thread, or I’d be much more embarrassed than I already am.

      “Mockful” is a word, actually, albeit not a very common one. “Mocking” didn’t feel quite right in that sentence, which is why I went with “mockful.” I tinkered with the sentence just a bit to try to make it flow a little better though.


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