Spencer didn't remember being told his parents had died. He thought he should, but when he tried to recall the words or anything about the moment, nothing came. It was like his brain had divided the world into Before and After, but hadn't had the space for a dividing line. For years, Spencer had dreamed that maybe the missing information was because everything was a nightmare, and like any nightmare, the details were a little hazy.
Then he met Ryan. And whatever Ryan was, he wasn't a figure in Spencer's nightmare.
Ryan was already at the Denison place when Spencer was sent there to foster. They were put in the same room and the first night, when Spencer hesitantly asked, "Whatcha reading?" Ryan blinked at him like he hadn't noticed Spencer being there, and then shrugged.
"Some stupid mystery book. The school library here sucks."
Spencer chewed his lip. "I—I like mysteries."
"I do too," Ryan said, setting the book aside. "I just don't like it when I know what's going to happen after the first chapter."
Spencer screwed up his face. "Yeah."
Ryan glanced over at the book for a moment, and then back at Spencer. "Know any good ghost stories?"
Spencer thought about it. "Only one."
"I know a few. I'll tell you one tonight, and then you can tell me yours tomorrow night." Ryan said the words like an order, but his face was full of uncertainty.
It was the first time someone had wanted to tell Spencer a story since his mom and dad—he cut off the thought. "Not too scary, though, right?"
He fully expected Ryan to make fun of him for being a cry-baby, the way a couple of the fosters in his last placement had. Instead, Ryan shook his head. "No. No nightmares, or anything."
And then Ryan told the story, full of voices and hand-gestures and Spencer made himself stay up long enough to hear the very end, despite wanting to fall asleep to the sound of someone's voice for the first time in what felt like forever.
Spencer came home from school a few days later with a vocabulary assignment that he was going to flunk. He was good with math and a little at science, depending on what they were learning. History was kind of like stories, so he could do that. But he either knew words or he didn't, and most of the time, he didn't.
He was concentrating on the worksheet, trying not to be so frustrated. At one point, he pressed the pencil down hard enough that the tip broke. Spencer blinked at it, then sighed and got up to get his pencil sharpener.
Ryan, whose expression was a little wary, asked, "What're you doing?"
As far as Spencer could tell, Ryan always managed to finish his homework at school. Or maybe his teachers just didn't give him any, but that seemed unlikely. Spencer didn't think Ryan was the type to just not do the work, but that could have been the situation as well. Spencer glared, "Homework."
Spencer regretted being mean when Ryan looked down at his knees and didn't say anything else for a bit. Spencer bit his lip and said, "Sorry. I—I'm really stupid at vocabulary."
Ryan glanced over at him. "Oh. Well, I mean. I'm pretty good with words. If you wanted help, or something."
For a second, Spencer got lost in the memory of coming home from his first day of kindergarten and sitting at the kitchen table with his mom while they went over his letters together. Ryan said, "Or not. I'm probably not that helpful."
Spencer shook himself back to where Ryan was real. "I'd…I'd like the help, a lot. If you wanted."
Ryan came over quickly, as if scared Spencer would change his mind. For the next half hour, while Ryan made up a game that allowed Spencer to actually figure out what the words meant, for the first time since he'd been taken away from the home he'd been born in, Spencer felt like he might have a place in the world.
Spencer fell while playing soccer during recess a week later, skinning his hands and knees pretty badly. The nurse cleaned him up with alcohol that stung. She was nice about it, but she didn't tell him how brave he was, like his dad would have, or hold his hand and kiss his forehead like his mom would have.
When he got home, the knee he'd fallen on harder was hurting a lot. Spencer wanted to go to his room and cry, but he knew crying, if discovered, wouldn't lead to a hug and a gently asked, "What's wrong?"
In his last home, it had led to the biological kid in the house mocking him relentlessly, and his foster dad telling him to be a man. Spencer wasn't sure what crying had to do with being a man or not being one, but he'd learned not to cry in front of anyone, or when anyone might see his red eyes afterward.
He did go to his room and curl up on the bed. He must have fallen asleep, because he woke up to Ryan coming in the room. Ryan frowned at him. "Are you okay?"
Still feeling tired, in spite of his nap, Spencer just nodded. "I'm fine."
Ryan seemed unconvinced. "You have Band-aids on your knees."
"Fell. Soccer." It wasn't that big a deal, and Spencer knew it, he just missed his parents.
Softly Ryan asked, "Does it hurt?"
The quiet care in the question broke Spencer's last bit of restraint and he bit his lips as tears spilled over. He waited for Ryan to call him names, whatever, but instead Ryan just came and sat down on his bed, rubbing a hand over his back. Spencer hiccupped through the tears and told Ryan, "My dad used to do that for me. Did yours?"
Ryan stiffened a little bit, and Spencer knew he'd said something wrong, but not what. After a moment, though, Ryan just shook his head. "One of the teachers at my old school did it for me once. It was nice."
"Yeah," Spencer agreed, and wiggled a little bit closer to Ryan.
At Spencer's next placement, Ryan wasn't there, and it was hard for a bit, to remember that everything was real. The family wasn't mean, but they weren't his parents and they didn't let him visit the home so he could see Ryan, saying something about 'unhealthy attachments.' Spencer didn't think it was so unhealthy to have a best friend, but he often didn't understand adults.
Luckily, before Spencer got stuck in the nightmare again, they sent him back to Ryan.
By the time they took to the streets, Spencer's memories of his real home were vague, more sense and emotion than detail. He missed warmth and nice colors and the sound of certain laughter, but the environment of alleys and drafty old buildings didn't make him miss it any more or less than the group home had, or any of his foster placements.
Brendon sang a lot, even if he had to do it quietly at times. Ryan scavenged newspapers that had been thrown away and found interesting or funny things to relate. Sometimes he even laughed aloud. Spencer knew the sounds and touches of Brendon and Ryan were starting to drown out those early memories. He felt guilty about it, even if he thought his parents wouldn't have wanted him to. But it helped, when he was hit by a sense of terrible longing, to have people who were his home right there, close enough to touch.
About a year after Mikey brought them to the others, Spencer got caught scoping out a new place for the gang. Normally, none of them went anywhere alone, but they were super short on food and money just then, so Bob, who would usually watch Spencer's back, was having to watch Neal's while he did some serious casing.
The security guard caught him by the collar of his t-shirt and shook him pretty hard. Spencer struggled to get free, but he hadn't eaten much in about a week. His vision got blurry quick and he stilled. He was pulled into some kind of office and locked in there.
It was hard to think through the panic, but Spencer knew one thing: he had to get home. He had to find Ryan and Brendon. Neal.
Spencer glanced at the objects on the one desk in the room and picked up the heavy-duty stapler. He hurled it at the window and didn't waste any time before climbing on the desk and going out the window. He cut his hands and torso up, and falling to the ground had wrenched his right shoulder, but he didn't stop to feel it, running for all he was worth.
He found Neal first, since he was in the closest area, and Neal caught him, firm but gentle hands on his face, centering him. Neal said, "Hey, hey. It's okay. You're okay, Ryan and Brendon are okay. We're all okay."
Spencer was aware he was close to hyperventilating, but it felt so hard to control his breath. Neal said, "We've got you. We're going to take you home."
And even though at the moment "home" was a dried up sewer duct, Spencer nodded, believing him. Neal and Bob walked on either side of him, both of them supporting some of his weight. When Neal had to do the painful work of pulling shards from Spencer's palms, dousing the cuts in alcohol and sewing a few of them up with a regular sewing needle, Bob held Spencer's hand and kept one hand to Spencer's lower back. Neal murmured reassurances, and for the first time ever, Spencer stayed right there with them, no phantom voices and hands joining theirs.
Although it was years before Spencer would allow himself to include the Burkes in his definition of 'home,' it was only through intense willpower and a knowledge of the danger presented by being too at ease with a situation having been branded deep inside him. He heard Elizabeth before he ever saw her. He awoke on the floor of the storage room, lying between Ryan and Brendon's too-warm bodies. At first, he wasn't sure what had awoken him, and he stilled, getting a grasp on things.
There was someone, a woman, and not the woman they'd gotten from the hospital, saying softly, as if to herself, "More blankets, certainly. And tea. I should—I should…"
Spencer opened his eyes to the sight of a beautiful woman dressed immaculately in a business suit, looking completely lost, standing in the middle of where most of them were still sleeping. In her sweeping glances over the room she caught Spencer's eyes, and went stock still. After a moment, she said, "Eliot and Neal are in my office."
Spencer would have looked soon enough. But it was nice of her to tell him. Carefully, he extricated himself from Ryan and Brendon, putting himself between the woman and them, holding his hand out. "I'm Spencer."
She took his hand in both of hers and looked down, as though she'd dropped something. After a moment she laughed, the sound reflexive and said, "Elizabeth. I'm Elizabeth."
She didn't let go of his hands and although Spencer knew he should take them back, he didn't. He'd forgotten the feeling of being held in this way. It was different with Ryan and Brendon, with Neal and Bob and all the others. Spencer couldn't explain it, it just was. Spencer unsure of what else to do, said, "Thanks for letting us sleep."
Elizabeth looked at him then, her gaze deep and a little disconcerting. After a moment she smiled, a bit melancholy, but genuine, and said, "Now all you really need is some good dreams."